Dispatches: U.S. Peace Corps Reassesses Central America Operations
“The worst thing about it is that now I am a liar,” said Kevin Wandolowski, reflecting on the consequences of his early close of service from the Peace Corps in Guatemala. “You spend two years with these people. They invite you to their house, give you food—which they cannot afford to—and genuinely love you. You told them someone [would come] to replace you when you leave, but now [no one will].”
We were chatting in his modest house in the country’s Western Highlands; Sololá, the nearest sizable town, was over two hours away and accessible only through multiple bus connections.
On December 21, 2011, the Peace Corps issued a press release stating that no new recruits would be arriving in Guatemala or El Salvador, and that its operations in Honduras were under review. Then, on January 16, 2012, the organization withdrew all 158 of its volunteers serving in Honduras. Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) serving in Guatemala and El Salvador who were near the end of their terms were given a mandatory close of service; others had the option of leaving or were relocated away from areas deemed dangerous.
The announcements came just weeks after PCV Lauren Robert, 27, was accidentally shot in the leg during a bus robbery in the crime-ridden city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. Carlos Torres, regional director for Inter-America and the Pacific, insisted during the all-volunteer safety and security conferences he led following the announcements that the decisions were not a knee-jerk response to the shooting of Robert, but instead a thought-out and deliberate action. However, Torres used her example repeatedly to illustrate his thought process to audiences of bewildered PCVs.
In recounting the incident, he spoke of how Robert had followed official procedures in the event of an armed bus robbery. But, should volunteers be serving in areas where they’re being trained on how to avoid bullets?
A Backdrop of Violence
A first-time visitor to Central America—and the Northern Triangle region of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras in particular—is struck by the visibility of violence. Privately contracted, uniformed security personnel stand watch outside of every bank, pharmacy and store. Handguns are prominently tucked into the waists of hustlers at the overland border crossings between the three countries. It’s hard to ignore the numbers: according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Central America recorded 16,284 homicides in 2010—about 41 times the number in Spain, which has roughly the same population size.1
On a day-to-day level, street robberies and petty theft are common. Still, PCVs are somewhat insulated from crime, thanks to security protections and their being stationed in small, rural villages where conditions are much safer than in urban locations. But they are not entirely shielded. Volunteers who travel to larger towns or cities on weekends often fall prey to petty theft—in part due to being less vigilant when with large American groups or under the influence of alcohol.
Nonetheless, robbery is one of the lesser—albeit more frequent—evils one might encounter in the region. Chad Ryerson served an extended term of 31 months as a municipal development volunteer in Olancho, a department of Honduras that, with its mustached, cowboy-hatted, machete-wielding braceros (manual or farm workers), resembles Texas 200 years ago. “I personally saw in excess of 30 dead bodies during my time in Honduras,” he recalled. “Some are particularly horrific, like seeing a burnt body, or a man mutilated or shot in the head. The worst was seeing a dead pregnant woman who had been led off the bus and shot in the middle of the road.” Though he was not directly threatened by the violence, he said, “It really affected me emotionally, especially the very first one.”
Some volunteers are themselves victims of physical or sexual violence. In Guatemala each year, 1 out of 10 PCVs will experience a crime more severe than pick-pocketing, according to Torres. “This means that over the course of 27 months [a full term of service], 22.5 percent of volunteers will be raped, assaulted or held at gunpoint.”
In spite of such horrific stories and statistics, incidences of violence are almost always linked to travel, time off and urban locations, including gang-controlled capital cities. In their rural locations, most volunteers, including Chad, speak of how safe they feel in their daily lives. For them, Peace Corps’ decision to withdraw came as an abrupt surprise.
Though Torres’ statistics and anecdotes had a strong impact on some volunteers, many were not satisfied with the answers. As volunteers were consolidated into “safe” areas and told to await further information, uncertainty abounded over projects they could take on and local relationships they had built. On the whole, the speed of the developments did not make sense to the volunteers; those stationed in Guatemala and El Salvador saw themselves as victims of overreaction to the Honduras bus incident.
