13-Year-Olds Are Arrested Over Hong Kong Protests
The islanders were told their move was necessary to help achieve China’s plan for turning a downtrodden patch of Central America into a global trade hub and manufacturing powerhouse.
But they steadfastly refused, doubting that they would benefit from any bonanza the Chinese could bring.
“Where would we go?” said Mercedes Hernández, cradling a 1-year-old baby. “We have a life here.”
Over the months that followed, the island’s roughly 35 families would become unlikely participants in a struggle between Beijing and Washington, which wants to stop the Chinese from gaining a strategic foothold in a tiny impoverished nation that sits on its doorstep.
American officials in El Salvador went on the offensive to thwart China’s foray, painting Beijing as an untrustworthy partner with hidden motives.
For most of the past decade, the United States watched with unease as much of Latin America was pulled into China’s orbit through a growing network of trade and loans — which Washington did little to confront.
As China presented itself as a partner with a vision for El Salvador’s future, President Trump may have played into China’s hands, his critics say. The Trump administration initially countered China with little beyond threats to the Central American nation and its neighbors for not doing enough to curb migration, one of the president’s signature issues.
But then the United States took another tack: trying to turn public opinion in El Salvador against the Chinese.
American officials criticized China’s legacy in the developing world in several interviews, meetings with opinion makers and posts on social media. At one point, the American ambassador went as far as suggesting China could be seeking to establish a military post in the country.
“China’s agreements with El Salvador have been negotiated by a small group of individuals, behind closed doors and without the involvement of the public or representatives from the key sectors affected by those agreements,” said Jean Manes, the recently departed American ambassador in El Salvador, who was given rare leeway to publicly criticize China’s plans.
China, she said, “advances its own agenda with little regard for the long-term economic prospects for or environmental impact on developing countries.”
The American warnings, and the resistance of Isla Perico’s families, helped thwart China’s plans — at least for the time being. Measures that would have allowed China to proceed stalled in El Salvador’s legislature.
Ou Jianhong, China’s ambassador in El Salvador, declined several interview requests and the embassy did not respond to emailed questions. In an interview with Xinhua, China’s state news agency, Ms. Ou called Washington’s warnings “irresponsible and unfounded.”
The offer to create a special zone in El Salvador, by a Chinese state-owned company called Asia-Pacific Xuanhao, was summarized in a document called “Shared Opportunities, Shared Future.” A copy was reviewed by The New York Times.
The deal would allow China to advance its quest to establish an alternative trade route to the Panama Canal, and enhance its ability to shape commerce in the region.
The special zone also would give China a valuable perch to expand its military and intelligence capabilities in Washington’s vicinity, according to American officials who have watched warily as Beijing has invested in at least 60 Latin American port projects.
For El Salvador, the deal came with significant trade-offs, and left several unanswered questions.
The Chinese requested a 100-year lease of a 1,076-square-mile area — 13 percent of the country’s landmass — and demanded tax exemptions for their companies that would last three decades. Details about the financing structure were not publicly disclosed, causing concern among some Salvadorans that their country risked becoming financially beholden to Beijing for generations.
But by the time the United States began its campaign against the Chinese in El Salvador last summer, the Americans had a lot of catching up to do.
To some Trump administration critics, it was a self-inflicted wound.
While the Chinese were offering to build manufacturing plants, invest in renewable energy and make El Salvador a tourist destination, President Trump was calling migrants “animals,” and separating children from parents at the border.
“That attitude opens up space for China,” said Roberto Rubio, director of the National Foundation for Development, a research group in San Salvador, the capital. “If the United States threatens to cut our aid, treats our people poorly and brings little investment, why not go with the Chinese?”
While the Trump administration has suspended aid programs to El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, Ms. Ou, the ambassador, noted that China had signed 13 cooperation agreements on infrastructure, investment, science, technology, education, culture and tourism.
“The cooperation with China will not in any way turn into a debt trap, but a cake for the benefit of its two peoples,” she said in the Xinhua interview.
In early July 2018, El Salvador’s president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, gave the legislature a bill that would establish the legal framework for a special economic zone encompassing 26 municipalities along the southeastern coast.
It soon became clear the bill had been custom-made for the plan the Chinese had been quietly promoting for months. Among other conditions, it required El Salvador to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the island off the Chinese mainland where China’s former government fled in 1949 when the Chinese Communists took power.
When Mr. Sánchez Cerén announced last August, during a televised address, that his country was breaking ties with Taiwan and establishing diplomatic relations with China, he envisioned an era that would bring “great benefits to the country and provide extraordinary opportunities.”
Chinese banks are now the dominant lenders in Latin America, having provided more than $140 billion between 2005 and 2018.
