Monday, August 22, 2016

They disappear every day

The media (and this blog) regularly report on the very high homicide rate in El Salvador.   Under-reported are the cases of the "desaparecidos" - the disappeared - of El Salvador.   We are not talking about the thousands still missing from El Salvador's civil war, that's the story for another blog post.   Instead we are talking about hundreds and hundreds of primarily young people who are annually kidnapped, abducted, or "disappeared" and never heard from again.

Disappearances are a daily occurrence in El Salvador.  In September 2015, La Prensa Grafica  reported that four persons were being reported as missing every day in El Salvador.

In December 2015, the Instituto de Medicina Legal (IML) which operates El Salvador's morgue, opened a new section to attend to the five to fifteen families which arrive each day seeking to ascertain if their missing loved ones have passed through the doors of the morgue.

The attorney general's office in El Salvador (FGR) has a program for missing children ages 18 and younger called "Alerta Ángel Desaparecido"   Disappeared Angel Alert.   The program is focused on disseminating and receiving information which could be of use in reuniting disappeared children with their families.   It is indicative of the scope of the problem that when I visited the website of Disappeared Angel Alert this week, the program listed more than 250 active cases.   The photos of all these disappeared children can be heartbreaking.

One non-governmental organization which is trying to assist the families of the disappeared is Asociación Salvadoreña por los Derechos Humanos (ASDEHU), the Salvadoran Association for Human Rights.    ASDEHU employs a social worker, psychologist and lawyers to accompany the families whose loved ones have been disappeared.

The director of ASDEHU is Salvadoran lawyer Marina Ortiz.  When I visited the office of ASDEHU last week, Ortiz told me that they were taking in almost one new case per day.   The day I visited, a mother came to ASDEHU because her teenage daughter had departed one morning for a two hour truck and bus trip and never arrived home.   The story of the case included potential gang involvement, threats, and another murder.   We accompanied the mother to make a denuncia with the FGR.  It was the only way she might learn the truth, but with the lack of resources for police and investigators, the majority of families never learn what happened to their loved ones.  "Missing, presumed dead" is too frequently the tragic reality.

Most of the current cases of disappearances are gang-related, but some involve people seized by police or military.  In December 2015, Ortiz filed a legal action in El Salvador's Supreme Court on behalf of families who alleged that Salvadoran armed forces had abducted their sons in 2014.   This followed an earlier case in which a lower court had acquitted soldiers of another abduction.    ASDEHU was involed in the earlier case as well.

Ortiz has personal knowledge of "disappearances."    During El Salvador's civil war, she was taken by Salvadoran armed forces from her family as part of a cruel military program which stole children from their families in parts of the county sympathetic to the leftist guerrillas.   Ortiz was one of the lucky ones, she was eventually reunited with her family years later.  Now as a lawyer, she fights for the rights of other families who have lost their family members to present day evil.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Father Rutilio Grande -- another martyred saint in El Salvador

Rutilio Grande was a Jesuit priest who was murdered by El Salvador's military in 1977 for his work empowering poor communities in the countryside.   His murder was an event which made clear to San Salvador's new archbishop Oscar Romero, the kind of pastoral leader he would need to be.

The Roman Catholic church has now opened the process which could lead to Rutilio Grande's canonization as a saint.   As reported by Carlos Colorado, the phase of the process conducted in the church in El Salvador concluded in August and the cause now goes to Rome.

