Sunday, May 22, 2016

4 Years Later... the case of Maria Teresa

On Friday morning I sat in one of the salas in the Corte Suprema de Justicia in San Salvador as an international observer. The case was one of the famous "17" - 17 Salvadoran women incarcerated for aggravated homicide, specifically for intentionally killing a minor under the age of 13. In this particular sala, the accused, Maria Teresa Rivera, had already been incarcerated for 4.5 years since her original sentencing in 2011. She was accused of intentionally murdering an infant boy, her son, though she asserts he died due to a natural miscarriage exacerbated by serious health concerns untreatable with the meager salary she earned in a sweatshop. At the time of the miscarriage, bleeding profusely, Maria Teresa called the police to get an ambulance to bring her to the hospital. They handcuffed her instead. Later she would be sentenced to 40 years in prison for intentionally killing her son, the longest sentence handed out to any of the "17".

Amidst the overwhelming hopelessness that is the global media today, I need to share Maria Teresa's story. Because something happened in that court room on Friday. In the exchanges between the prosecution and defense, there was the classic, infuriating banter between two sides - empirical observation and impassioned ideology. And boy was that ideology persuasive. The smallest insinuations - mapping out the size of the child when he was born, describing the cruelty of abandoning the child's body - it was difficult to remember as the lawyer's words flew by what was speculation and what was fact.

Photographers swarm Maria Teresa when she first enters the court room (with some familiar gringa chelitas looking on in the background).
And the defense - a dry, almost grocery-list-like examination of the autopsy, the tests, the definitions of hypo-patho-anatomical-blahblahblah. Please define such-and-such a test; please explain why you only did two of the required four iterations... And then WHAM! All that groundwork, all that review, formed a base from which to extract the truth. "And so based on these conclusions would you say that the prenatal asphyixiation could have been due to natural causes?" The room went silent (it was that "perm moment" in Legally Blonde for you Elle Woods fans out there). "Yes, I would say that it could." Amongst the peanut gallery, we exchanged gleeful looks and fist bumps.

In his closing statements, the defense lawyer said, "We cannot base our democracy on ideology, on biases, on suppositions and speculations... in the Bible, God promises us salvation. If we were to read that empirically, civicly, even constitutionally, we would say that true justice affirms the dignity of every human being. Of every. human. being. Anything less is an affront to our country and to her citizens. Four years ago, a judge made a grave error... let there be justice today."

Today at 2:30pm (El Salvador time), after four and a half years in prison, Maria Teresa walked free, absolved of all criminal charges on the grounds that the child died of prenatal asphyxiation, with no conclusive proof of intent to kill. Photographers wiped away tears as they snapped a shot of Maria sobbing into her lawyer's arms. She hugged her 10-year old son whom she hasn't seen in over three years, and she went home.

Maria Teresa hugs her lawyer following the judge's final decision to repeal her 40-year prison sentence and absolve her of all convictions.
To take the time to deliberately arrive at a deduction, not an assumption, seems rare in today's world. In that court room, something critically important and yet so often forgotten was affirmed: the conclusion that we cannot invent criminals to bear the cost of our own hatred. That true justice is the affirmation of human dignity, often in spite of our own biases. That by taking this rule and applying to just one relationship, to just one person, can make an enormous different.

In bittersweet moments like these - honoring both the court's victory and the loss of life in Maria Teresa's wrongful incarceration - MLK's voice seems to shine through: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." Watching the defending lawyer collapse into his chair after the decision was announced, it was clear that every victory is often earned through great sacrifice. But there is hope. There is this idea, this often violated but almost universally accepted vision of justice. And it is something that we each have the power to practice in our own lives. One relationship, one action at a time.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

900 Homicides: What It Means and What To Do

(Note: this is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for Cristosal's August newsletter)

"For those living outside El Salvador, Romero's call is the same today as it was thirty five years ago: to stand in solidarity with El Salvador."

In August, El Salvador has seen over 900 homicides - an average of 29 per day; an astounding number for a country of only 6.3 million people. This year has seen a rapid rise not only in social violence, but especially more frequent confrontations between police or military and gangs. Some accuse gangs of using homicides to pressure the government into negotiations, while others point to the government's sanctioning of "cleansing" squads and increasingly repressive military tactics to arrest and kill suspected gang members without trial.

Along with this tragic loss of life, the violence is tearing apart the fabric of Salvadoran communities, reflected in internal and external forced displacement rates. In 2014, 288,900 people were internally displaced by violence - forced to flee their homes due to threats of extortion, kidnapping, rape, gang recruitment, and death. The number of both internally and externally displaced people is expected to increase in 2015 due to increased gang violence, combined with active persecution of especially young males by police and military, an action backed by a recent Supreme Court decision categorizing all gang members as "terrorists." 

In a 1977 homilyArchbishop Romero prophesied"The names of those... who suffer the effects of violence will change, but there will always be violence as long as we do not change the roots that cause this violence.”

These roots are far-reaching and deep, an inheritance of decades of protracted violence, inequality, and social exclusion. But they also are not inevitable. Cristosal and its staff firmly believe that through the creation of preferential options for the poor and the victimized, options that build capacities for individuals' protection, for individuals to rebuild their own communities and to recognize the inherent rights and dignity in themselves as well as in the other, a new future is possible. 

It is only through concerted and innovative collaborations that this future will be possible. Cristosal's in-country and regional partners, including the Anglican Churches of the Central American Region and the Council of Human Rights Ombudsman, have recognized the phenomenon of forced displacement as a regional priority, including the protection needs of victims. Our partners in the United States and Canada continue to advocate for the recognition of Northern Triangle migrants fleeing violence as refugees. And nationally, Cristosal's Human Rights and Community Development Programs work tirelessly to build safer, stronger communities, advocating for legislative reforms to guarantee victims' protection, while building citizen capacities to organize and design their own communities' development.

