The Humanitarian “Cold War” Crisis at Our Doorstep


Written by Mauricio Vivero, CEO of the Seattle International Foundation. Originally published on the Huffington Post Impact blog.

Vladimir Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea has some U.S. policymakers dusting off the Cold War playbook. Looking at Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine and the slew of speeches flung back-and-forth between the White House and the Kremlin, they recall a not-so-distant history when the problems of countries and regions were understood not on their own terms, but rather through the narrow lens of superpower rivalry. Some of the rhetoric we hear today has echoes of that perspective.

For some observers, our neighbors in Central America in particular, this comes as no surprise. Seeing Central America through a narrow lens has been a longstanding problem that continues to this day. At one time, the U.S. government saw every issue in the region as part of a proxy battle with the Soviets. U.S. involvement in Central America’s internal affairs — including covert operations, CIA-engineered coups, and cozy relations with repressive governments — was justified by the need to prevent the spread of communism in our hemisphere.

But the end of the Cold War didn’t stop U.S. policymakers from seeing Central America through a narrow lens; the focus merely shifted away from communism and toward the drug war.

Today’s U.S. policy in the region has one focus: to stop drug-trafficking organizations that State Department and Pentagon officials alike consider a matter of national security because they stimulate drug abuse and violence in the United States, undermine democracies in the region, and can potentially finance terrorists. During the past decade, the United States has militarized the war on drugs, not only training law enforcement agents in Latin American nations, but also involving their militaries and pouring money into radars, planes and ships. At $20 billion dollars, it is the most expensive initiative in Latin America since the Cold War.

Read the rest of the article on the Huffington Post here.

Central American countries rank highest in world’s homicide rate

A new report released by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime brings light to the rampant violence and inequality in Central American countries. The global average homicide rate stands at 6.2 per 100,000 population, but Central America has rates over four times that, making it one of the sub-regions with the highest homicide rates on record. Of the top five countries with the highest murder rates, four of them are in Central America; Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Honduras.

UNODC defines homicide as “an unlawful death purposefully inflicted on a person by another person”, not directly related to an armed conflict.

Central America’s rise in homicide levels is mainly caused by the resulting violence related to drug trafficking, organized crime, and the relationship between organized criminal groups and the state. Honduras’ homicide rates ranks highest in the world with a 90.4 per 100,000 population, followed by Belize with a murder rate of 44.7 per 100,000, El Salvador with 41.2 per 100,000, and Guatemala with 39.9 murders per 100,000.

Women are more at risk than men. Intimate partner and family-related homicides disproportionately affect women. As of 2012, 6,900 women are killed by intimate partners and family members in the Americas. Read the rest of this entry »

Seguir Adelante, a personal account of Guatemala, by Caitlin Terashima

Seattle University and the Seattle International Foundation carried out a research trip with ten student fellows to assess the impact of Asociacion Generando, one of SIF’s grantees working to end violence against women. Student’s analyzed how women’s leadership in Guatemala is a catalyst for long-term social change. Below is a reflection from Caitlin Terashima.  

Along with ten of my peers, three professors from Seattle University, and Michele Frix from the Seattle International Foundation, I travelled south to Guatemala this past June. I was selected as a student research fellow to investigate the impact of one of SIF’s grantees, Generando (ASOGEN), an organization based in Chimaltenango working to end violence against women.

Once I returned home, people would ask me “how was Guatemala?”, and I struggled to respond. Guatemala was beautiful. The countryside is lush, green, and stunning. The people I met are hardworking and kind. ASOGEN is creating social change within the country, and their work is inspiring. However, I also witnessed a very troubled side Guatemala. The Guatemala in which over 50% of women will experience violence from men in their lifetime. The Guatemala in which 98% of femicide cases, the murder of a woman because of her gender, remain in impunity. The Guatemala that is amidst a war against women.

Caitlin and ASOGEN staff

I struggled to reconcile the two Guatemala’s that I grew to know over the 11 days that I was there. There was so much violence, fear, and injustice that I was hearing about and experiencing on a daily basis. I found myself at points getting caught up in, what it felt like, hopelessness. And yet, I was so movtivated by the women that were siguiendo adelenate, continuing forward. I watched women who were labeled as victims; show us that they were not victims, but survivors. These women were seeking to change Guatemala, not only for themselves, but for their families. I remember sitting with one of the beneficiaries, as she told me and my interview partner her story. Through tears, she told me that she had to set an example for her sons by leaving her husband. She told me that her dream for her sons is that they don’t treat their wives and girlfriends as she had been treated, that they treated them well, as they deserved. The tears continued to stream down her face, but these weren’t the tears of a victim, they were the tears of a survivor that was breaking the cycle of abuse and showing her sons the importance of respecting the rights of both men and women.

