Monday, September 01, 2014

Economic statistics -- poverty and the middle class both shrinking in El Salvador

In recent weeks, there has been a release of data about the economic well-being of Salvadoran households from the UN and from the government of El Salvador.   The data shows several things:

  • A slow but steady reduction in poverty
  • Significant differences between urban and rural areas
  • A growing vulnerable population who have escaped poverty, but have not achieved middle class status.
  • A middle class which is actually shrinking 
The first set of charts comes from El Salvador's annual national multi-purpose household survey.

Average monthly household income has increased every year since 2010 to $660 in urban areas, but only $361 in rural areas.

Poverty has declined to a level of 30% of households, with rates ranging from 26% in urban areas to 36% in rural areas.

Extreme poverty, which increased in 2011, has declined in the past two years, falling to levels of 7.1% nationally, 5.7% in urban areas and 9.8% in rural areas.

Average numbers of years of school completed reached 9.2 in urban areas, while only at 5.6 years in rural areas.

Illiteracy has declined to 7.6% in urban areas and 18.9% in rural areas.

The number of households with access to piped water has steadily increased to 94% in urban areas and 72% in rural areas.

While El Salvador has made progress in reducing the level of poverty in the country, the middle class has actually shrunk.   What has grown is an economic class which the UN Development Program calls the "vulnerable" class:   households which live just above the poverty line and are constantly vulnerable to the impact of a bad harvest or a natural disaster or illness.  

This chart from the UN Development Program, shows the distribution of economic classes in countries in Latin America, from poor (less than $4 per day) to vulnerable ($4 to $10 per day) to middle class.  In El Salvador, the middle class is only 1/6 of the population, while 83% of the country is poor or vulnerable. Only Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua have smaller middle classes.

Otto Rock produced this chart from the UN data showing which Latin American countries grew their middle class and which had a shrinking middle class.  El Salvador's middle class has actually shrunk by 1.8% between 2000-2012.

In an address after receiving the UN Human Development Report, president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, pointed to the increase in average household monthly income and the drop in illiteracy which he attributed to the free school packets program started under the administration of Mauricio Funes.   Sanchez Ceren went on to list all the ways in which his government hoped to promote improved economic and security conditions in the country.

When I look at these numbers, I find it hard to give any credit to any Salvadoran government for reducing the level of poverty.  The reduction in poverty is most easily explained by the impact of remittances.  Remittances from Salvadorans outside of the country dwarf the impact of any government anti-poverty programs.   The $4 billion in expected remittances for 2014 equals roughly $1.80 per day for every man, woman and child in El Salvador.    Remittances can't create a middle class, however.   Only investment in people and true job creation can do that.  

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Gangs announce a new phase of the truce

Communications issued by El Salvador's largest gangs this weekend declare that the gangs have decided to relaunch the truce process which started in March 2012, but seemed to have largely fallen apart two years later.

From Reuters:
Leaders of El Salvador's major gangs on Friday said their members would no longer attack police and the military in a bid to revive a tattered gang truce and slash high rates of violence that have rocked the Central American nation. 
Kingpins of five Salvadoran gangs, including Barrio 18 and its rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), said the agreement was reached last Sunday to relaunch a March 2012 truce that cut homicide rates by 40 percent.
A report from al Jazeera described the communique from the gangs:
"We are all victims of the situation of violence that afflicts the country, and we can't see positive results if we do not promise our determined collaboration," said the leaders.   
It said gang members would also seek to avoid attacking "civilian victims," who are often executed to pressure family members into paying extortion money. 
The gangs have asked the government to "provide facilities" so that churches and civil authorities can facilitate dialogue to resolve conflicts between the groups. 
They said the terms of their original truce remain in effect, which include a cessation of hostilities between gang members and "action" against family members and trustees of the police and the prison system. 
The leaders also promised to suspend "forced recruitment" and stop "all forms of harassment" in schools and provide guarantees for the free movement of aid and medical groups in areas under the control of their members.
The reference to the government "providing facilities" so that churches and civil society can dialogue with the gangs would appear to be a reference to the initiative of the churches called "IPAZ" which I wrote about earlier this week.

