Educational Policy Change in Guatemala: Conflict, Social Justice, and Power


            Despite the level of determination, Guatemalans have the lowest level of educational attainment in Central America, particularly significant when considering the fact that over half the country’s population is under 18 years of age.  Over half of Guatemalans lives within a measure of poverty, some very extreme, and a majority of the people live within territorial boundaries, in small, medium, and large-sized pueblos, some of these in remote mountain regions, characterized by specific culture, language, politics, and history, to name a few. The educational policy change initiated by the government is challenged because of its disregard to diversity, to the linguistic and cultural uniqueness in each of the 22 ethnic groups. The reform plan includes the elimination of the teacher institution (magisterio) and replaces it with costly, unaffordable university-based designs that remotely address the true nature of the educational problems.

In this research paper we used a contextual framework of social justice, inclusive of historical and political ramifications, to describe and analyze the following: a) the conflict(s) arising from the new government’s change agenda in education; b) the role of the United States in Guatemala’s decision making and policy development; and c) the consequences as the direct result of the government’s changes, especially amongst the diverse indigenous communities.

We framed our study within a comparative perspective and viewed Guatemala not only as part of Central America but also, as an integral member of all Latin America. As such, the scope of our research has broad implications for other countries, including Mexico.

The Time for Change in the Worst of Times

Guatemalans are living in the most challenging of times; some would argue that conditions are just as worst or more so then during the armed conflict between 1960 and 1996 (see Burrell, 2013). Undoubtedly, the country’s most principle need for reform is in the educational system. Even though great strides have been achieved through the sheer determination and persistence of the people, Guatemala has the lowest level of educational attainment in Central America. The government statistics point to 96 percent attendance level of children in primary grades, but this number excludes the 1.5 million children with excessive school absences, mostly due to economic hardships.1  Dropout rates are exceedingly high and only less than 10 percent of the student population attends the university. The crisis level is alarming when considering the fact that over half the country’s population is under 18 years of age.

Reform Efforts

At the heart of the current political struggle that pits community and students against the government is in the training of teachers. Many arguments point to the need for improvement and change in the preparation of teachers as the most important strategy that may positively impact educational achievement. Students pursuing their preparation in teacher training colleges, called Escuelas Normales, and the communities that support them, have embarked in an intense campaign to repudiate the proposal from the Minister of Education to eliminate the current gratuitous programs and replace them with costly university-based designs that don’t even address the true nature of the educational problems. The students attending Escuelas Normales, or Normalistas, object to the proposal for many reasons and they have been vocally opposing these measures for almost a year.  Still, to date, the Ministry of Education has refused to engage in substantive dialogue with the students and other stakeholders.

Research Method

In this research paper we used a contextual framework of social justice, inclusive of historical and political ramifications, to describe and analyze the conflict(s) arising from the new government’s change agenda in education; the role of the United States in Guatemala’s decision making and policy development and the motivating factors; and the consequences as the direct result of the government’s changes, especially amongst the indigenous communities. Most of our work was completed in the field, and was based on anthropological perspectives of maintaining objectivity while collecting data using qualitative modes of inquiry: Our fieldwork took place in a community in the city of  K’iché (in the highlands of Guatemala in the Department of Quiche) for six weeks in the Fall of 2012. The collection of data included photos, field notes, interviews with formal and informal protocols, transcripts and notes of the interviews conducted with various members of the community; archival data from internet sources, including official government web sites and other various sites such as the USAID and Ministry of Education; social media sources, including blogs, newsletters, and other news sources. Also included were interviews with community leaders, organizers; photos of community members in action, such as in school and in home and meetings; videos of community members in action; and published research studies. One member of our team served as a volunteer/participant observer for four weeks in a community school.

We used “documentation’ from all of the sources to focus on the lead questions. The “narrative” emerged to provide us with insights into contextual environment inclusive of various social, cultural, economic, and political factors, which then led to the development of  “discussion queries,” by which we drew analysis and eventually, conclusions. Triangulation of the data was used in every way possible to divert from a unilateral perspective or biasness.

What is the Ministry of Education’s Proposal?

Prerequisite to understanding the content and implications of the Ministry of Education’s (MINEDUC) proposal are some vital facts. In Guatemala’s educational system students first complete six years of their compulsory primary education, then continue to Ciclo Prevocacional or Middle School for three years.  Students that follow the carrera magisterial to become primary teachers continue to Secondary Education, Ciclo Diversificado or Diversified Secondary for two years. At Tertiary Education stage, students complete three years of study at a teacher training college or Escuela Normal, which allows them to teach at a primary school. To receive the title of “professor” students must complete an additional three-year program at a university. A four-year university program leads to a Baccalaureate in Arts and Science.2

The pathway to the formation of teachers is as important as the physical, geopolitical, economic, and demographic landscape of the country in understanding the tensions and conflicts behind the peaceful resistance and demands of the students and their supporters (see Arnove, 2005). Over half of the country lives within a measure of poverty, some very extreme, and a majority of the people live within territorial boundaries, in small and large-sized pueblos, some of these in remote mountain regions, characterized by specific culture, language, politics, and history, to name a few. Thus, diversity, with all its amplifications, is a major factor that underlies every aspect of the proposal and rebuttal.

The main points in the MINEDUC proposal are:

  •  Eliminate the “magisterio,” which essentially means to change radically the current system of preparing primary school teachers.
  • Replace the “magisterial” system of preparing teachers with a university program that requires students to complete a Bachillerato en Ciencias y Letras. So in essence, students must enroll and complete a three-year university program in order to qualify for the title of “professor.”
  • To implement a teacher training program for pre-primary teachers in the Escuelas Normales, public or private.  Technical assistance is programmed for this program and for the Bachillerato en Ciencas y Letras.
  • To seek incentives to increase the salary of graduates from the proposed program wherever they are hired to teach.
  • To provide scholarships (in 2015) for graduates of the proposed program to continue their studies (as post-graduates) in private or public universities (the only public university is University of San Carlos).
  • To offer courses in conjunction with the Bachillerato in Ciencias y Letras that includes agroforestal (forestry), turismo (tourism), and textiles, among others.

Normalistas’ Response

Several key points in the Normlistas’ rebuttal are valid in the sense that they posit realistic concerns that challenge MINEDUC to provide a response accordingly:

  • The proposal does not address how the proposed changes will purportedly impact positively the quality of education on a short and long-term basis. There’s no information that addresses the improvement levels at the university-based programs, in fact, the Normalista’s rebuttal asks who will be in charge of their program at the university level where resources are scarces and irrelevant to the needs of the educational programs in the pueblos and rural communities.
  • Eliminating the magisterial and requiring students to complete university programs translates to an economic burden on behalf of the students and their families. The MINEDUC proposal includes the participation of the universities, however, the only public university that doesn’t charge tuition is University of San Carlos (USAC); the other eight or nine are private universities that require students to pay tuition. The Normalistas are concerned that USAC lacks sufficiently the capacity and resources so that most of the Normalistas will have to attend a costly university program. This point underscores their secondary concern that MINEDUC’s proposed changes are meant to enrich the private universities, or to put it in another way, it is a strategy to privatize teacher education.  Additionally, the proposal doesn’t address how the universities will effectively improve teacher training.
  • There is no guarantee that the proposed changes will lead to an increase in salaries for the graduates.
  • The scholarships proposed by MINEDU are not meant for the students beginning their training. These are proposed for graduates as post-graduate scholarships that are clearly meant for private universities. Again, this is a clear instance validating the Normalistas’ claim that the proposal is focused on the privatization of the professional training of teachers.
  • The proposed changes undoubtedly reduce the opportunities for students to pursue a teacher credential. Presently, less than 1 percent of the indigenous student population attends the university. But besides that, the proposed changes lack credibility in demonstrating how these changes will improve education, not only for the teachers-in-training, but for the school children as well, on a short and long-term basis.

Bilingual Intercultural Education

The loss of the magisterial will drastically change the Bilingual Intercultural Education programs. The Normalistas are proud of the fact that the 18 Escuelas Normales in the country train teachers to help students become bilingual in Spanish and one of the four language groups: K’iche, Kaqchikel, Q’eqchi, and Mam. Their concern is that a university-based program does not have the capacity or resources to carry out the programs in an effective manner. The community support garnered through these programs is immeasurable and closing the magisterial will inadvertently cause problems of maintaining the engagement by the communities. In this light, the Normalistas’s claim that their rights to their language and culture in an educational setting will be violated is a valid one. The Bilingual Intercultural Education Program is described in the MINEDU’s website.3

The Role of the United States in Guatemala’s Neoliberal Politics

In 2009, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) distributed funds to Guatemala’s governmental agencies that totaled 32.1 million dollars.4 Funds earmarked for Education and Social Services were 5.9 million, for which 5.5 million were specifically for Basic Education and $400,000 for Higher Education.  Guatemala’s Ministry of Education has a website specifically dedicated to USAID’s educational program, Reforma Educativa en el Aula,5 that include broad educational goals for the time frame 2009-2013. While USAID and the Guatemala MINEDU’s educational goals are similar, a pronounced difference exists as listed below:

Similar Goals:

o   To strengthen the capacity of institutions.

o   To improve instruction in the classroom.

o   To promote access to quality education to underserved populations, women, and Mayan groups.

o   To provide strategies for parents, communities, and leaders to participate actively in education of students.

Difference in Goals:

o   MINEDUC – To increase effectiveness or improve teacher training (“prácticas docentes”).

USAID does not specify a goal toward teacher training improvement but does mention in the needs statement that the lack of educational attainment by students is due to “poor teacher training.” If MINEDUC subsumes this goal as an objective in conjunction with the goal, To strengthen the capacity of institutions, there is no mention of this in their related statements. Furthermore, it’s questionable whether eliminating the “magistrial” is keen to strengthening the capacity of institutions.

However, to understand the underlying motives for the goals and objectives stated by both the United States’ USAID agency and Guatemala’s MINEDUC it’s necessary to analyze the philosophical differences and historical facts that shed light on a broader perspective of the problematic issues.

USAID History and Politics

USAID was launched during President Kennedy’s administration in 1961.6  Since then, its evolution has resulted in the distribution of foreign aide to hundreds of countries and in the creation of partnerships with corporations and non-profit organizations. Currently, they have personnel in 100 countries including Guatemala and El Salvador in Central America. According to the agency, one of their most successful strategies is partnering with more corporations that have increased their funding levels. The overall goal of USAID has not changed in the 50 years of its existence.

USAID’s Goal: Furthering America’s foreign policy interests in expanding democracy and free markets while also extending a helping hand to people.

USAID’s Goal in conjunction with Guatemala: Guatemala has the potential to become Central America’s largest economy and United States leading partner.

The Results and Accomplishments stated by the USAID offer insight into their perceptions and expectations of Guatemala and can be interpreted as incentives or rewards for future funding.  According to their statements, Guatemala’s MINEDUC has achieved success in the following areas:7

  • The MINEDUC has the support of the educational communities for the K-9 national education content standards.
  • MINEDUC has implemented an innovative standardized test in Spanish and in nine Mayan languages to hire and place teachers.
  • MINEDUC has made strides in addressing transparency and efficiency in the Ministry of Education that resulted in an international certification system for management in 2007.
  • MINEDUC has developed a Municipal Education Progress Index, i.e., the use of data spreadsheets to analyze and compare school operations against student achievement levels, or what we know as accountability system.
  • MINEDUC has assessed and produced a list of basic competencies for secondary students (grades 9th to 12th) that are needed to be competitive in the labor markets.

Additionally, USAID and its corporate partnerships claim success with MINEDUC that has resulted in over 51,825 scholarships, outreach programs for at least 300 at-risk youths.  However, this information has not been verified with MINEDUC.

USAID’s funding level for Guatemala in education, health, and nutrition activities has totaled 10 million dollars according to their website’s information. This information lacks verification as well.


Whether MINEDUC uses the leverage from USAID’s funding to substantiate their political strategies under the banner of Reform is open for interpretation.  However, by accepting USAID’s funds, MINEDUC has the responsibility to comply with the funding requirements. Clearly, USAID’s motive behind the funding distribution is to garner the support of the Guatemalan government to accelerate the country’s efforts toward economic recovery that would be beneficial and profitable to the United States. The educational practices noted in the Results and Accomplishments list are squarely aligned with the United States educational model that privileges a capitalistic approach or a market-led reform of education for economic gains. It’s well noted in Latin American history that the tension between capitalism and socialism is heightened during economically stressful periods (Arnove, 2005). If the United States and Guatemala work together in reforming the country’s educational system, then this collaboration can be viewed as an influential strategy by both countries to steer Guatemala away from socialistic reforms, even though capitalism is not a viable solution for a country with enormous, complex economic issues. A free market economy inherent in a market-led reform would best serve the interests of the wealthy in a country like Guatemala. Thus, what appears to be an educational reform model that purportedly will lift the country out of economic turmoil and succeed in improving the educational system is more like a roadmap toward disaster.

Historical and Political Background on the Minister of Education

When Guatemala’s president, Otto Pérez Molina took office on January 14, 2012, his vision of change for the education system in a country of over 11 million people, was firmly rooted in a far-reaching plan that embraced notions of economic globalism. He wanted a fearless Minister of Education that shared his passion for an “all or nothing” educational reform that would catapult the country into the international global arena, and he’d receive the accolades from world leaders for his efforts in transforming Guatemala. He found the person in Cynthia del Aguila, educated in the United States, a former professor at Guatemala’s private Universidad del Valle, and in her early career had held different positions at the Ministry of Education in Guatemala. At the time that del Aguila was appointed she was employed with the Research Triangle Institute (RTI) International based in North Carolina in the United States and had worked there for seven years as an educational manager. At RTI, her main responsibility was with a United States agency called Allianzas, which was devoted to forging partnerships with the private sectors in Guatemala. In del Aguila’s reform plan the solution was quite simple: eliminate the Magisterio, the current training college system consisting of Escuelas Normales, and the Normalistas will have to attend the private universities, thus creating governmental partnerships with private institutions of higher learning. But students, parents, community leaders, and supporters have steadfastly repudiated the reform agenda, and for almost 12 months after del Aguila unveiled the plan they have organized and participated in non-violent protests, sit-ins inside and outside facilities, marches, rallies, and used the social media to their advantage.  Police have used tear gas and arrested protesting students. The embattled del Aguila refuses to concede defeat for doing so may cost her the job as Minister of Education.

