Friday, August 19, 2011

Reports on Violence in Bajo Aguan Fail to Capture Complexity of Conflict

By the Witness for Peace International Team, Nicaragua

Early this week, several major news outlets ran stories concerning continued violence in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras. The current Lobo administration in Honduras increased military presence in the area over the last few days following several violent attacks that left close to a dozen people dead. While it is important to draw attention to these issues, it is also increasingly difficult to rely on major news sources for accurate information on what is happening in the Aguan region, as the situation is extremely complex and politically charged.

For example, Dr. Rosemary Joyce of the University of California - Berkeley highlights some of the biases present in CNN’s coverage, such as leaving out important details and relying on questionable sources. Challenges to receiving accurate or comprehensive information are also represented in the L.A Times’ article. For example, the article mentions that the recent military deployment followed an attack by “armed gunmen” that killed security guards at the Paso Aguan Ranch. However, information gathered from human rights watch groups working in Honduras, such as Rights Action and Honduras: Human Rights, report that the Sunday attacks were initiated by security forces and resulted in the deaths of campesinos as well as employees, that there were beatings and arrests of campesinos in that community by the police on Saturday, and that this week’s incidents follow the forced eviction and burning of homes by the police in a community nearby throughout the weekend.

These inconsistencies point to the complexities of the situation in the Bajo Aguan region of Honduras. They also speak to the challenges of acquiring accurate information in such an embattled area. Most importantly, however, they raise the question of how wise U.S. funding of the Honduran military is when there continue to be reports of military human rights abuse. Through the U.S.-funded Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), $13 million has already been promised to the Honduran military with the intention of combating narco-trafficking and gang-related violence. And in February, the United States agreed to give another $1.75 million to Honduras.

Without a clear idea of how this money is being spent, and knowing that military abuses continue to occur, it is imperative that U.S. funding to the Honduran military be suspended. Finally, U.S. citizens should continue pressuring the U.S. government to insist that the Honduran government investigates and prosecutes human rights violations by military and police personnel.

To get more involved, check out Witness for Peace’s upcoming delegations to Honduras and sign up for Honduras Action Alerts from Witness for Peace.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Migrant’s Dream of Reaching the U.S. Cut Short in Mexico

By Carlin Christy
International Team - Mexico

Like many other Central Americans, nineteen-year-old Julio Fernando Cardona Agustín left behind his loved ones and his home in Guatemala in search of better opportunities in the United States. Originally from a village in the eastern part of the country, Julio Fernando was indigenous Mam. His Spanish was limited, which would present an additional challenge to life in the United States as he would face the struggle of not only learning English, but also Spanish.

Upon arriving in Arriaga, Chiapas in late July, Julio Fernando joined a caravan comprised of migrants, activists for migrants’ rights, and family members whose loved ones have disappeared or lost their lives on the journey northwards. One of the caravan leaders was Catholic priest Alejandro Solalinde, who runs a migrant shelter in Ixtepec, Oaxaca. For years, he has been an outspoken critic of the abuses endured by the hundreds of thousands of Central American migrants who, pushed by poverty and political insecurity in their homelands, cross Mexico each year in hopes of reaching the United States.

Entitled “Paso a Paso Hacia la Paz” (Step by Step Toward Peace), the caravan called for an end to the abuses regularly endured by these migrants and demanded reforms to their legal status while passing through Mexico. The caravan traversed two of the routes commonly taken by Central American migrants and finished in Mexico City.

During a meeting with the Senate’s Human Rights Commission, caravan members insisted the Mexican government stop acting like policemen for the United States. Father Solalinde further criticized the government’s attitude of submission towards U.S. interests, whilst acting like “a*******” towards Central Americans. Additionally, migrants gave testimonies about the myriad of dangers they face, from organized criminal groups to local thugs, police at all levels, and even immigration officials. These abuses include theft, extortion, beatings, kidnappings, rape, forced prostitution, and murder. Not to mention the inherent dangers of riding on top of “La Bestia” (The Beast) or “El Tren de la Muerte” (The Death Train), as migrants commonly refer to the high-speed cargo trains that serve as a means of transportation northwards.

Despite these obstacles that regularly result in the injury, disappearance, and murder of migrants, on August 2nd Julio Fernando arrived safely in a migrant shelter in the state of Mexico, along with other caravan participants. The shelter, Casa San Juan Diego, is located near the train tracks in the municipality of Tultitlán. It is known as a high risk zone among migrants and has earned the nickname “the town of death.” As one local resident states, “Here they can kill any migrant, and no one says anything. Anyone of them (can be killed). Above all by police, and no one says anything at all, it’s not even investigated.”

