Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A history of destructive quakes

The 7.3 magnitude earthquake which shook El Salvador last week and left one person dead and caused some minor damage was a reminder of El Salvador's history of large, killer earthquakes.   This week the country's Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) delivered a set of historic documents and photographs to the country's national archives for safekeeping.   Some of the photos were released online which you can view here.

You can see scenes from the 1951 earthquake in this newsreel footage from the time:

Sunday, October 19, 2014

A painful year of mosquito-borne disease in El Salvador

Each year in El Salvador, the rainy season brings the problem of mosquito-borne illnesses.   This year, in addition to dengue fever, mosquitoes have brought the Chikungunya virus for the first time.   This diseases which originated in Africa arrived for the first time in the Americas in 2013.

El Salvador's health ministry is reporting that the number of cases of  Chikungunya has finally stabilized after increasing steadily since May of this year.   The country has reported some 59,000 suspected cases of the mosquito-borne disease since the virus first appeared in El Salvador in 2014.  Symptoms of the disease include a high fever and severe joint pain which can become chronic.
The 59,000 cases exceeds this year's total cases of dengue fever which currently stand at 46,830 suspected cases.     Both diseases are transmitted by the same breeds of mosquitoes, the aedes aegypti and aedes albopictus,

There is no vaccine or treatment for chikungunya.    Prevention is accomplished by avoiding mosquito bites -- wear long pants and sleeves and use insect repellent.   Authorities in El Salvador are combating dengue and chikungunya by fumigating and encouraging Salvadorans to prevent standing water where the mosquitoes can breed.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

1992 Peace Accords -- now in government hands

The 1992 Peace Accords brought an end to twelve long bloody years of civil war in El Salvador.   Yet the original signed document had not been in the possession of the government.   Former president Alfredo Cristiani has been keeping the original signed document at his house for the past 20 years.   Today he returned the historic document to the government.   And in the picture above we see Cristiani, the former ARENA president who governed during the last years of the war, delivering the Peace Accords to current president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the former commander in the FMLN guerrilla army.   Both Cristiani and Sanchez Ceren were among the original signers of the accords in 1992.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

7.3 Earthquake off coast of El Salvador, one dead

A strong earthquake struck off the shore of eastern El Salvador last night.   Reports this morning say that one person was killed after electricity lines fell on him.    Approximately 20 houses have been reported damaged and some areas are still without power this morning.

From Reuters and The Guardian:

A magnitude-7.3 earthquake struck off the coast of El Salvador and Nicaragua late on Monday and was felt across Central America, killing at least one person. 
There were no immediate reports of major damage. El Salvador’s emergency services said a dozen homes in the department of Usulutan had been slightly damaged but that coastal areas appeared calm and the country’s international airport was unaffected. 
Wilfredo Salgado, mayor of the city of San Miguel in El Salvador, tweeted to say that a man was killed when an electricity post fell on him. “It felt really powerful, suddenly the whole house started to move,” said Xiomara Amaya, 30, who lives in Usulutan.

More details from La Pagina here (in Spanish).   Tsunami warnings have been lifted as no tsunami waves materialized.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Taiwan gave millions to Flores who gave it to ARENA

El Salvador's president from 1999-2004 was Francisco Flores.   During his presidency, two killer earthquakes hit El Salvador in early 2001 killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.   As the country worked to re-build following those quakes, the government of Taiwan delivered $10 million to Flores, with the purported explanation that it was intended for the victims of the earthquakes.  

Flores is now under arrest and being held in jail on corruption charges.   His arrest came after it became clear that the millions did not go to earthquake relief, but until now we did not know where the money had actually gone.  In a story reported on October 2, the journalists at El Faro revealed that most of the $10 million had been doled out in dozens of checks to support the presidential campaign of ARENA candidate Tony Saca:

The money went into such efforts as Saca's "Casa por casa" -- "house by house" -- campaign effort, into ARENA rallies and events and "citizen mobilization."

El Faro obtained access to copies of 156 bank checks used in the Attorney General's investigation.   They show a specific effort to finance the presidential campaign of Tony Saca in 2003 and early 2004, including 41 checks to Élmer Charlaix, Saca's campaign manager who would later take a post in the Saca administration.

So far, only ex-president Flores, and not the recipients of his Taiwanese gifts, is being prosecuted for corruption.  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Norman Quijano quits San Salvador mayor's race

Incumbent San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano has decided to withdraw from running for a third term.   Quijano, from the right wing ARENA party, was the party's presidential candidate earlier this year and lost in the second round of the presidential elections by a scant six thousand votes.  He has been the mayor of San Salvador since 2009.