The Salvadoran Blog Super Martyrio recently adopted Romero's homily in a call to today's members of the Church, gang members, youth and decision-makers, and the international community. For those living outside El Salvador, the call is the same today as it was thirty five years ago: to stand in solidarity with El Salvador. To encourage and support those sectors of Salvadoran society to seek the common good of the people, to demand that your governments support policies that address the roots of the violence, and that respect the fundamental rights of the victims. To continue to "come and witness", to travel to El Salvador (through experienced and secure exchange programs like Cristosal's Global School). In these moments of extraordinary crisis, we must resist the temptation to turn away, to be intimidated into inaction. It is in precisely these moments that solidarity, participation, and partnership are an absolutely necessity.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Who's Ignored and Why: The Consequences of Media Bias

Over the past several months, Latin America has emerged as the deadliest region in the world, with the highest per capita murder rates reported in Honduras, El Salvador and Venezuela. The region as a whole accounts for 8% of the world's population, yet 33% of the world's homicides. The victims of this conflict are often forced to flee. For those who go to the United States, they first encounter a 56% increased chance of being deported from Mexico thanks to Obama's new "Southern Border Plan," and the new lucrative business of extortion and kidnapping of undocumented migrants in the United States.

Despite the clear links and inherent responsibility of knowing how our tax money guarantees or violates the basic rights of our southern neighbors, there is a significant, and I would argue irresponsible, lack of critical media coverage on Latin America issues in major English-speaking media outlets. Violence in Central America has serious implications for its neighbor to the north, including a massive influx of individuals and families seeking international protection, and the correlate glut of border security spending aimed at keeping these people out. Migrants from the Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras) make up the fast growing immigrant group in the United States. As we head into a presidential election year, it is more important than ever that the American populace has access to up-to-date, nuanced, and critical information on the crisis in Central America.

Turns out this anti-Latin bias is, ironically, well documented. In 2013, the Atlantic covered a study released by the Global Database of Events, Language and Tone (GDELT) with three-decades of data on global media coverage. They found North America and Asia dominate both sides of the equation, while Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa are the most media-neglected regions in the world (the database is weighted heavily towards articles from the past decade from Western news sources).

The image below, created by Benjamin Hennig at Oxford, literally paints the same picture, mapping the size of each country according to how often its events were covered in the Guardian online news in 2012 (excluding the United Kingdom).

(I'd like to think the map's author didn't intentionally make the U.S. the same blue as Veruca Salt after she morphed into an engorged blueberry in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory... but you never can tell with British humour).

This gross distortion in media coverage favoring the Global North can be partially attributed to the concentration of geopolitical power and readership, as well as national factors including the growth of local media markets, free speech protections and access to the Internet. The authors concluded, however, that even when correcting for these factors there is still a significant media bias excluding the Global South from the global spotlight.

But like any good theory, there are exceptions. According to a University of Minnesota study the media hasn't always given Latin America the cold shoulder. From 1981 to 2000 Newsweek, the Economist, and the New York Times gave human rights abuses in Latin America a whopping 42-82% more media attention than similar abuses elsewhere in the world. "When we control for other factors... including government repression, population size, per capita income, and more, Latin American abuses emerged as clear 'winners' in the unspoken struggle for international attention."

The reason behind it?  “Human rights abuses are more frequently covered when their continuation appears to depend at least in part on US foreign policy,’’ one journalist explained to the study's authors. In the 1980s, “the wars in Central America created a direct link between human rights in the region and US policy.’’ The correlation between content and coverage therefore seems to lie directly with our perception of our own complicity in world events. In the case of Latin America, proximity is not enough. We need a clear, direct link between action and reaction, policy and consequence. Without these direct links, implications or interpretations quickly become sidelined as pure political spin.

Since the 80's however, the United States has elected for more subtle weapons to safeguard its global economic and political power (as part of a global trend since World War II documented notably by Steven Pinker, author of Better Angels of Our Nature). Bush's military intervention in Iraq was, by and large, an anomaly in a global trend towards the decline or nationalization of state-inflicted violence (e.g. governments may kill their own people, but rarely will they cross international borders to go after another). At the same time, globalization and trade have created deeply complex relations among nations, making outright conflict or war far less profitable than it used to be.

U.S. involvement in El Salvador continues as strong as ever - from aid packages and economic incentives to stronger border security and increased deportations and interdictions in Mexico of migrants fleeing violence. But with no direct military or political link, coupled with decreased spending by most major media outlets on news infrastructure and reporters in Central America, the result is a woeful lack of English news on Latin American issues. 

When international relations become murkier - and our international global engagement cloudier - I believe it falls to journalists and international media to connect the dots and fill in the blanks. In the case of immigration - a topic that British news media finds has become increasingly skewed towards negative, almost hateful portrayal of migrants - journalists should challenge, not reinforce, our own biases. 

As the conflict in Latin America escalates, lending itself to splashier headlines, some outlets have caught on. A recent TIME article goes so far to call the conflict a 'war' with migrants fleeing north in search of a safe haven. But we need the media to go further - to take up their mantle not as reporters but as whistle blowers - to name the elefantes in the room. News and media should inform, not bolster our own ideologies. And we as media consumers can favor these actions - we can tweet, share, comment, and request those stories that challenge our preconceived notions, that give nuance to a critical debate, and bring to the light those issues that fill in the gray area between polarized politics and show us the human side to every story.

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