Acción de Amparo

On February 25, 2013, the latest legal action taken against the Ministry of Education, called the Acción de Amparo, was submitted by the Consejo Nacional Permanente de la Reforma Educativa, the social leadership organization representing the Magisterio. In this document, the Consejo asks the court for a legal proceeding that will order MINEDUC not to eliminate the Magisterio. 8 The document, Acción de Amparo9 makes reference to the key role of the Consejo Nacional in the decision-making process as stipulated in Article 12 of the Ley de Educación Nacional10, and that MINEDUC overstepped its authority, a violation of human rights, when it disregarded the required proceedings and approval of the reform plan by the Consejo. The Corte Suprema  de Justicia (Justice Supreme Court) must decide on the Acción, whether to halt or allow the reform to continue as initiated by the MINEDUC, although the MINEDUC can appeal the decision against it. This was the case the first time the Acción de Amparo was submitted against MINEDUC in November of 2012.

The Corte Suprema de Justicia granted approval for the first temporary Acción de Amparo but as reported on November 27th by Prensa Libre.11 Del Aguila announced that the Ministry would appeal the court’s decision. Del Aguila’s comments alluded to her conclusion that since the previous agreement on the magisterial teaching careers had expired in 2011, the MINEDUC had followed appropriate steps to include a process of feedback and input from the institutes and colleges on the new program for teacher training. Del Aguila emphasized that the MINEDUC has every authority to make decisions on how to train teachers as well dispense decisions regarding the careers of teachers. Furthermore, she added that it is the MINEDUC’s responsibility to renew programs that have expired under its authority.

But less than two weeks later, in response to an appeal filed by MINEDUC the Corte Suprema de Justicia reversed its decision, revoking the Amparo on the basis that it lacked sufficient substance. Speculation was raised on whether the MINEDUC’s move to enter a counter legal action in case it lost its appeal was influential in the Corte’s decision to overturn the Acción.12

The MINEDUC maintains its authority as the supreme entity that has the sole responsibility and right to make decisions on which reform plan to institute without regard to the democratic participation of stakeholders, even when such inclusion is stipulated in national proclamations. Pres. Pérez Molina has not publicly commented on del Aguila’s hard line posturing of MINEDUC’s authority. His silence may well be interpreted as an unequivocal approval of the actions of his appointed Minister of Education.

Charges of Racism and Discrimination

While MINEDUC maintains its course toward full implementation of the reform agenda, communities such as the Pueblo Xinka have charged the Ministry with racism and discrimination. 13 The Pueblo Xinka consists of 400,000 people from three departamentos (states) in southwestern region of Guatemala bordering El Salvador. The parliamentary board of Xinka has formally complained that their requests to the MINEDUC for teaching positions in their Xinka/Spanish Bilingual Intercultural Education program have been ignored. They have waited for a response since 2011, despite the fact that since its initial start four years ago, 60 bilingual students from the Escuelas Normales have successfully completed their training and 300 more Normalistas are enrolled in the program.  They claim that their educational rights as a Pueblo inherent in the national proclamations including the constitution protect their language and culture in the school curriculum.  The fact that MINEDUC has refused to support them is an affirmation of the agency’s deliberate negation of their rights. MINEDUC’s proposed reform agenda would eliminate the Escuelas Normales that have educated the students like those in the Pueblo Xinka, and accordingly, eliminate or reduce the quality of Bilingual Intercultural Education programs.

Decreased Funding Formula and Decentralization

If del Aguila’s plan for decentralization of educational funds is implemented as her announcement has declared, schools will be in total control of their spending for all of their educational needs.14 In light of the decreased funding formula for primary education, this strategy will cause friction amongst school communities, especially in small pueblos and rural areas that have scarce resources.  Both the decentralization in the funding formula and the MINEDUC’s reform agenda may result in a chaotic landscape of communities fending for their specific educational needs and while some may succeed, those with less funding and other resources will certainly lose.


From the outset, Minister del Aguila was determined to accomplish a task for which she had been especially selected. Indeed, overhauling the country’s educational system is akin to rebuilding a county from the ground up. Whether she or President Pérez Molina knew what was at stake and that the complexity of the task would produce a Pandora’s box are difficult to analyze without firsthand knowledge. But, what is clear is that del Aguila didn’t launch a leadership agenda; her priority was and continues to be a task-fulfilling role rather than assuming a leadership in the Ministry of Education. A leader understands fundamentally the role of education in every aspect of society. Experience, perception, insight, and knowledge – all are essential in a leader, but the people of Guatemala want someone that understands them and can bring hope into their lives. Pérez Molina has to assess whether he has chosen the right kind of leader to take charge of probably the most important and challenging social issue of his presidency.


The Normalistas are within their right to protest and demand change in all aspects of their teaching profession and in the educational system. They have the support of their constitution, and other official proclamations for their rights. Their community lends support to their demands. But, without the cooperation of MINEDUC, a meaningful, sustainable plan toward improving education that is in the best interest of the Guatemalan people will not be realized.

Historical analyses of educational reforms in contexts of post-war conflicts and economic and social instability have produced a collection of various recommendations and caveats. Consistent with a human rights approach is the common view that, for example, education should be inclusive, relevant, sustainable, and democratic. The community must be engage and have a clear voice in the “public debate” over what constitutes education for all children. Access to education is not sufficient; individuals must be able to overcome economic, social, and cultural barriers. What is clear in Guatemala’s educational reform process is that educational issues are inseparable from the expansive context that includes the legacy of colonialism and social and economic inequalities (Tikly, 2011).

The uphill battle for educational equality is well documented by researchers and noted in the responses by protesting students. The unequal and elitist schooling system in Guatemala’s history is the common story throughout Latin America, including Mexico. But Guatemalans have less access to education in the primary grades than other countries, particularly among the rural poor and girls. The inequality contrasts sharply with the privileged elite that have the resources, political clout, and social mobility that allows them entry into the most competitive sectors of the global society (Reimers, 2000).

Other related research has focused on Lifelong Learning ideals as a basis for an educational reform plan for countries such as Guatemala (Carneiro, 2013). Aligned with this model is that lifelong learning (LLL) both embraces and responds to change. Thus, the curriculum centers on respecting context, history, languages, cultures, and heritage while advocating for empowerment in the citizenry and promoting diverse modes of learning. The democratic citizenship, which is the basic structure founded on the common understanding of human rights, recognizes the value and dignity of all human life. The culture of peace, rejects violence as a controlling mechanism and advocates for democratic negotiations to advance solutions and ideas.

Guatemala’s educational reform process has evoked anger and frustration among teachers, students and families. However, the community responses have been characterized by democratic deals despite the heavy handedness of the country’s administration. Democracy is foremost the modus operandi by its people, clearly an example of the strength and determination of the Guatemalan citizens.

Concluding Remarks

In conclusion, I include an excerpt from the Diseño Reforma Educativa

Runuk’ik jun K’aka’a Tijonik, (the Educational Reform design) published in 1998. In these introductory paragraphs, the Reform is designated specifically for Guatemala. The main points, translated from the original Spanish text are the following (full text in Spanish found in Appendix A):

  • The commission has as its main charge to design an educational system that has the obligation to the Peace Accords, in particular the “Acuerdo sobre Identidad y Derechos de los Pueblos Indígenas,” that grants the rights to the indigenous population to their identity and culture;
  • The main goal is to reach common ground that serves as the basis for the national project;
  • The process includes the seeking and engaging in the transformation of attitudes that facilitates in a better understanding of others;
  • To respect and value the cultural diversity of the country; and
  • To attain mutual agreement, dialogue and harmony based on organizational principles of equity and equality.

The question remains: Which is the best road that will lead Guatemala to a better future?  No doubt, the teachers, students and their families carry this enormous responsibility.


  1. For many children in Guatemala, lessons have to be learned in the streets. Article by Jessica Shepherd for the Guardian. Accessed October 24, 2013, from
  2. Education system in Guatemala. Accessed October 24, 2013, from
  3. Ministry of Education website. Accessed October 24, 20`13, from
  4. USAID Dollars to Results. Accessed October 24, 2013, from
  5. Reforma Educativa en el Aula. Accessed October 24, 2013 from
  6. USAID History. Accessed October 24, 2013, from
  7. USAID Education. Accessed October 24, 2013, from
  8. Otro amparo por reformas a la Carrera magisterial. Article published in Prensa Libre by Hugo Alvarado y Alex Rojas on Feb. 26, 2013. Accessed October 24, 2013 from
  9. Accion de amparo. Accessed October 24, 2013, from!AKzUW4fT-pcz6OQ#!/view.aspx?cid=7BDFE400CA92465C&resid=7BDFE400CA92465C%21113&app=WordPdf&authkey=%21AKzUW4fT-pcz6OQ,
  1. Ley de Educación Nacional. Accessed October 24, 2013 from
  2. CSJ suspende temporalmente bachillerato en educación. Article published by Prensa Libre on November 27, 2012. Accessed October 24, 2013 from
  3. CC revoca acción contra cambio en Carrera de magisterio. Article by Byron Rolando Vasquez published in Prensa Libre on Dec. 12, 2012. Accessed on October 24, 2013, from
  4. Pueblos Xinkas exige educación bilingüe. Article published by CPR-Urbana on Feb. 26, 2013. Accessed on Oct. 24, 2013, from
  5. Déficit de maestros en priprimaria y básicos es del 50%. Article by Prensa Libre published on Feb. 27, 2013. Accessed on Oct. 24, 2013, from


Arnove, R. (2005). Globalisation and public education policies in Latin America:

Challenges to and contributions of teachers and higher education institutions. In J.

Zajda,  International handbook on globalization, education and policy research:

            Global pedagogies and policies, (431-442). Springer: Dordrecht, the Netherlands.

Burrell, J.L. (2013). Maya after war; Conflict, power, and politics in Guatemala. Austin:

University of Texas Press.

Carneiro, R. (2013). Living by learning, learning by living: The quest for meaning.                    International Review of Education: Journal of Lifelong Learning, 59:3, 353-372.

Tikly, L. (2011). Towards a framework for researching the quality of education in low-income countries. Comparative Education, 47:1, 1-23.

Zajda, J. (Ed.). (2005). International handbook on globalization, education and policy

research: Global pedagogies and policies. Springer: Dordrecht, the Netherlands.

Appendix A

La Comisión Paritaria de Reforma Educativa

-COPARE fue constituida por Acuerdo Gubernativo

No. 262-97 de fecha 20 de marzo de 1997,

el cual establece como objetivo de la Comisión:

“diseñar una reforma del sistema educativo, en

la cual deberá considerarse lo que al respecto

contemplan los Acuerdos de Paz, particularmente

el Acuerdo sobre Identidad y Derechos

de los Pueblos Indígenas, numeral III, Derechos

Culturales; literal G, Reforma Educativa, numeral


La Comisión quedó formalmente instalada el

2 de abril de 1997 y se integró con diez personas:

cinco representantes del Gobierno de la

República y cinco representantes de Organizaciones

Indígenas. Al aceptar el mandato que

le fue confiado, la Comisión estableció como

principios internos de trabajo: la apertura, flexibilidad

y tolerancia, por parte de todos sus

integrantes, con el fin de alcanzar un objetivo

común: establecer las bases para construir un

proyecto educativo nacional propio. Con ese

objetivo, se buscaron transformaciones actitudinales

que implicarán conocer y comprender

mejor al otro y al mundo; respetar y valorar

la riqueza y diversidad cultural del país; y favorecer

el entendimiento mutuo, el diálogo y

la armonía; lo cual significó organizarse bajo

principios de igualdad y equidad.

*This paper was presented at the Annual Meeting of the World Education Research Association in Guanajuato, Mexico, November 18-22, 2013, and published in part in this blog and others. All Rights Reserved.









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Posted by on February 23, 2018 in Uncategorized


Human Rights Abuses Among C.A. Migrants on the Rise

A Review of Chapter 3, “Capitalism and Crisis in Central America” by Dawn Paley

             The crisis in Central America, particularly in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, has created an international outcry as journalists and civil rights activists have gradually uncovered one of the worst kinds of human suffering. Presumably at peace, the people from these countries are faced with overwhelming injustices, human rights abuses, extreme levels of poverty, and an undignified quality of life. It’s no wonder that thousands have decided to leave their homes and risk everything, even their lives, to make a new home in the United States. Dawn Paley’s book chapter, “Capitalism and Crisis in Central America,” advances the thesis that at the heart of the problem is the historical basis for nation-building, that wars and armed conflicts have resulted in the powerful subjugating of the indigenous, native populations and transforming an entire political, economic, social landscape to their advantage.  The Spaniards’ conquest in the form of colonialism grew at such a fast pace, and as Paley writes, “From the first moments of independence, newly empowered criollo elites implemented political systems based on exclusionary racism and despotism.” (27)

But, the powerful elites from the three countries would not have advanced their racist and violent politics without the assistance of the United States. The strong arm of the military might of the United States was the perfect fit for the powerful, established ruling parties of the countries: they both embraced the common enemy, which was communism, particularly, in regard to the treatment of the indigenous population that were perceived as “communist,” when in fact, all they wanted was to preserve their way of life.  In previous articles of this blog, I described the various armed conflicts in each of the three Northern Triangle countries, some of which exercised the worst kind of human rights abuses as thousand were tortured and killed, including civilians. But, many of the efforts to seek justice against those responsible have been ignored, or weakened. The United States government has promoted a “hands-off” relationship with those seeking to reveal the truth and to hold the guilty accountable for their crimes against humanity. Paley describes the aftermath of the violent conflicts and the efforts to restructure in this way: “Under the close eye of Washington and the United Nations, war criminals were given amnesty, military officials lived large off of the profits of pillage, and to the day those responsible for enabling terror remain active in politics, public life, and economic affairs.” (31)  According to Paley, as neoliberal governance became a dominant force that protected and enabled the powerful elite, and globalized capitalism became the preferred mode of investment, the state shifted toward further denigrating and even, abolishing the freedom and rights of the people, especially the most vulnerable such as the poor and the indigenous population. The gap between the rich and the poor is so great that the two worlds are total strangers to each other.