There have not been any comments released from government leaders about this latest statement of intention from the gangs.  The outset of the original truce in March 2012 resulted in an immediate drop in the homicide rate in the country of more than 50%, although crimes such as extortion where the gangs make much of their income did not show a similar decline.  As a result, the Salvadoran public has been deeply suspicious of the so-called truce, and politicians at the national level in the country have distanced themselves from having anything to do with the truce.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Court reforming El Salvador's democracy

The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court continues to issue rulings which increase the ability of citizens to participate in the democracy and lessen the power of  party leadership.   In a unanimous ruling by all five judges on Tuesday, the Chamber held that El Salvador's Law of Political Parties is unconstitutional for failing to include provisions requiring transparency in the finances of the political parties and in failing to require representative democracy in party's internal elections to choose leaders and candidates for office.  

The National Assembly will now have two months to amend the Law of Political Parties to comply with the Chamber's ruling.   The ruling will not affect the choice of candidates for the March 2015 elections, however.

The  Constitutional Chamber, in a series of rulings, has strengthened the voice of individual voters by allowing them to vote for individual candidates for National Assembly rather than closed lists assembled by the parties, and by allowing independent candidates not affiliated with any of the parties.  The decisions have angered old guard party officials from both ends of the political spectrum, but they have grudgingly complied.   This latest ruling is likely to produce similar reactions.

This week's ruling came as the result of a petition filed by the Social Initiative for Democracy, a civil society organization promoting democratic processes in the country.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Pastoral initiative for peace

A group of churches in El Salvador yesterday made public their proposals to the government for working on the problem of gang-fueled violence in El Salvador.   Calling itself "IPAZ," the Pastoral Initiative for Life and Peace, the group of Protestant and Catholic churches propose a "tridimensional dialogue" between the churches, the gangs and civil society to seek an understanding for a reduction in the levels of violence and homicides.  IPAZ proposes to be the facilitator of this process.

The church leaders do not describe this process as a continuation of the so-called truce process, but instead an attempt to rescue those pieces of that process which had produced positive results.   They expressed a certainty that there were various gang members who truly did want to give up lives of crime.   IPAZ stands opposed to those who would say there can be no dialogue with the gangs.

IPAZ specifically does not call for the government to negotiate with the gangs or gang leaders.   But IPAZ does want the government to leave open the spaces in which dialogue between the gangs and civil society and the churches can occur.   As part of this openness, the churches need assurance that they will not be viewed as criminals for having a dialogue with the gangs in the fashion of the current prosecution of Padre Toño.

The churches do call for the government to be involved in prevention, rehabilitation, and reinsertion of former gang members back into society.  They urge the PNC to respect the human rights of citizens and communities when the PNC engages in anti-gang tactics.  IPAZ supports the government's recent move towards community policing.

IPAZ was founded in November 2012, at a point when the truce process had achieved a greater than 60% reduction in the level of homicides in the country.

You can read a document describing the constituent parts of IPAZ here.   The proposal the group made to the government can be found here.   Yesterday's statement to the press is available here.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Family of Padre Toño speaks out

In Spain, they are waiting anxiously for progress on the case of Spanish priest Fr. Antonio Rodriguez (Padre Toño), arrested in El Salvador for alleged complicity with the gangs.   The periodical El Pais has the story::

Father Toño has been accused of bringing prohibited objects such as cellphones into prisons and of having direct ties to various Mara leaders. Both investigations are in the preliminary stages. It could take up to six months for the authorities to make a decision. On Friday, Father Toño was transferred to a prison under the supervision of the Salvadoran police’s narcotics division after spending a week in hospital with low blood pressure. His lawyers intend to appeal the judge’s decision and the Spanish Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was keeping up with the case, though declined to share any details. 
[Father Toño's sister] Cristina has taken two trips to El Salvador to see her brother. She said Father Toño set up workshops, clinics equipped with machines for removing gang tattoos, and schools for children. “After giving mass every morning, there is always a line of people waiting outside to ask him for help. I remember once a woman told him that her 10-year-old son had disappeared. We spent two days going all over the place until we found the boy, his body all cut up.”... 
Antonio Rodríguez Tercero began attending the old Cristo de la Luz boarding school in Daimiel when he was six years old. “He only got out at weekends and he always brought me a carnation,” his mother, Carmen, says while wiping away her tears with a handkerchief. At 10 years old, he went to Zaragoza to join the Congregation of the Passion of Jesus Christ and stayed there until he finished his novitiate. He worked as a waiter to earn money to pay for seminary courses. He then moved to Madrid for two years before heading to El Salvador. “He wanted to follow in the footsteps of Monsignor Romero [a defender of human rights who was assassinated in the Central American country] and that’s why he chose that destination,” his mother says, her blue eyes shining like her son’s.
Read the rest of the article here.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

It's campaign time again

El Salvador held close and polarizing presidential elections in March; now the country is heading into the campaign season for mayors of every municipality and for deputies in the National Assembly.  The elections will be held on March 1, 2015.

