Monday, November 24, 2014

Dramatic images of El Salvador's civil war

The online periodical El Faro has been publishing a set of wartime photographs taken by Italian photographer Giovanni Palazzo.   Palazzo has donated a collection of photos he shot during the war to El Salvador's Museum of Word and Image.   The museum is dedicated to preserving El Salvador's historic memory.

The first set, titled Childhood Under Fire, captures images of child soldiers carrying arms for both the army and the guerrillas.   The second set, titled, The State Repression, includes photos of political prisoners, death squad killings, and the suppression of public demonstrations.

More will be released by El Faro in coming weeks at this link.

You can also see more of Palazzo's photos at thew website of the Museum of Word and Image at this link.   The photographer donated 6,000  photos to the museum.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Care for ecosystems in El Salvador

A recent article from IPS describes a program of El Salvador's environment ministry to change land use practices to protect biodiversity and combat effects of climate change:
Local organisations and the environment ministry launched a plan aimed at tackling the problem in an integral manner. 
The National Programme for the Restoration of Ecosystems and Landscapes (PREP) seeks to restore ecosystems like forests and wetlands and preserve biodiversity, as part of what its promoters describe as "an ambitious national effort to adapt to climate change," whose impacts are increasingly severe in this small Central American nation of 6.2 million.... 
"It's obvious that we can't keep doing things the same old way...we can't continue to carry the burden of this degradation of the environment and the impact that we are feeling from climate change," Lina Pohl, the environment minister, told correspondents who accompanied her on a tour through the area, including Tierramérica. 
PREP will last three years and will receive two million dollars in financing from Germany's agency for international cooperation.
Read the entire article here. As the most densely populated country on the mainland Americas, the human impact on the environment and landscape in El Salvador is intense. Ongoing efforts will be needed to bring a sustainable balance between man and nature.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Ten years of blogging

Today, November 17, 2014, is the 10th anniversary of this blog.

It's appropriate that I am in El Salvador as I begin writing this post.   I realize that a great many of the topics which have filled the pages of this blog have been present in the past 10 days I spent in the country.

I participated in events commemorating the 25th anniversary of the massacre of the 6 Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter.   It's one of many anniversaries of massacres I have blogged about, and all of those persons who gave the orders for those massacres have never faced any form of judgment.   Impunity is a word I have used often in this blog.

Another ongoing blog theme is migration. I casually talked yesterday in English with men who had been deported from the US after living there for many years.  I heard the stories of the center where El Salvador processes children deported from Mexico.   I passed by many "remittance houses" built with money coming from the US and elsewhere.

The relationship between El Salvador and the US where 2 million Salvadorans live influences many topics.  I traveled this week on the northern longitudinal highway built with United States funds from the first Millennium Challenge Compact grant and traveled on the southern coastal highway which is soon to be improved with millions of dollars from the second Millennium grant.

I spent time with a community which had recently evacuated following the December 29, 2013 explosion of the Chaparrastique volcano, one of many natural disasters I have covered on the blog, and I visited a coffee finca where I learned their hopes for improved future harvests after the impact of the coffee rot called "la roya."

Wherever I traveled, the gang tags, the armed private security, the patrolling military, and the heavily armed police were a constant reminder of the scourge of killing and violence sponsored by El Salvador's warring gangs and others.   I wish it were not the topic I have written about more than any other.

I spoke with a participant in discussions with the Minister of Public Security about whether there could be a process of dialogue with the gangs after the collapse of the 2012 gang truce.  (He reportedly said there could not be bilateral discussions between the gangs and the government, but did not rule out a process facilitated by churches in which all segments of society participate).

Campaign signs with the faces of candidates for the National Assembly are a constant reminder of the next set of elections in 2015 which I am writing about on the blog.   The high point of readership on the blog over the past ten years was the 2009 election of El Salvador's first president from the left, Mauricio Funes.

And high in the northern mountains of Chalatenango where I could look towards the south and Lake Suchitlan and the volcanoes of San Vicente, Gauzapa and San Salvador, I continued to marvel at the natural beauty of this tiny country and how many tourists could be attracted here if they were not so afraid to come.

After 10 years and 2181 posts, my purpose in writing the blog continues to be the same as when I started.   I try to be a source of quality information about El Salvador for an English-speaking audience.    I hope I have been that source for some of you.

Finally, I'd like to thank all of the many people who have contributed to my understanding of El Salvador over the years.   Thanks to Carlos, Gene, Ernesto, Danielle, Omar, Mike, Boz, David, Teddy, Larry, John, Bethany and all the many others who have e-mailed or commented over the years.