Although the threat of a communist take-over is no longer valid, the new threat caused by the criminal element in narco-trafficking, is used to justify the U.S. backed militarization and the triggered violence and suppression. The U.S. funding, formerly known as the Merida Initiative and now titled, Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI, has a 50% earmark for use in “policing, military, and counter narcotics.”(34) Paley asserts that although the U.S. government’s program (Alliance for Prosperity) and funding (CARSI) intend to stem the flow of illegal migration from Central America, the reality is that the efforts actually promote the same kinds of policies inherent in neoliberal economies that impose their rules on militarized security tactics, which “have pushed the region to experience the crisis like the unaccompanied minors in 2014.” (34)  The Alliance for Prosperity, which proposes economic expansion and integration, is based on the premises of the Central American-Dominican Republic-U.S. Free Trade Agreement. With a budget of 22 billion for a five-year period, the Alliance for Prosperity proposal is clearly directed as an investment plan for the United States and its investors.

Paley elaborates on how neoliberal policies for purposes of capital gain can affect Central American migrants that desperately travel to the U.S. through Mexico. While the government’s border-free rules may apply for the exchanging of goods and services across the Northern Triangle countries, the opposite awaits the fleeing migrants. The border area between Mexico and Guatemala is destined to be a highly-militarized area, especially under the Plan Frontera Sur program. Already, there’s a high degree of involvement by the Mexican paramilitary organizations, such as Los Zetas, contracted by the Mexican government to control the northerly migrant flow. With the added militarization and policing, migrants face an even dangerous risk: if captured by the formal authorities they may be incarcerated and eventually, deported; but if captured by the paramilitary, migrants may be terrorized, extorted, kidnapped, and/or massacred. (35)

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Posted by on February 18, 2018 in Uncategorized


Migration From El Salvador to the United States Largely Due to Street Gang Violence and Related Factors

El Salvador’s gang members number around 60,000, mostly youth, which is staggering by any measure but an extremely serious problem for a country of 6.5 million people. El Salvador has more gang members, especially in MS-13, than do Honduras or Guatemala writes Danielle Mackey for World Politics Review. Most of the gangs’ criminal targets are workers in transportation companies, and the small business and working-class sector; indeed, the higher-class sector enjoys the protection of a strong security force, private and/or funded by the government, to shelter them from any of the gangs’ incursions. The Salvadoran government, with its backing of the powerful economic and social elite has opted for doing as little as possible in order to maintain the status quo, as long as the violent eruptions are contained within the working-class population and away from the elite. What are the options and why doesn’t the government take full control of the street gang violence? There are many questions surrounding the country’s decisions on gang control, starting with the Mano Duro Gang policy.

 The Mano Duro Gang Policy

According to Sonja Wolf in her 2017 book, Mano Duro: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, in July 2003, then Salvadoran President Francisco Flores launched the highly lauded “Mano Duro” gang policy in response to the dominant elite alliances’ dependence on authoritarianism to maintain order and defend their elite privileges. The powerful elite and the dominant right-wing media cleverly portrayed the challenges to the status quo as a communist ploy that could destroy the institutions that have continuously contributed  to the country’s prosperity. It was the perfect social and political climate that created an overwhelming acceptance of the “iron-fist,” the Mano Duro approach that included the “anti-gang” law allowing officials to arrest anyone based on their pre-conceived profile of what a gang member looks like. The militarized police force, originally created as the PNC (Policia Nacional Civil), a professional, apolitical and respectful of human rights, was ordered to protect the powerful ruling class at the expense of the ordinary citizen. The PNC was installed as part of the 1992 Peace Accords, but as soon as the international monitoring strategies were lifted, the Salvadoran government reverted back to their familiar ways of “owning” the police force. As a result, human rights abuses are on the upswing and the homicide rates among gang members have increased, and to a much lesser extent, among police officers.

The Mano Duro policy was created to bolster the conservative forces united behind the ARENA party prior and leading to the 2004 presidential elections. The right-wing media, clearly aligned with the powerful elite, worked hand-in-hand with the ARENA party in spreading unsubstantiated fear over the gangs and their threat to Salvadoran society. According to Wolf, due to its ineffectiveness, the Mano Duro policy “may have contributed to a greater threat to society than the gangs themselves.”

Efforts to Address the Street Gang Problem

In her book, Sonja Wolf elaborates on her research that studied the work of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their efforts to eradicate the problems associated with gang activity. Her data revealed the inexorable links between the gangs and society, claiming that “NGOs’ efforts were inadequate given the magnitude of the problem.” Also, the political system itself “needs to become the object of reform.”  Even so, several key players have worked on alternative gang control strategies and comprehensive plans, although the results have yet to prove unequivocally the ones that have been successful and sustainable.

One of the NGO that worked intensively to create alternative forms of gang control was the Foundation for Applied Legal Studies (la Fundación de estudios para la aplicación del derecho), or FESPAD. Founded in 1988 for the purpose of defending human rights and the rule of law, FESPAD and to a great extent, the Center for Criminal Studies of El Salvador (Centro de estudios penales de El Salvador) or CEPES, worked toward an alternative gang control other than Mano Duro. Law students from the university studied the legal and constitutional rights that were applicable to gang control with Professor Alberto M. Binder, an Argentinean lawyer and expert in Criminal Procedural Law. In turn, the students worked with FESPAD to develop an alternative to gang control, train community leaders, and promote the access to justice by affected communities. The book on the Salvadoran constitution, “La constitución explicada,” sold over 50,000 copies. The NGO focused its work on providing legal aid to victims, investigating and documenting human rights violations, and in assessing relevant policies in regard to how they are administered within a legal and political perspective.

        The 2012 Gang Truce.  Under the FMNL government of President Mauricio Funes, and in response to escalation of gang violence and its effects on Salvadoran life and society, a truce was brokered between gangs, primarily MS-13 and Calle Dieciocho. The government called on the street gangs to reduce the murders, curtail violence against women, eliminate the school-based street gang activity, and stop targeting the youth for forced recruitment. The gangs also had their demands: an end to police abuse, the repeal of the anti-gang law (where anyone “looking” like a gang member can be arrested), improvements in prison life, and educational and job opportunities. But, after a couple of years, the truce demands were totally lost and it was considered a failure. In fact, it appears that the entire effort was fruitless, and worst, it produced even graver consequences. The murders declined from a daily average of 14 to five.  But in a closer scrutiny, the discovery of clandestine graves revealed that the gangs didn’t follow the demands, and neither had the police authorities. The gangs maintained their control over their “territories,” continuing their operations as usual with forced displacements, extortions, etc. Sonja Wolf’s research reveals that the truce served to highlight the political power in the hands of the gang leadership and that the government is unable to control gang violence. Other critics pointed out that the truce’s failure could have been avoided if factors of governmental support had been a part of it, such as sustainable social and economic opportunities.

Instead, the murder rate peaked in 2015, and manodurismo continued in full force. The government took action by transferring and isolating gang members to quash their social networks and in deploying army elite battalions to battle with gangs, and as expected, soldiers were directly engaged in extrajudicial killings of gang members.

Alternative gang control proposals have been developed and presented but due to their lack of acceptance and support by the powerful elite, they have not gained the necessary popularity among the greater Salvadoran society. Current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, initiated an open dialog with different groups, and thus, certain organizations emerged, such as the National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence (Consejo Nacional de seguridad ciudadano y convivencia). According to Sonja Wolf, the Plan El Salvador Seguro, (PESS), or the Plan for a Safe Salvador, proposes that the government make assertive efforts to do the following: to recover public spaces, to strengthen municipalities’ efforts to prevent crime and violence, create gun-free zones, promote youth employment, and expand community policing. Additionally, lawmakers passed a law that is meant to facilitate the integration of ex-gang members into mainstream society. The law called, Special Law of the Reinsertion of Gang Members and the Prevention of Individuals at Risk, offers scholarships, jobs, drug treatments, and housing credits. However, the presence of specific issues prevents the measures and strategies to become successful. In the case of the Plan for a Safe Salvador, the lack of funds restricts the implementation of what seem to be excellent ideas. And, for gang members to be recipients of the Special Law, they are required to leave their gang life, and risk being “pesetas,” or traitors, and being killed by the gang members.

The need for gang prevention and rehabilitation strategies have been considered, and programs such as Polígono, directed by Father Moratalla, a Spanish Salisian priest, are perceived as highly important for gang control. Sonja Wolf includes discussion about the residential, prevention and rehabilitation efforts by Polígono, based on the preventive system of Don Bosco whose premises include reason, religion, and loving-kindness. But, again, lack of support and funding have blocked the long-term success of these programs.

Law enforcement has been under fire to change their tactics from an authoritative and suppressive force bent on human rights abuses to a policing organization that uses intelligence such as relevant data that target security problems in a hierarchy from the most serious to less, and to emphasizing crime prevention.

A moderate approach to solving the gang control problem includes strategies that encompass aspects from the various possibilities: a policing strategy that respects the human rights of gang members and uses to a great extent intelligence in their investigations, prevention and rehabilitation programs, and community education and participation. But, there is also wide agreement over the need for the Salvadoran government to take a greater responsibility for the gang control, and along with that, transparency and accountability.

The fact that efforts to gang control by the government have resulted in mild to complete failure leads critics to consider the real reason why the problems persist, that the powerful elite and its pernicious right-wing media prefer the Mano Duro approach which they perceive as easier and less costly. In essence, there are sufficient proposals and plans to address the gang control problem, but Salvadorans in power lack the political will to make the needed changes.

Operation Check. In a recent article (2018), “Killers on a Shoestring: Inside the Gangs of El Salvador” authors Oscar Martínez, Efren Lemus, Carlos Martínez, and Deborah Sontag (see El Faro,) write about the latest strategy of dealing with gang control. Their focus is on collecting information about the gangs’ dealings for the purpose of eventually capturing the “the big fish” of the gang organizations and then, publicizing their crimes, which they expect will reveal how they have enriched themselves while their “soldiers” recover only a pittance of what they bring back to their jefe. But, the gangs have rules and one of them is that the gang leaders will not overly enrich themselves, and they’re responsible to distribute their proceeds in dutiful ways such as to their family members and for special gifts to the “homies” in jail cells. So, needless to say their efforts have yielded little rewards, while the public learns about their embarrassing results as they report the small amount of illicit funds that they have recovered from their “Operation Check.” Their attempts to shed a negative light on gangs as if they are powerful narco-traffickers like the notorious Zetas, and then, win favor from the Mano Duro proponents were baseless from the outset.





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Posted by on February 12, 2018 in Uncategorized


In the Shadow of the Half Moon: Stories of Central American Women in Search of a New Life


Why do women from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America risk their lives along with their children’s, traversing through the treacherous, dangerous Mexican corridor, full of chaos and not knowing if they will live another day, if delinquents will steal their last peso, hurt them, or kill them? Why do they take the chance in full knowledge that they may not ever make it to the US/México border?

These and many other related questions were troubling me when I spoke to several women detained at a Texas detention facility south of San Antonio. They were young, in their teens, or early or late twenties; many were single mothers, and all were from one of the three countries from the Northern Triangle in Central America – El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala. My role as a volunteer was to help them organize and better articulate their reasons why they are seeking asylum so they can persuade the asylum officer in an interview to allow them to continue to the next step in the process, which would lead to their release from the detention facility.

As I listened to their intense, heart wrenching stories, explaining why they had decided to leave their home, their families, and their country, I realized that an underlying emotion racked their entire well- being: in their narratives were inherent pleas for “help,” for themselves and their children. In fact, many of the women seemed to be trauma victims although they had not been properly diagnosed and treated for lack of specialized care in the detention facility.

I worked with dozens of women during a six-month span. In the process, I started to analyze the emerging themes: some were victims of domestic violence, others of gang violence, but all of them feared for their lives and/or their children’s. All of the women stated emphatically that they could not return to their home countries for fear of persecution, which meant that if they returned they would eventually be killed.


The Women’s Stories


For purposes of this writing project, I selected the narratives of seven women: three from El Salvador, three from Honduras, and one from Guatemala. Each story presented herein is a dramatization, an account based on the information they shared with me. Basically, these stories are factual, as they related the facts to me, in individual interviews that lasted approximately one hour. We were not allowed to tape record the interviews, therefore, I relied on my brief notes and memory to develop each story and, upholding each one as genuine and true, as much as possible, and in accordance to what they had shared with me. Naturally, the collection of stories is used as representative of the women’s experiences and provide only a small window to the multitude array of suffering and tragedy that have impacted each woman, indeed each family.