Despite the trip being a whirlwhind of emotions, what struck me most about it was ASOGEN’s impact. The number of women that we interviewed who constantly thanked us for supporting ASOGEN and the work that they are doing was countless. They were thankful not only for the necessary services provided or the workshops, but also for the act of attentive accompaniment. The women working for Generando are so dedicated to their work and to the cause, and the responses from the beneficiaries reflected this.  In concluding our interview, we asked if she had any additional comments. After remaining quiet for a minute, she said that thanks to ASOGEN, she now knows that “no estoy sola,”she is not alone, but that they are there to support her.

Join Seattle University faculty and students, as they present the images and findings of their research trip in Guatemala. The exhibition features photos from Sy Bean and Claire Garuette. The event is sponsored by the Matteo Ricci College’s Poverty Education Center, in partnership with the Seattle International Foundation. 

Gang truce in El Salvador translates peace model to Honduras


With an estimated 64,000 identified gang members, El Salvador’s street gangs – Mara Salvatrucha and their rival Barrio 18 – operate like armies. At its peak, in 2009, the gangs were responsible for a homicide rate that reached 14 deaths per day. In March 2012, however, the country’s two most violent gangs suddenly declared a truce. The truce is backed by the Catholic Church and the Organization of American States (OAS). A year later, the truce in El Salvador, one of the most violent countries in the Americas, is crumbling. A recent report shows a spike in homicide rate. The unprecedented truce helped bring murders down to an average of five per day from twelve before the agreement. However, killings have been on the rise since late May, with 103 murders in the first week of July alone. The level of dispersion of violence has stayed the same, and the decrease in homicides did not occur in all municipalities. In fact, in some areas the rates have increased.

Several Salvadoran municipalities have taken social reinsertion measures in order to promote a culture of peace. The Program of Temporary Support and Income (PATI) give at-risk youth, men and women financial incentive of $100 per month in exchange for a six-hour day of labor in their communities. The mayor of Ilopango and Quezaltepeque – the two municipalities most recently declared free of violence – affirmed that this program will benefit 67,400 people – including ex-gang members – in 36 municipalities around the country. Another municipality, Apopa, has declared zero homicides since the truce began.  In addition, President Mauricio Funes said $18 million would be spent creating cooperatives in the country’s peace zones; another $4.3 million will be invested in giving gang members access to education and $9.3 million to provide health care, and a final $798,000 will be spent on violence prevention measures.

The gang truce model has been adapted to other regions in the Northern Triangle. Honduras, with the highest murder rate in the world, is home to tens of thousands of transnational gang members, and nearly 40 percent of the cocaine consumed globally passes through its borders. Recently, the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs declared a cease fire as a part of a ‘peace process’. MS13 and Barrio 18 leaders claim that these efforts are in attempt to “halt the spiraling drug violence and criminality they [gangs] have brought to the region” in exchange for rehabilitation programs and jobs provided by the government.

The Seattle International Foundation supports organizations in the region such as Organization for Youth Empowerment in Honduras, and Fundacion de la Comunicacion para el Desarrollo  in El Salvador providing leadership development opportunities for at-risk youth in response to high levels of organized crime and lack of educational and economic opportunities.

The Seattle International Foundation (SIF) is working with corporations, foundations, governments, and individuals to alleviate poverty in Central America. Since 2008, SIF has invested more than $7 million in organizations working for positive social change throughout the region. For more information about SIF, visit

Examining women’s leadership in Guatemala


Seattle University and the Seattle International Foundation carried out a research trip in June with ten student research fellows — myself included — to assess the impact of Generando, one of SIF’s grantees working to end violence against women. One of SIF’s priority strategies is to invest in women leaders from civil society in Central America as means to attain sustainable, systematic, and structural change across all sectors of society.

Photo: Sy Bean

Generando is a women-led organization that generates opportunity for women’s economic and personal empowerment as a way to combat interpersonal violence, teenage pregnancy, and lack of opportunities in Chimaltenango, Guatemala. Generando also promotes the involvement of youth (particularly young women living in both urban and rural areas), to become more civically involved—especially around accessing educational opportunities and promoting reproductive rights.

The importance of conducting this research is to highlight how the leadership formation of Generando’s staff has impacted their communities. Part of Generando’s approach to ending violence against women is to provide mentoring through workshops on topics ranging from self-esteem to sexual and reproductive rights. As a result, The Asociacion Sololateca por los derechos de las mujeres indigenas was founded by one of the young women mentored by the Executive Director, Danessa Luna and Coordinator Director, Helen Rojas. This organization works with local schools to raise awareness on teen pregnancy, sexual and reproductive rights, self-esteem, healthy relationships, and gender equality.

