IDelsalvador: Keeping the Peace Among the Gangs


A few years ago, I read about a girl that I knew from high school who went to meet some friends at a hotel room in our middle-class suburb of Washington, D.C. Hours later, she was dead and dumped in a forest two hours away, a victim of the most violent, intimidating gang around: MS-13.

Mara Salvatrucha-13, or MS-13 for short, is a gang built on violence and intimidation. Rooted in El Salvador, the gang has a significant presence in the United States as well, with Los Angeles in particular being a huge breeding ground. But MS-13 terrorizes its home country the most, with its ongoing territory battle with rival gang Barrio 18 being responsible for El Salvador’s status as having the second highest murder rate in the world.

One year ago today, MS-13 and Barrio 18 agreed to a truce. Surprisingly, the truce is still in place today, and the country’s murder rate has dropped an astounding 67 percent. From a high of between 13 and 14 murders a day, the country is now dealing with about 5—still a number not in line with peace and harmony, but certainly a vast improvement.

It is believed the truce was facilitated by a Catholic bishop—something to be expected in this predominantly Catholic country—and a former rebel commander of left-wing guerillas who battled El Salvador’s military during the country’s civil war some 30 years ago. The negotiations took place among rival gang leaders in some of the nation’s prisons, which are swollen in many cases to five times their capacity.

While El Salvador’s Minister for Justice and Security is credited with the arrangement (though he denies involvement), many people are skeptical, believing that the gangs have either been paid off by the government or strongly influenced by just as violent gangs from Mexico who depend on MS-13 and Barrio 18 for getting their drug supplies through Central America. But all parties involved insist neither is true, and that the gangs’ leaders have come to the realization that the body count has simply gotten out of hand.

What’s important for now though is that the murder rate is down, and if the trend continues, it could go a long way into helping El Salvador reach its potential as a growth economy and a desirable place to visit. And more importantly, a place where the country’s children can play outside without the sound of gunshots ringing.

(image credit: Associated Press/WJLA)

(image credit: Associated Press/WJLA)

(image credit: Associated Press/WJLA)

(image credit: Associated Press/WJLA)

(image credit: Associated Press/WJLA)

(image credit: Associated Press/WJLA)

IDcostarica: The Pura Vida Culture


CAM (Costa Rica) Pura Vida

There aren’t many countries in the world that you can define in one sentence or less. For Costa Rica, it takes just two words: Pura Vida.

Translated literally as “pure life” (well, if you overlook Spanish grammar), visitors here tend to think of the phrase as an embodiment of a laid back, surfer lifestyle. Forgive them for that, given that most visitors here only experience exactly that—a few days on the beaches, a few trips down a zip line, and a tropical hike or two.

For Costa Ricans, though, who actually live here and work here and do much more than surf and hike, the phrase signifies an overall feeling of health and happiness. Think “hakuna matata” from The Lion King, a Swahili phrase that says there’s nothing to worry about.

Said here, pura vida symbolizes tight-knit communal ties, a happiness-above-all spirit and an appreciation for blessings.

As for its origins, well, there is some debate. But prevailing wisdom says that a 1956 Mexican film called Pura Vida, directed by Gilberto Martínez Solares, started the trend. In the movie, “pura vida” is the expression of eternal optimism used by the main character, played by Antonio Espino, who seems to be a walking comedy of errors. While it was not a commonly used expression in Costa Rica then, within 10 years after the film’s release the phrase had become a national staple.

Today, “Pura Vida” can be seen on all kinds of businesses, advertisements, souvenirs and is even included in some Spanish dictionaries. And, of course, it is still widely used in conversation, with a  typical meeting of friends going something like this:

        Person A:  Todo bien? (“Everything okay?”)

        Person B:  Si, todo bien. Pura vida. (“Yes, everything’s good. Pura Vida.”)

        Person A:  Pura vida.

Now both parties are assured of each other’s well-being and commitment to the Costa Rican way of life, and can proceed to enjoy their beers.

        Both:  Salud. Pura Vida!

IDhonduras: Is There a Light at the End of this Tunnel?


When drug gangs have more firepower than police and aren’t afraid to use it, poverty is such that two-thirds of its citizens live on less than $1.25 a day, only a quarter of children complete middle school and even those individuals who aren’t gang-affiliated tend to rely on violent crime for survival rather than choosing another path, what is a country to do?

I wish I knew. So does Honduras.

In a country that even on its best days is seemingly half-controlled by gangs (they formally control the highways and airports in several Honduran states, and charge for ‘free’ public parking in cities), there doesn’t seem to be many answers. Politicians are mostly corrupt, and who can blame them? In their view, they face a choice in many cases to give into gang wishes and be compensated for it, or face assured assassination. So they do what most people would do and look out for number one.

The civilians who do not choose the gang life still have access to assault weapons, and who can blame them for resorting to use them? In their view, they are subject to the AK-47 backed will of the gangs anyway, so why not use the same tactics to get what they can?

It is now believed that drug trafficking accounts for 13 percent of Honduras’ gross domestic product, with three-quarters of U.S.-bound cocaine passing through the country.

The result of all of this, of course, is distinction as the most violent country in the world. Honduras suffers 91 homicides per 100,000 people, and last year, the U.S. Peace Corps even made the decision to leave after one of its members was shot while riding a bus.

As a result, a huge ordeal has been made of the United States Soccer team’s appearance here later today, in San Pedro Sula (currently the most violent city in the world with 159 murders per 100,000 people), to play Honduras in a 2014 World Cup qualifying match. While teams on the road typically have a chance to eat out and shop in their down time, the U.S. squad will have no such luxuries. Their extent of having visited San Pedro Sula will be what they can see from the window of their armored bus between the team’s hotel and the stadium, and the hysteria of the match itself, for which Honduras has declared a national holiday so citizens can watch.