In the announcement of his decision on Wednesday, Quijano simply stated that everything had its own cycle and it was time to close this cycle of his life.

ARENA party officials announced that Quijano would be one of the party's candidates in the 2015 elections for deputies in the National Assembly.

Former president Mauricio Funes speculated that Quijano must have been forced out of the race by ARENA party "oligarchy", and that the oligarchs wanted someone who would protect their particular interests.   

ARENA indicated it would name a new candidate for mayor of the country's largest city withing 10 days.  Ana Vilma de Escobar,  the country's vice president under Tony Saca, gave an interview to La Pagina where it was clear she would be happy to be asked by ARENA to run.

The new ARENA candidate will face Nayib Bukele, the popular young FMLN mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlan, and Walter Araujo for GANA.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Community policing in Santa Ana

An article from Fronteras describes a community policing initiative in Santa Ana which has been developed with help from the US:

“It is all part of this philosophy of prevention,” said James Rose, the State Department’s regional gang adviser, who works out of the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. “To achieve prevention you have to have a proactive attitude from the police.” 
The State Department helped the Santa Ana police make a number of reforms, including implementing new data collection strategies, creating programs to keep kids out of crime and introducing community policing techniques. 
“Knowing your community, knowing who is there, who is coming, who is going, who is involved in criminal activity,” Rose said. “What changes are going on. What the concerns are of the community. And by doing that [the police] are able to win the trust of the community and they are able to collect that useful data.”   
The model is a contrast to the mano dura — or iron-fist policies — that Salvadoran police used in the past. 
Rose said right after the U.S. launched its program with the Santa Ana precinct in 2011, the agency used the new techniques to prevent future gang homicides. By analyzing the data of past homicides, Santa Ana officers found a pattern. 
“One clique was responsible for over 60 percent of [gang] homicides,” Rose said. “So then they knew how to create a tactic to lower the homicide rates: they went after that clique.” (more)
Community policing is a central part of the public security strategy slowly being developed by the Sanchez Ceren administration.   It reflects part of the only way El Salvador is going to reclaim its neighborhoods from the gangs -- street by street, relationship by relationship.

Monday, October 06, 2014

El Salvador's Constitutional Chamber and the will of the voters

The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court continues to issue rulings impacting the respective rights of voters and political parties in the country.  On October 1 the Constitutional Chamber ruled that deputies elected to the National Assembly under the banner of one party could not defect to form another party.  They can declare themselves independent, but they may not adopt another party affiliation.

The ruling stemmed from a group of dissident ARENA deputies who had formed themselves into a new grouping "United for El Salvador."   The court found that these party defections violated voter's rights to choose deputies belonging to a political party and ideology.   If deputies could be elected under the banner of one party and then shortly afterwards defect to another, the will of the voters could be thwarted.  Deputies must not defect to another party until the next election when they are free to change alliances.

At first blush this ruling might seem to run counter to earlier rulings of the Constitutional Chamber which have seemed to diminish the power of party leadership.   Now party leaders can be more assured of ongoing loyalty of their deputies, something ARENA has had problems with in recent years.   But I think this ruling is really consistent with the basic thread in the recent court rulings -- voters should have the right to choose the candidates they want, whether those candidates are sponsored by parties or are independents.   And now when they choose a candidate from one party, voters are assured that candidate will not suddenly declare allegiance another party for whom the voter did not cast a ballot.

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Pope Francis and El Salvador's bishops

There is an interesting article from Tim Johnson of McClatchey this weekend titled Latin America feeling ‘Francis effect’  about Pope Francis and how his vision of where the Roman Catholic church needs to go may be received by the church hierarchy in El Salvador:
In ways large and small, Pope Francis is having an impact on Roman Catholics in Latin America. He’s pushing ahead with sainthood for a controversial martyred prelate in El Salvador. He’s mending fences with proponents of a theology that the Vatican once shunned for its Marxist whiff. And he’s cautiously embraced new, livelier styles of worship that his predecessors had discouraged. 
The changes have won Pope Francis grassroots support, even as they have rattled the church’s bishops, most of whom were installed during the tenures of his more conservative predecessors. 
Nowhere is that conflict more evident than in this small Central American country, where a generation ago the church was at the center of what would become a civil war that would claim tens of thousands of lives. 
It was aboard an Alitalia charter in mid-August that the pontiff announced that he was pressing the Vatican bureaucracy to hurry with the beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, an advocate for the poor and a critic of the Salvadoran military who was slain by a right-wing assassin in 1980. 
“It’s very important to move in haste,” Francis told reporters aboard the airliner. “For me, Romero is a man of God.” 
El Salvador’s bishops reacted with public delight, but longtime observers said there was anything but glee behind closed doors among those who still view Monsignor Romero as a sympathizer of the political left. 
“The beatification of Monsignor Romero will be like a bucket of cold water for them. They neither agreed with him in his life nor after his death,” said Carlos Ayala Ramirez, the director of the radio station at the Jesuit Central American University in San Salvador.
Read the rest of the article here.

