Wednesday, May 20, 2015

A media spotlight on El Salvador's woes

The recent surge of deadly violence in El Salvador has caught the attention of the world's press.  More than 110 murders happened in the country between Saturday, May 15 and Tuesday, May 19.  The average during May exceeds 20 murders a day.   The greatest amount of bloodshed is occurring in the eastern part of the country in the departments of Usulután and San Miguel.  

The only obvious response of the government has been to use more force, more militarization, and more aggressive tactics.   Those tactics have been met with equivalent escalations on the side of the gangs who war among themselves and against the police and armed forces.  This is the story being told in the world's press:

With the approaching events this weekend surrounding the beatification of Oscar Romero, one wonders if the approach to this decade's violence could be found in the words of the slain archbishop and his example:

But somewhat incredibly, one government official blamed the recent spike in violence on the gangs seeking to exploit the world's attention being focused on El Salvador for the beatification:

Life has become too cheap in El Salvador.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

The big event -- Romero's beatification May 23

Ten days are left before the beatification of slain archbishop Oscar Romero in San Salvador on May 23.   The beatification solemnities will occur at Plaza Salvador del Mundo in an event to be attended by Roman Catholic cardinals, bishops from 15 countries, as many as nine presidents and heads of state, thousands of Catholic priests and hundreds of thousands of the faithful.

The beatification events have their own website here with versions in both English and Spanish with the public, and some might say watered down, presentation of what Romero's beatification is all about.

To get a feel for it, you can watch this video spot or listen to the beatification jingle.

To host the beatification mass and all of the visiting bishops and VIPs and priests, the plaza is being converted into a massive outdoor worship space:

Click on image for a larger version.

Estimates of how many people will attend have ranged from 260,000 to 500,000 or more.   No one really knows.   On the morning of May 23, a large section of the city extending out from Salvador del Mundo will be closed off to vehicle traffic with large video screens set up at strategic points along Paseo General Escalon:

Click on image for a larger version.

Events will kick off on the evening of May 22 with a candlelight procession from the Metropolitan Cathedral followed by an all night vigil.   A procession commences at 9:30 a.m. to open the beatification rites, with mass lasting three hours from 10 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.   See the full  Schedule of events from the official website.

Producing an event this big, celebrating the life and example of a man who has meant so much to so many, was sure to generate some controversy.   Our friend Carlos X (Polycarpio) lists some of the controversies:
  • Concerns about a promotional jingle criticized for reflecting the interests of a corporate marketing campaign more than the values ​​of a “Church of the Poor;”
  • Accusations that the Church has gotten too close to Telecorporación Salvadoreña, a corporate TV network, giving it exclusive broadcast rights for the event, at the expense of other outlets and Salvadoran Catholic television stations;
  • Claims that the motto for the beatification, “Romero, Martyr for Love” seeks to sweeten things up so as not to offend the political right and sidelines the theological fact that Romero was killed out of hatred of the faith.
  • Allegations that the cast of artists selected for musical spots features commercial artists who have never expressed interest in Romero or justice for the poor, and has overlooked many artists long committed to the cause;
  • Generalized criticism of the event, along the lines that it is an oversized spectacle, far from the humility Romero would have preferred;
  • More specifically that by designating limited seats for representatives of marginalized communities, and placing them behind cardinals and bishops, heads of state, the family of the Blessed and thousands of priests, the event diminishes their importance, and that it is insensitive to designate them as “poor peasants” in the official program;
  • Dissatisfaction that the relics of Romero’s bloodied clothing, preserved by nuns in the cancer hospital where he lived will be confiscated by the bishops disregarding the nuns; and
  • The conflict generated by a group of civil war veterans who had occupied the site designated for the beatification to demand greater pensions, threatening not abandon clear the plaza for the beatification event.
As Carlos says:
Who owns the legacy of Romero is a dispute that harkens back to the day he was buried, when leftist activists hung posters on the facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral specifying which bishops were not welcome at the ceremony. We can be sure that the beatification ceremony will not degenerate into the chaos of Romero’s funeral, where shooting and suspected bombs triggered a stampede, and forced thousands of clergy and faithful to take refuge in the Cathedral, still under construction at the time. Romero was hastily buried in a makeshift grave on the main floor of the church and was not moved to his tomb in the crypt until a decade later—and that transfer unleashed accusations that the Church had banished Romero, relegating him to “the basement”. In those days, jarring statements about Romero were often heard. When John Paul II brought up Romero in a private meeting with Salvadoran bishops, one conservative prelate reportedly said that Romero was responsible for all the Salvadoran civil war deaths.
And so perhaps it is inevitable that an event being assembled by the official Roman Catholic church of El Salvador, a church of both rich and poor, of the left and the right, would be a little bland when it comes to describing the actual history of the time.