Some see political motives behind the early closes of service and withdrawal. The scars are still fresh from an ABC 20/20 exposé on Kate Puzey, a 24-year-old volunteer murdered in Benin in 2009 after reporting misconduct. That investigation led U.S. President Barack Obama to sign into law the Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act in November 2011. And with continuous pressure from Congress—including a request by Representative Howard Berman (CA) to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. reconsider sending military and police aid to Honduras in response to reported human rights abuses—Torres claimed he could not ignore the higher-than-average statistics in the Northern Triangle.
Still, Kevin Casas-Zamora, who recently served as interim director of the Latin America initiative at the Brookings Institution, says the withdrawal is “probably not” part of the U.S. government’s overall approach to the region. For him, a more likely explanation is that “the situation in the Northern Triangle has become objectively dangerous, and the withdrawal is simply a reasonable response to security threats to the personnel.”
Others are more critical of that approach. Grahame Russel, deputy director of Rights Action, a Canada-based activist group focusing on Latin America, said the Peace Corps withdrawal “shows the hypocrisy of U.S. policies and actions. When violence gets out of control, the U.S. simply pulls out U.S. citizens.”
For their part, many volunteers disagree with the reasoning, pointing to their awareness and acceptance of the risks involved in PC service. “Part of me recognizes the dangers. I am putting my life at risk by serving in Guatemala in the border region,” notes volunteer Elizabeth Reed. “Yet part of me instantly feels indignant as this thought passes. I am a college graduate who willingly accepted these risks to serve my country [and] my fellow humans and to learn about the realities of the world I live in.”
While volunteers and administrators debate the moral and practical justifications for the decisions of the immediate past, the future of Peace Corps operations in the Northern Triangle remains unclear. Deputy Communications Director Kristina Edmunson said in an email for this article that “Peace Corps is conducting a full safety and security assessment, and the results of the assessment are not complete.” The office refused to comment further on what the new country policies might be at the end of that assessment.
Though equally in the dark, existing volunteers can point to a number of changes already under way in Guatemala and El Salvador and hypothesize about the future:
1. Transportation: A new Peace Corps van now operates a daily route to and from major locations to ensure volunteer safety. Transportation rules are under review, and it is possible that PCV travel on public transport will be banned.
2. Location: Offices based in El Salvador’s capital city, San Salvador, will likely close and be replaced by regional offices in safer locations.
3. Stricter vetting: Volunteers sent to more dangerous locations will undergo stricter filtering procedures to ensure the appropriate level of maturity and resilience required for such posts.
4. Local appropriateness: Currently, each country of operation is allocated a security officer and an assistant, regardless of the scope of local violence. Such one-size-fits-all policies will be replaced by country-specific solutions.
Effects and Ripples
The communities and organizations with which volunteers worked will feel the most immediate effects of their absence. Volunteers themselves will have to deal with the emotional rollercoaster of not being able to finish their service.
In the medium term, effects will ripple out to the aid and tourism industries, since the current Peace Corps decisions are reinforcing the negative security image from which the three countries already suffer. A case in point is the all-volunteer International Health Service of Minnesota. “Some people [who would have volunteered] for our medical brigade may have decided not to participate for that reason,” said Barbara Joe, a 74-year-old former health volunteer in Honduras who returns annually to work in outlying villages with the service.
Then there is the longer-term effect on the United States. Scores of people who started out in the Peace Corps in Latin America in the 1960s and 1970s now hold prominent roles in policy, administration, development, and even business, including former Senator Christopher Dodd (CT), former Ambassador to Honduras Frank Almaguer, Knight Foundation President Alberto Ibarguen, and Robert McCormack, the executive vice president of Citicorp.
Is Honduras likely to get back on the Peace Corps map? Will Guatemala and El Salvador once again enjoy large volunteer numbers? A policy reversal is not likely unless security in the region improves markedly, and this is a challenge that goes far beyond the Peace Corps mandate.
The country-specific policies currently being developed will help only marginally. Alone, they are not likely to have a huge impact on the overall safety and security of the volunteers. But should they have to?
“There is a public perception that Peace Corps should be able to control the security, but they really can’t,” Chad told me as we concluded our interview. Ultimately, improving security is a matter of domestic and—in the case of Central America, overrun by transnational criminal syndicates—international policy, far beyond the reach of Peace Corps offices and its volunteers.
1. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 2011 Global Study on Homicide: Trends, Contexts, Data (United Nations: Vienna, 2011).