The author and some new friends

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Subversive Cross

On November 16, 1989, that same fateful day in El Salvador when the Jesuits were murdered, Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez was also targeted by the military. For Bishop Gomez and his Lutheran church were also voices who denounced the injustice they saw in Salvadoran society. They were deemed to be subversives by the government for siding with the poor and doing such radical things as operating a refugee camp for families fleeing the armed conflict, or for teaching the poor that they were entitled to equal human rights with the rich and powerful.

You know the government's view of your church when it sets up a machine gun post directly across the street from your church, your church named Resurrection Church – the church of Easter, and the machine gun is always aimed at the front door of the church.

A few weeks before November 16, 1989, in a special service of reconciliation, the congregation of Resurrection Lutheran Church in San Salvador was asked to lay the sins of their country upon a symbolic cross. A simple wooden cross, painted white, was placed at the front of the church. In ones and twos, congregation members came up to the cross, took a black marker, and wrote the sins on the cross, such as persecution of the church, hunger, discrimination against women, ambition for power, murder and violence. As they identified the sins of their country and their people, they also committed themselves to work toward forgiveness, and to be strengthened for liberation. The cross also carries messages of hope and love, as a testimony to the transforming power of God. After the reconciliation service, the cross remained as a symbol within the church.

On the same day when the six Jesuit priests were murdered by elite Salvadoran troops, soldiers arrived at Resurrection Church looking for Bishop Gomez. Their search did not find Bishop Gomez, but they did find that simple white cross. Bishop Gomez had managed to flee and get to safety in the German embassy and subsequently found refuge in Milwaukee. Rather than capturing the bishop, the troops arrested 15 people, and took possession of the cross and took it away to the army compound. Presumably the soldiers thought this cross was evidence of the subversive activity going on in the Lutheran church.

And as the Salvadoran Lutheran Church tells the story, the cross, with its powerful words, bore witness to those army troops as it stood in their barracks. It spoke to their hearts about the sins committed by the army during the civil war.

Following his return to El Salvador, Bishop Gomez and international partners petitioned the government for the return of the cross. And with some assistance from the US Ambassador, the cross made another journey – this time from the army quarters to the presidential residence, El Salvador's White House. And the cross continued to bear silent witness regarding to the evil and the need for reconciliation in El Salvador – this time in the seat of power of the country.

Finally the call came, the president of El Salvador, Alfredo Cristiani, a man from the political party which sponsored the death squads, wanted to return the cross. And Bishop Gomez received the cross back to Resurrection Church, where a picture of Cristiani with the bishop hangs by the cross.

Today that cross, the "Subversive Cross," continues to have a powerful significance. Many, many people who have traveled to El Salvador and visited Resurrection Church have learned the story and have been inspired by this simple white cross and all it symbolizes. On the twentieth anniversary of the soldiers taking the cross into captivity, the Salvadoran Lutheran church turns once again to the Subversive Cross to inspire and guide its work struggling for justice for the poor and dispossessed in Salvadoran society.

First published on the 20th anniversary of the Subversive Cross on November 16, 2009.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Another anniversary in impunity -- 25 years after the Jesuit murders

Sunday, November 16, marks the 25th anniversary of the massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter at the University of Central America.   It is one of the emblematic cases of the impunity with which El Salvador's military literally got away with murder of innocent civilians during the country's twelve year civil war.

From the UN Truth Commission Report prepared in the year after the 1992 Peace Accords:
Colonel Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Director of the Military College, met with the officers under his command....Colonel Benavides told them that he had just come from a meeting at the General Staff at which special measures had been adopted to combat FMLN offensive, which had begun on 11 November. Those present at the meeting had been informed that the situation was critical and it had been decided that artillery and armored vehicles should be used. 
Those present at the meeting had also been informed that all known subversive elements must be eliminated. Colonel Benavides said that he had received orders to eliminate Father Ignacio Ellacuría and to leave no witnesses.  
Colonel Benavides asked any officers who objected to the order to raise their hands.
No one did....  
In the early hours of 16 November 1989, a group of soldiers from the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador. They made their way to the Pastoral Centre, which was the residence of Jesuit priests Ignacio Ellacuría, Rector of the University; Ignacio Martín-Baró, Vice-Rector; Segundo Montes, Director of the Human Rights Institute; and Amando López, Joaquín López y López and Juan Ramón Moreno, all teachers at UCA. 
The soldiers tried to force their way into the Pastoral Centre. When the priests realized what was happening, they let the soldiers in voluntarily. The soldiers searched the building and ordered the priests to go out into the back garden and lie face down on the ground.

