Communities Fear a Link Between Extortion and Tourism

Yesterday, elsalvador.com posted an article about gangs extorting tourists in the Jiquilisco Bay, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.

The article reports that police have investigated three cases of extortion and arrested six adults and a minor. The gangs seem to be stopping tourists and delivery trucks when they slow down for speed bumps on the road through the Bajo Lempa and out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and charge them between $5 and 25 to continue

Gang activity has increased dramatically in the region over the past few weeks, with a greater presence in El Zamorano, La Canoa, Isla de Mendez, San Juan del Gozo, and Corral de Mulas, as well as smaller communities where they have not had much of a presence in the past. Police estimate that there are between 60-90 gang members now living in the region.

The elsalvador.com article also reports that l gangs are intimidating locals by walking around and even eating in restaurants with automatic rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders. Police confirm that gangs have at least 3 M-16 rifles in the region.

The reports of extortion and increased gang presence are already affecting small, locally operated restaurants and hotels that serve the region’s small tourism industry. The number of Salvadorans who visit the area has already begun to drop off. As news of the arrests and extortion activities increase, traffic in the region is likely to decrease even more.

Community leaders say gangs have told residents they won’t bother them. But there are two warring gangs in the region and people are worried about getting caught in the crossfire. One NGO worker said he is not worried about the gang members from the community where he works – he knows them and their families, and they have never bothered him. He is concerned about being caught in the middle if rival gangs come looking them.

Local leaders and parents are also concerned about the influence of the gangs on their youth. Communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula are economically depressed and youth often lack access to education. Sometimes access is not a question of distance, rather an issue of getting to and from school safely. Youth that have finished the sixth grade are often unable to continue studying and lack job opportunities, making them prime candidates for gang recruitment.

There have been gangs in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula for a while, but their numbers and activities have been limited. The rather sudden influx of gang members from other areas and their brazen show of arms have led some in the region to believe the issue goes beyond extortion of cars along the main road. Several people are concerned that those with an interest in large-scale tourism are using the gangs to destabilize the region’s growing opposition to their development plans. Others fear the gangs and extortion are an effort to drive off the small-scale, local restaurants and hotels that serve Salvadorans who visit the zone. This will make room for larger, well-financed tourism projects that will serve North Americans and Europeans.

This would not be the first time that gangs have been used to shake up a social movement or influence public opinion. In June/July 2009 alleged gang members in Cabañas killed anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera. Other alleged gang members were involved in the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Sorto, others, in Cabañas later that year.

At this point there is no way to know who is supplying the automatic weapons or whether the influx of alleged gang activities is related to tourism and an effort to destabilized organizational efforts. But residents throughout the region understand that this is certainly a possibility the have to consider.

Investigators from El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office Visit El Chile

For over a year, the small, economically depressed community of El Chile on El Salvador’s San Juan del Gozo Peninsula has been trying to stop private investors from encroaching on nearby mangrove forests and fragile beaches – area that are supposed to be protected State land. Residents got some good news last week when a team from the State Attorney General’s Office (FGR in Spanish) came to investigate, a sign that someone is finally listening.

FGR El CHile

(Photo from FGR)

Community leaders believe investors have illegally appropriated land in two areas. One investor bought a large plot on one side of the village and fenced it off all the way through a section of mangrove forest to the Bay, an apparent violation of Salvadoran law. He even posted a sign in the mangrove forest threatening legal action against trespassers. Another investor who had acquired a long stretch of beachfront property in El Chile allegedly bought the adjacent dunes and part of the beach. Like the mangrove forest, the dunes and beach are protected State land that cannot be privatized.

In recent months, Residents of El Chile have escalated their advocacy efforts, holding press conferences, calling State agencies, and engaging in a variety of other efforts to get the State to oust these investors from the public land.

Finally, last week the Attorney General’s Office (FGR, in Spanish) sent a team to El Chile to investigate allegations that investors were encroaching on State land. FGR investigators even took the time to tweet some photos from their visit, though there is little information about their time in the community. One FGR tweet says, “If [the FGR] proves the crime of usurpation of [State] land, [the owner] could face a sentance of one to five years in prison.”