Already a couple of races look interesting.

The FMLN announced that its candidate for may of San Salvador will be Nayib Bukele, the popular 33 year old mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlan.   Bukele will be competing against current San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano who will be running for a third term after his unsuccessful presidential bid.  Also announced as a candidate is Walter Araujo, a former member of ARENA who quit the party and will now run under the GANA banner.

Nayib Bukele

Equally interesting will be the race for mayor of Santa Tecla.   Until the past year, the mayor of Santa Tecla was Oscar Ortiz, the popular FMLN politician who is now the country's vice president.   With Ortiz out of the picture, ARENA is putting a big effort into getting the seat and all signs point to ARENA nominating Roberto D'Aubuisson, Jr..   D'Aubuisson is the son of Roberto D'Aubuisson, the founder of ARENA and a man responsible for death squads and the murder of Oscar Romero, among other crimes against humanity.  The FMLN's candidate will be Armando Flores, the ex-minister of the economy.  

Roberto D'Aubuisson, Jr.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Remarks of Pope Francis stir hopes for Romero sainthood

There is excitement in El Salvador among those of who have long-called for the Roman Catholic Church to beatify slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero.   The excitement stems from remarks made by Pope Francis during his return from his recent trip to Asia.  As usual, our friend Carlos at the Super Martyrio blog has the most complete coverage:
Francis: "Romero is a man of God"
Pope Francis has spoken explicitly for the first time about his desire to see the beatification of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero of El Salvador, saying that, “For me, Romero is a man of God” and stating that there are no more doctrinal problems standing in the way of the martyred prelate’s beatification. “It is important to do it quickly,” the Pontiff added.

Francis made his remarks aboard the papal plane flying back from his trip to Korea on Monday, August 18, 2014. The Pope was asked by a reporter about the status of the beatification cause and the Pontiff responded that theologians still need to clarify whether Romero was killed because of his faith. Francis even suggested a way for theologians to resolve what has been the stickiest issue in the process. “What I would like is that they clarify when there's a martyrdom for hatred of the faith — for confessing the faith — as well as for doing the work for the other that Jesus commands,” the Pontiff was quoted as saying.

Under Francis’ proposed solution, death for the cause of Christian justice—sometimes called «odium iustitiae»—would be established as an alternative formula to prove martyrdom in relation to the traditional test (called «odium fidei» or “hatred of the faith”). It is currently a subsidiary test, but the analysis can often get bogged down in theological debates.

Francis’ remarks today represent the first time the Pope publicly expressed his support for Romero’s beatification. He is said to have been even more enthusiastic in private, and commentators have observed that Romero’s message seems to fit the themes of Francis’ papacy, especially the emphasis on the poor from a son of the Latin American church.

Francis explained that the process had been “blocked out of prudence” by Vatican officials but should be now allowed to advance. The Pope said that the investigation must take its course, and suggested the matter was in the hands of God. “But the process must go ahead, and God must give his sign. If he wants to do so, he will,” the Pontiff said.

He also hinted that the progress in the process depends also on human hands: “now the postulators have to move, because there are no longer impediments,” he said.

Francis’ comment that “Romero is a man of God” should be particularly well-received in San Salvador, where the Church has just launched a “Romero Triennium”—a three year program of commemorations leading to the 100th anniversary of Romero’s birth in 2017. The theme for the first year is “Romero, Man of God.”