It is depressing that it must come to such security measures though, and I’m hopeful that something in this country can change for the better. Many people compare it to Colombia of the 1980s, which was virtually controlled by drug cartels who provided better answers for peoples’ poverty than the government was able to. Colombia was able to dig itself out of that hole, and today is far from perfect, but light years ahead of where it was three decades ago.

There is hope for Honduras, but right now it is difficult to see it.

Every business in San Pedro Sula has armed guards watching

Every business in San Pedro Sula has armed guards watching


Armed guards have been added to city buses

IDnicaragua: The Great East-West Divide


Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America and one of the poorest in the entire world. But it is also one of the most culturally-rich, and subsequently, one of the happiest. With a population consisting primarily of mestizos, or mixed-race people, the fact that a surprising number of people here can communicate in broken English (despite Spanish being, obviously, the vastly dominant language) is a testament to their diverse heritage.

What is particularly interesting about Nicaragua’s cultural mix is the physical divide: the country is less than 500 kilometers across, and yet East and West are vastly different here. The West, which includes the capital Managua and a majority of the population, was originally colonized by Spain. As such, it has maintained a similar heritage to most other Latin American countries, deeply influenced by Iberian culture.

The East, however, has a vastly different history. Once a British protectorate, it is more culturally similar to the islands of the Caribbean, many of which were once or are still today British-ruled. English is still widely spoken amongst these people, although continued immigration by Spanish speakers has tipped the scales in favor of that language. Still, the large population of mixed African colonists from the Caribbean, as well as the indigenous Garifuna (similar to Belize to the north), Miskito, Rama and Sumo people, have ensured that while small, the people from the East have kept Nicaragua’s cultural heritage diverse.


IDbelize: Six Things That May Surprise You


Like everyone, I had my preconceptions about Belize before I arrived, for better or worse. After just a few days here, I discovered these six pleasant surprises:

  • The language:  Surprisingly, English is the official language of Belize. You are likely to hear Spanish, as well as local languages like Kreyol and Quechi, during your stay here, but you won’t need to know any of it to navigate your way around here.
  • The diversity:  While some parts of Central America can feel relatively ethnically homogenous in comparison to parts of the United States, the cultural mix prevalent in Belize is evident immediately upon walking the streets here. Between the Garifuna (the native descendants of the Mayans), the Creoles and the Chinese communities here, you’re in for a mix of diverse cultural experiences.
  • The friendliness:  Coming from the East Coast of the States, I’m always surprised when I experience a culture in which strangers greet each other. And that is definitely the common practice in Belize. You’re likely to hear several “good mornings”, “good afternoons” and “good evenings” during your time here, and you may even counter lots of locals eager to start up a good conversation with you.
  • The barrier reef:  If you’re a swimmer or a diver, you’re in luck. Belize may be a small country, but it boasts the second-longest barrier reef in the world, which itself is home to seven World Heritage Sites and countless stunning cays. Some of these are inhabited and some aren’t, but each have some of the most exotic species of birds you will ever see.
Belize's Long Caye (image credit:

Belize’s Long Caye (image credit:

  • Airport security (or lack thereof):  While Belize City’s International Airport is much like most international airports when it comes to security, it’s strictly-domestic Municipal Airport is a different story. With several flights to the cays that are not easily accessible by boat, there is no security here, and while on board you can literally tap the pilot on the shoulder (I’m not saying I recommend it). When you land, it looks as though you are landing in someone’s backyard and walking through a house more than it resembles an airport.
Caye Caulker Airport or someone's backyard?

Caye Caulker Airport or someone’s backyard?

  • Ease of transportation:  Contrary to much of Central America, you won’t find military checkpoints looking to extort you on the highways here. There aren’t too many of them, but all of them are safe, in surprisingly good condition, toll-free, and have enough quality signs to make sure you won’t get lost.

Nochebuena: The World’s Most Festive Holiday Celebration


Very few places in the world celebrate Christmas the way Central Americans do. No matter what country you’re in here, chances are you will experience the most festive environment you’ve ever been a part of for a holiday (perhaps only the Philippines can compete for the honor of most extravagant Christmas celebrations).

The celebration here begins a full nine days before Christmas, with Las Posadas celebrating the symbolism of Mary’s pregnancy, the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and the search for lodging on the night Jesus was born. Religious processions are often seen marching through the streets—particularly in Guatemala—with figures of Mary and Joseph carried to the houses of friends and loved ones.

This nine-day celebration culminates in Nochebuena, or Christmas Eve, when just about everyone in Central America begins to gather with friends and family for huge feasts— featuring tamales (similar to empanadas), lechon (roast pig), gallina rellena (stuffed chicken) and hot chocolate—and dance celebrations that include lots of Christmas carols. Many of them attend the Misa del Gallo (“Rooster Mass”), which begins at midnight. Those who don’t attend the midnight mass typically gather around their home Nativity scenes to pray, sing and often exchange gifts. Many also use this opportunity to complete their Nativity display with the baby Jesus figure—conspicuously absent from the display for the weeks leading up to Nochebuena. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, it is common for people to shoot fireworks and estrellitas (little stars) to illuminate their lands and beaches and celebrate the significance of the day.

It must be experienced to be appreciated, so if you want to be amongst Central American people in their most festive state, plan a Christmas season here sometime. Many of these same traditions are prevalent in other Latin American countries outside of Central America, but nowhere quite to the extent of here.