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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Legislators ignore calls to protect El Salvador's water

Photo - MARN

This month has seen concerted and united effort by environmental and human rights groups in El Salvador to pass a constitutional reform to declare water and adequate food as basic human rights.  The amendment to El Salvador's constitution must be passed before the current legislative session ends on April 30, or the effort must start over.

A 2010 article from IPS titled El Salvador: Most Water-Stressed Country in Central America provided the statistics which show the necessity for laws to protect the country's water resource:
El Salvador is one of the most deforested countries in Latin America, and its high population density of 300 inhabitants per square kilometre, and the fact that 63 percent of the population lives in cities, lead to high demand for water, which is not available to everyone, Cuellar said. 
Official figures from 2008 show that only 55 percent of rural-dwellers have piped water, compared to 90 percent of the urban population. 
In the countryside, families not connected to the water grid depend on non-potable water from wells and rivers, which are also drying up due to the high demand. 
El Salvador is the third most unequal country in the region in terms of access to water, according to the Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean, “Acting On The Future: Breaking The Intergenerational Cycle Of Inequality”, published in July [2010] by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The UNDP study reports that 88 percent of the richest households in this country have access to water, compared to 44 percent of the poorest families. 
Ángel Ibarra of the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES), a local NGO, said man-made environmental damages have affected the water cycle, and today much of the surface water does not seep into the ground, replenishing aquifers, but instead flows uncontrolled, causing floods.
The Voices on the Borders blog describes the years during which activists have also pushed for water legislation called the General Water Law:
The most emblematic is the General Water Law, which was first presented to the Legislative Assembly in 2006. It is incredibly irresponsible that in 9 years legislators have yet to approve a law that regulates the use of water. El Salvador is on the brink of a water crisis, and the government must take action, but the legislature seems paralyzed. 
Carolina Amaya, an environmental activist at the Salvadoran Ecological Unit argues that the reason they have not passed the General Water Law is that business leaders have close ties to right-wing legislators. These private, for-profit interests want to control water resources through privatization, and their representatives in the Legislature have been holding up the bill on the their behalf. Ms. Amaya says that giving private businesses control over water management would be like putting the fox in charge of the hen house.
An  article in The Guardian explains that the current pressure for a constitutional amendment reflects the April 30 deadline to get the amendment passed:
And now a constitutional amendment for El Salvador to recognise water and food as human rights is set to expire. In 2012, the Salvadoran legislative assembly voted unanimously in favour of the amendment. But Salvadoran law states that a vote for constitutional reform must be supported by two consecutive legislatures – the bill is introduced by one legislature and ratified by the following one. If the amendment is not ratified by the current legislature by 30 April 2015, it becomes void. Even if the new legislature were to reintroduce the bill, it would take another four to six years to ratify. 
If passed, however, the formal recognition of water and food as human rights would provide a strong tool in the struggle to protect water in El Salvador. It would affirm the primacy of local access to water supplies and ecosystem needs over foreign interests. Although the current government has vowed to maintain a de facto moratorium on metal mining that has been in place since 2008, without binding legislation environmental groups fear that this stopgap measure will not provide the long-term water strategy the country needs.
The amendment is supported by the FMLN, by the Catholic church, by more than 130 international organizations, and El Salvador's human rights ombudsman.   Conservative deputies from the ARENA, PDC and PCN parties oppose the amendment and have blocked it from moving forward.

The Foro del Agua, the umbrella organization for efforts surrounding protection of rights to water, has been organizing protests all month:

I have had many posts on the water issues on this blog over the years.   You can read them by using the "Water" tag on the blog.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Expelling Salvadoran human rights abusers

Former General Eugenio Vides Casanova was deported this week from the US, and arrived in El Salvador on a plane full of other Salvadorans who US authorities were deporting. An article today in The Independent describes the legal proceedings in the US, which led to the former general's inglorious return to El Salvador after living in the US since 1989. He will be able to live freely in El Salvador, protected by a 1993 Amnesty Law which blocked prosecutions for crimes committed during El Salvador's civil war.

Groups of protesters, representing victims of human rights abuses committed by troops under Vides Casanova's command, were at the airport to denounce ongoing impunity in El Salvador.

In other news, the US announced that it wants to extradite to Spain former Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, one of 20 former military officers being tried in a Spanish court for their roles in the 1989 killing of the Jesuits.   Montano had been imprisoned on immigration charges in the US following conviction for lying on his papers when he originally entered the US.