Saint John Paul II discussed Archbishop Romero in seven different public speeches/audiences. The most famous of these was a 1983 mass in San Salvador where he called Romero a “zealous pastor, whom love of God and service of brethren drove to surrender his life in a violent manner.” Pope Benedict XVI spoke about Romero during three different public events, including an in-flight press conference after a 2007 trip to Brazil, during which he said, “That Romero as a person merits beatification, I have no doubt ... Archbishop Romero was certainly an important witness of the faith, a man of great Christian virtue who worked for peace and against the dictatorship, and was assassinated while celebrating Mass. Consequently, his death was truly 'credible', a witness of faith.” For his part, Pope Francis, while not making public statements before this press conference, had heldhigh profile meetings about Romero, including with two presidents of El Salvador and with a delegation of Salvadoran bishops. 
The following is Zenit's translation of the question Francis was asked and his complete answer:

Q. At what stage is the process for the cause of Archbishop Romero. And what would you like to come out of this process?

A. The process was blocked in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith “ for prudence”, it was said. Now it is unblocked and it is in the Congregation for Saints and follows the normal path of a process. It depends on how the postulators move, it’s very important to move in haste. What I would like is to have clarified when there is martyrdom in ‘odium fidei’ (out of hate for the faith), whether it is for confessing the credo or for performing the works that Jesus commands us to do for our neighbor. This is a work of theologians that is being studied. Because behind him (Romero), there is Rutillio Grande and there are others. There are other that were also killed but are not at the same height as Romero. This has to be distinguished theologically. For me, Romero is a man of God. He was a man of God but there has to be the process, and the Lord will have to give his sign (of approval). But if He wishes, He will do so! The postulators must move now because there are no impediments.

An article in La Pagina today reports that church leaders and politicians including President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez  were expressing hope and jubilation at the news.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Corrupt judges charged (and freed) in San Miguel

Last week three judges were arrested in San Miguel, following arrests of lawyers, police, and other officials a few weeks earlier in San Miguel.   InsightCrime looks at these latest arrests in an article titled El Salvador Anti-Mafia Judges Arrested For Ties to Organized Crime:
Authorities in El Salvador have arrested three anti-mafia judges accused of accepting bribes from organized crime groups, highlighting the corruption that plagues the country's judicial system and allows impunity to flourish. 
On August 12, Salvadoran authorities detained three judges from the eastern city of San Miguel who are accused of taking money in exchange for favoring criminal defendants, reported El Diario de Hoy. The Attorney General's Office identified the judges as part of a network that includes lawyers, prosecutors, police, and court employees. 
The arrests came after 15 judges from the country's Constitutional Chamber approved the removal of the judicial immunity afforded to the three judges, reported La Prensa Grafica.
According to Prensa Libre, the judges served on special tribunals that tried more serious and complex crimes including those tied to organized crime, such as gang-related homicides, kidnappings, drug trafficking and money laundering.

InSight Crime Analysis

Allegations of judges accepting bribes from powerful criminals are nothing new in El Salvador, and the revelations in 2012 that there were open investigations into 80 percent of the country's judges hint at just how widespread judicial corruption is.

Combined with rampant corruption in the security forces and other state institutions and the protection offered organized crime groups by powerful politicians it is little wonder El Salvador's impunity rates are estimated to stand around the 90 percent mark. And El Salvador is far from alone in this, with neighboring Guatemala and Honduras suffering similarly.

These types of cases are not always clear cut, however. Powerful criminal groups often put officials and politicians in impossible situations -- forcing them to choose between working with the group or facing death threats. Recently, an official in neighboring Honduras stated that threats against judges have increased, and called on the state to provide protection.
 Saturday, however, the three anti-mafia judges walked out of detention, given their freedom by another San Miguel judge pending the resolution of the criminal corruption charges against them.  The release of these judges contrasts with the situation of  Padre Toño, who continues to be held in police custody.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Fernando Llort - a Jewel of Hope and Peace

Artist Fernando Llort is a national treasure in El Salvador, and he continues to give back to his homeland.  

On Friday in San Marcos,  El Salvador, artist Fernando Llort and a group of youth began work on a mural titled "The Jewel of Hope and Peace."

The project is sponsored by UNICEF, as part of its campaign "no te indigna?" / "aren't you outraged?" which is intended to raise awareness of violence afflicting children in the country.

Llort's recent works in public spaces have included a renovation of the Monument Hermano Lejano ("Distant Brother") dedicated to those Salvadorans living abroad.   The renovation, concluded in 2012 includes sculptures and murals to provide a "fraternal hug" and a welcome home.

He also recently completed a mural with youth volunteers in Santa Tecla as part of a Plan El Salvador program.

You can see everything this prolific artist is up to at the Facebook page of the Fundación Fernando Llort.