It was perhaps with this mindset that municipal police picked up Julio Fernando as he rested in the train yard near the shelter just days after his arrival. Witnesses say he was detained by police, accused of partaking in a robbery, and taken into their custody. Hours later, Julio Fernando’s body was found near the train tracks; the victim of a severe attack that ended his life. Police deny any involvement in the murder and the case is currently under investigation.

Julio Fernando’s death deeply affected other migrants, and those who had participated with him
in the Paso a Paso Hacia la Paz Caravan. In response, on Saturday, August 13th, they planned to march from the San Juan Diego shelter, to the site where his body was found.

Sadly, this act of remembrance was met with hostility from a group of around 30 people, who gathered outside the shelter and prevented the group from leaving. Claiming that migrants bring problems and violence to the community, they called for the shelter’s closure. Attempts were made to enter the building, presumably to forcibly remove the migrants and staff who were gathered inside.

Despite some local opposition to the migrants’ presence in the community, other neighbors claim that the violence comes mostly from local police, who take advantage of the migrants’ irregular status in the country.

While investigators take up the question of who and what exactly caused Julio Fernando’s death
, his family in Guatemala is preparing for the burial of their loved one. Julio Fernando’s dream of working in the U.S. in order to support his grandparents and eight-month-old daughter back home will never be realized. Tragically, he is now among the thousands who have lost their lives on a forced journey to find decent work opportunities in the very country whose trade policies help to destroy any chance for economic security in Central America.

Photos courtesy of Irineo Mujica Arzate.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Rural Families and the Roots of Migration: on the Road in Veracruz

By Tony Macias
International Team - Mexico

I'm talking with men and women in Coyolito, Veracruz, and I don't think I should be here.

It's not the weather that's getting to me. Even with 90 degree heat and 100% humidity, my documentary partner Kate and I are still hanging in there.

It's not the distance we traveled, either, even if it took an overnight bus and a two-hour truck ride to get here. Tomorrow morning we'll have to hitchhike into town and find another bus to get back to the city. Hell, people here in Coyolito have to make the same bumpy trip down rutted and washed out dirt roads whenever they want to go to a local doctor, the market, or even to high school.

It's not the hospitality, either: Clemencia, Juana and at least two dozen others have made us feel completely welcome here today. We've witnessed a form of deep generosity that I've experienced again and again in rural Mexico - people always give what they have to out-of-towners who come in friendship.

I don't think I should be here because Clemencia hasn't seen three of her children in over 11 years. They're all living and working in North and South Carolina as undocumented workers and can't return because it's too dangerous and because, after a decade, there is still no honest source of decent wages in rural Veracruz. If anything, things have gotten worse here since they left. A new study by the Mexican government shows that between 2008 and 2010 poverty grew 7% in Veracruz, now encompassing nearly 60% of the population.

I'm in Clemencia's simple house, using her good chairs, and her children can't do the same. How could I complain about the heat, the long-ride, or the bugs, when they would certainly brave this and more to see their mother again?

Being here reminds me of Carla: Before I came to Mexico to work with Witness for Peace a
couple of years ago, I spoke with a Oaxacan woman working in a local diner in Durham named Carla (not her real name). She said she was happy for me that I could live in Oaxaca for a spell: she hadn't been back to her small town for 10 years, and hadn't seen her daughter who was barely a year old when she left. I returned to my table feeling frustrated and guilty: even if I knew the work I would do here in Mexico was justifiable, why must I live in a world where I can go and she can't? My friend Katie reminded me, “You're not taking anybody's seat by going down there, Tony.” I don't know - today in Coyolito I wonder if I am.

Juana hasn't set eyes on her husband for 10 years. Vicente sends money home from Alabama and calls each week to check in on his children, but that's all they get. Even so, all around me are the rewards that this sacrifice made possible: Now, they've got a nice house made of cement instead of the wooden poles that traditional homes in that area feature. Although Vicente originally left because they needed money for their daughter's chronic illness, Juana says this was another motive for leaving family behind:

“He who doesn't build a house isn't a good man or a good son.”

Vicente has been a good provider; the money he's sent home goes beyond building their home and buying their daughter's medicine. Juana's two oldest children have now made it through high school thanks to remittances, and her youngest has one more year to go. Vicente, the youngest, was too shy to say much about his father's absence (he was just seven when his father left), but when I asked him if he'd do the same, he said,

“I don't think I could take it for long- I'd miss my family too much. I'd come back.”

His older brother Luis Alberto wants to go to college and maybe study psychology one day. Eventually, he said, he'd like to do what our colleague Jacqueline Garcia does, strengthening economies and family life in migrant sending-communities. Meanwhile he's caring for the family cows and trying to decide how and where to start college- he will be his family's first to attend. When I asked about his father, he said:

“It's tough to not have your father around the house. You miss him raising you and having a father's love. It falls to the mother to raise all the kids.”