It should also be remembered that there has never been justice in the case of Romero's assassination.  No judicial proceeding in El Salvador has ever sought to establish legal culpability.  As a result, organizations which seek justice for victims of human rights violations during the civil war will be marching to the offices of El Salvador's Attorney General to demand justice on Thursday, May 21.

Corran la voz y marchemos a favor de justicia para Monseñor Romero. Es excelente que reconozcan lo que el pueblo ya habí...

Finally, for EVERTYTHING related to Romero's martydom and the beatification, go to Carlos' SuperMartyrio blog.

2015 election is finally over in El Salvador

El Salvador's 2015 national elections have finally concluded.   The recount of votes for National Assembly in San Salvador that had been ordered by the Constitutional Chamber finished at last and the court lifted its ban preventing deputies from San Salvador taking their seats.   Although the recount produced an increased vote count, the results did not change any of the seats awarded in the original tallies.

The election mess this year has produced legislative attempts to reign in the power of the Constitutional Chamber.   The court started by requiring that cross-party voting be allowed in this election, then refused to delay the effective date of its ruling until the 2018 elections, which led to the court requiring a manual ballot-by-ballot recount in San Salvador, and then ordering all deputies from San Salvador not to take their seats for almost two weeks until the recount was done.   While the Constitutional Chamber should be respected for its actions to protect individual democratic rights of voters, perhaps the court also needs to be more prudential in deciding what political battles it desires to wade into.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Destructive waves returning to El Salvador

The weekend of May 2-3 saw tall and fast waves crashing into the Salvadoran coast.   The waves caused considerable damage to the pier at the city of La Libertad, and to many of the small cafes and other establishments along the country's Pacific beaches.   Similar conditions are now expected to return on Wednesday, May 13.

The waves battered coastal areas up and down the Pacific coasts of the Americas from Mexico to Chile.   As one site reported, the swells which crashed against the shores had been generated by storms in the middle of the Pacific:
The storms originated near the International Date Line and included sustained winds of 50-60 knots (93-111km/h), creating a massive swell that surprised residents in coastal regions fringing the eastern Pacific....  
“It shows huge waves can be generated quite some distance away,” said Alex Zadnik, a meteorologist with Weatherzone, who has surfed at the Mexican beach. “The weather conditions wouldn’t have given the locals a clue” of what was coming, he said.
You can see a photogallery of the damage from the wave action on May 2-3 in El Salvador from ContraPunto at this link.

This video presents in dramatic fashion the wave action and some of its damage in and around La Libertad:

The country's civil protection authorities have issued an orange alert for coastal areas on Wednesday in advance of high wave action expected to return again.    Wednesdays waves are expected to be between 1.5 and 2.2 meters high and travel at 60 kilometers per hour. (Normal speed is 35 km/h).   The waves on May 2-3 had reached 2.7 meters high and a speed of 70 km/h.