Mural at Monumento Hermano Lejano

Santa Tecla Mural

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Who will protect the innocent victims of gang violence?

This week saw some very good feature length reporting in The Nation and The New Republic regarding the gangs in El Salvador and the reasons people flee the country for the US.

The Nation published an article titled:  Who Counts as a Refugee in US Immigration Policy and Who Doesn't.  Through the story of a mother and her 17 year old son, the article looks at the question of refugee status when those seeking refuge come from the gang-controlled areas of Central America.   It is an issue which Immigration Courts don't clearly answer:
As the numbers increase, US asylum law is, as always, in flux. Immigration courts have seen a general rise in claims involving gang recruitment and extortion, both from children and adults. Some claims have succeeded, but many have not. Although the State Department now openly reports the killings taking place in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, immigration judges often do not believe that the individuals before them face specific threats of violence and take the position that violence from gangs is not a basis for asylum. And echoing the last wave’s legalistic obstacles, the agency that interprets immigration law—the Board of Immigration Appeals—has, over the last decade, increasingly narrowed the refugee definition to exclude many gang-related claims. The widely understood reason, according to immigration lawyers, has been a fear of opening the floodgates. In theory, that concern should not affect any individual’s case; as the federal appeals court in Chicago wrote, “It would be antithetical to asylum law to deny refuge to a group of persecuted individuals who have valid claims merely because too many have valid claims.” But today, as in the 1980s, asylum law remains political. As a result, it is hard to generalize about how asylum claims by children like Giovani will fare; many will come down to the identity of the judge and whether the child finds a lawyer.
Read the rest of Who Counts as a Refugee? here.

In The New Republic's coverage, the phrase "border crisis" takes on a tragic double-meaning.   There is the crisis at the southern border of the US, but there is also the crisis of the violent borders between gang-controlled territories within El Salvador.   One of the important elements of the current gang violence is the creation of waves of internal refugees within El Salvador -- people who get on the wrong side of a gang which controls their barrio and must abandon their house and seek safety in some other part of the country. Often there has been just this type of internal displacement before family members attempt to make the perilous journey to the North.

Here is what happens as described in The Deadly, Invisible Borders Inside El Salvador in The New Republic:
When a family keeps its children out of the gangs, the gangs have a way of still getting to the family. The case of the former residents of San Luis Ranch repeats itself ceaselessly. Every month, you see a newspaper headline announcing a new group abandoning their homes. The families are threatened for all sorts of reasons: because their sons didn’t want to join a gang, because a family member filed a police report, because they won’t let a gang member rape their daughter. Or simply because they visited their grandfather in enemy territory. 
Pushed out of their neighborhoods, the families are recast as wanderers, bouncing from house to house until they can find a new community, which will likely be controlled by the same gang that forced them to flee in the first place. Or it will be controlled by the rival, which is just as bad: The 18th Street Gang would never accept an MS-13 family moving into their neighborhood, and vice-versa. The families scatter with the threat chasing closely after. Any day, the clique that runs their new neighborhood will figure out why they left their old one and then, most likely, kill them. Many of these people will never find the safety they sought when they gave up their homes. 
It’s only natural that someone who can’t find a corner in which to hide in his own country would consider migrating to the United States to join relatives already there. 
And where do gangs get the weapons which they use to control neighborhoods and to extort business?  TNR reports that the guns often come from licensed gun dealers in the US:
By the ATF’s count, more than a third of the traceable guns seized from criminals last year in the Northern Triangle that originated from the United States were purchased from a retail dealer. The weapons are then smuggled south in cars and trucks, or in checked airline luggage, air freight, or even boats. That may sound like a lot of effort, but buying from U.S. gun stores is a lot more convenient for gang members. Thanks to our lax gun laws, there is little official paper trail, and the weapons (Northern Triangle gangs favor semi-automatic pistols) are cheaper than buying locally. “It’s a lot easier for me to go to a gun store in the U.S., buy a Glock, and ship it in parts in a microwave oven and have it show up at a relative’s house,” Penate says. He’d recently helped trace a gun recovered in El Salvador that had been purchased only six days earlier from a licensed dealer near Baltimore. 
There's no lack of good sources of information about what is happening in El Salvador and the rest of the Northern Triangle of Central America.   What is lacking are effective strategies to protect the innocent victims of gang violence and the political will to implement them.