San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Northern Central America Saw Violent Year

GRANADA, Nicaragua – NorthernCentral America suffered one of its bloodiestand most repressive years since variouspeace accords brought an end to thewars of past decades.Massive government crackdowns onyouth gangs in Guatemala, El Salvadorand Honduras this year marked whatappears to be the beginning of a new, troublesometrend of state repression againstmarginalized youth, and offered questionableresults in curbing violence and crime.IN Guatemala, President Oscar Berger,who earlier this year admitted he has beenunable to curb a wave of violence that thisyear has claimed the lives of 2,000Guatemalans – including hundreds ofwomen – deployed 4,000 soldiers and elitepolice commandos onto the streets of thecapital last July.Six months later, the massive counter-gangoperation appears unable to curb thebloodshed caused in large part by thecountry’s increasingly violent 14,000 gangmembers.Outside of the capital, in the ruralnorthern region of the country, the practicesof kangaroo courts and lynching –which captured international headlines inyears past – again reared their ugly headsat year’s end.IN neighboring El Salvador, hard-linePresident Tony Saca, who took office June1 after defeating his left-wing challenger inthe March elections, in Septemberlaunched operation “Super Heavy Hand,”which rounded up close to 800 gang membersin the first two weeks of alone.Salvadoran security forces havedetained more than 20,000 gang members– many repeat offenders – since implementingzero-tolerance policies in July2003. El Salvador has an estimated 36,000gang members belonging to only twogangs, the notorious Mara Salvatrucha andM-18, both of which were born on thestreets of Los Angeles, California, duringthe 1990s.By year’s end, Saca began to implementthe second, rehabilitation phase of“Heavy Hand,” after incarcerated M-18gang members took over two capital prisonsto demand rehabilitation.The Catholic Church is spearheadingthe rehab program, which aims to teachgang members farming skills.AUTHORITIES in Honduras are stillinvestigating allegations of social cleansing,following the murders of more than 50gang members in the capital ofTegucigalpa this year.Honduras passed anti-gang legislationsimilar to El Salvador’s in August 2003.Since then, Honduran authorities havedetained 1,500 gang members, sticking themin dangerously overcrowded jail cells.This issue came to light in May, whena mysterious prison fire in San Pedro Sula,Honduras’ economic capital in the north,claimed the lives of 107 gang members.Authorities are investigating allegationsthat the prison guards did not let theprisoners out of their cells after the firestarted, and shot at them when they tried toescape the flames and smoke.CENTRAL America also had a darkyear for its so-called war on corruption.Costa Rica saw two former Presidentsdetained on corruption charges, and a thirdwas asked to return to the country fromabroad to face corruption allegations (seeseparate article).Despite allegations of corruptionagainst outgoing Presidents AlfonsoPortillo – who skipped Guatemala and nowlives in obscurity in Mexico – and MireyaMoscoso, whose last act in office inPanama this year was to pardon threeaccused Cuban terrorists – allegedly at thebehest of the U.S. – neither formerPresident had charges filed against themby year’s end.Additional allegations of corruptionagainst recently departed SalvadoranPresident and OAS-chief hopefulFrancisco Flores had not materialized byyear’s end.And while the re-election of U.S.President George Bush renewed hopesthe Central American Free-TradeAgreement with the United States(CAFTA) will be ratified next year,Central America continued to drag itsfeet on preparatory steps such as theCentral America Customs Union, an ideathat has been staggering forward since1996 and has missed half-a-dozen deadlines,most recently this month.IRONICALLY, in spite of all CentralAmerica’s problems, corruption allegations,violence and murders, each countryon the isthmus set new records for tourismthis year.

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