Monday, May 23, 2016

Cross-cultural encounters.

I write this blog in English because my intended audience speaks that language.   While I am honored to have many Salvadoran readers, my intended audience are those English-speakers outside of El Salvador who have some connection to the country. through travel, or marriage, or a sister church, or a Habitat for Humanity project.   I try to be one source, hopefully trustworthy, of information about Salvadoran current events.

But a blog entry can't possibly convey the full reality.   That requires being there.    That requires encountering El Salvador in its people.  

Two bloggers who recently wrote about such encounters are Linda and Vida.   Linda writes Linda's El Salvador Blog and recently told the story of the The Woman in the Red Dress:

A couple of grandmothers from the community were with us under the tent.  They shared a little information with us about the Woman in the Red Dress.  She had walked all morning to get to the fair.  Many grandmothers in rural areas walk long distances to find company, to go to church, to gather fuel, to get water.  She lives alone.  Many grandmothers live alone.  She does not always have enough to eat.  Many elderly people struggle with hunger.   
The Woman in the Red Dress is a hero.  She is beautiful inside and out.  I don't remember her name, but I remember her spirit, her spunk, her eyes, her smile, and that red dress. 
"You look so beautiful in your red dress," I said.  "May I take your picture?"
Read the rest here and explore Linda's blog where there are many other portraits of everyday people she encounters in El Salvador.

Vida wrote of a Salvadoran boy in Dignity and Dreams at La Palma:
I almost didn’t see him. I was on a mission to bring home some souvenirs and my field of vision was saturated with color—the cheery red, blue, green and yellows of the handpainted wood crafts—jewelry boxes, dollhouse furniture, and crosses filling every nook and cranny and wall of the small kiosk. And then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed him. A young boy about 10 years old sitting at a small table to one side, an artist’s paintbrush in one hand and a carved plain wood letter of the alphabet in the other waiting for the young artist to transform it from naked wood to a playful folk art piece.
Read the rest here.

I hope you will have your own opportunity to encounter El Salvador through its people, and not just through the virtual lens of our blogs.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Collection of articles on gang violence in El Salvador

In the past week, the international English language press has been paying a lot of attention to the epidemic of gang-related violence in El Salvador.  Here's a sampling:

El Salvador Throws Out Gang Truce and Officials Who Put It in Place -- the New York Times reports on the actions of El Salvador's attorney general to prosecute government officials involved with the 2012-2014 gang truce and reports that prosecutors have their sights set on David Munguia Payes, former Minister of Public Security and current Minister of Defense.

The gangs that cost 16% of GDP  -- a report from the Economist which describes in detail how gang extortion imposes a tax on all segments of El Salvador's economy.

Deadly gang extortion rackets drive emigration from El Salvador - Reuters also looked at extortion and its role as a cause of migration.

In El Salvador, the Murder Capital of the World, gang violence becomes a way of life.   ABC News Nightline program looks at the phenomena of gang violence in El Salvador.   Some of the reporting is pretty good, but other parts sensationalize matters suggesting a threat to the US of gang members coming across the southern border.   The video broadcast from May 17 can be found here.

El Salvador Police Implicated in Murder-for-Hire Network -- InsightCrime describes recent arrests of police who were acting as paid assassins.    

El Salvador Extends Tough Prison Restrictions for One Year -- InsightCrime reports on the Salvadoran government extending the "exceptional measures" in its prisons designed to isolate and control gang leadership.

El Salvador's new plan to combat gang violence is insane --  article on doubts the government's get tough and no dialogue policies can be effective. 

Violence Grows Unsustainable in El Salvador: Mass Exodus Follows  -- article at looks at increasing migration from El Salvador linked to the increase in the homicide rate in the past 12 months.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Recovering the historic center of San Salvador

The city government of San Salvador under the direction of its mayor Nayib Bukele has been recovering the public spaces in the city's historic center, and doing so without violence, protests or force. In an area of more than 20 city blocks, the informal street vendors have removed their stalls to other locations, freeing up the streets and sidewalks around cultural and historic buildings and plazas.

In recent decades, the city's historic center near the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, the National Theater and other important buildings has been the swarming center of the informal economy.   Thousands of informal vendors have set up make shift stalls where they hawk everything from mangoes to make-up, from pirated DVDs to piñatas.   The stalls are built on the sidewalks and into the streets, blocking access and obstructing the view of historic architecture.   Traffic congestion in the area is extreme at all hours of the day.