Monday, April 06, 2015

The churches, the gangs, and the truce

At Passionist Social Services, St. Francis de Assisi parish, Mejicanos

Writing in Christian Century, Paul Jeffrey has an article titled simply "Truce"  which looks at the role of various priests and churches in the now-collapsed gang truce and other violence prevention initiatives in El Salvador.   Here's an excerpt:
Life may get more difficult soon in Mejicanos. At the beginning of this year, the national legislature approved a packet of new laws strengthening the powers of police and prosecutors in the fight against gangs. Government officials told police officers—who wear ski masks when patrolling neighborhoods with gangs—that they need not worry about being second-guessed when they use their weapons to shoot gang members. 
Bodies of executed gang members started to appear along roadsides, reminding many of the social cleansing carried out by death squads in decades past. 
In Mejicanos the Passionist priests aren’t easily scared off. They took charge of the St. Francis church in 1979, immediately following the martyrdom of two priests serving the parish. Although Father Rodríguez is gone, other members of the order remain. “It doesn’t make sense to remember someone crucified 2,000 years ago if we don’t accompany those who are crucified today,” said San Martin. 
Although the latest renewal of mano dura seems to be backed by many in San Salvador, some activists suggest such popular support constitutes an indictment of the church’s failure to do its job. 
“The church preaches what people want to hear, which is hope for personal salvation and forgiveness for their sins, not the sins of others,” said Baptist pastor Arevalo. “The church responds to a religious market that doesn’t demand a call to forgive our enemies or work for peace even at the cost of our lives. The market demands a vindictive god, a repressive god, so that’s what the church offers.”
 Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Processions of the faithful mark Good Friday in El Salvador

In El Salvador, with its culture deeply rooted in Roman Catholicism, each Good Friday sees processions and religious events commemorating the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.    Here are a collection of images and links to media galleries sharing sights from around the country.

As Good Friday approaches, streets in many towns are covered with alfombras, colorful carpets of colored salt showing religious and artistic scenes:

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Those carpets would be walked across during Good Friday processions.  One of the most traditional and colorful is the Via Crucis procession in Nahizalco:

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A procession through San Salvador:

Photo - LaPrensaGrafica

Good Friday ends with processions of the Holy Burial, commemorating the burial of Jesus in the tomb after he is taken down from the cross.

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Friday, April 03, 2015

El Salvador sees most violent month in 10 years

The following post is being reprinted from the website of InsightCrime.

Written by David Gagne

El Salvador reported more homicides in March than in any other month over the past 10 years, a high-water mark for violence in an evolving criminal dynamic that is taking on overtones of a low intensity war.

El Salvador's National Civil Police (PNC) registered 481 homicides during the month of March, for an average rate of 16 murders per day,according to La Prensa Grafica. The previous record for murders during the last 10 years was in October 2009, when the PNC recorded 437.

El Salvador's homicide figures during the past month represent a 52 percent increase from March 2014. At that time, former director of the PNC, Rigoberto Pleites, told Salvadoran media the country's 2012 gang truce was "technically finished" due to the rising number of homicides.

According to authorities, El Salvador witnessed six massacres last month, including the killing of eight individuals at a truck stop on March 29.

El Salvador also registered 243 missing persons from January 1 through February 22, for an average of 4.5 disappearances per day, reported El
InSight Crime Analysis

Although El Salvador has long struggled with high rates of violence, the conflict has taken on a more confrontational tone between security forces and gangs since the breakdown of the 2012 truce between the MS13 and Barrio 18 street gangs. Last week, for example, an alleged gang member threw a grenade at a police station in the northern department of Cabañas. Nearly 40 police officers were killed in 2014 as a result of this high level of aggression against security forces, and so far 2015 is projected to slightly outpace last year's number.

Salvadoran police have responded in kind, and in January the director of the PNC told his officers to shoot at criminals without fear of repercussions. In February, a police official summed up the current security conditions in El Salvador by saying "we're at war" with the country's gangs. These public comments by high-level security officials are likely attempts to show their support for the rank and file police officers, who are the most vulnerable to gang violence and have reported feeling overmatched by well-armed criminal groups.

However, El Salvador's record-high murder rate last month suggests matching violence with more violence is not an effective security strategy. In contrast, Ecuador has significantly lowered homicides from 2011 levels in part by professionalizing the country's police forces and improving relations between security personnel and local communities.

The battle between security forces and gangs in El Salvador appears to be a pattern that will shape violence during 2015.

This article originally appeared on the website of InsightCrime.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Final thoughts on 2015 national elections

After almost a month of vote counting, you can see all the final results of El Salvador's March 1 elections here at the TSE website.   Two things are worth noting in my final post about those elections: the country is evenly split between left and right, and Nayib Bukele, not the FMLN, won the mayor's office in San Salvador.