Trade between China and countries in Latin America and the Caribbean soared from $17 billion in 2002 to nearly $306 billion in 2018.
The Obama administration did little to publicly challenge China’s deepening engagement in Latin America after the Chinese in 2009 signaled their intention to expand investment and trade in a region rich in commodities and in dire need of infrastructure upgrades.
Soon after President Trump’s election in November 2016, the Chinese issued an updated policy vision for the region that was notably bolder.
The update conveyed China’s desire to build military alliances with Latin American nations and signaled its aspirations to become a guiding force on global challenges like climate change, sustainable development and cybersecurity.
As the deal was debated by Salvadoran lawmakers over the past year, the Chinese sought to win them over, inviting lawmakers and journalists on paid trips to Beijing.
They also began disbursing a $150 million assistance package.
The first gestures included buying 10 trucks for the water agency of San Salvador and donating 15,000 laptops to public schools.
Ana Guadalupe, a 56-year-old resident of the Santa Fe district in San Salvador, said water service had been sporadic and unreliable before the new trucks began deliveries Tuesdays and Saturdays.
“There were many places where there was no water,” she said on a recent afternoon as workers from the water agency used a large hose on a truck emblazoned with the Chinese flag to deliver water. “Without water we can’t live.”
Across town, Sara Cruz, a computer teacher at Francisco Morazan school, called the new Lenovo laptops her students had received transformational.
“In the past, things that were Chinese were looked down on, as being of bad quality,” she said. But the sleek laptops shared by the school’s 400 students have changed her mind. “Before we had to teach them theory instead of practice,” she said.
Those gestures were not enough to overcome El Salvador’s doubts about the conditions of the deal, stoked by American criticism that the port project had been negotiated secretly. Even as China funded flashy projects that generated good will, efforts to get the special economic zone bill through Congress faltered as lawmakers expressed caution in the lead-up to the presidential election in February. Lacking support, the outgoing government never brought the bill to a vote.
Salvadoran lawmakers passed a measure last August forbidding the sale of islands to foreigners, acting in response to news that Chinese entrepreneurs were trying to acquire Isla Perico and a nearby island.
Yang Bo, a Chinese businessman who has lived in El Salvador for several years, was questioned by prosecutors about his role as the middleman in the attempted purchase of the islands.
As questions about the Chinese venture mounted, the residents of Isla Perico, who make a modest living fishing and growing watermelons, received visits from prosecutors, the governor’s office and the American Embassy.
The string of powerful visitors to their cluster of shacks strengthened the residents’ resolve to stay put.
Antonio Ferman, the mayor of San Alejo, a small town near Isla Perico, said a venture of the scale proposed by the Chinese may well create some desperately needed jobs in the area, which is hollowing out as people facing unemployment and gang violence seek to migrate to the United States. But Mr. Ferman said he doubted any benefit would be worth the impact of such a project on the artisanal fishing industry, which many families rely on, and on the region’s access to clean water.
A San Alejo resident, Esleta de Jesus Sariles, 40, said few in the region were putting much faith in the prospect of Chinese jobs, which in the best of cases could take years to create.
Like many of her neighbors who live along a winding unpaved road with a growing number of abandoned houses, she decided to head north to the United States, having raised the $7,000 smugglers requested to take her and her diabetic teenage daughter to the border.
“Nearly the whole country has emptied out,” she said. “And nearly everyone has made it through.”
Shortly before taking office on June 1, the new president, Nayib Bukele, signaled he had little appetite for grand Chinese ventures despite his promises to create jobs and attract investment.
The Chinese, he said, “go in, do projects that are not feasible, then they leave the countries with huge loans they cannot repay and use that as leverage.”
Weeks after taking power, however, he struck a different note and ruled out the possibility of switching El Salvador’s allegiance back to Taiwan. “We need to recognize China’s status in the world,” he said.
And in the long run, some American officials fear that China’s willingness to build roads, railroads and ports in the region will be impossible for El Salvador and some of its neighbors to resist.
Norma Torres, a Guatemalan-born representative from California who has become a leading voice on Central America policy on Capitol Hill, said the Trump administration’s focus on keeping migrants out will benefit China.
“They are not looking at short-term, immediate results as we do here in the United States,” Ms. Torres said. “The Chinese have focused on, ‘Where are we going to be in the next 20 years?’”
While the port deal was sidetracked, at least for the time being, it is clear the Chinese are positioning to become El Salvador’s ally of choice.