For years, San Salvador's mayors have tried to re-order the chaos which is central San Salvador. Their efforts regularly consisted of evicting informal street merchants and ripping down their stalls, actions which were usually met with riots b;y the displaced vendors.   For example, the prior mayor from ARENA, Norman Quijano took this approach:

Since June [2010], the mayor has ordered the forced eviction of 1,053 hawkers, as part of an attempt to regulate street vending in a city where more than 16,000 street vendors hawk their wares, occupying many streets and plazas. 
Several of the evictions, which form part of what the metropolitan police has dubbed "Operation Thunder", have ended in pitched battles, with dozens of people arrested or injured.
And after these battles between vendors and the municipal police, things returned to the status quo with the stalls rebuilt, and the vendors still in place.

Norman Quijano's predecessor, Violeta Menjivar of the FMLN, was no better.   The photos above are from protests in 2007 when her municipal police tried to reorganize the informal vendors in the center of San Salvador. 

 But San Salvador's current mayor Nayib Bukele has a different, smarter approach. and it seems to be succeeding.   Instead of police in riot gear, we see pictures of municipal workers carefully assisting vendors in dismantling their stalls and transferring them to a new location.   Street merchants interviewed on local TV express their willingness to go along with the plans of the local government.

The mayor's office describes the vision for the historic center:
This project will be implemented in stages: the first will be an intervention for 23 of the most important blocks in the area, including reordering of informal trade, diversion and management of public passenger transport, removal of overhead wiring and installation of underground wiring, reconstruction of sites of cultural and historical interest, remodeling squares, patching streets, a video surveillance system, building centers of small shops and markets, cleaning streets and sidewalks, installation of pedestrian zones, among others. 
This first stage will achieve this so that in one year, one will see significant changes significant at the heart of the Salvadoran capital,  leading many to revisit its streets and cultural heritage sites, and will bring to light the history of all Salvadorans, of which we should be proud .

This video from ContraPunto [in Spanish] tells the story of San Salvador's historic center from its glory days, through its decline, to the current efforts of Nayib Bukele.

These are important steps for the quality of life in the capital city.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Historic El Salvador in photos

If you are on Twitter, make sure and follow HistoriadeElSalvador (@ESHistoria32) for a steady stream of historic photographic images from El Salvador like the one below.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

El Salvador ranked high for citizen rights to information

El Salvador is now ranked fifth in the world with respect to the quality of its access to information laws. The rankings are produced by a program of  Access Info Europe (AIE) and the Centre for Law and Democracy (CLD).

The strength of El Salvador's ranking is a product of the country's Law of Access to Public Information adopted in 2011.

According to the RTI Rankings site:

This is an extremely well-written law with a robust scope, clearly enumerated procedures, and thorough promotional measures. Its chief weaknesses are the fact that the exceptions aren't harm tested and that the law does not override various other secrecy acts.
Although El Salvador may have a good law, that may not mean that access to information is a right thoroughly enjoyed by Salvadorans as the RTI site notes:
It important to note that the RTI Rating is limited to measuring the legal framework, and does not measure quality of implementation...even relatively strong laws cannot ensure openness if they are not implemented properly.
The government has moved to increase transparency and access to information through a Gobierno Abierto /Open Government website operated by the Secretariat of Citizen Participation, Transparency and Anti-Corruption.   It's a useful starting point for looking up information related to the running of El Salvador's government.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A sanctuary of music in San Salvador

A program to involve youth in symphonic music offers hope away from the dangerous streets of El Salvador's capital city.   Reuters offers the story of the  Don Bosco Youth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus:

The sweet sounds of classical music float across a sunny courtyard as a group of teenagers pluck the strings of violins and cellos. 
But beyond the high gates enclosing the courtyard of the Don Bosco Industrial Polygon Centre, home to El Salvador's first and only youth orchestra, the sounds most likely to be heard are of gunshots. 
The center on the eastern side of the capital San Salvador is surrounded by gang-infested areas where daily turf wars have made the small Central American nation among the world's most deadliest. 
On the road leading to the center stands a teenage girl with red hair, a sign she is a gang member, a mobile phone glued to her ear, checking every person and car that enters. 
But inside the building, there are no such controls. The orchestra has become a safe haven from the surrounding violence for hundreds of children who live in gang-controlled neighborhoods. 
The Don Bosco Youth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus aims to keep teenagers off the streets and away from the gangs by offering them an alternative to gang life and culture.
Through music and being part of an orchestra, teenagers find a sense of identity and purpose, countering some of the push factors that cause young people to join gangs
Read the rest of the story here.  

