Thursday, January 19, 2017

Confidence in institutions

Every year end the University of Central America Institute for Public Opinion polls Salvadorans on a variety of topics.   One of the questions asked each year is which institutions Salvadorans have  "much confidence" in.    Taking the results from the most recent poll at year end 2016 and the results from 10 years earlier, I have displayed the changes over a decade below.

In 2016, the most trusted institutions are now the evangelical churches, trusted by 33.4%, a number largely unchanged since 2006.    The least trusted, with only 3.5% of Salvadorans expressing much confidence, are the political parties, followed closely by the National Assembly (5%) and Businesses (5.9%).

Interestingly, the entities which had the largest increases in confidence from 2006-16 were those involved in security:  the National Civilian Police (18.4 to 25.8%), the Armed Forces (23.8 to 29.3%), and the Attorney General (7.3 to 12.9%).

Dropping the most in confidence was the Catholic Church.    While the Church was the most respected institution in 2006 with 42.6% of those polled expressing much confidence, in the 2016 poll that percentage had dropped ten points to 32.7%.  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Military must respond in case of recent forced disappearances of youth

On the day the country was celebrating the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Peace Accords, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court issued an important decision, ruling against the country's armed forces in a recent case of forced disappearances.  

The events in the case took place in February 2014 and arose from the military's role in patrolling El Salvador in support of the police in battling the country's gangs.  A group of youth were talking in front of their houses in the municipality of Armenia. Six or seven soldiers on patrol approached the group and at gunpoint forced five of the boys to accompany the soldiers.  They were taken from a zone controlled by the Barrio 18 gang to a zone controlled by MS-13.   Two of the youth were released, and they went off to wait for their three remaining friends.  Their friends never appeared, and to this date have never been seen again.

Parents of the youth, including one father who was a member of the police, immediately began questioning the military, petitioning the police, prosecutors and the PDDH, asking what had happened to the boys.    All their inquiries were met with a stone wall.

Given no other option, the parents turned to the Constitutional Chamber.  The legal proceeding was for a determination of habeas corpus, which essentially means to produce the body.   It is a legal process within the Constitutional Chamber requiring authorities to respond to claims that a person has been illegally deprived of his or her right to liberty.

The Constitutional Chamber wrote in its decision extensively about the evils of forced disappearances and that such actions by security forces represented violations of internationally recognized human rights.   The Chamber clearly did not believe the military authorities when they asserted that they had no information about the case beyond the fact that the youth had been asked to produce their identity cards.  

As a result of the Court’s decision, the Ministry of Defense must now provide a full accounting of the events of that day.    In addition, the decision of a lower court which had absolved the soldiers involved in the case from any responsibility has been set aside.   The attorney general’s office (the FGR) will now be investigating the criminal responsibility of the military members involved in the forced disappearances.

The decision of the Constitutional Chamber to release its decision on the 25th anniversary of the Peace Accords was clearly intentional.    The decision is a cautionary one – the abuses committed by El Salvador’s military in the years leading up to and during the civil war, can still be committed today.    The decision is also a success of the Peace Accords.   Prior to the conclusion of the civil war (and for many years after) it would have been impossible to imagine a court in El Salvador issuing an order like this one.  It would have been impossible to imagine a court refusing to believe the military’s story surrounding forced disappearances and issuing a court order to force the military to open its records and explain its actions.  It has taken 25 years, but the rule of law was just strengthened in El Salvador.

For a full description of all the proceedings surrounding this case, El Faro has an excellent summary here.   (in Spanish).

Monday, January 16, 2017

Stalled progress 25 years after El Salvador's peace accords

Today is the 25th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords which brought an end to El Salvador’s twelve year long civil war.    The warring parties became political parties.  The armed conflict was brought to an end, and a series of political reforms was put in place.    The anniversary is being celebrated with official events today and throughout the year.

“Peace is not the absence of war” – this has been the tag-line in a set of announcements on the radio station of the University of Central America in San Salvador.   Many Salvadorans do not believe that the Peace Accords brought peace, even though they did end the war.    Certainly El Salvador’s position as the country with the highest “peace time” homicide rate, suggests that there is much yet to be achieved.  

Still, El Salvador has been transformed for the better in several ways following the end of the civil war.

There has been a peaceful transfer of power to a leftist government.   The 2009 election of Mauricio Funes on the ticket of the FMLN represented the first time in El Salvador’s history that the country had something other than a right wing or military government.    It was followed by the election in 2014 of president Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla military commander.    Democracy has started to take hold in El Salvador.

There is generally freedom of expression and freedom to organize.   Prior to the 1992 Peace Accords, you could be killed for advocating for labor’s rights to organize or for denouncing government abuses.    Today such events have largely (although perhaps not entirely) ceased.   Physical violence against political opponents is rare.