“Under the careful care of each side, the China-El Salvador relationship will, without doubt, transform from a shrub into a verdant tree,” Ms. Ou, China’s ambassador, wrote in a recent opinion piece published in a local newspaper. “The bilateral cooperation will be as fragrant and delicious as Salvadoran coffee and as sweet and tasty as the sugar of this beautiful nation!”
TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Ruth Pineda stood with her back to the mirror, the strap of her tank top tucked under her arm, revealing a new tattoo: a heart. Inside were three dolphins jumping over the sea at sunset.
“The big dolphin is me — the mom — and the two little ones are my sons,” she said.
With her tattoo complete after a three-hour session, Ms. Pineda studied the artwork etched into her skin with equal parts admiration and disbelief. The tattoo is her first, and a statement the 43-year-old schoolteacher has wanted to make for nearly 20 years, but never quite felt she could.
For decades, tattoos weren’t just unfashionable in religiously conservative Honduras. They were taboo, with a malevolent history as an identifying feature of deadly gangs like Mara Salvatrucha, better known as MS-13, and the 18th Street gang, or Barrio 18.
Those gangs are two of the primary sources of the pervasive violence in the country that has sent so many migrants fleeing north.
Various tattooed signs and symbols indicated a gang member’s rank within his organization or what crimes he had committed. Other gang-related tattoos included images of the Virgin of Guadalupe; spider webs; three dots; barbed wire; and yin-yang symbols.
In the early 2000s, amid rising lawlessness across the country, the government of then-president Ricardo Maduro passed legislation that came down hard on criminal activity, banning any “illicit association” to gangs. Tattoos became a major police target, interpreted as proof that someone belonged to the likes of MS-13 or 18th Street.
To evade official scrutiny and incarceration, members stopped getting tattoos. Any they did get were inked in inconspicuous places.
But in recent years, tattoos have become more commonplace, slowly migrating from the underbelly of society to the bellies of ordinary citizens (and their arms, legs and backs), aided by their ubiquitous exposure in global pop culture.
“Things are changing now,” said Ms. Pineda, the schoolteacher. “More and more people are getting tattoos.”
In the capital, Tegucigalpa, it is easy these days to spot people with benign body art, depicting characters from their favorite books, quotes in elaborate cursive or animals crawling slyly across their flesh.
“People started seeing tattoos as a fashion trend to follow,” said Mei Lan Quan, one of the first female tattoo artists in Tegucigalpa.
Public figures, like soccer players and singers, started appearing on TV and in magazines with visible tattoos, and foreign visitors brought the tattoo culture with them. The reality television show, “Miami Ink,” popular here, made a big impression.
“It opened up a lot of minds here,” Ms. Quan said, referring to the show.
By claiming tattoos for themselves, everyday citizens are helping to normalize this form of creative expression. And their appeal is growing, tattoo artists say.
When Ms. Quan, who is known by her artist name, Elephanta Tattoo, opened her first shop in 2011, she had only five or six customers per week. Now, she tattoos six or seven people on a busy Saturday.
Her male clients tend to get illustrations of wolves, tigers and eagles. Women prefer infinity symbols, arrows, flowers, quotes or dates.
Most first-timers used to start off small, said Juan Carlos Pulido, a tattoo artist known as Fonty. But recently he has noticed that people are bolder at the outset, requesting large tattoos in more visible locations — forearms, calves and hands.
“People are getting bigger pieces than they did in the past,” he said.
Mr. Pulido, a 38-year-old from Nicaragua, has been living in Honduras for two-and-a-half years. He has tattoos covering most of his arms. When he first arrived, he said he almost never left them exposed. He lived in a gang-controlled area and was aware he could be linked to criminal activity.
Now, he feels more confident walking around with his arms uncovered.
“People are starting to see the difference of the artistic tattoos and the gang-related tattoos,” Mr. Pulido said.
For some, tattoos are a connection to a family separated by migration.
Jesus Martinez, a 27-year-old cook working in a small pizzeria in the capital, has an illustration of his mother’s headshot from her days as a model tattooed on the inside of his right forearm, stretching from his wrist to his elbow.
“It’s a way of introducing my mom to people,” Mr. Martinez said. She left for the United States when he was 2, and he didn’t see her again until he was 12. Now, they message by text every day. She still lives in the United States, and called for a video chat when he was getting his tattoo.
People do stare at him, Mr. Martinez conceded, because the stigma of tattoos hasn’t entirely gone away. But that doesn’t stop him from wearing a shortsleeve shirt.
His co-worker, Allison Lagos, 21, said she no longer harbored a prejudice against tattooed people as dangerous.
“Before working here, I was a little afraid of people with tattoos,” she said.
Despite these changing views, flaunting tattoos can still be a problem in the eyes of law enforcement and private security in stores.
