Saturday, November 21, 2015

Sugar cane workers in pictures

Cane cutters take a break in El Salvador

A photo essay by Ed Kashi in the Guardian shows the hard lives of sugar cane workers in El Salvador and Nicaragua and describes the problems of chronic kidney disease and some of the measures to combat the illness.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Impunity and extradition

El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman David Morales went to El Salvador's Supreme Court on Monday, November 16, the 26th anniversary of the murder of 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.   Morales was there to file a petition asking the Court to rescind its prior order on extradition of 13 military officers to Spain.   A Spanish court has issued an arrest warrant to require those officers to face justice for the Jesuit massacre, but in 2012, El Salvador's Supreme Court refused the Spanish extradition request.

Morales petition probably has no more than symbolic significance.  The Supreme Court has not changed its composition and is highly unlikely to reverse itself.   Also pending in front of the Supreme Court is a challenge to the 1993 amnesty law which has so far prevented the military command from being prosecuted in El Salvador.   That challenge has been pending for years with no sign that a decision is due soon.

The crimes of El Salvador's civil war remain in impunity as each November 16 anniversary reminds us.


Sunday, November 15, 2015

The travel question

The question I receive from readers more than any other is whether it is safe to travel to El Salvador.   This question has come with more frequency this year as headlines have proclaimed El Salvador as the murder capital of the world.   My answer to this question is always  “Yes, if you are smart about it.”

It’s worth starting with the language of the most recent Travel Warning from the US State Department:
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit El Salvador each year for study, tourism, cruise ship visits, business, and volunteer work. There is no information to suggest that U.S. citizens are specifically targeted by criminals; however, crime and violence are serious problems throughout the country.
US State Department Travel Warning, June 22, 2015.  In the next sentence the Travel Warning goes on to state:
Since January 2010, 34 U.S. citizens have been murdered in El Salvador including a nine-year-old child in December 2013.
What is challenging about this statistic is that it does not break down whether those US citizens were Salvadoran born and living in El Salvador or were tourists.   I simply do not recall a tourist, or someone travelling with a church or volunteer group, ever being murdered in the past 12 years.  More tourists have died from drowning in the strong rip tides on El Salvador’s Pacific Ocean beaches than as a result of criminal violence.  (However, a US Army veteran was killed in El Salvador in 2013 in a crime of passion, killed by his estranged Salvadoran ex-wife).   

It’s important to understand the source of the murders in El Salvador :    gang members killing rival gang members, gang members killing people such as bus drivers to enforce extortion demands, police killing gangs, gangs killing police, death squads killing supposed gang members, domestic violence, personal vendettas and rivalries,  attacks to vindicate someone’s belief they have been dishonored. None of these factors put the foreign tourist at risk unless you happen to be caught in a crossfire.

I speculate that one factor at play may be that if you kill a Salvadoran, 95% of the time you are not going to be successfully prosecuted and sent to prison.  Sadly, Salvadoran lives are cheap in 2015.   But if you killed a foreign tourist, the government would feel obliged to expend significant resources to investigate and capture those involved.   

Property crime, however, is a very real threat.   The possibility of having your belongings stolen or of being robbed, mugged, carjacked, assaulted is a real one.  

The most important advice I can give you, is to affiliate with someone who understands El Salvador and understands what is safe and what is not.  Just as there are dangerous sections of every city in the world where you should not venture at night, there are dangerous sections of El Salvador.   As an example of what can happen when you don’t know where to go, in July of this year, a group of Canadians traveling in a car to Suchitoto got lost and made a wrong turn into a gang-controlled colonia near San Martin. Presumed gang members opened fire on the vehicle and the Canadians narrowly escaped.     A Facebook page called Analytic Map of Criminality in El Salvador demonstrates that crime is not uniformly distributed across El Salvador’s communities.   

Beyond associating yourself with someone who knows the territory, practice basic travel safety:
  •          Do not wander off alone away from the group
  •          Be aware of your surroundings
  •          Do not become an attractive target for crime:  do not flash smartphones, jewelry, electronics, IPads, stuffed wallets, expensive cameras
  •          Obey the instructions of your group leader
  •          Only get money from an ATM in a secure location

The US Embassy makes many of the same points in its practical advice for travelers unfamiliar with El Salvador:

Travelers should remain in groups and avoid remote or isolated locations in order to minimize their vulnerability.  Travelers should also avoid displaying or carrying valuables in public places.  Passports and other important documents should not be left in private vehicles.  
U.S. Embassy security officials advise all U.S. Government personnel not to walk, run, or cycle in the unguarded streets and parks of El Salvador, even in groups, and recommend exercising only in gyms and fitness centers.  Criminals often become violent quickly, especially when victims fail to cooperate immediately in surrendering valuables.  Frequently, victims who argue with assailants or refuse to give up their valuables are shot.  U.S. citizens in El Salvador should exercise caution at all times and practice good personal security procedures throughout their stay. 
Armed holdups of vehicles traveling on El Salvador's roads are common, and we encourage U.S. citizens to remain aware of their surroundings.  The U.S. Embassy warns its personnel to drive with their doors locked and windows raised.  Avoid travel outside of major metropolitan areas after dark and on unpaved roads at all times because of criminal assaults and lack of police and road service facilities.  Armed assaults and carjackings take place both in San Salvador and in the interior of the country, but are especially frequent on roads outside the capital where police patrols are scarce.  Criminals have been known to follow travelers from the El Salvador International Airport to private residences or secluded stretches of road where they carry out assaults and robberies.  Armed robbers are known to shoot if the vehicle does not come to a stop.  Travelers with conspicuous amounts of luggage, late-model cars, or foreign license plates are particularly vulnerable to crime, even in the capital. 
Travel on public transportation, especially buses, both within and outside the capital, is risky and not recommended.  The Embassy advises official visitors and personnel to avoid using mini-buses and regular buses and to use only radio-dispatched taxis or those stationed in front of major hotels. 
U.S. citizens using banking services should be vigilant while conducting their financial exchanges either inside local banks or at automated teller machines (ATMs).  Recently, there have been cases reported in which criminals observe and follow customers making withdrawals at ATMs and banks, and then rob them on the road or at a residence. U.S. citizens have also been victimized at well-known restaurants, hotels, and retailers within San Salvador.

The bottom line is this.   You should come visit El Salvador.    I have traveled there frequently over the past 15 years, and I have never been the victim of a crime of any sort.  It’s a beautiful country with picturesque beaches, looming volcanoes, great food, important history and warm, welcoming people.   The country needs the tourist dollars and investment which foreign visitors bring.  

El Salvador’s Minister of Tourism wants you.  José Napoleon Duarte Durán told an international press conference in San Salvador Friday that the country’s greatest asset beyond its variety of attractions from city, surf, lakes and picturesque volcanoes are its people.

“The difference is the people,” the minister said. The tourism boss added that all off of the country’s famed attractions, tourists will encounter a very welcoming people who will go out of their way to make visitors feel at home. The Minister later added that Salvadorans are well aware of the misconception some have that the country is unsafe and go out of their way to more than counter that negativity with hospitality.

Under the tourism minister's leadership, the country is investing millions in the country’s tourism infrastructure including 400 tourism police officers who are trained not only in preventing crime, but providing assistance to travelers in need of first aid or other critical services. In addition, El Salvador maintains six tourism offices outside the country and 52 tourism centers to help visitors in the country.

Explore the possibilities.   What you find might surprise you.   Consider, for example Boca Olas Beach Hotel,     It’s a modern hotel located at Playa El Tunco, as nice as any as you will find, and on a recent stay my biggest worry was only how not to get sunburned by the pool

Friday, November 13, 2015

Salvadoran writer seeks asylum in Spain

As El Salvador approaches the 26th anniversary of the massacre of the six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America on November 16, 1989, one of the country's award winning authors has just fled the country and sought asylum in Spain after receiving death threats.  Jorge Galán had just published "Noviembre" in October, which narrates the story of the massacre of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter and those figures in the military who were behind the crime.     On November 1, Galán was attacked by armed men who threatened and insulted him.   He is now seeking protection in Spain.

Spain is the country where court proceedings are currently pending against twenty military officers of their involvement in the crime.   El Salvador is the country where those accused of the crime continue to walk free, safe from extradition and protected by an amnesty law and impunity from ever having to face justice.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Violent deaths in El Salvador decline in November

Looking for any glimmer of improvement in the wave of murders which has hit El Salvador this year, Salvadorans heard from the PNC yesterday that "only" 139 people were murdered in the first ten days of November, for an average of 13.9 per day.   This compared to an average of 22.7 per day during October.

While acknowledging this was a reduction, Howard Cotto of the PNC cautioned that it was too early to be labelled a trend.   While refusing to disclose particular police strategies, Cotto believes that actions by security forces are having a positive effect.

At the same time, Cotto dismissed the idea that the reduction in homicides represented a response by the gangs to the call of the IPAZ churches for the gangs to cease their violent actions.  The churches, for their part, see the reduction in homicides as a response to their call for peacemaking.