Monday, May 09, 2016

Which is worse?

Politicians in El Salvador need to be more aware that every cell phone is a potential video and audio recorder.   In March, a video surfaced of gang leaders meeting with ARENA politicians to talk about how the gangs could support ARENA in the 2014 presidential election.  This week another recording has been disclosed in which an FMLN government minister meets with the gangs around the same time talking about how the gangs could assist the leftist party get a victory for Salvador Sanchez Ceren in 2014.

Meanwhile, new attorney general Douglas Meléndez is arresting and prosecuting for "illicit associations" some who worked in the government and took steps which facilitated the 2012 gang truce. 

So I ask you -- which is worse -- going to the criminal organizations responsible for killings and extortion of thousands of Salvadoran citizens and asking for their votes -- or going to the criminal organizations and providing improved prison conditions if the level of killings in the country can be reduced?

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Chaos and the water crisis

The good folks at Voices on the Border have recently published a blog post looking at El Salvador's current potable water crisis and some of its root causes:

The bigger issue for the water crisis is that no one entity is responsible for managing water resources and ensuring they are used in a sustainable manner.  In the absence of water management, chaos reigns. The National Association of Aqueducts and Sewage (ANDA) provides water to 40% of the population. Another 40% of the population depends on no fewer than 2,366 local water boards (that’s 2,366 water boards in just 262 municipalities). The rest rely on private for-profit companies, wells, and other sources. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture is supposed to regulate irrigation; while the Ministry of the Environment protects recharge zones, rivers and lakes; and the Ministry of Health makes sure water is clean. This patchwork system fails because government agencies do not fulfill their roles and no single entity is responsible. (more).
VOTB goes on to suggest that greater protection should be given to the local water boards engaged in innovative approaches to water management and that the National Assembly should pass the General Water Law which has been stalled in the legislature for many years.

Thursday, May 05, 2016

Two histories of violence

For too many years, the words "violence" and El Salvador have been inextricably linked.    Two recent publications offer different, but complementary, looks at violence in this Central American country.   Neither one offers a solution, but both help provide a deeper understanding that might someday help lead towards solutions.

A few weeks,ago this blog described the pastoral letter of  Roman Catholic archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas titled I See Violence and Strife in the City.   In his letter, San Salvador's archbishop explains why it is necessary to examine the historical roots of the current paroxysm of violence in El Salvador: 
The magnitude of the effects of the current violence compels us all to seek immediate solutions, most of which cause us to forget that violence in El Salvador  is  a  problem  that  is  rooted  in  a  past  that,  has  either  been  ignored  or concealed,  or  reported  in  a  one-sided  fashion,  corresponding  to  the  interests  of those relating it and forgetting that only “the truth will set you free” (cf. Jn 8:32). As a result, we see the persistence of violence, not as a response to a stimulus that the  physical  or  social  environment  casts  on  individuals,  but  as  a  mystery  of iniquity  where  it  appears  as  a  structural  and  institutionalized  sin.  Fr.  Ignacio Ellacuría, SJ explained in 1973 that: “violence is a symptomatic fact that demands reflection.”
Msgr. Escobar proceeds to a detailed overview, both sociological and theological, on the problem of violence in El Salvador, starting with the Spanish conquest of the Americas and proceeding to the current day.     

A different perspective on violence is offered by Óscar Martínez in his book A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America.  Martínez is one of the investigative journalists at the online periodical El Faro.   His first book was The Beast, a highly-acclaimed description of the perils of Central American migrants who try to make the journey north to the US.   His new book gives you the reasons why they flee.

A History of Violence is a collection of Martinez' reporting in El Faro on the subjects of crime, gangs, and narcotics trafficking in Central America.   In Martínez' gripping narratives you meet gangsters, corrupt police, hit men, snitches, and victims.   Martinez is driven to understand deeply such things as the social hierarchy in a hellhole called a Salvadoran prison, how someone can survive as a free-lance drug-trafficker in Central America, the pervasiveness with which narco-trafficking has infiltrated the Guatemalan government and police, or what is the future for the gang member who agrees to testify against his former gang.

In the introduction to the A History of Violence, Óscar Martínez answer the question why a North American audience should read these essays showing some of the darkest sides of Central America:   
Because I believe knowing is different from not knowing.   I believe that knowing, especially with people like yours, who know how to wield politics, is the beginning of a solution, I believe...that knowing is what moves the waves.   You can be one of the waves.