Sharing Their Stories and Their Pleas for Help


Very few people in our country understand the plight of the Central American migrants, specifically, why thousands have sought to cross the US/México border seeking to start a new life, sometimes as legal residents, but mostly, as undocumented workers. When the news that thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America were migrating to the U.S. became a crisis in the summer of 2014 (see article by Domínguez-Villegas), many people were surprised, and even disturbed by the numbers. Approximately 51,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended at the U.S./México border in fiscal year 2014. The numbers have since declined but then, increased, although not at the level seen in 2014 (see Rosenblum and Ball, Trends in Unaccompanied Child and Family Migration). However, the majority of Americans were not interested in their stories of migration, even though there were people who cared and gave the migrants some humanitarian care. But, the opportunity to learn about the migrants, especially the young families who risked their lives and gave up everything of their past, was lost and then, forgotten. The intent in publishing their stories is to inform, educate, and bring about the awareness and conscience of who we are as Americans living in a democracy where people are crying, pleading for our help, right outside our doorstep. Or, quite simply, my main purpose is to give “voice” to the voiceless.


The Title


The title, “In the Shadow of the Half Moon,” has a twofold reference. ‘Half Moon’ is a metaphor for the youthfulness of the women, and are seeking a new life to accomplish their lives’ goals, or to fulfill the rest of their lives in a safer space, perhaps, better, if not for them, then, for their children. The metaphor also describes the uncertainty of their future in the United States. Upon arriving at the border, the women’s emotional states are uplifted, and the reality of having to start all over again in a new world has not yet leveled to a reality. However, in the ensuing days, after their asylum process is motion, the uncertainty of what their future holds for themselves and their children becomes a source of anxiety. No matter how much they’ve struggled to reach the border, their encounters with conflict are far from over, in fact, they are replaced with new battles, problems, tribulations, and there’s a long, uphill process to become a citizen of the United States. Finally, the moon signifies “in the cover of darkness,” which brings to mind the fact that most of the women left their homes for the US in clandestine circumstances so no one would suspect their departure.


The Stories and Supporting Documents


The following section includes the women’s stories, titled according to their names and home countries; of course, the names are fictitious to protect their identities. The stories contain the heart of what the women related to me thus, their brevity is focused on providing the reader with a friendly-readable format. Furthermore, at the outset of each story, I include an introductory summary that pulls the reader into the main narrative. Following this section, I include background information for the purpose of providing a contextual base to further explain the actions of the women.


El Salvador




Summary:  Katarina was threatened by the leader of the MS in her vicinity, known as “el crazy,” and demanded that she must comply with his sexual advances or else he would kill her two children, ages 11 and 3. Katarina was living with her father and her two children while her husband, in the United States, worked to support the family. Then, her father died, and knowing that she was alone but receiving money from her husband, the MS leader began to threaten her. She moved in with her mother, reported her case to the police and then, on Dec. 25th left El Salvador for the United States. The police told her that she should leave for her own safety and her children’s, since they wouldn’t be able to help her immediately. If she returns, she feels that the MS leader will kill her.


Katarina’s Story


The day that Katarina’s father died, her world turned upside down. “El crazy,” the ranking leader of the area’s MS (Mara Salvatrucha) had had an eye for her for some time now, and he knew that she had a son, age 11, and a daughter, 3 years-old. He also knew that her husband was in the United States and sent her money for living expenses every month.


Katarina wept incessantly at her father’s funeral. Her life had become increasingly difficult ever since her husband left for the U.S. Neither wanted the separation but making a decent living in her hometown is extremely difficult if not, impossible. Her father had been the anchor in her and her children’s lives. But now, his departing left her defenseless, and “el crazy” wasted no time to make his move and claim Katarina, the beautiful young woman, as his own mistress.


The grief she poured over her father was also rooted in self-pity and fear. Soon afterward, her worst fears became a reality. “El crazy” begin to call her, at first politely but then, aggressively. Katarina managed to keep him away by repeating her pleas to respect her marriage to the father of her children. But nothing deterred “el crazy” since he wanted to possess Katarina as a symbol of his prowess as a powerful cartel leader. He begins to threaten her, warning her that he would kill her children if she didn’t comply with his wishes. But Katarina would rather he kill her than her children, but by killing her doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t also kill her children.


Threats from a gang, any gang, usually target the children of their victims, hurting them where they are most vulnerable.


Despite the constant phone calls and harassment, Katarina managed to keep him at bay, but she knew that it was a matter of time before he would force himself into her life. After about a year, Katarina made her move. Christmas day was a natural distraction, so around that time, she moved out of her house, quietly, without anyone noticing. She moved into her mother’s house, reported her case to the police, and then, on December 25th she left El Salvador for the U.S. The police could not protect her from the powerful MS cartel leader who yielded perhaps more power than the police force. She was advised to leave the country, the police admittedly said to her that there was nothing they could do to help her immediately.


Katarina collected a few thousand dollars from her mother, her uncles, and her aunt. But she couldn’t take both of her children, so she chose her 3 year-old Adelia, and asked her sister, Rosa, to take care of 11 year-old Daniel Ricardo. Her sister had recently moved to another house so no one knew where she lived but she feared that the gang members would eventually find her sister and her son.


Katarina Met “El crazy’


One way a gang leader shows off his rank is by collecting girlfriends or mistresses. “El crazy” singled out Katarina because of her attractiveness, and although she ignored him she feared him. While she acted politely to his advances, she didn’t give in. The gang leader would have destroyed Katarina instantaneously if she had outright rejected his advances. Everyone knows the rule: if you reject the advances of an MS leader, you will be killed. Death is the penalty for all rejections: for refusing to join the gang, for refusing to pay “renta” or “cuota,” and for refusing to become the girlfriend or mistress of a gang leader.


Rosa, Katarina’s Oldest Sister


Rosa is a single mother of a son, Carlos José, just a year younger than Katarina’s 11 year-old. She knows Katarina’s desperation and the gang’s threat had to be taken seriously. Her boyfriend has asked Rosa to move in with him and she decides to do so as long as he accepts Katarina’s son as well. The agreement is a relief for Katarina since she feels that he will be safe with both of them, at least for a while.


Living in Constant Fear


Families caught in the web of threats and fear are constantly on the move, risking their lives, and even taking a gamble for even a small mistake can cost them their lives, and the lives of their families.

Such was the case of a family of four that lived in the same neighborhood as Katarina and her father. The father owned a small corner store in their home, selling a variety of goods and groceries. They were targeted by the MS and demanded monthly payments (renta). The family struggled to make ends meet, and the father did an unimaginable, unacceptable gesture to the gang by refusing to pay such an exorbitant amount of money that he could not afford. It was a mistake that led to his death as well as his wife’s and two sons. They were massacred by a dozen members of the MS gang, their bullet ridden bodies were found inside their home. The cold-blooded killings were the crass warning to others who dared to refuse the gang’s demands.


El Salvador




Summary:  Maribel was raped by three members of the Maras gang. She was threatened with death to her and her family if she told anyone about the rape. Maribel didn’t tell her mother, but her mother immediately sensed that something was wrong due to Maribel’s depression and suicidal tendencies. After her mother learned about the rape, she called the police but received no assurances. Police expected payment for the protection or they were also threatened by the Maras. Maribel felt that she couldn’t return to school or even leave her home because the Mara gang member, Clarisa, continued the death threats and began to physically hurt Maribel. Then, after Maribel was badly beaten, her mother made the decision to leave their country and migrate to the United States.


Maribel’s Story


Maribel was excited to return to school after a month-long Christmas vacation. At fifteen, she was determined to finish her high school program and continue her studies; maybe, become a nurse. Among the new students at her school one of them seemed to be very friendly with Maribel. She was Clarisa, a year younger than Maribel and seemed quite eager to make many new friends regardless of their ages. But actually, Clarisa was more interested in recruiting her classmates into the Mara gang, which she had joined a few years ago and was now a ranking female member. Typical of her group’s expectations she had to prove her worth by out-maneuvering her male counterparts. But Maribel refused Clarisa’s invitation to join.

Clarisa managed to entice several of Maribel’s classmates into her circle. Soon they would be among the many adolescents roaming the streets of their tightly knit community causing even more despair amongst their families already disconcerted over the rise of violence in their midst. Their hopes and dreams for their children have been shattered as they watch their beloved sons and daughters become consumed by the illicit drug culture.

Clarisa would not accept Maribel’s rejection. She threatened Maribel with consequences: physical aggression, rape, and hurting her family members. Clarisa and her recruits used social media to pressure Maribel but her resistance was firm, which annoyed and frustrated Clarisa.

Even though Maribel tried to avoid Clarisa, it seemed that she was following her and appeared at every corner she turned.

It was pouring rain when Maribel walked home from school one day in April. She decided to take the paved road instead of her usual shortcut through residential alleys. Clarisa and three male members of the Mara spotted Maribel as they drove through the street. It wasn’t incidental since they had planned to find and sequester Maribel, and punish her for refusing to submit to their control. They forced her into their car and took her to an abandoned shed a few miles from the main road. Maribel, screaming and crying, couldn’t pry loose from their stronghold. They hit her in the face and stomach and ripped off her clothes. Each of the men took turns sexually abusing her, while Clarisa added her venomous verbal assaults, also kicking her while she lay helplessly.

Maribel feared for her life, but in moments of sheer desperation and excruciating pain, she wanted to die. The four finally let her go but before they left, Clarisa threatened her: “if you tell anyone about this, we will kill you and your family.”


But Maribel’s mother immediately sensed that something very bad had happened. Maribel locked herself in her room, refusing to go school and hardly ate and drank anything. Her depression was profound and serious and her mother became desperate to find out what had happened. After days of agonizing anguish and despair, Maribel, crying uncontrollably, told her mother, “they raped me and beat me.”


Maribel’s mother felt the immense pain in her daughter, and to her utter disbelief she noticed that Maribel had attempted to take her life by cutting into her wrists with blunt objects. How could she help her daughter and bring to justice what Clarisa and the other three had done to her? Her first step was to report the case to the school officials.


The school administrators would not take any action since the rape had occurred off school grounds. Next, she turned to the police, but they also refused her case citing a lack of proof or evidence. However, they would investigate her case provided they were compensated for their work. They were reluctant to step into a situation which clearly involved Mara gang members. The dominant and powerful force of the Mara gang had crippled the police’s abilities to even protect the town’s citizens.


Maribel slowly emerged from her depression. A few weeks following the rape she was still weak and vulnerable and not attending school to avoid any contact with Clarisa. But she felt strong enough to leave her house for a short walk to the store to purchase some essentials. She was one block from her house when the Mara gang members approached her from behind and cornered her. They had been constantly monitoring Maribel and were determined to hurt her again as they had warned her, in retaliation for denouncing, or attempting to denounce their crime against her. There were four gang members, wearing scarfs to disguise themselves, but Maribel recognized one of them as Clarisa. They knocked her to the ground, hitting her head and then kicking her stomach and back. Two bystanders yelled at them but fearing for their safety, refrained from becoming involved. Others joined in, shouting “to stop” beating the young girl that was noticeably hurt very seriously. They left, and Maribel, at the point of unconsciousness, laid along the side of the street writhing with pain and crying incessantly.


Her mother was at her workplace when she received the call from Maribel. When she saw Maribel, beaten, distressed, crying and screaming like she’d never heard before, she knew what she had to do. After a couple of weeks of collecting enough money for their journey, Maribel and her mother left their home quietly, when no one was watching them. They traveled across Mexico and then, turned themselves in to the authorities at the Texas/Mexico border.


El Salvador




Summary:  Stefani, age 14 and in the seventh grade, and mother, Ramona, lived in southeast El Salvador. On January 26, 2017, Stefani was approached by two Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang members wanting her to join their group. She refused. A few days later, Ramona opens the front door of her house and finds a dead man a few feet away. She and Stefani are traumatized; the dead man was from another colonia who had been reported missing but they never learned his name. Stefani realized that the dead man was a message from the gang that their death threat was real. Two months later, Ramona and her daughter were confronted by two other MS-13 members, repeating their death threat to Ramona, and pushed her to the ground. Ramona knew that the gang had “ordered” her assassination.  If they remain in their country, they feel that they will be victims of death threats. There is no end in sight; the gangs (MS-13 and Barrio 18) are in constant conflict with each other and the police, and have near total control of many of the authoritarian structures.


Ramona’s Story

At daybreak on January 29, 2017, Ramona, a single mother of 14-year old Stefani, wakes up to the sound of a vehicle pulled up in front of her house. She heard a ruckus as if several people were yelling at each other. She ran to the front door, opened it and discovered a body, on the ground just a few yards away. As she walked toward the corpse, she realized it was a young man that had been thrown out of a car. She saw his legs and arms mangled and his torso riddled with bullet holes; an image that jolted her heart and spirit. She knew instantly that this killing was the gruesome work of the criminal organization that plagued her town. Stefani caught up with her mother and both cried in desperation. The neighbors approached the scene of the broken, bloody corpse. They didn’t know his name, but they knew that he was from another colonia and had been reported missing, and presumed dead.


Stefani had another thought. It was a message from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), deliberately sent to her. A warning, she thought, that if she didn’t comply with their demands she would be the next victim. Or, maybe they would kill her mother instead.


Days earlier, on her way to school, Stefani had been approached by two MS members. They wanted her to join the gang, but Stefani brushed them off, telling them that she couldn’t do anything like that. MS gang recruiters are trained to target their victims and persist until they complied. They would not accept Stefani’s refusal; to do so would draw a harsh sentence from their boss, and death was always an option.


Stefani, pretty, slightly built and looking younger than fourteen, was the “innocent” one, the perfect type to coerce and become the “soldier” at the mercy of a powerful influence that would take her away from her family. The more she refuses, the more they would clamp down and insist that she meet their demands. Stefani knows that she must follow the rules: “ver, oír, y callar” (see, hear and be quiet). She knows the consequences for refusing to join them, and she could be killed like the young man they found in front of their house.


But Ramona suspected that something was wrong with Stefani. Stefani’s reaction to the corpse seemed overwhelmingly emotional, and she wouldn’t respond to her questions about what was going on. Ramona noticed that a particular car would constantly drive by in front of their house. She suspected that Stefani would be harmed so she decided to accompany her to school and back, everyday, keeping a close eye on her daughter.