Mr. Pulido said he has been stopped by the police and questioned about his tattoos. Ms. Quan added that she knew many people who had experienced similar run-ins.
“Society still has a long way to go,” Ms. Quan said.
In 2016, a famous Honduran musician, Ramsés Barrientos, made local headlines when he described the “harassment and discrimination” he had faced while shopping in a supermarket, where he was followed around by security.
“We still live in a country where tattooed people are frowned upon and judged,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
In addition to the remaining social disapproval, some Christians, especially members of older generations, view tattoos as a sin.
“In the eyes of God, it’s not proper to get a tattoo,” said Glenda Suazo, 49, an evangelical Christian who works in the Ministry of Health.
And yet even she isn’t immune to the allure of tattoos.
“Right now I have been having an internal struggle,” Ms. Suazo admitted. She pulled out her phone and pulled up photos of her dog, Puky, a cocker spaniel who died last August at age 15. She started to cry.
“I had Puky since she was 45 days old,” she said. “I’ve thought that I’d like to get a tattoo of her paw print.”
HONG KONG — The Hong Kong police arrested two 13-year-olds on the fringes of antigovernment demonstrations over the weekend, including a girl accused of burning a Chinese national flag, the authorities said on Sunday.
The arrests on Saturday appear to be further signals that the local police are taking an increasingly hard line against the pro-democracy demonstrators who have roiled the city for three and a half months.
Protesters have taken to destroying symbols of Chinese state authority, including flags, in recent months, but the latest arrest comes less than two weeks before Oct. 1, the foremost political holiday in the Chinese calendar and one which Beijing takes pains to ensure is celebrated without incident.
The arrests came amid a weekend of protests. On Sunday, demonstrators vandalized a shopping mall in northern Hong Kong. Some protesters there also stomped on and spray painted a Chinese flag. The police said protesters also damaged a nearby subway station, but planned transportation disruptions to and from the Hong Kong airport never materialized.
The two minors were arrested on Saturday during a long day of street clashes in which protesters threw bricks and firebombs and the police fired multiple rounds of tear gas in Yuen Long, a satellite town near Hong Kong’s border with the Chinese mainland.
The police said protesters had at one point on Saturday used “hard objects” to attack an officer who was conducting an arrest and attempted to steal his revolver. Television footage from Yuen Long also showed protesters assaulting at least two unarmed men.
A group of masked protesters was seen burning a Chinese flag in broad daylight on Saturday during a police-approved march through the Tuen Mun district of northwestern Hong Kong, a few miles from Yuen Long. The police later said that a 13-year-old girl had been arrested that night on suspicion of “desecrating the national flag” in Tuen Mun.
She was held in detention overnight and released on bail by Sunday afternoon.
On Sunday, local television news stations broadcast protesters stomping on a Chinese flag and spraying it with black paint before dumping it in a river during a pro-democracy rally at a shopping mall in northern Hong Kong.
A local ordinance says that people convicted of desecrating the Chinese flag in Hong Kong by “publicly and willfully burning, mutilating, scrawling on, defiling or trampling on it” face a fine of nearly $6,400 and imprisonment for up to three years.
Under Hong Kong law, children are defined as being under 14 years of age. Those 10 or older can be found guilty of committing crimes, but no one younger than 14 can be sentenced to prison.
The Oct. 1 holiday will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China under the Communist Party. Beijing does not want anything to mar the occasion, but the protesters plan to do just that. They have called for a day of protests to pressure the local government to meet their demands for political reforms, police accountability and universal suffrage.
The protesters are also venting anger with what they see as the steady erosion of the freedoms that Hong Kongers enjoy under a “one country, two systems” arrangement that has governed the former British colony since its return to Chinese control in 1997.
The police said on Sunday that they had also arrested a 13-year-old boy on Saturday in the Tseung Kwan O neighborhood of eastern Hong Kong. The boy was arrested on suspicion of unlawful assembly and of possessing “instruments fit for unlawful purposes.”
In a statement, the police said the boy had been carrying spray-paint and “laser guns,” the authorities’ term for the laser pens that many protesters have used this summer to annoy officers.
Edith Leung, an officer in one of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy political parties, posted a video on Facebook that she said showed the boy being led away by police. The footage shows police leading away a boy — who wears a white T-shirt black shorts and sneakers — as bystanders shout “Corrupt cops!”
Ryan Ho, 20, a university student who attended a protest in Hong Kong on Sunday, said that in his experience, Hong Kong police officers tend to "snatch” a disproportionate number of younger people, especially secondary school students, while making arrests at protests.
“It just so happens that they are more vulnerable and less resistant,” he said.