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

Big business failing to pay taxes in El Salvador

This week El Salvador's Ministry of the Treasury issued a first of its kind report listing the corporations and the persons owing the greatest amounts in back taxes to the Salvadoran government. ContraPunto summarized what the report revealed:

Well known businesses in electric power, banks, telephone companies, insurance companies, drug stores, department stores, and airlines among others are among those who owe taxes to the government according to the list published by the Ministry of the Treasury. 
On the list you can find big businesses like CAESS [power utility], Citi Bank, Azteca bank, Santa Lucia drug stores, Telemovil, Digicel, TACA [airline], Siman [department stores], Channel 2, and other companies and individuals totaling 12,519 taxpayers who owe the state more than $372.6 million.

Publication of the list led many civil society groups to note that it would be much easier for El Salvador's government to make the investments to reduce crime which business interests desire, if those same business would pay the taxes they owe.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Violence displaces 289,000 in El Salvador in 2014

The headline in an Associated Press article today was El Salvador families abandon homes following gang threats. The story stated:

More than a dozen families have abandoned their homes in two rural communities following threats from gang members, police in El Salvador said Wednesday.... 
Residents loading their few possessions into trucks on Tuesday declined to give their names out of fear. They said gang members had gone house to house threatening families. 
The move comes after four members of one family were killed on April 27 in a turf battle. Some families said that even with police present they no longer felt safe.
The story is tragic, but it is incredibly common now in El Salvador.   A week ago I was in El Salvador when members of a family I know well called on the phone to say that gang members had burst into their house in the middle of the night, beat up women in the house and threatened the family.   Now that family has fled to spend their nights in another community.

Today numbers were released surrounding the magnitude of this problem   The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center published its report titled  Global Overview 2015: people internally displaced by conflict and violence.   According to the report and based on a survey by the UCA, 288,900 Salvadorans were displaced by violence during 2014.   That is an extraordinary number representing almost 1 out of every 20 Salvadorans.

It is also a problem which El Salvador's government barely acknowledges.  According to the IDMC Global Overview report at page 19:
El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have only recently begun to acknowledge displacement and set responses in motion, and as such the pursuit of durable solutions is still virtually non-existent. 
One organization working to document and protect the rights of these internally displaced persons is Foundation Cristosal.  Cristosal's Human Rights program, A Preferential Option for Victims, focuses on those families victimized by the organized violence in the country which makes them flee their homes.  

The problem has also been well reported by the online periodical El Faro, including this 2012 article with stories of families and pictures of their abandoned houses, covered with gang tags.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Rudy Guiliani comes to El Salvador

Former mayor of New York turned public security consultant Rudy Guiliani came to El Salvador today to describe his consulting firm's analysis of El Salvador's violent crime problems and proposed solutions. His remarks were made at a gathering of the National Association of Private Enterprise which has sponsored his consulting work in conjunction with President Sanchez Ceren's Citizen Security Council.  Guiliani spent a lot of time talking about how crime was reduced in New York City and Colombia, and asserting El Salvador could do the same.   Guiliani remarked that El Salvador needed a single-minded focus on disrupting the control of neighborhoods by gangs through vigorous law enforcement, long prison sentences, and prisons which actually prevent gangsters from continuing to commit crimes from within.

The entire conference is recorded here, and Guiliani's remarks begin at 4:14:00 in the video (which has somewhat poor audio quality and switches to Spanish dubbed translation about half way through).

Saturday, May 02, 2015

IPAZ calls for peace dialogue with gangs

Salvadoran church leaders who are part of the Pastoral Initiative for Life and for Peace (IPAZ) held a press conference, on Wednesday, April 29,  to advocate for dialogue in the face of growing violence in the country.   IPAZ called for a process of national dialogue, including dialogue with the country’s gangs, as the only path forward to achieve peace in the country afflicted with so much violence.

Text of IPAZ press release.

The IPAZ press conference followed a week after a joint communique purporting to come from the imprisoned leaders of the country’s largest gangs was released to the public.   The statement indicated agreement to a 26 point “peace process” proposed by Raul Mijango, one of the mediators of the original truce, including the gangs’ agreement to unilaterally reduce the level of violent acts being committed against the population, including attacks on the police and military.