Saturday, October 04, 2014

Passionate social worker, government go-between or gangster priest?

When Spanish priest Father Antonio Rodriguez (Padre Toño) pled guilty to influence peddling and bringing contraband into prisons one month ago today, it surprised many of his followers.  The plea, in return for a suspended sentence, was yet another strange turn in the so-called "truce" begun in 2012 with El Salvador's notorious gangs.

The prosecution of Padre Toño was based on a set of intercepted telephone calls between the priest and imprisoned leaders of the Barrio 18 gang.   The online periodical El Faro obtained a set of those recording from a government source and published a set of some of the recordings.  In the accompanying article, El Faro discusses a number of the revelations in the recordings including discussions between the priest and gang leaders about getting them cell phones and reducing the level of cell phone signal blocking being used at the prison.  El Faro also reveals that the prosecutors had certain recordings of "intimate conversations" of the priest which they used to pressure him to accept the guilty plea deal.

Seth Robbins at Global Post listened to the recordings and described his impressions in an article titled How one Spanish priest went gangster in Central America:

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador — Spanish priest Antonio Rodriguez talks to the 18th Street gang’s most violent and highest-ranking members as though they are some of his oldest, closest friends.  
He teases them, messes with their nicknames, praises their wives, complains to them about his health. When they call, he drops his native accent for a harder Salvadoran one, and leaves his clerical decorum behind, peppering his speech with curses like “puta.”  
"How are you, payasito loco” — "crazy little clown" — he greets Douglas Geovany Velasquez, a gangster serving 35 years for aggravated homicide. In calls secretly recorded by Salvadoran authorities, Rodriguez promises that he will try to have Velasquez transferred to a lower-security prison on a “strategic day” when “there are marches.”  
Velasquez was moved on April 30, a day before El Salvador’s labor day.
Officials recorded the calls as part of an investigation that found Rodriguez to have sought favors for gang members and smuggled contraband into prisons. In one conversation, the priest informs a gangster that the attorney general has recordings of him ordering killings. Gangsters also ask “Padre Toño,” as Rodriguez is known throughout El Salvador, to bring them cell phones and chips, using what seems to be code: Chips are called “children” and phones, “babies.”  
This month, after weeks of protesting his innocence, Rodriguez finally confessed to smuggling phones into a prison, and received two years’ probation in lieu of jail time. He was allowed to leave for Spain, where supporters and family members greeted him as a victim of political persecution.  
But the conversations make clear that Rodriguez had converted, over his decade and a half here, from a promoter of rehabilitation programs for gangsters to an ally and collaborator of the gangs. And there is little question that the priest knew what he was doing was wrong. “Speak freely,” he told Velasquez in one conversation. “This phone isn’t pinched.”
After Padre Toño left El Salvador for his native Spain, the Associated Press interviewed him in an article which correctly describes the case as "murky":
The 37-year-old priest said he was working at the behest of a government keen on reducing bloodshed. 
"If (the jailed gangsters) commit to lowering homicides, it is important that they enjoy benefits such as bringing in their children, conjugal visits, access to outside food," he said. 
Rodriguez added that nothing could have happened without the approval of the security minister and the prisons chief. 
"If I am guilty of influence trafficking, so are others," Rodriguez said. "Where is the minister? Where is the prisons director?" 
Rodriguez's assertions are backed up by wiretapped conversations with jailed gang members that were leaked to El Faro newspaper recently. Rodriguez confirmed their authenticity.  
The recordings are full of talk of Rodriguez's meetings with "higher-ups." In one, the priest says "Sanchez Ceren gave the order to continue with this process."  In another, he talks of bringing an inmate's transfer request to the prison director and to the "real boss" — apparently Perdomo. 
The recordings indicate that politics may have played a role in the desire for peace ahead of the May 2014 presidential vote. Sanchez Ceren won to succeed Mauricio Funes; both are from the ruling FMLN party.
Murky at best, the case of Padre Toño, shows the perils for anyone who might act in the role of a mediator with the gangs.   If anything goes wrong, you can be sure that every government official will run the other way and claim they never authorized anything.  That has been the case for Padre Toño, and for the prominent mediator Raul Mijango who the Attorney General wants to prosecute.  It would probably also be the case for Bishop Colindres, if he were not the Roman Catholic bishop for the country's armed forces.