Two months later, Ramona and her daughter walked back home from school when they were confronted by one of the gang members. He wanted to know what Ramona was doing, trying to protect her daughter. But Ramona acted with defiance and told him that it was her responsibility as a mother to protect her. The man became agitated and responded by pushing Ramona to the ground. She landed hard and her hip hit a large rock. She managed to get up, struggling with the pain, and again, stood steadfast in front of her daughter. The man told her that she could not keep her daughter from “them” and to continue resisting will lead to her end. Ramona knew that it was a “death threat” and she had only one other option.


That evening, Ramona and Stefani packed a bag of essential items and made their plan to “escape.” In the early morning hours on the first day of April, Ramona and Stefani went downtown, hailed a cab and began their journey north.






  Summary:  Jenni received a threatening message from a known powerful criminal organization or gang, which her ex-partner had had a leadership role. At the time they were together, her ex-partner deceived her, keeping secret the fact that, not only was he a gang leader but that he had “betrayed” his boss and had to go into hiding. She found out the facts when he turned himself into the authorities at a US/Mexico border checkpoint. Her ex-partner, the father of her young daughter, is now serving time in a US prison. He eventually reached out to her and apologized. She told a friend that she had communicated with him and soon afterward, she received the letter from the ex-partner’s gang boss, that in retribution for snitching, the gang would kill her children, which Jenni felt could also mean her death as well. She went to the police but their recommendation was that she leave immediately. The gang is very powerful in Honduras and beyond, and she had no doubt that they would find her.


Jenni’s Story


Jenni and her 3 year-old daughter, Yojana, came home one day after a day at the town’s carnival, just a few blocks from their house. As Jenni opened the front door, she noticed a folded piece of paper that had been slipped underneath the door. It was a letter, and she immediately noticed the signature markings of the powerful gang, the same one which her ex-partner had been a ranking member.


The message reeked of hatred and death threats. The letter was addressed to Jenni but contained the names of her two children as well as her parents and their addresses. The message was clear: “If she (Jenni) talked to authorities on her ex-partner’s behalf, her children and parents would be killed.” She knew that hurting or killing her family was the worst possible sentence that the malicious gang boss could order, and Jenni felt that she would be killed as well.




Jenni met Ricardo, her ex-partner and father of Yojana, five years ago after graduating from high school and planning to attend the university. Ricardo was smart and had money, although Jenni didn’t know the source of his income until after the birth of their daughter. He suddenly disappeared and Jenni didn’t hear from him for over a month. When he finally called her, he told Jenni that he was a gang leader and had lost the trust of his group when he failed to deliver a loaded truck full of drugs, mostly cocaine. The truck was stolen during a pit stop at a gas station. While they waited, his accomplices were shot dead and thrown out of the truck. The gang members suspected Ricardo of colluding with the suspects, probably members of a rival gang. Jenni was shocked and feared for his life, as well as hers. He told her that she would not hear from him again.


Ricardo drove his car from Honduras to the U.S. with the plan of turning himself in to the Border Patrol at one of the Mexico/US border checkpoints. He avoided detection from delinquents looking to rob migrants until he crossed into the Mexican state of Veracruz. He sensed that he was being followed which prompted him to abandon his car and complete his journey by hitchhiking. He entered the U.S. through a border checkpoint, and within a week he was in court, pleading guilty to charges of narco-trafficking. His lawyers requested leniency for Ricardo in exchange for information that prosecutors could use against other prisoners, many of whom were gang members from Honduras, the same country as Ricardo. For now, Ricardo was safe but not completely out of harm’s way.


Six months later, Ricardo sent a letter to Jenni explaining what had happened and asking her for forgiveness. He had deceived her but he promised that he would take care of her and his daughter upon his release.


Jenni was relieved to know that Ricardo was safe but knew that he couldn’t return to Honduras while he was on the gang’s hit list.


When Jenni received the threatening letter, she realized that the gang members had learned that she had been in communication with Ricardo. But she didn’t know how they knew. The only explanation was that her friend, Miriam, whom she had confided in, had told another gang member. She didn’t think that Miriam would tell anyone since her own brother had been a victim, killed by the same gang members for reasons which are not clear.


But now, Jenni had to leave and time was of essence. She contacted her sister, Stefany, several miles away and asked her to take care of her 11-year old, Rolando José. He would stay with Stefany while she traveled to the U.S. with her daughter. He would be safe, she thought, since he was not Ricardo’s son. Her sister had just moved in with her boyfriend at another location where not even her parents knew the address. Stefany and Jenni lived in constant fear since the rape of their older sister, Katrina, by gang members a year ago. Katrina was now living in the U.S. as an asylum seeker, and Jenni, upon entering the U.S. would also ask for asylum, and to live with Katrina.


Jenni contacted the local police even though she knew that they wouldn’t be able to protect her against the gang proven to be more dominant and powerful. But her sister’s case had taught her to denounce the threat, even if for just documentation purposes. The police advised her to leave the country for her and her children’s safety.


Jenni’s mother helped her collect a few thousand dollars, and early one morning, she and her daughter took a cab to the central bus station with only a shopping bag full of essentials. She hoped that their journey would be swift and, if not comfortable, at least tolerable.


The Journey


But Jenni’s luck became unmercifully bad, and relentless during her daunting journey through México. The coyote or smuggler that took them through the notoriously dangerous zones drove an old car that eventually broke down along a deserted road. The smuggler called his boss, and when help was on the way, a car with a group of four men stopped behind them, drew their guns and demanded money.


Jenni, her daughter, the smuggler and three others: a teenage boy, and a young couple, were taken to an undisclosed house, in a rural area not too far from the US/México border. Jenni had no idea of its location, but she remembers a dirt road, the seamless semi-desert, cacti and brush fields, and no houses. They were taken to abandoned house with no running water and electricity and an outhouse several yards from the house.


As the morning emerged, Jenni saw through the front window a soft light and then, four men with guns, a stark and evil presence that sent a knot to her stomach.  They wore dirty clothes, were unshaven and each had scraggly black hair. Jenni, her daughter and the others, frightened and stressed out, pretended to be asleep. The men demanded money and not just a few thousands of dollars. They were the Golf Cartel and Jenni felt that she and her daughter would not survive the ordeal. Her heart was weak; she was exhausted, but her daughter gave her the strength that helped her deal with the gang members, assuring them that they would do everything possible to settle the matter without they killing anyone.


The smuggler negotiated a money drop between his boss and the cartel members. In exchange, they would drive everyone back to the main road.


Everyone was relieved beyond comprehension when the cartel members dropped them off near their stalled car. Night was falling quickly and they started walking northward, ignoring their thirst and hunger pangs. After a short walk, a man in a pick-up offered to give them a ride to the nearest town. They felt that he was an angel from heaven, and after about an hour’s ride, they arrived at a small town.  The smuggler managed to borrow a car from a friend and drive the group a hundred miles toward the Rio Grande border. They begin to walk along the shallow part of the river until the smuggler pointed them toward a canoe hidden in the bushes. They carried the canoe into the water, and carefully climbed aboard, first Jenni, her daughter, and the other woman, then, the man and the teenager. They paddled across the river, and were soon stepping on U.S. soil, feeling as though they had trampled across the entire planet. They started walking eastward on a country road. Jenni prayed that a Border Patrol agent would appear and take them to the checkpoint. When the patrol car parked in front of the group, suddenly, their relief made way to an acute thirst and hunger. Once inside the patrol vehicle, Jenni spotted a plastic bottle of water beside the driver’s seat. She gently asked the agent for a drink of water, but he quickly responded that he didn’t have any, and hid the water bottle under his seat.


Once they arrived at a Border Patrol checkpoint, standing outside as they waited for the agents to begin the documentation process, the teenage boy noticed a half-filled water bottle on the ground. He motioned to Jenni that he would share the remaining water with the group. He poured water into the tiny bottle cap, and one by one, each took turns casting water drops on their scorched lips and tongue, carefully and ceremoniously. It was a moment of joy for Jenni who was struck by the generosity and kindness of a teenager.






Summary:  Deisi was a victim of domestic violence in her country of Honduras. She endured a torturous, brutal relationship with her partner (not the father of her child) for three months. He tortured her physically and psychologically; in different days he would beat her by kicking her, throwing her against the wall and to the ground, and choking her until she almost passed out. Other beatings, included cutting her face with a saw, and, drunk and on drugs, shooting at her, barely missing her legs. She began her trip to the United States on Jan. 2, 2017, and with her daughter and a friend, arrived at the border on Feb. 14.


Deisi’s Story


Deisi felt as though her dreams had come true the day that Enrique asked her to marry him. She was 18 and he, 21 but had a relatively good paying job at a coffee plant. They rented a house, simple and cheap, and Deisi became pregnant. They decided to get married after the birth of their child.


Three years into the marriage that became too “demanding and difficult,” Enrique walks away, leaving Deisi disillusioned and solely responsible for their daughter. Deisi moved in with her mother and three of her siblings, confused and worried. Enrique begins to visit Deisi presumably to be a father to their daughter, however, his real motive was to take their daughter into full custody, regardless of Deisi’s objections. Thus, Deisi refuses to allow Enrique to see their daughter, causing a strain in the relationship between Deisi and Enrique’s families. Soon afterward, Enrique’s mother refused to accept their daughter as her grandchild.




Deisi met Juan through a friend of a friend. He asked her to move in with him, which, considering her options, seemed like a good idea. She was unemployed and had no resources other than her family to support her daughter.


Juan was a quiet but troubled 28-year old. He was known around town as a violent drunk but a good worker. Juan and Enrique worked at the same coffee factory and although they get along together, Juan despised Enrique, blaming him for having “stolen” Deisi from him and the jealousy rage that he endured during the time he and Deisi were married. Deisi didn’t know about Juan’s jealousy until later when Juan began to hurt her. Perhaps, that’s why he turned against her, she thought.


During the three months that they lived together Deisi and Juan argued and fought every day.  At first, they were about Juan’s indulgence: drinking and socializing every day with his small circle of friends. But the arguments escalated and became increasingly more intense. Juan prohibited Deisi from going out anywhere except the grocery store once a week. He took away her cell phone so she wouldn’t speak to her family and friends. And, he disallowed visits from anyone other than his friends.


Every day was a repeat of the day before until Juan’s aggression included attempts at seriously hurting Deisi; perhaps, his motives were to kill her.


Deisi couldn’t escape Juan’s beatings because he would strike at any moment without any provocation. He punched and kicked her repeatedly, throwing her to the ground or against the wall. One night, while she lay sleeping, he choked her until she almost passed out. There were several near-death instances caused by Juan’s violent (and drunken) tantrums and persistent rage: the hand-saw to her face, leaving a scar on her right side of her face; the shooting with a rifle that barely missed her legs as she ran out of the house, screaming for help. Many times, Juan’s friends were there to “save” Deisi from the harrowing torture that surely would have ended in tragedy. And, the following day, Juan had no recollection of what had happened. He refused to admit to his violent aggressions.




Deisi’s pleas for help were ignored by her family and friends. But her brother lent her the money to purchase a cell phone. Now she was able to seek help that would enable her to leave the abusive relationship. Through the social media, she was able to contact friends and one of them, Eragdi, agreed to help her “escape” from Juan. But if she stays in her home country of Honduras, Juan will find her, she thought. Her only option is to journey to the United States. Eragdi decided to leave with Deisi and her then 5-year old daughter. The two women and the daughter walked out of the house carrying small bags to show the nosy neighbors that they were going shopping. In fact, it was the start of their long, six-week journey to the United States.




Rosenda Nely


Summary: Rosenda’s life in one of the most violent cities in Honduras had been chaotic and overwhelming. She was a victim of domestic violence, and after the divorce,  her ex-husband, the father of her young daughter continuously harassed and stalked her. She was also mugged at gunpoint by thieves on motorcycles. She and her neighbors are gripped with fear ever since the town was overrun by a powerful gang and then, after a serious, prolonged gunfight, and then, another one. Many innocent bystanders were killed while caught in the crossfire as rival gangs claim ownership to the lucrative illicit business like extortion, kidnapping, and running drugs. The current gang leader, a powerful man with a ruthless reputation now has a huge mansion in the neighborhood, and well-armed bodyguards. But of all the violent experiences, none compared to the one she lived in confrontation with one of the gang leader’s bodyguards, the husband of her cousin, Sonia. He threatened her, that she would be kidnapped, violated, physically hurt, and her three-year old would also be targeted. Like everyone else, she couldn’t count on protection by police since they are “owned” by the gangs. She cannot plan on a safe, secure future for her three-year old because of the violence and threats. Her only option was to flee her country, which she did with her daughter, and only the clothes on their backs.

Rosenda’s Story


Rosenda’s walk to the corner store two blocks away is like treading through a minefield. Except that, instead of fearing the fatal step, she looks for signs and sounds of gun battle; dodging the bullets with the careful vigilance of a hawk. She feels exhausted, and it’s not quite ten in the morning. She believes her town is gradually becoming her prison. She feels as though her whole life has been a prison. At the store, she meets up with Sonia, her cousin whom she considers her sister. They chatter as if they hadn’t talked for a long time, but actually they call each other on their cell phone each day. They share many interests since they grew up together. They even married their boyfriends almost at the same time. Unfortunately, they also suffered similar domestic violence in the hands of their repressive husbands. They all seemed happy in the beginning of their marriages, but life in a small town in Honduras hardens the men and makes the women powerless and vulnerable. Without a secure employment or even employment opportunities, women’s lives teeter on instability, both economically and socially. “The woman stays at home to take care of her man,” the husband, Salvador, would remind Rosenda of her place in life.


Rosenda doesn’t remember when the beatings started. Perhaps, the rough sex led to the casual verbal insults, then, the face slaps and hair pulls. Rosenda’s beautiful long hair was perfect for Salvador’s torturous aggressions, amusing himself by pulling Rosenda by her hair. Life became a drudgery full of physical and emotional pain.