Thomas M. Kelly wrote in America magazine in June of this year:
What Father Grande learned and lived out was a simple truth: Until the marginalized communities he served created their own agency, until they acted upon their own reality as a church community, nothing would change. An outside leader could not come in and transform poor communities. Only local lay church leaders could encourage communities to become agents of their own change. The role of the Catholic Church, he believed, was to help those leaders emerge, support them, form them and walk with them. Inspired by the Gospel, these community leaders would become the most effective agents for the integrated development of their communities. 
For two years Father Grande and his team led a delicate “mission” to very poor communities around his hometown. Through their own reading of Scripture, these communities came to realize that it was not God’s will that they remain poor. Building the kingdom of God meant they needed to advocate for their communities in ways that were peaceful—but forceful. Throughout Father Grande’s pastoral “experiment” in the rural villages of El Salvador, Archbishop Romero carefully watched his friend and confidant try to apply the social teaching of the church to the reality of poor, oppressed rural communities. 
Slowly people began to change their mindset and realize their oppression was not the will of God but actually contrary to God’s love for them. But as their awareness and demands for change grew, so, too, did the danger they faced. Soon threats came in against both Father Grande and the communities he served, mainly from wealthy landowners who felt threatened by the priest’s work encouraging rural farmers to organize for a better life. Archbishop Romero witnessed the risks taken by Father Grande and saw the road he willingly chose in defense of the people he loved. On March 12, 1977, Father Grande was assassinated by government death squads at the behest of wealthy landowners.
Kelly is the author of the splendid book, "When the Gospel Grows Feet: Rutilio Grande, S.J. and the Church of El Salvador."

In March 2015, the confession of one of the members of El Salvador's National Guard who participated in the assassination was published in ContraPunto.

Many in El Salvador hope that there could be a joint celebration in El Salvador involving the beatification of Rutilio Grande and the canonization of Oscar Romero presided over by Pope Francis. The pope is said to be in favor of advancing the cause of Father Grande.

The words of Rutilo Grande continue to have relevance today:
Has the wealthy minority - who hold in their hands the economy, the power of decision, the control of the press and all the media - been transfigured? There are many baptized in our country who have not completely ingested the demands of the gospel: a total transfiguration. The Christian revolution is based on a love which excludes no single human being. Jesus, after all, enfleshed himself as one of our peasants to share their miseries. Can we call ourselves his followers and not do the same? 

Statue of Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande in El Paisnal

Statue of Rutilio Grande at St. Joseph church in El Paisnal

Tombs of Rutilio Grande,  Manuel Solorzano, and Nelson Lemus in
St. Joseph Church
Monument at site of Rutilio Grande's assassination

Portrait of Rutilio Grande
The mural at top of this post featuring Oscar Romero and Rutilio Grande is located in the municipal park in El Paisnal

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Corruption raids target close Mauricio Funes backer

On Wednesday August 17, raids were conducted on several locations tied to Miguel Menéndez (known as "Mecafé") one of the financial backers of the 2009 presidential campaign of Mauricio Funes.   Mecafe was one of the prominent "Amigos of Mauricio Funes," a group of business people outside of the FMLN hierarchy who supported the former journalist's run for president.  Funes was the first president of El Salvador elected from a left-wing party.

The raids are part of a corruption investigation against the former president including allegations of influence-trafficking, misappropriation and illicit enrichment.  Mecafe owns a private security firm named Cosase which earned millions in contracts with the Funes administration to provide private security services.  Mecafe became the chief of the El Salvador convention authority during the Funes administration.

The ex-president has been denying any allegations of wrongdoing on his Twitter account.

There is also an open corruption investigation against former president Tony Saca,

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Court rejects extradition to Spain in Jesuit murder case

There are reports in the Salvadoran press that El Salvador's Supreme Court will refuse to extradite former military officers to Spain in connection with the 1989 Jesuit murders.    At the moment the court's written ruling does not yet appear to be available, so there is some speculation about the reasoning of the Court.    A La Prensa Grafica report today indicated that the Court would not allow extradition of Colonel Guillermo Benavides because he had already been tried and sentenced to 30 years in prison in 1992.  Benavides was subsequently released after publication of the UN Truth Commission report which criticized the faulty trial which suppressed evidence of the responsibility of more senior officers.   There is a suggestion that Benavides might have to finish the rest of his sentence.