The lieutenant in command, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, gave the order to kill the priests. Fathers Ellacuría, Martín-Baró and Montes were shot and killed by Private Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Fathers López and Moreno by Deputy Sergeant Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas. Shortly afterwards, the soldiers, including Corporal Angel Pérez Vásquez, found Father Joaquín López y López inside the residence and killed him. Deputy Sergeant Tomás Zarpate Castillo shot Julia Elva Ramos, who was working in the residence, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina Mariceth Ramos.  Private José Alberto Sierra Ascencio shot them again, finishing them off.

The soldiers took a small suitcase belonging to the priests, with photographs, documents and $5,000.

They fired a machine gun at the facade of the residence and launched rockets and grenades. Before leaving, they wrote on a piece of cardboard: "FMLN executed those who informed on it. Victory or death, FMLN." 
Many articles are being written about the anniversary of the assassinations.  On such article is by Congressman Jim McGovern in Huffington Post.  As a Congressional staffer, McGovern participated in the investigation into the Jesuit murders being led by Massachusetts Congressman Joe Moakley.  McGovern writes:
As part of our investigation, I was deeply upset to find that 19 of the 26 members of the unit that killed the priests and women had received U.S. taxpayer-paid military training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA). In addition, the Atlacatl Battalion received specialized training from U.S. Special Operations just two days before the operation to murder the Jesuits happened. At the time, it was just the latest atrocity in El Salvador committed by Salvadoran troops who had received extensive U.S. military training in-country and at the SOA. These include the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; the 1980 rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen; the 1981 murder of two U.S. labor advisors and the director of the Salvadoran agrarian reform program; the 1981 massacre at El Mozote; and the 1983 massacre at Las Hojas indigenous cooperative, to name but a few of the best-known cases.
Jesuits worldwide are remembering the victims.  From Twenty-Five Years After a Massacre, Jesuits Reflect on the Meaning and the Martyrdom by William Bole:
“It’s the witness of their lives that matters,” [Father Douglas Marcouiller, SJ], said. “The case is important. But the focus shouldn’t be primarily on the people who pulled the trigger, or the ones who gave the orders. It should be on the martyrs and their commitment to the Gospel, the kind that leads us to defend the lives of the poor today, going forward.”
Since the Amnesty Law passed in 1993 has prevented prosecution of the figures in El Salvador's High Command who gave the orders, the pursuit of justice has now been taken to a court in Spain.   Although the Spanish court indicted twenty former Salvadoran military officers and Spain made an extradition request, El Salvador's Supreme Court has ruled that they will not be extradited.  You can read details about the case at the website of the Center for Justice and Accountability.

For the 25th anniversary, the online periodical El Faro has a special section  on the case of the Jesuits.   Some of the reporting includes an admission by Mauricio Colorado, the  Salvadoran Attorney General in 1989, that he pressured the prosecutors under him not to do anything which would implicate the High Command of the Salvadoran military.

El Salvador continues to fail to grapple with the legacy of the human rights abuses committed by its government and military during the civil war.   The victims continue to demand justice, and impunity continues to reign supreme in the country.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

25 years ago -- the FMLN's final offensive

Twenty-five years ago, on November 11, 1989, the FMLN guerrillas launched their "final offensive" with a surprise attack on the capital city of San Salvador.   The city had largely been spared from the fighting during the preceding 9 years of war, but now the guerrillas brought the battle even to the wealthy neighborhoods of the capital.   The armed forces had been caught by surprise, but eventually would be able to repel the attack after three weeks of fighting.   It was a time which would find the army high command reacting by ordering the massacre of Jesuit priests.

This video news report (in Spanish) provides footage from that first week of the offensive.

Monday, November 10, 2014

More court-ordered election reforms

The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court has struck again in favor of increasing the rights of individual voters in opposition to the power of political parties.   The Chamber handed down a ruling on November 5 striking a provision of the electoral code which prohibited "cross voting" in elections for deputies in the National Assembly.    Before the court's ruling a voter who voted for one candidate could not cross over to vote for any other candidates of the other parties or an independent candidate.

The FMLN criticized the ruling as weakening political parties, and called for its members to vote a party ticket to vote for all deputy candidates of the FMLN.   A deputy from ARENA said her party would not oppose cross-voting and would not tell their sympathizers that they must vote "por bandera".   Edwin Zamora,  the ARENA candidate for mayor of San Salvador said he favored an even bigger step in which each deputy had a single district, rather than a slate of deputies for the whole department (24 for San Salvador) in which the top vote getters across the whole department are the ones which enter the National Assembly.