Salvador left town when he realized that “men with guns” were looking for him. He owed money to a wealthy, shady landlord and his debt, about five years old, had to be settled. But Salvador didn’t have the money. Rosenda felt relieved but troubled. How was she going to provide for herself and her 3 year-old daughter, Kimberli?


Sonia and Juan


Sonia’s marriage began to deteriorate right after the birth of their first child. Her husband, Juan, had been unemployed for several months, and for sustenance they relied entirely on the charitable generosity of her family. Juan hated their dependence on her family, especially since his father-in-law looked down on his inadequacies in providing support for his family.


But Juan’s luck would change when Don Robles and his horde of bodyguards and servants moved into the big mansion on the hilltop, just above Rosenda’s community. Robles was the powerful cartel leader, the latest crime boss to take over the town after running off the previous criminal organization. Juan sought employment as a bodyguard and was quickly hired. Don Robles was a notorious kingpin known to Hondurans as a murderous, heartless narco-trafficker that gives orders to prey upon innocent people and kill his competitors so he can amass capital and boost his powers. Juan became one of Robles’ “soldiers” and Sonia’s fear was elevated now that he owned a gun.


Juan became the loyal follower, a brand of soldier sought after by vicious cartels. His increasing absence from home gave Sonia some relief from his constant bickering and verbal abuse.


Rosenda and Sonia


While he was gone, Rosenda visited Sonia and together they consoled each other. Joyful, happier times returned to their lives. But sometimes Sonia could not accurately predict when Juan would return home, and inevitably, he would show up when Rosenda was in the house visiting with Sonia. Juan grew suspicious of their friendship, imagining that they were plotting against him.


But Rosenda would continue to visit Sonia. She would leave through the back door as soon as Juan pulled up in his company car. Branding his gun and a macho attitude, he was a true-blue cartel soldier.


The beatings and verbal assaults became far more intense and frequent between Sonia and Juan. Rosenda became deeply worried and decided to confront Juan. But she quickly learned that this was a mistake. Juan turned his aggression toward Rosenda, and on one occasion pointed the gun at her head and warned her never to return to their house.


From that point forward, Rosenda helped Sonia design a plan to move out of the house, to an undisclosed location, where Juan would not find them. But, their hopes were dampened when Juan realized their plan. One of the neighbors, a woman who despised Sonia, snitched on the two women when she overheard their plan to move out the next day.


Rosenda Becomes the Hunted


The threats were serious and relentless. Juan would call Rosenda several times a day, delivering verbal assaults. He threatened to kidnap her and her daughter, hurt and rape them, and kill them.  Then, he would drive by her house, park his car and wait. He would send his fellow soldiers to guard the house, preventing Rosenda from leaving.


Rosenda kept vigilant and as soon as she noticed that no one was watching, she packed a small bag, dressed her young daughter and moved in her mother’s house.


A few months later, Rosenda sits quietly with her daughter on her lap, awaiting orders from the U.S detention center officials on what she will do next. She made it to the U.S., but fear still overwhelms her deeply.






Summary:  María, 24 yrs. old is from Guatemala and her first language is Mam although she speaks Spanish well. The father of their five year-old daughter, Vergilio, abandoned them a year after her birth. She suffered physical and psychological abuse in the hands of Vergilio. His mother refused to accept María’s daughter as her grandchild. Her father is an invalid; he had a stroke and is paralyzed on one side of his body. He needs constant care and her 17 year-old niece takes care of him. María’s hometown is unsafe, especially in raising her 5 year-old as a single parent. A year ago, two young women were killed for unknown reasons; three years ago, her friend, also a young woman, was killed and her body dismembered. Only her head and a hand were found. Women are vulnerable in this community where men believe they can murder them without any repercussions. The police authorities are known to be incompetent and lacking in resources. None of the murders was solved. The fear and lack of employment opportunities have compelled María to travel north to live in the U.S.


Maria’s Story


Two slight figures stepped down the stairs of the passenger bus in a crowded downtown bus station in a city in central part of México. María, 24 years-old and barely 4’7, her daughter, Fabiola, who is 5 years-old but appears to be one or two years younger, make their way to the central hub of the station. Hungry, tired, and confused, the mother and daughter have spent seven days and several bus stops into their trip toward the U.S. border. A long way from their Mam-speaking community in Guatemala, they’ve reached the midway point. But this bus stop seemed the most difficult because all of their money and food were spent. But, María, determined to reach the East Coast of the U.S. to live with her older sister and brother-in-law, begins to scour the crowded bus station for food on the floor, the trash bins, anywhere for anything that her hungry child can eat.

María was accustomed to regular hunger bouts in her hometown, a small rural community in Guatemala where her culture and language have deep roots amongst the Mam people. She lived in the rugged, mountainous region where her mother, father, and two older siblings sustained themselves with homegrown vegetables and animal products. Their complete reliance on the weather and soil conditions created a subsistence living, and many times during the year, the family had to stretch out their basic essentials of corn, beans, milk and eggs to a bare minimum.

María approached the local street vendors as the first of many strategies that she devised. She asked for handouts for her very hungry child. The gentle sweetness of her voice seemed staged at first but the smooth resonance and kind demeanor in her expression is the normal voice that she uses when she speaks in Spanish. In her native language, Mam, her voice becomes less exact and more variable in pitch and tone, in keeping with the cadence of her indigenous language.

Some of the vendors quickly brushed her aside, others slipped a small portion of a taco into the hands of her child, or a piece of fruit from the fruit cocktail cup. But María wouldn’t touch any of it until her child was satisfied. Then, it was her turn.

María grew up as a well-loved child whose mother cared for her deeply. Even though her mother died when she was nine, she spent all day by her side, learning the chores, responsibilities, how to make small miracles from bits of morsels of food to feed the whole family, and how to defend yourself from cruelty and deception, especially from discontented neighbors and strangers. These were the skills and the lifestyles passed on from one generation to another, from grandmothers to mothers to daughters.


Leaving “El Corte” Behind


María grew up wearing the traditional dress called “el corte,” consisting of a colorful, multi-reddish skirt made from two rectangular pieces sown together then folded over and around her waist, and a similarly colorful cloth belt tied to hold her skirt together. The blouse was simply embroidered, white and tucked inside the skirt. She wore el corte everywhere she went except when she was asked not to do so, like inside the house she was hired to clean. That was the case at Doña Marta’s house in Malacatán, near the México/Guatemala border. She had heard from her friend, Rosenda, whom she worked as their housekeeper, that Doña Marta needed another maid. María took her daughter wherever she worked, and Doña Marta allowed both of them to stay and live in the house for which Maria was very grateful. But Doña Marta told her not to wear el corte, and Maria had no choice but to remove it and become a common housekeeper like all the rest, without a name or appearance that once identified her as the person she really was.


Leaving Guatemala


But leaving her culture and language behind was only the beginning of a new life for María. The choice to stay or leave Guatemala for the U.S. was the hardest decision to make but once she made up her mind, it became easier. She felt that she couldn’t go back to her rural community, a five-hour bus ride from Matacatán because of lack of employment opportunities, and although she loved her father, he was completely reliant on her niece’s care. Besides, the violence, especially against women, was a major factor in the need to create a better future for her daughter. Doña Marta was a good employer but her demands were increasing as Maria’s skills improved. How could she send her daughter to school, she thought, and still work overtime for Doña Marta? She felt homeless, detached from her community and had so little to give to her daughter. Her sister and brother-in-law promised to help her settle in once she arrived.

It took María and her daughter 15 days to travel to the U.S./México border from the Guatemalan border. Awaiting asylum proceedings at a detention center in Texas, she has no regrets. Yet, when will she realize that a new life means leaving behind everything she has ever known, to be who she is. How will she come to terms with her new life while her past is mostly made up of memories and dreams?

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Posted by on September 13, 2017 in Uncategorized


In the Shadow of the Half Moon: MAPS AND GRAPHS


The Northern Triangle Countries:




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Posted by on September 13, 2017 in Uncategorized


SNAPSHOT: Central American Migration – Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras

According to the April, 2017 article, “Central American Immigrants in the United States by Gabriel Lesser and Jeanne Batalova,” in 2015, eight percent of the 43.3 million US immigrants lived in the U.S., and the majority (85 percent) were from the three of the seven Central American countries. Immigrants from the three countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle, made up the largest growth in U.S. population since 1980 (90 percent).

The following chart displays the population of Central Americans in the United States according to country as of 2015. (credit: Migration Policy Institute, April 5, 2017)

Region/Country Number Percent
Central American Total 3,385,000 100.0
El Salvador 1,352,000  40.0
Guatemala  928,000  27.4
Honduras  599,000  17.7
Nicaragua  256,000   7.6
Panama  104,000    3.1
Costa Rica    90,000    2.7
Belize    49,000    1.4
Other Central American     7,000     0.2

According to the authors of the report (Lesser and Batalova), the Central Americans who have acquired “legal residency” also known as “green card,” have done so via family reunification channels, i.e., the process of the immigrant request and granted location of residence in the U.S.  with a family member who resides in the U.S., that may or may not have the legal residence status.

Another way of migrating to the U.S. is through the Temporary Protected Status (see article by Madeline Messick and Claire Bergeron, July 2, 2014) or TPS, which nationals from El Salvador and Honduras have been beneficiaries. The TPS is granted by the U.S. government and allows individuals from designated countries to seek protection from deportation and to work, although it doesn’t include a “green card.” In fact, the specific provisions of this temporary status are that the beneficiaries are not eligible to receive permanent residency nor citizenship. Once, the TPS expires, if the U.S. does not renew it, the beneficiaries’ immigration status is back to the very beginning. At the time the article was written in 2015, there were 212,000 Salvadorans and 64,000 Hondurans that were in the U.S. with a TPS. The U.S. grants TPS designations to six countries besides El Salvador and Honduras: Haiti, Nicaragua, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. A total of 340,310 reside in the U.S. with protection from the TPS (Guatemala is notably not on the list.)

Countries may be designated TPS based on one of three reasons: there is an ongoing, armed conflict that poses great danger if the migrant returns; as a result of a disaster such as an earthquake, flood, health epidemic, etc., a country may request a TPS designation until it is safe for its people to return; and, “extraordinary and temporary” conditions that prevent the people from returning safely.

Unauthorized Immigration

According to Rosenblum and Soto (2015: see report,  “An Analysis of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States”) there are 436,000 Salvadorans residing in the United States. An additional 212,000 Salvadoran have been granted Temporary Protected Status. A great number of Salvadorans live in California and Texas, but also, in the East Coast: Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C.

Approximately 704,000 Guatemalans live as “unauthorized” in 38 states and the District of Columbia. In California alone, there are 200,000 Guatemalans. However, Guatemalans are also dispersed throughout 12 states in the East Coast, and around 10,000 reside in the states of Tennessee, Illinois, and Alabama.

About 317,000 Hondurans live as unauthorized immigrants in “significant numbers” in 23 states, but they are concentrated in Texas and Florida. They also reside in California, the East Coast and Louisiana. The number excludes the 64,000 Hondurans that reside with a Temporary Protected Status.

U.S. Money to Stop the Migration

As a result of the surge of Central American unaccompanied children in the 2014, the U.S. State Department allocated 86 million dollars for Mexican authorities to “stop” the flow of migrants to the U.S. border. Although, Mexican laws address special protection measures, the implementation of these policies are uneven and flawed (see article, “Strengthening Mexico’s Protection of Central American Unaccompanied Minors in Transit”). Amongst the essential gaps in the implementation were “poor screening and inadequate housing,” and in 2016, less than 1 percent of the 17,500 unaccompanied children which were stopped by Mexican authorities applied for asylum, but no assurances were given that their requests would be granted. Critics noted that in most cases, children were not asked if they wanted to seek asylum in Mexico. Another serious angst among critics was that so many unaccompanied youth detained and deported would be returned to a very dangerous situation in their country. The women’s stories strongly suggest that there are substantial situations to warrant these fears and concerns.

According to an interview with National Public Radio (NPR), writer Sonia Nazario explains that the “catch and deport before they reach the border” has not deterred the Central American migration, and in fact, made the journey more dangerous. The migrants were kept from riding on top of the train that winds its way toward the north (called “la bestia or the beast”), thus, their journey through the Mexican routes became more perilous, and “open season on migrants,” by locals such as cartel or gang members, and even enforcement authorities. One of the women’s stories in this collection includes such a kidnapping and extortion incident (see “Jenni’s Story”). Additionally, the shelters, once a restive place for the weary migrant, are becoming like refugee camps where migrants must deal with the Mexican barrier that they must navigate and overcome.

The Case of the United States Funding Honduras

The collection, “In the Shadow of the Half Moon” includes, in each story, a breakdown on how the problem of police corruption played a major factor in the women’s tragic circumstances. The women were not able to seek protection from the police and other authorities, and to a lesser extent, justice for crimes committed against them. In the case of Honduras, not only are police and the military complicit in crimes described as human rights abuses, as well as murder, but in a twist of cruel injustice, and despite the track record of human rights abuses, the Honduran government receives aide from the United States in the form of $18 million plus a $60 million loan from the Inter-American development Bank, approved by United States (see article, “America’s Funding of Honduran Security Forces Puts Blood on Our Hands”). Critics of the aid consistently allude to the abuses of military police forces that have resulted in nine killings, 20 cases of torture, 30 illegal arrests between 2012 and 2014, and 24 soldiers are under investigation for the killings (see Human Rights Watch Report). Also, and very disconcerting, over a 100 activist whose farm lands were at risk of becoming exploited for corporate greed have been killed since 2009. The Honduran security forces are suspected of the murders but the lack of substantial results have unnerved Hondurans and lost their confidence in the justice system. Honduran President Hernández’ use of military might for domestic purposes is clearly in violation of the country’s constitution and many critics urge the United States to withhold funding until the human rights abuses have been resolved.