Cotto repeated the claim of the government that most of the victims and most of the killers were gang members.   However, past reviews have shown that homicides are rarely investigated thoroughly enough in El Salvador to support such claims.


Monday, November 09, 2015

Bill Clinton in El Salvador

Former US president Bill Clinton was in El Salvador today.   He was there to visit initiatives supported by the Clinton Foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.  The program in El Salvador trains small farmers in techniques they can use to grow produce sold at a living wage to supermarkets and elsewhere:
Acceso Oferta Local – Productos de El Salvador has worked with 300 smallholder farmers and sources 42 different varieties of fruits and vegetables. 
In November 2013, CGEP began working in El Salvador and replicated their successful supply chain enterprise model by creating Acceso Oferta Local – Productos de El Salvador. CGEP and Fundación Carlos Slim facilitated a total investment of $1.05 million to the enterprise, which currently operates in the highlands and in San Salvador, El Salvador. CGEP’s supply chain enterprise in El Salvador trains smallholder farmers and sources over 42 different varieties of fruits and vegetables for sale to Super Selectos, the largest national supermarket chain, and has recently begun supplying Corporacion de Franquisias Americanas, the country’s largest restaurant conglomerate which includes Wendy’s and other fast food chains. With better knowledge, targeted inputs, services and access to affordable credit, farmers can increase their current yields with minimal cost increases.
President Clinton wrote on his Foundation's Instagram account:

Clinton also met with the president of El Salvador, Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

A former president in court

Salvadorans saw a historic event this week as ex-president Francisco Flores sat in a courtroom in San Salvador for a preliminary hearing on corruption charges.   Flores was president from 1999-2004.

The hearing lasted two days and was covered by swarms of media.

The prosecutor outlined his case.   In 2003, $15 million was received in checks made out to Flores form the Taiwan embassy,   The checks were taken to Costa Rica, where they were deposited in a newly created account for a supposed institute for political studies.   Of the $15 million, $10 was later distributed to Flores' political party, ARENA.    The other $5 million went into Flores own pockets.  The investigative reporters at El Faro published an exhaustive studying tracing the path of all the funds in October 2014 which you can read here.

One of the checks from the Embassy of Taiwan to ex-President Francisco Flores

One aspect of the hearing with an interesting twist was the conflict between certain private complainants and the public prosecutor.   The private complainants want a count of money laundering added to the trial.   The public prosecutor (FGR) objects saying there is not enough evidence, and the hearing had the odd moment where both the prosecutor and Flores' attorneys were making the same arguments against the money laundering allegations.

The judge must now decide whether Flores will be set free or whether he must face trial on the corruption charges.  The judge will announce his decision  December 3.

Ex-president Flores is from the right-wing ARENA party and participated on the campaign team of ARENA candidate Norman Quijano in the presidential elections in 2014. The corruption allegations became one of the central themes leading up to the victory of the left wing FMLN in March.

In 2005, the Bush administration in the US backed Flores to become the Secretary General of the Organization of American States. Flores failed to win the post over the opposition of many Latin American nations.

Presidents George W. Bush and Francisco Flores in 2004.

Friday, November 06, 2015

Voices crying in the wilderness

I have written several times on this blog about IPAZ, the pastoral initiative for life and peace, a group of protestant churches in El Salvador which advocates for dialogue in Salvadoran society, including dialogue with the gangs, as a path towards reducing violence in the society.

On October 27, the churches organized a march in San Salvador which included family members of gang members.   The marches ended at Plaza Salvador del Mundo where the church leaders called out for a cessation of violence in the country.   In particular, the IPAZ churches called for the gangs to:
a)  cease all violent actions against the lives of Salvadorans
b)  cease recruiting members, especially boys and girls
c)  cease all types of threats which force families to leave their homes or neighborhoods
d)  permit the free transit of people throughout all El Salvador
In an interview given to the online periodical RevistaFactum after the march, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez was asked why he thought the gangs might even consider responding to these requests.   Gomez responded: 
La única oportunidad que tenemos es que las pandillas todavía respetan a las iglesias y a los pastores, porque esos pandilleros, cuando fueron niños, llegaron a nuestras iglesias.
The only opportunity we have is that the gangs still respect the churches and the pastors, because these gang members, when they were boys, came to our churches.
Today the churches held a press conference announcing that they had received letters from the three major gang groups. Saying that they were responding to the call of the churches, the gangs purported to commit themselves to fulfill the requests of IPAZ laid out at the October 27 march.

