The rocky road to Milagros Echevarria's flimsy wooden house is lined with plastic barrels. Several times a week, when a bright blue tank truck rumbles up the hill to fill the barrels, she and her neighbors must lug buckets of water up the steep slope to their homes.

Echevarria has worked since she was 13, mostly cleaning other people's homes. She finished high school and hoped to study accounting, but the birth of her daughter, Lucero, put her plans on hold. 

Now 25, she earns just more than $200 a month cleaning local government offices at night, returning in the morning to the dusty neighborhood on the edge of Lima, where no one has a water hookup and many lack electricity. Although Peru's economy has growth by more than 5 percent annually for most of the past decade, Echevarria feels the boom has passed her by.

While immigration, organized crime and protests against huge development projects grab headlines around Latin America as 2012 begins, little progress will be made unless underlying poverty and inequality are addressed, said Peruvian Archbishop Pedro Barreto Jimeno, who heads the social justice commission of Latin American bishops' council, or CELAM.

While poverty rates in Latin America have crept downward in recent years, countries that are rich in natural resources must ensure that the economic benefits of industries such as mining, oil and gas reach people like Echevarria, who still lack basic services, Archbishop Barreto told Catholic News Service.

"The church continues to criticize the dominant economic system," Archbishop Barreto said, noting that at the Fifth General Conference of the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean, held in Brazil in 2007, the region's prelates called for a new economic model based on the social doctrine of the church.

Such a model would include more dialogue among government leaders, industry executives and communities about large development projects such as mines, oil drilling, dams and highways that would displace local residents or have a significant impact on the environment, Archbishop Barreto said.

In recent months, protests have flared over the Belo Monte dam, which is already under construction on the Xingu River in northern Brazil; a gold mine in northern Peru; and the paving of a highway through a Bolivian national park that is also home to indigenous communities.

"There is a need for honest, transparent dialogue," Archbishop Barreto said. "In these social conflicts, there is a lack of credibility on both sides. The company does not trust the people and the people don't trust the company."

Those and similar battles are likely to continue during the year ahead. Brazil, where demand for electricity is expected to rise by more than 50 percent over the next decade, has expressed interest in financing and building hydroelectric dams in neighboring countries, including Peru and Ecuador.

The projects in Peru stalled after protests by from indigenous communities that would be flooded, and bishops in Peru and Brazil spoke out in defense of indigenous people's land rights.

In a region that has been strongly marked by civil wars and dictatorships in the past half-century, governments in some countries are still too weak to defuse tensions over such issues before they erupt into conflict.

Latin America and the U.S. are increasingly linked by shared problems --- from food shortages, which spur migration, to money laundering and trafficking in drugs, guns and people.

Weak governments also contribute to the problems of drug trafficking, violence and organized crime that have spread through Mexico, Central America and Colombia and are gaining a stronger foothold in South America.

Last year, Latin America registered the most murders of church workers, both religious and lay, with seven killed in Colombia, five in Mexico and one each in Nicaragua, Brazil and Paraguay.

Problems of "security, drug trafficking and violence are likely to continue, despite the best government efforts," said Richard Jones, Catholic Relief Services' deputy regional director for global solidarity and justice.

Countries such as El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have become transit routes for drug shipments to the United States. El Salvador had 4,300 murders in 2011, the highest number since the civil war ended in 1992, although the murder rate there was still lower than in neighboring Honduras.

In Mexico, where drug-related violence may have claimed as many as 40,000 lives in the past five years, the bishops wrote a pastoral letter and pledged action by the church, turning to their Colombian counterparts for advice.

Mexican bishops have been "very outspoken that they need to address violence in terms of the Gospel," Jones said.

Observers worry that drug money is increasingly influencing elections and governments throughout the region. 

"People talk about narco communities, especially in the Peten," a vast rural region of farms and forests in Guatemala, bordering Mexico, where drug lords install water and electricity service or pave roads, Jones said.

The security threat to rural residents from organized crime and violence is exacerbated by severe storms, which have hit Central America and Colombia especially hard in the past several years, destroying crops and displacing families. The disasters cut into food supplies, pushing prices up.

"There are serious food crisis issues on the horizon if governments don't do something," Jones said. "I don't see major changes if they don't create more jobs."

Latin America and the United States are increasingly linked by shared problems --- from food shortages, which spur migration, to money laundering and trafficking in drugs, guns and people. Archbishop Barreto called for stronger bonds between churches in the two regions.

"We have to get over the idea that anything that doesn't affect me personally isn't my problem," he said. "We have to work hard on global solidarity."

He added that church workers in both regions must encourage young people to become involved in social justice issues.

"The future of the world depends on the young people of today," he said. "If they do not learn to dialogue for justice and peace, the future will be much more uncertain."


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