Extreme poverty has been reduced and levels of education for boys and girls have increased.   There has been expanded access to potable water and electricity, and roads have been improved throughout the country.

Elections are generally fair and transparent.   While elections in the 1990s immediately after the conclusion of the war were problem-filled, more recent elections get high marks for transparency and absence of fraud.  

Yet there are many ways in which the hopes of Salvadorans at the time of the Peace Accords have never been fulfilled.

Much of the structural injustice which gave rise to the civil war remains.   El Salvador remains a country with tremendous social and economic inequality.   Shopping malls with luxury goods exist across the street from marginalized communities lacking even basic services.    While extreme poverty has been reduced, the daily challenges to put food on the table remain for most Salvadoran families.  

Justice for the victims of war time atrocities has never been achieved.    The 75 thousand civilian victims of the war have never received justice.    Far from being just “collateral damage,” civilians were often targeted in massacres by the armed forces.   Workers for a just El Salvador, like Rutilio Grande, Oscar Romero, the US church women, and the six Jesuit priests, were assassinated by death squads and the military.   Yet the amnesty law, in force from 1993 until its nullification in 2016, has prevented any judicial process which could deal with these crimes against humanity.    Impunity reigns.

The country has returned to a war footing, and thousands of civilians are again dying on an annual basis.   One of the initial achievements of the 1992 Peace Accords was the return of the armed forces to their barracks and their removal from internal affairs.   Yet for more than a decade, presidents in El Salvador have been calling on the armed forces to assist in the battle against gangs in the country. This use of the army has dramatically increased in recent years, such that the sight of heavily armed, and often masked, soldiers travelling the streets and highways of the country is a regular sight. Armed confrontations between the gangs and the army are common.

Human rights are again imperiled by the clamor for “security.”    Abuses by the security forces during the 1970s and 1980s were always justified as necessary to provide security and protect private property.   Today, reports are increasing that the police and military have engaged in extra-judicial killings, arbitrary detentions, and torture of gang members or youth who just might be gang members. Only the traditional defenders of human rights are raising concerns over these practices.

The progress made after the end of the civil war has stalled and is threatened with reversal.    Some in El Salvador are calling for a new generation of peace accords in an attempt to reduce the political and social polarization which makes solving the country’s problems so difficult.   Where such vision and leadership will come from is yet to be seen.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Monument to Reconciliation

On the eve of the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Peace Accords in El Salvador which ended the country's civil war, the government unveiled a new monument to reconciliation.

Friday, January 13, 2017

4 of 10 Salvadorans want to emigrate

This week the UCA Institute of Public Opinion released its annual year end poll asking Salvadorans their opinions on a variety of subjects.   Over my next few blog posts, we'll look at some of the results in the poll.    

Perhaps the saddest part of the poll was contained in the opening paragraphs of bulletin announcing the poll results.   40.3% of the respondents said they would like to migrate from the country in the next year.  According to the UCA, this is the highest percentage of people wanting to leave over the past decade of asking the question.   In addition, 17.2% of the respondents said that some person in their extended family had to flee the country during 2016 as a result of some threat or act of violence. 71.2% of those polled believed that migration out of the country had increased in the past 12 months.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

MS proposes peace process

In an interview with the online periodical El Faro, spokesmen for the gang Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), described a proposal for sitting down at a table for dialogue with the government.    For the first time, the gang leaders indicated that they would be willing to put the dissolution of the gang on the bargaining table. The full article from El Faro has been translated into English and is available at the InsightCrime website here.

The gang is proposing a public dialogue in which the country's three principal gangs (MS-13, 18 Revolucionarios and 18 Sureños), human rights institutions, and the government would participate. From the InsightCrime translation:

As a starting point, the gang has proposed two points that have never been negotiated previously. The first is the possibility that the government would create a process that would allow active members to leave the gang. "A child does things that he doesn't have to do, but when he becomes an adult or has children, he matures and doesn't want to continue doing what he's done in the past," said one MS13 leaders in an interview that took place in a community in the metropolitan area of San Salvador. 
The second point -- which is the principal new offer -- refers to discussing the dismantling of the gang. El Faro probed the group on this point during the interview and in subsequent telephone conversations. The MS13's spokesmen insisted that the issue can be addressed if they are treated seriously in the negotiations.
The reaction of the government to the MS proposal contained in the El Faro article has been chilly but not entirely dismissive.    The president's spokesman Eugenio Chicas spoke to El Faro:
Chicas said he could offer an idea of the chances that the proposal would be taken into consideration. "The government's stance with respect to any dialogue, agreement or conversation with the gangs are very clear and cannot be negotiated. There can be no dialogue, no agreement and no conversation with these groups -- no deal. Until today. And I say so because this is what I know. If the president says otherwise, it will be up to him, and he has the authority to consider any other solution," he stated.... 
Chicas believes that the possibility of exploring an agreement with the MS13 depends on several factors: first, the social acceptance of the negotiations; second, the convergence of the political willingness of different parties; and third, the resources needed to finance such a process and the legal discussions that must take place before it starts. 
"This is an issue that must be considered. Not only has El Salvador's society proved to be against any attempt at dialogue or conversation with the gangs, it also vehemently opposes any advantage or legal benefit for these groups. And a government must understand the will of its citizens. This is a key element, but it is not the only one. Another crucial factor will be the chances of a political agreement between different governing forces, in this case the country's government together with the opposition and other social actors, as reflected in the National Security Council. This is another factor that must be taken into account, and another element is whether the strategy could yield better results within the political timeframe we have left. Bear in mind that elections will take place in the few years we've got left," he stated.
More typical was the reaction of Howard Cotto, who also spoke to El Faro:
National Police Director Howard Cotto's views are starker, making the point that the government does not have anything to negotiate with the gangs. "All that they offer is to continue committing crimes if we don't negotiate with them and that is utterly wrong…What do they offer? To stop killing or stop extorting? And in return they want something? No! Just stop doing it," he concluded.
In La Pagina, Vice President Oscar Ortiz was quoted as saying:
This year we are going to intensify the blows against the criminal structures, we are going to intensify blows against extortion, against the structure of extortion, we are going to intensify the control of the prison system, we are going to continue striking at the heads of the criminal organizations, we are going to search for them far and wide through the country and, of course, we are going to continue strengthening the whole set of actions that permit us to empower and strengthen our National Civilian Police and our armed forces, all the security apparatus.   The crux of these measures is to guaranty more safety to the family and community in the coming years.
In response to the MS proposal in El Faro, Ortiz said the government was not going to change its position of not having rapprochement with the criminal organizations.  Instead, he said:
Let them stop killing, stop extorting, stop attacking the police, stop threatening the innocent population far and wide throughout the country, stop committing crimes.   The country can't be under threat with a gun to its head.   A criminal group can't compete with the State.
Given the extreme distaste among the general public for the idea of negotiation with the gangs, I certainly do not expect the government to agree to any kind of open dialogue.   The MS spokemen quoted in El Faro suggest that there are members of the gang who are looking for ways to leave the gang life behind, and they want to talk to the government about it.   The government should look for ways to reduce the ranks of gang members if it can.   Perhaps that process needs to be done not at a national level bargaining table, but instead to be done youth by youth, gang cell (clica) by gang cell, community by community.    Ultimately the steps towards pacification of the country require prevention and opportunities for young people on the front end, and rehabilitation and re-insertion of reformed gang members on the back-end.     There has been too much emphasis on intensifying blows, and too little emphasis on rescuing young people from the gangs.            

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top El Salvador stories of 2016

Here is my annual round-up of the top ten stories from the previous year in El Salvador.

"Exceptional measures" to combat gang violence.   In March 2016, the government announced that it would be deploying exceptional measures in its fight against the country's gangs.   The measures included transferring gang leaders to high security prison and placing them in solitary confinement, increasing the military presence on the streets including in San Salvador's historic center, and an overall level of increased hard-line tactics.   In response to attacks on security forces, the government announced "Plan Nemesis" in November, to increase further the hard-line tactics directed towards the gangs.   But by the end of the year, there was not a great deal of evidence the measures were working. While the homicide rate was down from the bloody high in 2015, 2016 would still go down as the second bloodiest year since the year 2000.

San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele.  San Salvador's young, dynamic mayor Nayib Bukele continued to draw good reviews for his efforts to improve living conditions for the residents of the country's capital city.   Programs like the restoration of the City's historic center and a new marketplace for informal vendors were praised.   Still, the popular mayor sparred with the country's media as well as trading accusations with Douglas Melendez, the new attorney general.

Corruption investigations.   This year the news was filled with stories of corruption investigations.   The country's last two presidents, Mauricio Funes and Tony Saca, were being investigated for enriching themselves during their terms in office.   Funes sought  asylum in Nicaragua, while Saca is facing questions over more than $246 million in funds directed by his personal secretary.    The former attorney general was charged with selling his office to a prominent businessman, and the former minister of defense was charged with weapon sales.

Zika virus.   At the beginning of the year, dire warnings were being sounded about the Zika virus as El Salvador reported a significant number of cases.    El Salvador's health minister even advised women to postpone pregnancies for the next two years.  Despite an early spate of suspected cases, Zika never reached crisis proportions in El Salvador and instead may be headed to be simply one of the mosquito-borne diseases which regularly plague the country along with dengue and chikunguya.