IPAZ then issued this press release:
The Salvadoran churches which form part of IPAZ, with profound thanks to God, respond to the responses received from the gangs. 
We say to them, many thanks for having respect for the churches and keeping in the love and fear of God.   We accept and take you at your word.  We hope that all Salvadorans will see the concrete gestures that you indicate you are going to do.   Please, make it be widely known in all the country, the changes from violence to peace. 
We make a call to the government and to all the authorities of the country, to all the sectors of the Salvadoran people, to the international communities, to join yourselves in this route for the construction of peace in our country, that together we could build a process of well-being in order to dedicate it to our God this coming Christmas, full of happiness and a new year 2016 without bloodshed, grief and pain. 
This video shows scenes from the October 27 march, with the four petitions, followed by an interview with supposed spokesmen for the two  18 gang factions accepting the call of IPAZ:

Leaders of IPAZ churches at press conference.

In taking these steps, the IPAZ churches are certainly voices crying out in the wilderness.    Public opinion is strongly against anything that sounds like a truce, or negotiation, or dialogue.   Comments on a news story on the LaPagina website were vitriolic in their rejection of this proposal.   Government policy focuses on a repressive policy using heavily armed police and military raids (although it has recently proposed a law for the reinsertion of youth associated with gangs who have not committed serious crimes).  Elements of the Catholic church which were formerly involved in IPAZ have withdrawn from the group.

Yet don't expect the IPAZ churches to back away from this position.   Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, who is the only Salvadoran other than Oscar Romero to have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, is committed to this path and has the courage of his convictions.   For these churches, they cannot walk away from being pastors for all members of Salvadoran society, including those gang members who arrived at the churches as boys and girls.

Will this process lead to a reduction in El Salvador's bloody wave of gang-related violence?  There are good reasons to doubt it.   But IPAZ will keep being a lone voice urging dialogue among all parties as a necessary building block to a peaceful society.

Disclaimer -- as the URL of this blog   "" would suggest, I have close ties to the Lutheran church in El Salvador and great personal admiration for Bishop Gomez.

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Multi-dimensional poverty in El Salvador

This year El Salvador's government began publishing a measure of multi-dimensional poverty.  The concept gets away from just looking at poverty as an income level, but instead looks at conditions of life including housing, access to health services, education and employment.   Under this new multi-dimensional approach, a household is considered in poverty if it is lacking in 7 or more of 20 basic categories.    Under this definition of poverty, the poverty rate in El Salvador is 35.2%

The 20 basic categories and the percentage of Salvadoran households who lack the minimum level for each category are:

Looking at poverty this way gives policy makers a much more sophisticated way to think about poverty and recognizes that all of these factors are necessary for citizens to enjoy a sense of well-being.

The distribution of households suffering from multi-dimensional poverty varies significantly by department:

Percentage of households in poverty

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Poverty levels in El Salvador

Last week the government of El Salvador released data on poverty in El Salvador based on household polling during 2014. The statistics showed an uptick in poverty in 2014, and continuing disparities between rural and urban areas. The country continues to make progress in reducing extreme poverty.

The poverty level household income in El Salvador is measured in comparison to the cost of a basic basket of food for a household for a month. That amount is $184 in urban areas and $131 in rural areas. A household is defined as living in poverty if its household income is less than two times the basic basket price (i.e., $368 urban / $262 rural).

Under this measure, 31.9% of Salvadoran households lived in poverty in 2014, up from 29.6% in 2013:

Extreme poverty is defined as households lacking the income equal to the cost of the basic food basket. That level increased in 2014 to 7.6% nationwide, up from 7.1%.

Looking over a longer time period, poverty in El Salvador has generally fluctuated between 30 and 40 percent during the past 15 years with a high 40.6% in 2011 and a low two years later of 29.6%:

Extreme poverty has generally followed a downward path during that time period, with the percentage of Salvadorans living in extreme poverty being cut in half during the last 15 years:

Looking at the 15 year data, which includes right wing ARENA administrations 2000-2008 and left wing FMLN administrations 2009-2014, both can claim credit for reducing extreme poverty while neither has a clear record on changing the level of relative poverty in the country.

Other statistics from the recently released data:
  • Average household monthly income -- $540   ($640 urban / $357 rural)
  • Average years of schooling -- 8.1  (9.3 urban, 5.8 rural)
  • Illiteracy rate --  10.9%  (7.0% urban / 17.7% rural)
  • Internet users:  1.32 million
Tomorrow -- looking at "multi-dimensional" poverty statistics.