According to a person with knowledge of the process, Raul Mijango has been talking to the imprisoned gang chieftains about a path forward.  He incorporated those concepts into a draft of the statement and returned to share it with those gang leaders.   The leaders affirmed that Mijango had correctly expressed their intentions.   Then the communique was finalized and released to the public.  

[However, it is not clear that these intentions of the gang leaders talking to Mijango were communicated to the rank and file gang members.   Murders have not had the immediate reduction which followed the agreement to the March 2012 truce.  I am hearing that gang members in other prisons say they know nothing about it].

In their communique, the gangs requested that the International Committee of the Red Cross and IPAZ participate in the process going forward.  The IPAZ leaders announced their affirmative response to this request.  IPAZ is the first organization to come out in favor of taking next steps in response to the gang communication.

The IPAZ leaders also commented negatively on the Salvadoran government’s current tactics of army rapid reaction battalions and having troops in the streets as a sole response to violence.    The bishops and pastors from IPAZ commented that in the country’s history, tactics of repression have never produced peaceful results for the population.

The IPAZ leaders summarized their position in this way:
In the name of God we call:

To the forces alive in the country to urgently come out in favor of dialogue and to put all of their energies, resources, gifts and talents into the search for peaceful alternatives.
To the Salvadoran State, to exhaust all its resources towards to way of dialogue
Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez, one of the members of IPAZ, indicated that pastors of the church had met in a pastoral role with gang leaders in prison, and that some had indicated that they were disposed to change their path of life.  One leader told Gomez that he had 4 children and did not want them to grow up in the gangs.    Bishop Gomez offered this example only to say that perhaps change was possible, and that only through conversation could there be conversion.  Thus Gomez and the other leaders of IPAZ urge the necessity of dialogue.

In the month leading up to the beatification ceremonies for Oscar Romero, IPAZ urged remembrance of Romero’s prophetic words “No mataras!” and that these words apply as well to the police in dealing with citizens

Monday, April 20, 2015

A court ordered vote recount in San Salvador

On Wednesday, April 22, election officials will start the process of opening 2872 ballot boxes from the department of San Salvador to re-count ballots vote by vote to determine the 24 seats in the National Assembly from San Salvador.   The election originally took place on March 1.

The recount was ordered by the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court.  The court found that there were sufficient irregularities in the vote tally sheets from San Salvador that the only remedy was to examine all of the individual ballots from the country's largest department.

The recount process may take a few weeks.  Because the balance of power was evenly split based in the initial vote count, this recount still has the possibility of changing who controls the majority in the National Assembly.

El Salvador's longest, most complicated election process continues on.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

From policing to a war footing

Photo -LaPrensaGrafica

There has been a war going on in El Salvador for many years involving El Salvador's gangs. The Mara Salvatrucha, the Barrio 18 and smaller gangs ruthlessly kill each other's members over territory, in retribution, or just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2012, the so-called "tregua" or truce among these gangs dramatically lowered the levels of killing until the truce dissolved in 2014.

Now the war seems to be taking a dangerous turn with El Salvador's armed forces going on a combat footing. The gangs are still warring with each other, but now the armed forces appear to be transitioning from patrolling the streets in dangerous parts of the country to active missions.

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén announced that El Salvador's army was readying three rapid reaction battalions of 400 soldiers each which could be deployed to the most dangerous zones in the country. There are already 7000 military personnel in the streets of the country to supplement police efforts on public security.

On Saturday, the armed forces confronted gang members in the community of Uluapa Ariba, in  Zacatecoluca in the department of La Paz,   The Twitter account of the armed forces reported that there has been a shoot-out with as many as 30 members of the Barrio 18 gang, which left 9 gang members dead and two captured.

Perhaps as retribution, two soldiers were murdered Saturday night and early Sunday morning in different parts of the country.

El Salvador's presidents from the right and from the left have believed that they need to call on the armed forces to fight crime in the country.   It's a politically popular move, but there is no evidence that over the past decade the presence of the armed forces in the streets has improved the situation of gang-sponsored violence.   The new, more combat-like focus of the deployed troops may only make things worse.