In the 2014, presidential elections, Salvador Sanchez Ceren and the FMLN defeated Norman Quijano and ARENA by only 6000 votes out of 3 million votes cast, a difference of 0.22%.   That even split continues to show itself in the votes cast in 2015.   In races for the National Assembly, ARENA had 38.77% of the vote and the FMLN had 37.28% of the votes.     When you include the normal alliances among parties, ARENA and its allies have 42 seats in the National Assembly.   The FMLN and its ally GANA also have 42 seats.     In the races for the Central American Parliament, ARENA and the FMLN each won 8 seats and the minor parties divide up the remaining 4 seats.    

The very even split, especially in the National Assembly, ends up giving extra bargaining power to the small parties and GANA who can shift a majority one way or another with their support.   Neither the FMLN nor ARENA can advance anything by itself, but both have sufficient strength to block any action which requires a super-majority vote of the legislature.

In the race for mayor of San Salvador, the story line was the personal appeal of young, hip Nayib Bukele.   Looking at the votes, it is clear that his personal appeal had more to do with his election victory than his party affiliation with the FMLN.    In recent years, the party of the former guerrillas has struggled in the capital city.   In 2009 and 2012 elections, ARENA claimed the mayor's office.    In 2014, the FMLN trailed in presidential voting in San Salvador.   This year, in the elections for the National Assembly, ARENA garnered 49% of the votes to only 37% for the FMLN.    

Yet in the mayoral election, the story was different.  Bukele won 48.5% to 46.5%.     He had 23,000 more votes than the FMLN received for its deputies in the National Assembly.      While the FMLN has been celebrating its recapture of the mayor's office in San Salvador,  this victory belongs much less to the party than to its candidate who pointedly never wore the party colors. 


Saturday, March 28, 2015

US still only place Salvadoran war crimes have been adjudicated

Stanford Professor Terry Karl has an essay titled El Salvador: Changing the U.S. Legal System but Can It Change Its Own? in the new online periodical Factum, founded by Salvadoran journalists Héctor Silva Ávalos and Orus Villacorta.  Professor Karl has long studied El Salvador's civil war and human rights issues and has testified as an expert in several trials of these issues in US courts.

Prof. Karl highlights the recent decision of the Board of Immigration Appeals ruling that former Salvadoran Defense Minister Vides Casanova could be deported from the US for his responsibility for human rights abuses during the civil war:

The Vides ruling is especially significant because it connects the legal doctrine of command responsibility, developed in the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II, to the ability to remove human rights abusers from the U.S. Command responsibility is demonstrated legally when three elements are present: 1) forces subordinate to a commander commit abuses; 2) the commander knew or should have known about these violations; and 3) the commander failed to take the necessary measures to prevent these crimes or investigate and punish the abusers. By ruling that General Vides’ government troops committed widespread atrocities, was repeatedly informed about these violations, and failed to punish anyone under his command, he met these three requirements. In making its ruling, the BIA discussed specific cases involving the torture of Salvadorans and the murders of Americans in the so-called “churchwomen” and Sheraton cases. 
From a historical perspective, the Vides ruling marks a momentous shift. Where the U.S. once clandestinely offered safe haven (not to mention social security payments) to former Nazis and other war criminals, it will now be easier to deport foreigners who were once top commanders, based on human rights violations committed by the soldiers who served under them.
Prof. Karl points to changes in US policy towards human rights abusers found in the US -- where the country once allowed such abusers to stay in the country, the US now may actively seek to deport them.  The action against Vides Casanova is being brought by the Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as part of a policy to not allow the US to be a safe haven for human rights violators.

On March 25, the New York Times reported that Vides Casanova has now been detained by immigration authorities in Florida pending his deportation from the US.  He has little risk of being prosecuted in his own country for activities during the civil war so long as the 1993 amnesty law remains in effect.   As Prof. Karl notes, while the cases of human rights abuses in El Salvador have produced changes in US law, impunity continues to reign in El Salvador.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thousands rally for peace in El Salvador

Tens of thousands of Salvadorans dressed in white took to the streets today in a March for Life, Peace and Justice. The march had been called by the government and its National Council on Citizen Security and Social Peace.    It was supported by churches throughout the country who called for the faithful to join this demonstration for a more peaceful El Salvador.   The government numbered the marchers at half a million.

Participating in a branch of the march which left from the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador to the Plaza Salvador del Mundo, auxiliary archbishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez stated “We are happy with the response of the people and the atmosphere the reigns in this demonstration of hope, of joy, and also of commitment."

President Salvador Sanchez Ceren used the occasion to announce that his government would soon introduce a law for reinsertion of gang members into society and for prevention efforts aimed at those at risk.

El Salvador's need for peace was violently illustrated in the early hours of the morning before the march as eight purported members of the Barrrio 18 gang were killed in a shoot-out with police in the department of La Libertad.