Increase in minimum wage.   There was a year long battle over increasing minimum wages in El Salvador.   Ultimately the government of president Salvador Sanchez Ceren prevailed over the business sector and sizable increases were put in place.   Still, many noted that the wage scale continued to have a considerable disparity between agricultural and urban work and that the wages were still not high enough to provide a dignified income.

Migration continues.   Salvadorans are continuing to flee their country as a result of gang violence, primarily heading towards the US.   A surge in migrants from El Salvador and other countries in Central America was seen at the US southern border.  Despite the well-documented levels of gang violence in the country forcing thousands of families to be displaced, Salvadorans had little success in winning asylum cases in the US, and formal programs to address the issues were tiny and ineffectual.

A new attorney general.   After protracted political negotiations. Douglas Melendez became the country's new attorney general.   He immediately made his presence known with a series of high profile prosecutions including his predecessor Luis Martinez, former presidents Saca and Funes, persons who had participated in the 2012 gang truce process, and financial leaders of Mara Salvatrucha.   He was much more quiet about the possibility of war crimes prosecutions following the nullification of the amnesty law.

Revelations about politicians who dealt with gangs.   Politicians learned that, when they deal with the gangs, the gangs might be recording the conversations.   Recordings surfaced of party officials from both ARENA and the FMLN discussing accommodations for the gangs in return for help in the 2014 presidential elections.   Municipal leaders in different cities were charged with colluding with the gangs to enrich the leaders and the gangs.  

Government fiscal crisis.   El Salvador's government increasingly struggled to pay its bills.   The reasons were many:    Tax evasion by many individuals and businesses.   International borrowing which was blocked by the Constitutional Chamber, and a deadlock in the National Assembly in approving legislation for new borrowing.   Increased social spending and increased spending on domestic security while the country struggled to find new sources of income.   The ongoing crisis caused the country's credit rating to fall and hobbled the government's ability to address many social problems.


Saturday, January 07, 2017

The gangs and archaeology

The gang violence which continues to bedevil El Salvador has forced a suspension to archaeological investigations at Joya De Ceren.  According to an article published in El Faro, the archaeological team from the University of Colorado, which has been working at the site for almost 40 years, retired from the country in 2016.  El Faro published an article from Dr. Payton Sheets, the original discover of the ancient Mayan village now classified as a World Heritage Site.

The scholars from Colorado had hoped to be working on important new excavations funded by a National Science Foundation grant during 2016-18.    Dr. Sheets, however,  pointed to two events in early 2016 which led his team to suspend their work.   The first was the murder of two close friends and collaborators who lived in the community Joya de Ceren.    The second was the massacre of eight electrical workers and three witnesses in a zone close to the archaeological site.   The confluence of these events made team members too fearful to continue working in the region.

The suspension of the archaeological investigation is a poignant example of how gang violence has ripple effects throughout Salvadoran society. Even our ability to understand the lives of people who lived 1400 years ago is impacted by the senseless cycle of killing.

While the archaeological site remains open to tourists and visitors, the local community also loses out from the absence of the archaeologists and the additional employment and spending they bring when they are engaged in field work.  

You can learn much more about what Dr. Sheets and has team had learned in previous decades work at this site.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Stats point to growth in massacres and vigilantes

According to statistics from El Salvador's attorney general (FGR) and published in La Prensa Grafica, the number of massacres is increasing and more than 40% are committed by groups other than the gangs.

From January 2014 through October 2016, there were 277 massacres in El Salvador, defined as multiple homicide events in which more than three persons were killed.    Of those massacres, the attorney general's office says that 157 (57%) were committed by the gangs and 120 (43%) were committed by vigilante groups known as "groups of social cleansing,"  by killers for hire, and by narco-traffickers.   The massacres in total claimed 1011 victims.  

These FGR statistics contrast with statements from the National Civilian Police, who have always contended that the vast majority of murders in the country are committed by the gangs.

58% of the victims were identified as gang members, while the remainder did not have an identified gang nexus.

There has been a pattern of increasing numbers of these multiple homicide massacres over the past three years as the level of violence in the country has increased.  

Former Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales pointed to the vigilante groups as one of the significant sponsors of violence in the country, a fact that law enforcement authorities in the country have been unwilling to acknowledge.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

A Christmas Plea for Peace

Sometimes, at this time of year, we need to be improbably hopeful.   From WorldCrunch Spotlight: El Salvador, A Christmas Plea for Peace:

Make it stop! That’s the message delivered this week by an organization of Protestant churches in El Salvador, Central America’s smallest but deadliest country. 
The group, known as the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace, or IPAZ, is hoping that for the week between Christmas and New Year, gang members, security forces, operatives of so-called death squads and others responsible for the nation’s horrific homicide numbers will accept a temporary “peace pact.” 
“This time of year lends itself to concrete gestures of peace. This may not be an open war. But the violence is killing us,” IPAZ declared in a statement released Tuesday.