Reasons Why They Migrate Run Deep and Broad

Why do thousands make the decision to migrate to the United States, legally or illegally, risking their lives and forging a new life strife with unknowns and incredibly stressful? Understanding the reasons requires more than just a cursory knowledge of each country’s history, especially on how events shaped the aspects of social, infrastructure, economic, and political situations. Many writers and journalists offer critiques on the current affairs of the three countries by pointing to the United States past role or intervention such as in the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala. Valeria Luiselli is one such writer, adding that gang violence in the Northern Triangle region is largely due to the deportation of gang members from cities in the United States to the region in the 1980’s. However, Luiselli is most critical of Obama’s administration immigration policies during the 2014 peak migration of Central American unaccompanied youth. The juvenile cases were ordered to be processed as quickly as possible within a three-week window (see her article, “Why did you come to the United States?” Central American Children Try to Convince Courts They Need Protection”).  The “fast track” system didn’t allow the youth to develop defense against deportation, so the odds against them were stacked, especially without a legal counsel to represent them. To Luiselli, the government acted in the most cruel and irresponsible manner, leaving the asylum seekers with no other choice but to be deported to the dangerous places they tried to escape. As long as the United States government refuses to acknowledge their role in causing the roots of the problem, and by refusing to describe the children as “refugees,” the migrant children will not be treated fairly and justly.

Journalist Julia Preston writes about the legal problems of Central American parents and their children in the United States courts. She notes that out of the 100,000 cases that have addressed the immigration courts since 2014, only 32, 500 cases have been issued rulings, and a staggering 70 percent of those cases concluded with deportation orders “in absentia,” whereby the migrants did not show up for the hearing and yet received deportation orders. The immigration courts are problematic for many reasons, and needless to say, the migrant cases are clearly marked for deportation and an otherwise ruling would have to be based on the judges’ notions for the migrants seeking asylum. See article, “Fearful of Courts Asylum seekers are banished in absentia.”

The Northern Triangle Countries

El Salvador

 El Salvador’s historical accounts of war and violence includes the uprising or revolt of the 1930’s that culminated with a battle that resulted in the massacre of 30,000 indigenous peasants on the side of land reforms, and to end the wide inequality wrought by centuries of the dominance of the oligarchy (the “fourteen families”). The uprising was led by members of the communist party, which was generated by Farabundo Martí and others, although Martí’s name remains as a central symbol in the political party, the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, or as it was named in 1980, the FMLN. After the slaughter of innocent people known as “La Matanza” in 1932, Marti was executed by the same dictator, President Hernández Martínez, that ordered the killings of the indigenous peasant/farmers. (See article, “El Salvador 12 Years of Civil War,” the Center for Justice and Accountability’s Transitional Justice Project.)

Although the massacre highlighted the ending of a chapter in El Salvador’s history of war, the conflict continued. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, right-wing paramilitary death squads and left-wing guerillas fought each other continuously, and in 1979, in an attempted coup, the dictator Carlos Romero, was ousted by “moderate” leaning officers, and a new government, the Revolutionary Government Junta, or the JRG was formed. But, in the following year, the JRG leaders resigned after an intense battle with the right-wing faction that used violent tactics to win their cause, such as bombings, kidnappings, and murder. Behind the ousting of the JRG as well as the murder of Archbishop and human rights defender, Oscar Romero, was a Salvadoran Army officer Roberto D’Aubuisson. He was briefly jailed but was freed due to the violent pressure imposed by his right-wing comrades. D’Aubuisson was a major force in the formation of the right-wing political party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance Party or, ARENA, and remained a leader of the death squads throughout the Civil War of 1980-1992.

The FMLN emerged as a military/guerilla organization after four other similar groups were integrated. After the FMLN attacked the government with all its force, the United States began to support the right-wing government with military aid and advisors. The US intervention has long been criticized for its role in supporting a government that was not formed via democratic means. The US ambassador during this time, Robert White, was very critical of the “atrocities” committed during the counter-insurgency, and even referred to D’Aubuisson as a “pathological killer.” But, the Reagan administration was adamant about supporting the government, and even removed Ambassador White.

Salvadorans experienced the extreme horrors of war, and the infliction upon its people was unbearable. Besides the assassination of Archbishop Romero, beloved and respected by the largely Catholic community, there was also the despicable and horrendous crime of rape and murder of four American churchwomen by military and paramilitary forces in December of 1980. Then US president, Jimmy Carter, cut off aid to El Salvador, but was deftly restored with the election of President Reagan in 1980. To end the insurgency, the US provided the Salvadoran government with substantial military support, which led to the formation of the “Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalions,” a military arm trained by the US to carry out unspeakable war crimes. One such atrocity was led by the brigade, the Atlacatl, when, in the Fall of 1989 they descended upon the University of Central America and murdered six prominent Jesuit priest, their housekeeper and her daughter. The Atlacatl was the same brigade that had led the now infamous El Mozote Massacre in 1981. In December of 1981, an entire village, El Mozote, was annihilated within three days, using a scorched-earth tactic by the Atlacatl Battalion, armed and trained by the United States. Reports indicate that up to 1,000 civilians, men, women and children were murdered, while many were tortured before their executions. The known lone survivor, Rufina Amaya, was able to give testimony to the horror she experienced, including the killings of her family.

The 12-year Civil War that engaged the government and the guerilla and paramilitary forces resulted in the deaths of 75,000 Salvadorans due to massacres, executions, landmines, and indiscriminate bombing. The human rights violations were extreme where civilians were tortured, mutilated, disappeared forcefully, murdered, and women were raped. And although the left-wing political party affiliates blame the “amnesty law” that was shaped by both the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), in reality no one paid for the injustices. Thus, Salvadorans live with a void in their lives, having experienced the horrors of war as victims or survivors and knowing that the people responsible would never be charged, much less punished. (See “The Salvadoran Town that Can’t Forget” by Sarah Esther Maslin.)

Street Gangs of El Salvador

Perhaps, the most pressing problem in El Salvador is the organized gang, criminal activity that has permeated throughout Salvadoran society. The presence, indeed, the integration of gangs, notably MS-13 and Calle 18, have transformed the lives of so many, however, to many people that lived through the Civil War (1980-1992), the conflict between the two warring gangs and the military police and death squads is far worse than the Civil War (see “What We Have Now is a War,” by Maslin, Ramos, & Martinez, 2016) . According to the interviewees in the excellent documentary, “Gangs of El Salvador,” (published by Vice News on November, 2015; featuring correspondent Danny Gold) the Civil War is still on-going, but in comparison, the three-way conflict has far more complications.

El Salvador’s murder rate is destined to surpass Honduras that had been described as the murder capital of the world. El Salvador had almost 6,000 murders in 2015, as noted in the documentary synopsis, the highest number since the end of the Civil War in the 90’s. In a country of six million, the number of murders is too phenomenal to grasp in understanding its significance. The number of gang members vary according to the source, but some have stated as many 60,000 gang members live in El Salvador. Thousands live in prisons. The gangs actually originated in Los Angeles, in the 1980’s, which many point to the Civil War as the cause of the migration, spurring the exodus of thousands into the region. (Recall the United States’ role in supporting the right-wing factions in the Civil War during that time.) But, in the ensuing years, thousands of gang members were deported and became integrated into the Salvadoran gang life. The documentary features interviews with a variety of Salvadorans: mothers of young victims, families of gang members, ex-paramilitary and relative of victims of gang violence, a Calle 18 gang leader, gang members inside prisons, and others that would not speak on camera for fear of retaliation. Their testimony coincides with the women’s stories featured in the collection, “In the Shadow of the Half Moon,” and underscores the extent of the conflict throughout El Salvador: the fear of parents losing their children to the gangs, as recruits or victims; the extortions that take food from the table of one hard working, law abiding family to another family engaged in gang violence; the political climate that misses the mark in understanding how to deal with such a huge, multi-faceted problem, where politicians opt for the familiar “mano dura” or heavy-handedness approach, putting away gang members to languish in dangerous prisons or deploying death squads to kill them. The military force and the gangs accuse each other of being “terrorists.” Salvadorans see their country in ruins and worst, they believe that it can’t be re-constructed.

For more information on the street gangs of El Salvador, go to “Migration From El Salvador to the United States Largely Due to Street Gang Violence and Related Factors,” in this blog.


Honduras, a country of 9.1 million people, has the unfortunate distinction of being a country of violence, where one of its city, San Pedro Sula, is the most violent city in the world (or closely behind Caracas, Venezuela), with a rate of 173 homicides per 100,000 residents. Reportedly, in 2013, an average of 20 people was murdered every day. (See article, “Inside San Pedro Sula – the Most Violent City in the World,” by Sibylla Brodzinsky and published by the Guardian in 2013.) Honduras is also the third poorest country in the western hemisphere: 62.8% or 6 out of 10 households live in extreme poverty.

The re-election on March 2017 of Juan Orlando Hernández, a rightwing Nationalist, pro-business, pro-security manifesto was replete with allegations of electoral fraud and voter intimidation.  Critics of the president and his party cite the extreme human rights violations by the United States supported military and the private security forces hired by the corporations or wealthy owners that overpower the peasants and farmers who seek to protect their traditional lands from mining and oil corporations, exploiting the properties and displacing the residents, as well as corrupting the environment and tearing apart the economic and social well-being of the communities. The economic inequalities are deeply embedded in Honduran society since it is a straightforward oligarchy controlled by 10 wealthy families. The term given to describe Honduras, the “banana republic” (coined by author O. Henry) aptly describes the wealth distribution of the wealthy versus the working class.

At the turn of the century, Honduras’ banana companies (the United Fruit Company) became a huge cash crop for the owners and investors. However, the companies receded and bananas were gradually complemented with a diverse array of fruits such as pineapple, grapefruit, and coconut. In the 1980s the fertile Aguan region was the fruit basket of Honduras that provided jobs and edible products for its people. However, the recent development of the African palm plantations has replaced the edible products, up to 50%. African palm is harvested for the saturated oil which is used for processing foods, and as biofuel. The African palm industry has caused economic instability among the poor, working class, but has served as a lucrative investment for the wealthy.

As discussed in the abovementioned section, “The Case of the United States Funding Honduras,” the US influence and presence are evident in the military and funding support, plus there are several US military bases in the country.  Honduras is a major point of transit for cocaine; as much as 300 tons pass through Honduras from South America. But, community leaders have become increasingly vocal in their complaints about the military forces joining with police and security forces to combat the MUCA (Movimiento Unificado Campesino de Aguan) resistance by using their military might to violate human rights, including injuring and murdering innocent people, stealing lands belonging to the people, and raping women. Private security guards paid by the companies outnumber the police force: five guards for every police officer. A type of “police state” serves to further suppress the working-class people that are clearly powerless, economically and politically.

City life in Honduras has problems of its own. In 2000, the mayor (Roberto Silva) declared San Pedro Sula as a thriving center of industry, and commercial and financial development. The clothing maquillas were notably successful, and the city contributed two-thirds of the country’s GDP (gross domestic product). However, beset with one of the worst hurricanes in the country in 1998 (hurricane Mitch), and a military coup in 2009, unemployment increased exponentially, affecting everyone from the middle class to the most vulnerable social and economic groups.

San Pedro Sula, besides stricken with economic and social woes, has one of the worst gang or criminal organizations, perhaps, in all of Central America. The two dominant gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18, control three sectors of San Pedro Sula (see article, “A Snapshot of Honduras’ Most Powerful Street Gangs” by Kyra Gurney).  Over a thousand gang members from each gang work the streets of their territories, both making up 60 percent of the total gangs in Hondarus (see article, “Interactivo: Evolución de las maras en Honduras” for information on the areas controlled by either gang). The women in this blog’s collection consistently describe the gang’s internal conflicts, killing each other indiscriminately and causing havoc among the neighborhood, and many times innocent bystanders become victims of their battles. But beside the battles, which seem to erupt spontaneously and run a course of unpredictable duration, the gangs focus on maintaining their territories, either by seizing control or ensuring that they remain in their possession (see article, “Appraising Violence in Honduras: How Much is Gang-Related?” by M. Lohmuller & S. Dudley). Gang members use their “territories” to claim their physical space such as specific neighborhoods, and their “right” to invoke their power over the people via extortion, kidnappings, and even murder. But, gang members also reserve their power to seize control (and notoriety) for personal purposes. Reports from some sources point out the observable differences between the gang organizations: the MS13 shoot people whereas the Barrio 18 gang members use torturous tactics and then, mutilate the bodies and publically display them for the effect they seek (see article, “Life and Death in the Most Violent Country on Earth” by Flora Drury). The majority of the murders are unsolved, especially when the killings are deemed the work of gangs. There are instances when some sort of “superficial” actions for seeking truth and justice are practiced by the police, judges, and politicians, but for the most part very little to nothing is done to protect the people or punish the guilty for their crimes. It is no wonder that gang members feel empowered to run rampant their terror and deadly assaults on others with impunity.

Due to the economic, repressive, and violent gang activities and other related realities that Hondurans live each day, their inclinations to leave are understandable, but for many the choice to leave or stay is not an option since their lives or those of their loved ones, are in grave danger.