In a story in ContraPunto, human rights lawyer Benjamin Cuellar pointed to the recent overturning of El Salvador's amnesty law by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court.   According to Cuellar, some judges cynically opposed extradition so the accused can continue manipulating the weak judicial system in El Salvador, while other judges opposed extradition because they optimistically believe that El Salvador's judicial processes should now be allowed to work.

Monday, August 15, 2016

All those cars in El Salvador

Traffic in El Salvador, particularly the capital city of San Salvador, is maddening as shown in some of this video footage from the AP in 2015.  (Actually I think the traffic is worse than shown in this video, but I am not going to take my hands off the wheel to provide you with a video).

And the number of cars on El Salvador's road continues to grow.   According to government statistics reported in La Prensa, there were some 35,000 cars imported into the country during the first six months of 2016.    Of those cars, roughly two thirds were used cars.

The used cars imported into El Salvador are primarily ones which were purchased at insurance salvage auctions in the US.    When cars are declared total losses by US insurance companies because of wrecks or floods, they get sold at auction.   Typically the cars cannot be re-sold or re-registered in the US.   Instead they go into foreign markets like El Salvador.  There is a booming Salvadoran market importing wrecked cars, fixing them up, and then reselling them.       

A US State Department report, stated that there were 1132 traffic fatalities in El Salvador during 2015, and noted that "A significant percentage of vehicles are in disrepair, under-powered, beyond their service life, and do not meet U.S. road safety standards. "


Climate change threatens long term agricultural losses

Current trends in global climate change pose serious threats to the production of El Salvador's food staples of corn and beans, particularly in the eastern part of the country.   This was one of the conclusions of a study of the UN Food and Agricultural Organization presented at a meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) last week.

According to the FAO, the average temperature in El Salvador has increased 1.3 degrees centigrade in recent decades, more than the global average increase of 0.8 degrees.   Future projections see another increase of 2.6 degrees if current patterns are not changed.

Although short term forecasts are for an increase in rain, there could be a long term reduction in annual rainfall of as much as 11% and delays in the annual start of the rainy season.   This will mean continued stress on El Salvador's water resources.

The eastern part of the country will be the most severely impacted. The region already lies in what has been named the dry corridor of Central America.   According to one of the possible scenarios, bean harvests could decline by 98% in the department of La Unión, with smaller reductions of 39 % in Morazán and 25 % in San Miguel and Usulután.    There will be similar declines in the harvests of corn in this part of the region.    More than 370,000 subsistence farmers depend on agriculture in El Salvador.

El Salvador will be at the mercy of whether the industrialized countries in the world are able to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gasses.   In the meantime, assistance will be needed to help farmers adapt their traditional farming methods to the new weather patterns which are being established.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Hillary Clinton in El Salvador

As Hillary Clinton campaigns to become the first female president of the United States, I thought I would check on her previous connections to El Salvador.

As first lady, during Bill Clinton's presidency, Hillary traveled to El Salvador in November 1998 following Hurricane Mitch which devastated much of Central America.  Hillary announced additional US relief aid which was coming to the region and toured an orphanage with El Salvador's first lady, Elizabeth Calderon.

There is an AP News video of the visit.

Hillary was scheduled to come to El Salvador again in 1999 to accompany Bill as he made a tour through Central America, however, back troubles kept her from accompanying him.

In 2009, as Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton travelled to El Salvador for the inauguration of Mauricio Funes as the first Salvadoran president elected from a left wing political party.  A transcript of her press conference with president Funes can be found here

Hillary would meet again with Funes in 2010 when Funes made a trip to Washington, D.C.   Their joint remarks can be found here.

There is also another El Salvador connection for Hillary Clinton:  Monica Lewinsky.  The White House intern who had an affair with president Bill Clinton is the daughter of a citizen of El Salvador. Lewinsky's paternal grandparents were German Jews who fled to El Salvador in the 1920's. Her father Bernard Lewinsky was born in San Salvador and later moved to California where Monica was born. 