Separate from the legal correctness of the unanimous decision, the presiding judge dissented on the question of whether the ruling should be effective for the elections on March 1, 2015.   The Chamber has been criticized for changing the rules at the last minute with little time for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to prepare.    The TSE has asked the national government for an extra $4 million to publicize the changes, and to pay poll workers extra because vote counting will last later into the night.  Having observed Salvadoran elections, this will make counting ballots much more of a challenge for the citizen-manned voting tables.   You can expect that results will be slow in coming that night, compared to the speed of the presidential election results.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Excavating El Salvador's clandestine graves

Over this past weekend, Salvadorans celebrated the memories of their departed family members by visiting cemeteries and graves on the Day of the Dead.   But for many many Salvadoran families, this is a time of deep pain because their loved ones have disappeared in El Salvador's endless violence and their bodies have never been found.

One man working to help find those bodies is Israel Ticas, a criminologist in the office of the Attorney General in El Salvador.   His gruesome work was recently highlighted in an Associated Press story titled From gangs to the army, El Salvador's lawyer for the dead won't let killers escape justice.  Here is an excerpt:

It is painstaking labor in a land littered with secret graves. This is
the 30th excavation this year for criminologist Israel Ticas, who
leads the teams that search for bodies still missing from a decades-
old civil war, and for those killed more recently by street gangs who
hold most of El Salvador in their clutches.... 
Some would argue that digging up graves is a fool's errand in El
Salvador, a country with the world's second highest per capita
homicide rate after neighboring Honduras. But this is a vocation for
Ticas, who calls himself the "lawyer for the dead.“ In fact, he is a
systems engineer turned police detective who taught himself
forensic science. Most address him by his academic title,
He considers all killers to be devils, no matter their affiliation. He
calls himself a lawyer because he seeks justice for the dead,
whoever they might be and whoever may have killed them. It so
happens that gangs are doing the lion's share of killing to enforce
their control, and going to great lengths to conceal the dead, many
of them women and discarded girlfriends. 
He calculates that in the last 12 years he has opened about 90
common graves with more than 700 bodies, about 60 percent of
them women and girls. That is a fraction of what's out there, he
believes, but Ticas does not have the time or staff to find all of
Read the rest of the article here.

Israel Ticas was the subject of a documentary released last year titled "The Engineer"  (advisory -- the trailer contains disturbing images)

The Engineer Official Trailer from Guerrilla Pictures on Vimeo.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Early poll shows FMLN in lead to retake San Salvador mayor seat

A poll released last week by CID-Gallup, showed the FMLN's candidate Nayib Bukele with an 18 point margin over his closest challenger, Edwin Zamora of ARENA.   Bukele led 43% to 25% with 32% of respondents expressing no opinion.

I think it is a little too early to assume that the FMLN has an easy path to retake the capital city.   Zamora has to catch up after a late start when current mayor Norman Quijano bowed out of the race at the last minute.  

The political leaning of San Salvador is not easy to predict.  The current lead of the FMLN contrasts with the landslide victory of ARENA and Norman Quijano in the mayoral race in 2012.  Earlier this year, Norman Quijano garnered an 11% advantage over Salvador Sanchez Ceren among votes cast for president in San Salvador.

There are four months to go before the March 1, 2015 elections of mayors and deputies to the National Assembly.

Friday, October 31, 2014

An apology for an offense against truth

I have called him before the "dean of Salvadoran bloggers."   For more than eight years, Ernesto Rivas Gallont has posted multiple times per day on his blog, Conversations with Neto Rivas.   He offers insights and perspectives on news and politics in El Salvador, often rooted in his own acquaintance with the players involved.

But before he was a blogger, one of the roles Ernesto Rivas filled was the ambassador to the United States from El Salvador during much of El Salvador's civil war.   After his arrival in Washington in March 1981, he often was called upon to act as an apologist for the actions of the country's army, actions which often included massacres and atrocities.  

On orders of his superiors back in El Salvador, then ambassador Rivas denied his government's involvement in the massacre which occurred in December 1981 at El Mozote.   We now know that Salvadoran army troops from the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion killed more than 900 defenseless men, women, children and the elderly.

Today, October 31, on his blog, Ernesto Rivas apologized for following orders and for denying the existence of the massacre:
Suspecting that the real story [of the El Mozote massacre] was different than the denial, I should have rebelled and denounced what really happened. I did not, and today I apologize for it... 
This was not the only atrocity committed by the Salvadoran Army that was officially denied. This was a routine that prevailed, passing from the murder of four American nuns in 1980, to the slaughter of the Jesuit priests, their maid and her daughter in 1989. 
The wounds of war are difficult to heal. Therefore, to apologize helps, although on a small scale, to erase memories, the remembrance of which only exacerbates political passions. Therefore, I apologize for what I admit was a serious offense.
This was an honorable act.  It would be a wonderful thing if all segments of society, from the left and the right, began to recognize that only by facing the truth directly, and naming it out loud, can a process of true reconciliation begin.