Before we turned in for the night, we talked to several more people with similar stories. There's Catarino and Humberta, whose son and daughter live in the Carolinas and haven't seen home in years. I spoke with their other two sons, Luis and Enrique, and they, like many others, said they wouldn't go north without humane migration reform - it's just not worth the danger and uncertainty right now. Instead, they're working with their father on a large pineapple plantation earning around $50 per week. It's not enough to live on, but it's their only option.

I also spoke with Isabel, who made her feelings clear about the risks of migration:

“I would NEVER let my children leave, and let them risk their lives in exchange for good money. And it's not true that everyone gets a good job once they're there.”

I wonder if she's seen how other families have won and lost through migration, opting for keeping her family together even if it means financial hardship. I think about Carla back in North Carolina, Vicente in Alabama, and the hundreds of others I've met that decided to leave home out of economic necessity. I don't know what I'd do if faced with the same decision.

We're leaving Coyolito tomorrow and will make our way back to Acayucan and later to Oaxaca. In the next few months, Kate and the Mexico Team will produce several new videos that go deeper into these and other migration stories. You'll be able to hear migrants, families, and advocates speak about the roots and realities of migration. You'll also be able to take action this coming October to reform the policies and practices that drive so many thousands northward. Stay tuned for more updates on our work in Mexico and on ways to take action in support of trade reform humane immigration policies!

Monday, August 1, 2011

"We Returned Home Changed:" Reflections on the 2011 Teen Delegation to Nicaragua

Gail Phares, one of Witness for Peace's founders and the organization's Southeast Regional Organizer, leads an annual teen delegation to Nicaragua. Here are some reflections from 2011's participants on their recent experience.

“When you return to the United States you will not be the same,” Yamileth Perez told us as we visited the Chureca – the Managua dump in Acuhualinca. Yamileth used to live and work in the dump. Now she is a health promoter and works with youth in a soccer league to help young people who might have joined gangs. She is an inspiration.

During our two weeks in Nicaragua, the teens would have two home stays. One in Mirna Urgarte – an urban community and a rural home stay in a community in Matagalpa called Ramon Garcia.

We visited the Free Trade Zone and met with Emilio Noguera, a lawyer who negotiates with the labor unions, toured a Taiwanese factory that produces North Face garments and also with workers’ movement leader Maria Elena Cuadra. North Face jackets retail in the U.S. for $150-$170 dollars each. The women and men working in the factory earn about $4 dollars a day. We learned that real wages have fallen 20% under free trade agreements such as NAFTA and CAFTA. Poverty rates have reached 81%. Since l994, when NAFTA passed, income inequality has increased and here in the United States, we lost over 1 million jobs. Over 4 million Mexican corn farmers have gone bankrupt due to U.S. subsidized agriculture and have migrated north order to be able to feed their families.

Julio Sanchez from the Humboldt Center told us “We need people that can make change…Change will only come if people demand it and work for change. The whole earth is connected....Think about others not just about yourself.”

While in the rural farming community, we met with an agronomist named Alexis Ochoa Garcia. He described some of the programs supported by the Nicaraguan government called Zero Hunger (Cero Hambre). The Agrarian Productive Loan gives a pregnant cow, a pregnant pig, nine chickens and a rooster, and five goats plus wood, zinc and nails for a fence as well as seeds to rural families who qualify. This is an attempt to improve the diet and the standard of living of people living in the countryside. The Nicaraguan government also gives small loans – Zero Debt – to groups of five people who qualify to begin a small business. A salary bonus is given to workers such as teachers, police, municipal workers, the military and policy, and doctors to supplement their salary.

The government subsidizes fuel/transportation through a program received through Venezuela – ALBA- so that the cost of transportation will not rise. They are also improving the roads. We drove on the road between San Ramon and Ramon Garcia, which has been repaved.

The people in Ramon Garcia taught us many lessons:
  • “The importance of family.” 

  • “I learned that I do not need much to be happy.” 

  • “How to live simply.” 

  • “I hardly every think about who in my life sacrificed so that I can live a luxurious life.”
Carlos Vidal – Director of Los Quinchos – a program for former “street children” was one of the many inspiring people we met. He gave us an overview of Nicaraguan history. Many children must live on the streets because their parents do not have a job. These young people lived in the Eastern Market and sniffed glue in order to stop their hunger. With the help of an Italian woman, Los Quinchos takes children and brings them to a farm in San Marcos where they receive food, housing, go to school and learn a trade. The day we spent with these children ages 6-18 was one of the most moving of our trip.

As Yamileth promised on our first day in Nicaragua, we returned home changed. We pledged to give talks in our churches and schools and to help educate our family and friends about Nicaragua. We are grateful to our parents and all who contributed so that we could make this life-changing trip to Central America.