(I can't find any indication that Donald Trump has ever visited El Salvador.   There is a satirical video circulating on the internet, however, in which Donald announces that he is going to purchase the entire country of El Salvador to add to his property holdings.)

Thursday, August 11, 2016

International Day of Indigenous Peoples

August 9 is declared by the UN to be the International Day for Indigenous Peoples.   The online periodical ContraPunto provided a photogallery of members of El Salvador's indigenous peoples commemorating the date.

During the 20th century, El Salvador's indigenous communities were almost completely wiped out through massacres and repression.   In 2010, Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes made an act of public apology for the country's treatment of indigenous peoples.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Who to believe?

In twelve years of blogging about El Salvador, I early learned the lesson that things are often not what they seem.   This is particularly true when it comes to the world of crime, gangs and policing in El Salvador.

Yesterday I wrote a long blog post about the arrest of Dany Balmore Romero García.   It appeared that the arrest of Romero may have been an attempt to quash his documenting of extrajudicial killings by security forces in El Salvador.   In the articles cited in my blog post, there were many voices coming to the defense of Romero.  

After that post was published, El Faro published a story written by Efren Lemus titled Purgas en la cúpula de la MS-13 por dinero (Purges in the leadership of MS-13 because of money).  El Faro had obtained access to wiretapped recordings in the possession of Salvadoran authorities involving top MS-13 leaders.    The article details how one group of MS-13 leaders, the Holloywood Locos, were angry that another MS-13 section, the Fulton Locos, were spreading rumors that the MS-13 leaders had received millions of dollars during the 2012-2013 tregua (gang truce).   The recordings purport to document a series of instructions going out to execute certain Fulton Locos gang members who were subsequently killed.

Among the recordings in the hands of El Faro are included communications between El Piwa (Marvin Ramos Quintanilla, labelled by authorities as the CFO of MS-13) and "Dany Boy" (Dany Romero).    The communications and certain visits by Dany Romero to Salvadoran prisons where gang leaders were housed and a meeting at the offices of OPERA are tied to the instructions going out to kill the Fulton Locos leaders who were believed to be spreading rumors about tregua money.

If the recordings are authentic, and the interpretation of various code words in those recordings are accurate, it would seem to be a fairly damning set of facts against Dany Romero.    It reminds me very much of the earlier arrest of Padre Toño in 2014.    The priest who worked to rehabilitate gang members had a similarly impressive set of international supporters, but a set of phone recordings showed that the facts surrounding his actions were much less clear.

As in all things in El Salvador, a healthy dose of skepticism is required to get to the bottom of any set of facts.   We are nowhere near the bottom yet concerning the allegations raised by Operation Check.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Police arrest activist documenting extrajudicial killings

Operation Check nabbed dozens of MS-13 gang members alleged to have been involved in the finances and leadership of the notorious gang in El Salvador.    But it appears that Salvadoran authorities may also have used the round-up to arrest an activist who was documenting extra-judicial killings by security forces in the country.   Dany Balmore Romero García  was included among those arrested on July 28, after years of documenting alleged human rights violations against prisoners and alleged gang members.

Nina Lakhani, in an article in the Guardian the day after the round-up, pointed out Romero's arrest:

Dany Romero, a former MS-13 member who has dedicated himself to human rights and gang prevention work since he was released from prison in 2006, was arrested and accused of using his NGO OPERA as a front for criminal activities.
Romero, who has won several prizes for his activism, has in recent years documented human rights abuses carried out by state security services against alleged gang members in deprived communities. Documents containing information on more than 150 cases, including extrajudicial killings, were taken by police during his arrest.
Salvadoran authorities accuse Romero of using OPERA as a front for support of MS-13 gang members.