 “Guatemala,” a “place of trees” was the name told to the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Alvarado used to describe the country by Nahuatl-speaking, Tlacaltecan soldiers, whom were among the entourage that Hernán Cortes had given permission to conquer in 1519. Indeed, Guatemala is known for its natural beauty with its abundance of such unique ecosystems whose biodiversity is renown all over the world. But Guatemala has experienced so many misfortunates, and today, it is a country with very low poverty levels: half the population of 15.8 million lives below the poverty line and according to the United Nations, 17 percent are categorized as extremely poor. Additionally, Guatemala, the most populated Central American country, has the lowest literacy rate with 25 percent of individuals over the age of 15 listed as illiterate. Even though the majority of Guatemalans are fluent or semi-fluent in Spanish, among them are 42 percent mestizo, and approximately 41 percent are described as an indigenous people; they are speakers of one of the 21 Mayan languages, including K’iché; Kaqchikel, Mam; Q’eqchi’: or two non-Mayan languages: Garifuna or Xenca. The indigenous people suffer disproportionately due to the rampant racism at institutional and social levels, and women and children seem to be the most vulnerable victims. The woman’s story in the abovementioned collection highlights the problems often shared by other women in similar situations.

1950’s and Early 60’s

Guatemala’s history is replete with political and civil unrest.  A few highlights are discussed here.

In 1957, General Miguel Ydgoras Fuentes assumed power, under alleged rigged elections, after the then President Carlos Castillo Armas was assassinated. Ydogoras who authorized the training of 5,000 anti-Castro Cubans in Guatemala, provided airstrips in the region of Peten (later became the US-sponsored failed Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961). But in 1963, Ydogoras was ousted in a coup led by Colonel Enrique Peralta Asudia. The junta of 1963 (which wanted Arévalo to return from exile) was forcefully stalled by a coup backed by the Kennedy administration and the New Regime dominated the terror against the guerrillas that had begun under Ydgoras.

In 1963, Julio César Méndez Montenegro was elected president of Guatemala and during his right-wing paramilitary, organizations were formed like the “White Hand” and the Anti-communist Secret Army, which were the forerunners of the “Death Squads” that caused havoc on civilians during the Civil War (1960-1996). Military advisors from the US Special Forces (Green Berets) were deployed to Guatemala to train troops in these organizations into an army, a modern counter-insurgency elite force, which became the most sophisticated killing machine in Central America.

1970’s, 80’s and 90’s

In the 1970’s, two new guerilla organizations, the Guerilla Army of the Poor (EGP) and the Organization of the People in Arms (ORPA) began attacks against the military and some civilian supporters of the army. The paramilitary forces responded with a counter-insurgency attack that resulted in tens of thousands of civilian deaths. Due to the widespread and systematic abuses against civilians, the US ordered a ban on the support for aide toward the government forces. It should be noted that although then President Carter was behind the ban, American aide continued albeit through undisclosed means.

On January, 1980, a group of K’iche’ activists attempted to take over the Spanish Embassy to protest the massacres in the indigenous areas of the country but were overcome by Guatemalan forces that resulted in the deaths of every K’iche’ activist and the embassy was burned to the ground. However, a lone survivor of the assault and ensuring fire laid claim to the fact that the Guatemalan military killed the intruders and set the embassy on fire to erase the killings, thus, disputing the testimony of the Guatemalan soldiers who had claimed that the activist had set themselves and the embassy on fire.

General Efrain Ríos Montt became president of the military junta in 1982, whom President Reagan described as “a man of great personal integrity.” Ríos Montt continued the warfare known as “scorched earth,” responsible for the genocidal massacres of thousands of indigenous people, especially the Ixil, which were targeted for supporting the “resistance.” He was later found guilty of crimes against humanity. The court proceedings were broadcasted internationally in the Spring of 2013, and many indigenous women testified to the atrocities perpetrated toward men, women, children, and even infants. The women were perceived as courageous for their fortitude to stand up against Ríos Montt and others responsible for the torture and killing of their families and other innocent people.

But the 36-year Civil War had far more consequences than initially concluded. Although the government military forces carried out 93 percent of the human rights violations, which constituted war crimes, the US government via the CIA was complicit in these crimes because they trained the paramilitaries. (See “Guatemala Memory of Silence” by the Commission for Historical Clarification.) Over 450 Mayan villages were destroyed, a million people were displaced and approximately 200,000 people died. Most of the victims (83 percent) were Maya. Whether the war crimes constituted genocide was addressed in several reports and the conclusion was clearly stated that indeed, the military government’s actions constituted genocide. Although Ríos Montt was held largely responsible for the crimes against humanity, and was found guilty, the verdict was nullified due to legal proceedings.  A retrial had been scheduled but was later suspended (see “Genocide Trial for Guatemala Ex-dictator Rios Montt Suspended”).

The United States Involvement

The US involvement in Guatemala’s history can be described as interventionist. President Truman’s interests in Guatemala were political, which at the time even the appearance of a communist government in the Americas was perceived as a threat, and for investment purposes since the United Fruit Company had experienced lucrative success. But Guatemala’s incoming president, Jacobo Arbenz, brought forth agrarian reform, granting uncultivated land to peasants, and infuriating investment holders of the United Fruit Company. In 1952, President Truman ordered an overthrow of Arbenz but was unsuccessful. Soon afterward, President Eisenhower was elected and took up the plan to oust Arbenz by ordering the CIA to arm and train 480 Guatemalan soldiers, and in 1954 carried out a military invasion in Guatemala. Even though the military created a psychological warfare instead, its deployment was successful because it led to Arbenz’s resignation.

In 1963, the Kennedy administration supported a military coup that derailed the election of Juan José Arévalo, a politician who had the vision of Franklin Roosevelt’s social agenda and had been in exile since 1950. At that time, a strong campaign of terror to kill off the guerrillas was accelerated. The Civil War began in 1966, during the presidency of Julio Méndez who allowed the CIA to broadly and freely carry out their military agenda with the Guatemalan government.

The Civil War ended in 1996 when a Peace Accord was brokered by the United Nations between the guerillas and the government.

The Development of Gangs in the 1980’s

In her 2013 book, Adiós Niño: The Gangs of Guatemala City and the Politics of Death (see Review), Deborah Levenson makes the connection between the historical events in Guatemala and the social, political, and economic realities that have impacted gang members in the urban settings. The displaced Maya peasants, fleeing their countryside communities settled in loosely planned neighborhoods that seemed to grow exponentially overnight. But, it followed a pattern within a 20-year time span, and thousands of weary peasants started their new lives in unknown areas. The ex-military and paramilitary men became unemployed and added to an already huge unemployment problem. Or, they became security guards in legitimate and illegitimate businesses. Free trade capitalistic systems denigrated the working-class echelons, and those that chose to fight via unions were defeated. Thus, Levenson concludes that the structures of MS-13 and MS-18 were borne from this kind of environment. Even the gang members with their empowered status and weapons feel powerless.  See Homicides in Guatemala.


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Posted by on September 13, 2017 in Uncategorized


Recovering Bodies, Unraveling Dark Secrets: Remains of Unknown Migrants Excavated From a Falfurrias Cemetery


June 23, 2014, Falfurrias, TX: When students from Baylor University and the University of Indianapolis took on the task of exhuming bodies from Sacred Heart Cemetery for the purpose of lab-testing the remains and identifying and reuniting them with their loved ones, the lessons they learned were far beyond the science of forensic anthropology that they had expected. Actually, they expected the unexpected.

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Baylor University’s Dr. Lori Baker and Sgt. Jim Huggins and their team of almost 30 students, and the University of Indianapolis’ Dr. Krista Latham and her team of 5 students spent 10 days digging out remains from a cemetery plot designated for the “unknowns,” presumably the remains of migrants found in various parts in Brooks County in South Texas. As part of a partnership with Brooks County Sheriff’s Office, the university teams would exhume the bodies as a service agreement and as a means by which to provide a “hands-on” learning experience for the students completing an undergraduate or graduate degree in forensic anthropology or a related field. The university teams had exhumed 62 bodies last summer and had anticipated exhuming as many or more this summer. In all, about 50 remains were recovered although the exact amount will be finalized after they are fully examined.

The teams worked diligently, consistently, and tirelessly from daybreak to noon, when the humidity and heat finally took a heavy toll on their wellbeing. In all, three students and a faculty member (Dr. Baker) had to be taken to the emergency hospital due to dehydration and in one case, a back injury.

After plotting off the work area, their digging and probing were at first instinctual. “There was no game plan,” one of the students commented. No one knew exactly where the bodies had been buried. The bodies, or remains thereof, had been literally dumped into the cemetery pit. Sometimes two bodies were buried together. Upon finding a “body,” the plastic coverings that held the remains were extremely degraded prompting Dr. Baker to scoff at the irresponsibility of those in charge of burial arrangements. The students quickly learned of the lack of any kind of rules as to the depth and breadth by which bodies were laid, thus they probed in every direction that might lead them to a body. In one case, they found a green “shopping bag,” that turned out to be a bag with the name of the funeral/burial service, literally a body “bag” holding the remains inside a plastic covering. They also found trash such as a beer bottle and can, and plastic gloves. Regardless of their condition, the bodies were pulled out carefully and in a dignified manner placed into a larger body bag. Every action was recorded via photographs; every important aspect was measured and analyzed and entered into a database; the careful, solemn manner by which each body was handled seemed to compensate for the callous and indignant burials that each had received.


Push pins indicate where migrants’ remains have been located.

Certainly, the conditions of the bodies and the manner of their burials were sufficient to cause outrage and consternation. However, just beyond the city limits of the Sacred Heart Cemetery, a brief two miles outside of the small town of Falfurrias, to the east, west, and south, is a vast area of sparsely populated, brush and mesquite tree terrain that unwittingly serves as the County’s morgue.The bodies that the university teams pulled out of the cemetery were found within the 990 square mile parameter of Brooks County. These were the remains of the migrants who had perished as they trekked through the rugged fields, dodging danger at every turn. They died from dehydration or from a rattlesnake bite. They became lost because they were left behind or trying to hide from the Border Patrol. No one knows exactly how each one died. The corpses were accidently found by ranch owners or their staff while working in their ranch detail. Unlike the bodies that were recovered from the cemetery, the remains of many unknown migrants have yet to be recovered. To date, no efforts have been undertaken to deliberately look for remains throughout the walking “trail” areas used by migrants in Brooks County or another county in South Texas.

The exact total number of migrants who have lost their lives while crossing the migrant trail in Brooks County varies depending on the source. A US Border Patrol source has an amount recorded of 511 deaths in the Texas-Mexico area just for the fiscal year 2012-2013, a number exceeding all other totals from the border states (Arizona, California, New Mexico). In Brooks County alone, 129 bodies (Prevention of Migrant Deaths Working Group of Houston United) were recovered during the same fiscal year. However, these figures represent the number of corpses that have been recovered, excluding the current numbers that are reported on a regular basis. The question of how many corpses have not been recovered from the spoils of the migrant trails in South Texas looms as large as the vast South Texas wilderness.

The Colibrí Center in Pima County, Arizona, in conjunction with the Medical Examiner’s Office has recorded 800 cases of unidentified migrants recovered from the Arizona-Mexico border. The Colibrí Center, whose sole mission is to help in identifying the human remains in a comprehensive reliable manner, has a databank of 1,500 missing persons that have been reported by their family or loved ones as “last seen crossing the border.” The Brooks County Sheriff’s Office as well as the Webb County Medical Examiner’s Office (in Laredo, TX), each report that they receive numerous calls each day from people looking for their loved ones that went missing somewhere in South Texas. Although the exact number is unknown, from various anecdotal accounts, there exist hundreds of bodies of unknown migrants that have yet to be recovered.

The question persists: Why isn’t there a concerted effort to look for missing migrants whose remains are purportedly along the South Texas migrant trails?

Since the migrant trails are situated in private lands, everyone, including the Border Patrol is strictly prohibited from trespassing. Thus, when the Border Patrol or Sheriff responds to a call, they must first obtain authorized permission to enter the private premises. In some cases the landowners are eager to cooperate and have pre-authorized the agents to enter their property at any time. However, there’s a strong anti-immigrant sentiment among the landowners, some of who are more concerned over the litter left behind by the border crossers, such as empty water bottles and food wrappers, than about any unrecovered corpses.

The South Texas Property Rights Association (STPRA), headquartered in Falfurrias, is one of the dominant non-profit organizations that “protect the rights of property owners in South Texas.” Their mission is to “educate the public of the rights of property owners,” and their message in regards to immigration issue is that they are concerned about a “disturbing trend of massive illegal immigration” in their properties and that “these types of trespassers, along with the potential for terrorists, … were seen as a threat to the safety and security of South Texas properties.” It is not surprising that many landowners, who in large part reflect the ultra conservative stance of the STPRA, disregard the lives of the migrants, dead or in periled conditions, and have little interest in participating in any kind of rescue or search activity that may lead to saving lives, let alone recovering bodies. Additionally, many landowners defend their “right” to enforce trespassing laws by using the example of a wrongful death lawsuit (Rodriguez v. Boerjan) that involved accidental deaths of border crossers in a car chase.

At the local and regional front, lawmakers who have recently learned about the efforts of the Sheriff’s office in collaboration with two universities have chosen to concentrate on the irregularities and negligence on the part of the funeral companies. According to the Houston Chronicle article (by Christopher Sherman), State Representative Terry Canales (D-Edinburg) contacted the Department of Public Safety for assistance on the matter, while the State Senator from Corpus Christi, Chuy Hinojosa has called for a “criminal investigation.” However, the true nature of the problem is far beyond what was discovered in the Sacred Heart Cemetery. South Texas Human Rights Center, a non-profit organization attempts to address the issue of migrant deaths by installing “water stations” throughout the migrant trails. But the resources are limited. Federal and related agencies that are better equipped to focus on the problem of migrant deaths and these and other related problems can channel their work toward resolving the issues. The availability of resources is often hinged on how resources are allocated. Without a focus on saving lives or recovering hundreds of migrants who have lost their lives and whose scattered remains are undiscovered, the problem will prevail and worsen.

Perhaps, the dead have finally raised their long forgotten voices, and their memories are gradually becoming the stories that must be told and heard.

See related stories:

University Students Learn Lifelong Lessons

Webb County’s Medical Examiner Works to Identify Migrants Who Died in Brooks County

Author: Irma Guadarrama




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Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Uncategorized