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Homicides drop and government arrests enablers of 2012 gang truce

The homicide rate in El Salvador dropped more than 40% from March to April this year, and yesterday the government issued orders to arrest more than 20 people involved with the 2012 "tregua" or gang truce which produced a similar homicide reduction of more than 50%.  The confluence of these two events is emblematic of the confusing state of public security policy in El Salvador.

Murders dropped from more than 600 per month in the first three months of the year to 352 in April.   The causes are disputed according to Insight Crime:

El Salvador's government has claimed credit for a dramatic drop in homicides last month, but the country's powerful criminal gangs say they are behind the decrease in violence.  
April saw 352 people murdered in El Salvador at an average of approximately 11 homicides per day, according to police statistics. Overall, this represents a 42 percent drop from the total number of homicides registered in March, reported La Prensa Grafica
As shown in the chart below, produced by investigative news outlet El Faro, not only is April the least violent month El Salvador has registered so far in 2016, it is also the least violent month since before March 2015, just after the government brokered truce between the "mara" street gangs the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 broke down completely. 
Monthly murder totals 2002-2016
Source:  El Faro

The reduction in homicides in 2016 commenced Easter weekend when gang spokesmen announced they were ordering a unilateral cessation of killings.    The number of murders in the country had a measurable drop immediately.    The gangs' action coincided with the government of Salvador Sanchez Ceren rolling out "extraordinary measures" to take greater control of the country's prisons, move convicted gang leaders into isolated confinement, and deploy highly armed special reaction forces to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The government has taken credit for a portion of the reduction in homicides, asserting that the extraordinary measures are having an effect.   Still, it is too soon to know if this reduction in the homicide rate, which still amounts to almost 12 murders a day, will continue.  

The lowest level of homicides in the past decade was achieved during the 2012 gang truce which had impact between  March 2012 and July 2013.   Yesterday, El Salvador's government moved to arrest public officials and a prominent mediator who were involved with sponsoring the 2012 truce.

From the Associated Press:
The Attorney General's Office said Tuesday that arrest warrants have been issued for 21 people tied to a 2012 gang treaty that temporarily lowered El Salvador's homicide rate. 
Attorney General Douglas Melendez said Raul Mijango, a onetime guerrilla who brokered the treaty, is among those arrested along with 17 former government officials and three ranking police officials. Among the charges they face are illicit association and introducing contraband into prisons. 
"Even though the truce is not illegal, other crimes were committed within the framework of this kind of illicit negotiations," Melendez said. 
El Salvador's government has since ruled out any further negotiations with the gangs....
Melendez suggested that gangs also benefited from relaxed security at the prisons, allowing inmates access to cellphones, TVs and other banned items. He alleged that Mijango smuggled contraband items into prisons.....
While the truce temporarily brought down the country's high homicide rate before it dissolved in September 2013, Melendez suggested the perceived gain was an illusion.
The truce "promoted the strengthening and expansion of the gangs' territories," he said. "We have proven that. While the homicide rate may have gone down, at the same time disappearances increased, and that created what came to be known as clandestine burial sites."
From Reuters:
El Salvador has arrested former congressman Raul Mijango, who brokered a controversial gang truce in 2012 that reduced murders in the violent Central American nation by half. 
Mijango, a former guerilla commander and lawmaker with the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, was arrested on allegations of bringing banned objects into prisons and being an associate of gang members, police said on Twitter. 
The truce, mediated by Mijango in 2012, lasted until 2014, and won approval from former leftist President Mauricio Funes and the Organization of American States. 
The pact was broken by public criticism that the deal was too beneficial to the gangs, which took advantage of less police pressure to rearm.
In addition to Mijango, the persons arrested included nine prison guards and officials, police, and military.  The arrests were announced by new attorney general Douglas Melendez.  When he took office, Melendez announced that he would push forward with stalled investigations including the investigation of the 2012 truce.   Yesterday's arrests are the first example of his determination.   The arrests also mirror new criminal laws passed by the National Assembly last month which are designed to impose penalties on government officials and others who would strike deals with the gangs.

The government's actions reemphasize that there will be no return to negotiations and treguas as a way to bring a reduction to the murderous violence in the country.   What remains to be seen is whether the country can ever experience a return to the reduced level of homicides experienced during the 2012 truce.   The 2012 truce brought a reduction in violence, but may also have allowed the gangs to strengthen and reorganize during a period when they were not killing each other.