Romero had previously been an active member of MS-13 and served time in Salvadoran prisons after being sentenced for participation in a murder.   Bryan Avelar wrote in Revista Factum:
Romero is what in gang parlance is they call a “calmed” member of the MS13, or one who is no longer active in the gang. For the past decade he has worked with violence prevention programs and in the rehabilitation of former gang members. Romero has also worked to document human rights abuses occurring within the prison system, a place he got to know well serving a 10-year sentence for murder. 
His work as an activist has received the moral and financial support of international organizations, and Romero’s arrest prompted a public expression of concern from the ambassador of the United Kingdom in El Salvador.
Danielle Mackey, writing in the Intercept describes some of Romero's documentation of human rights abuses:
 In April, the government of El Salvador was called before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for an increasingly obvious trend of torture and extrajudicial murder by security forces in the name of fighting gangs. Romero has continued to document stories of such abuses. In an April 14 interview in his office, he played an audio recording from one of the most recent statements he’d received, a 10-minute testimony from the girlfriend of a gang member who says she was gang raped by police who came looking for her boyfriend when he wasn’t home. A list of cases Romero shared with a U.S. colleague in the weeks before his arrest is a litany of similar alleged offenses: names, dates, locations, number of victims. For instance, on November 23, 2015, in a town in the department of Usulután: “At 7:30pm, during a kindergarten graduation party, a Civilian National Police patrol car, headlights off, drove up and parked, and officers walked to where the families were. They came in violently, laid everyone facedown and started shooting, leaving five people dead … and various people wounded, including a 70 year old woman and three children.” The Civilian National Police did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
And a Salvadoran prosecutor has been surprisingly candid in saying that it is the denunciation of human rights abuses that led to Romero's arrests because the FGR believes those denunciations were orchestrated by MS-13 leadership to undermine the credibility of the state.  In an interview with RevistaFactum, Salvadoran prosecutor Francisco Rodríguez Díaz stated:
What I can make clear to you, is that there is a line that is not Dany’s line or the Opera foundation’s line, but rather the line of the leadership structure of the Salvatrucha, that is to say, of the ranfla inside of prison and outside it, that that foundation served as another line of attack against the state. An attack that used legal processes dealing with human rights against police officers and soldiers and did so not only on the national level but on the international level as well. That is the gang’s line....It is not a transparent desire for justice, but rather a line of the Salvatrucha leadership to confront the state. That’s what it is.
The US also seems to be backing the arrest of Dany Romero.   On February 16, 2016, the US Treasury announced that it had placed his name on a sanctions list maintained by the Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC").   The action freezes any US assets of Romero and prohibits any US citizens from transacting business with him.  But US authorities have refused to respond to requests to identify what information supports the designation according to Mackey.  This silence leaves open the possibility that Romero was placed on the list at the request of Salvadoran authorities.  El Salvador's conservative media, however, used the listing as separate evidence that Romero must still be assisting MS-13.

Romero insists he is being wrongly persecuted for his human rights work:
One week before his arrest, Romero continued to insist on his innocence. “If there’s a serious, honest investigation, they will realize they’ve created things where there’s nothing,” Romero said. “This is a society of vengeance. It wants to continue accusing you, punishing you, for things that happened decades ago.” He repeated that he has been targeted for his work. “It’s our right as human beings to denounce those things that go against humanity, that damage our dignity. We cannot remain quiet just because people want us to.”
In addition to Romero, Salvadoran authorities also accused Wilson Alexander Alvarado Alemán of the NGO Equipo Nahual of operating his organization as a front for MS-13.    Alvarado Alemán is the director of Equipo Nahual and his organization employs psychologists and social workers who work with ex-gang members and community members in marginalized communities in the area of violence prevention.

Salvadoran authorities clearly want no criticism of their methods or techniques in attacking El Salvador's gangs.  It appears that the US may also have assisted in El Salvador's attempts to quash its critics. Human rights activists and independent journalists are among the few raising the very serious concerns about unfettered police actions.