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U.S. Immigration reform and its effects on Central American migration

By: Oriel María Siu,  Professor of latin Studies at the University of Puget Sound

The recent visit of Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra to Washington State opened the limited debate on immigration reform in the U.S. While the U.S. Congress, the mainstream media, and pro-immigration reform organizations co-opted by the Democratic Party that promotes an excessively conditioned reform to policies of immigration, Father Solalinde reminds us of a stark and grim reality: migration from south to north in the Americas will continue. Thousands of people, as is the case of an Occupied America –as historian Rudy Acuña would call it–, continue waging daily route elevations despite more walls, more militarization of the Mexico-US border, and implementing more laws to punish the immigrant once in American soil. The reform will not solve the underlying problem, and as Father Solalinde metaphrases: this reform is like putting a band aid on the Titanic before it sank. Other than helping a few (after years of waiting, many expenses, more criminalization and deportations of undocumented people, and diverse conditions), the ship will eventually sink. This, if we do not fix the problem that created that hole, will happen. This problem is systemic.

The social conditions in Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico will continue to cause massive emigration. More than a century of economic plunder by the United States, war policies, and now the intrusion of neoliberal economic policies in these southern regions, have left these countries in deplorable conditions, forcing people to seek survival in the north. We are not coming to the US as tourists. People do not risk their lives in the Mexican death trains, risking kidnapping, rape and extortion because they want to. Nor do they cross the genocidal Mexico-US border, its deserts, and other death traps because it is amusing. The migrant exposes his/her life because everything has been denied in their home country, thus removing the possibility for a dignified life. This sentence is historic, although we have seen it flare up at alarming scale in the last two decades.

Poor migrants, as Father Solalinde reminds us, are evidence that the neoliberal economic system is in crisis. A US immigration reform will only help a few illegal immigrants (estimated to be between 3.5 and 6 million), while the flow expelled from the southern countries will continue to emigrate. We will still come to the United States and our rights will not be on the agenda. We need to raise our voices and work on proposals that go beyond the crumbs offered by the American political system.

Kerry attends OAS summit in Guatemala; drug policy tops agenda


The Organization of American States (OAS) held the 43rd general assembly from June 4-6 in Antigua, Guatemala.

One of the most important issues on the agenda is reevaluating alternative strategies to the current US-backed war on drugs.

Prior to the beginning of the annual event, the OAS published a groundbreaking report advocating for decriminalizing some drug use. This is a move that was first proposed last year by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina himself.

Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based organization that advocates for reassessing the US’ stance on preventing narcotics trafficking said the report “presents four possibilities for how drug policy could evolve in the Americas, most of which break from the current U.S.-led approach. The report is the first of its kind, providing a thoughtful and detailed visualization of alternatives to the existing drug prohibition regime.”

Read the rest of this entry »

Honduras gangs begin talks towards truce


In an unprecedented event two of Honduras largest Central American gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang made separate announcements vowing a ceasefire. Both gangs said they had embarked on talks toward a complete truce.

The details of the arrangement have yet to be determined. However, leaders from both gangs spoke from the jail in northern Honduras and pledged zero violence and extorsions toward the Honduran population.

The country’s Catholic Church largely spearheaded the talks in particular by San Pedro’s bishop, Romulo Emiliani.

According to news reports, Emiliani has a long history of trying to negotiate peace between the two gangs and has long been an advocate of rehabilitative programs.

Read the rest of this entry »

Police-run death squads growing problem in Honduras


This week The Associated Press ran an exclusive in-depth investigation about members of street gangs mysteriously disappearing or being killed shortly after having run-ins with the federal police feeding allegations that police-run death squads are operating social cleansing campaigns.

Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a series of reports where human rights activists and teenagers have allegedly been victims of such squads. According to observers and analysts, the bigger issue is tied to American involvement.  The United States has given an estimated $30 million in aid to Honduran law enforcement in the last two years. U.S. military expenditures for Honduras in particular have tripled those of 10 years ago. Aid has gone up every year since 2009, when a military coup deposed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.

According to an op-ed authored by Dana Frank, professor of history at UC Santa Cruz whose work focuses on modern Honduras, “the Obama administration’s escalating military commitment in Honduras only deepens its support for the corrupt and repressive Lobo government.”

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Why the Nobel Women’s Initiative supports Guatemala genocide trial


Why the Nobel Women’s Initiative supports Guatemala genocide trial and what this has to do with women’s rights today


Members of the Nobel Women’s Initiative (NWI) held a media call to reiterate their support for the genocide trial in Guatemala. Last week, two days before the court was set to hear closing arguments, the trial came to a screeching halt. A pre-trial judge decided to annul the proceedings and set everything back to square one before Gen. Efrain Rios Montt was charged for genocide and crimes against humanity.

The ruling sent international shockwaves. Unbeknown to many, the overwhelming majority of genocide crimes and torture during the 36-year-civil war were directed at women.

Pamela Yates, filmmaker that documented the atrocities committed by the Guatemalan army in the 1980s in her film “Granito: How to Nail a Dictator,” explained it on today’s call.

Guatemala is also one of the countries with the largest rates of femicide and violence against women. Experts say this cultural practice of violence expanded during the war.

Read the rest of this entry »

About the blog:
This blog was created to support the Central America Network and encourage dialogue around relevant research, news and poverty alleviation efforts in the region.
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