It is too early to call the FGR visit a victory for the community, but it is certainly a positive development. The rule of law is weak in El Salvador and too often private investors and corporations are able to ignore laws with impunity. The visit at least demonstrates that the advocacy efforts have put the issue on the FGR’s radar. Residents of El Chile will now have to ensure that protecting these State lands remains a priority and the investigation doesn’t get lost on someone’s desk.

El Chile Cover spaEl Chile Cover Eng

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Residents of El Chile are concerned about the State land for a few reasons. They are concerned about the mangroves because they use the forests for fishing and harvesting clams – their primary sources of income. They are concerned about the beaches for more environmental reasons. Critically endangered Hawksbill Sea Turtles use the beach and dunes as a nesting ground, and developing the beaches will further threaten their survival.

The community has other fears as well. The mangroves, dunes, and beaches are State land that everyone should have a right to use in accordance with the law. If El Chile doesn’t protect it from developers, nothing will be left for future generations. And despite more than 20 years of trying, residents of El Chile have yet to get titles to their land. With investors buying land on all sides, they fear it is only a matter of time before developers and the State try to kick them off their land.

The struggle for land began in at least 2004 when a tourism consultant presented a plan to turn the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America.” Phase One of his plan was to pave a road out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and acquire land. The government completed the road in 2011 and investors have bought up the most valuable properties in the region. The next steps are to attract developers and investors to the region to build hotels, resorts, marinas, wharfs, shopping centers, golf courses and other tourism facilities. The second Millennium Challenge Corporation grant, if ever released by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, will provide seed money for tourism infrastructure projects to attract other investors, domestic and international.

El Chile is just one small community taking on investors right now. Residents of communities like La Tirana, Montecristo, El Retiro, Cieba Doblado, Las Mesitas, Isla de Mendez, San Juan del Gozo, and others are equally concerned about how tourism development will affect their environment and agrarian-based economy and culture.

Voices on the Border is currently partnering with other organizations to help build the organizational capacity of these communities to realize their own goals and priorities, and defend against unwanted development. In April of this year, we drafted a report in Spanish and English on El Chile detailing these threats (they are attached above).

Jiquilisco Bay Communities Oppose U.S. Embassy Threats AND the MCC Grant

This week, U.S.-based organizations working in El Salvador published a letter opposing the U.S. State Department’s threats to withhold a $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant over a possible violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Sixteen U.S. Congressmen signed onto the letter and sent it to the U.S. Department of State, sharing their concern over the controversy.

At issue is a seed distribution program for which the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) purchases seed corn and beans from Salvadoran cooperatives and distributes to more than 400,000 small farmers. The program is a huge benefit to rural families and the 17 agricultural cooperatives that supply the seeds. The U.S. Embassy argues that the MAG violates CAFTA by not allowing international seed producers participate in the procurement process, buying seeds only from Salvadoran producers. The Embassy will not release the $277 million grant until El Salvador is in compliance with CAFTA.

Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues

Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues

Voices on the Border, at the advice of our Salvadoran partners, did not sign the letter published by the other solidarity organizations for one simple reason. Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay oppose the $277 million MCC grant and believe the outrage over the seed program, while justified, fails to address a much bigger issue – the MCC fund will destroy El Salvador’s coastal environment and agrarian way of life.

Yes, the Embassy’s complaint about the seed program is wrong. But the impacts of the $277 million MCC grant will be worse. Here’s why:

1. FOMELINIO will fund large-scale tourism development in the Jiquilisco Bay, causing irreparable harm to the region’s fragile mangrove forests, beaches, and agricultural lands, and drain the El Salvador’s scarce water resources.

2. MCC and FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran counterpart to the MCC) have never considered how the projects they are funding will affect the targeted communities. Jose Santos Guevara, resident of La Canoa and President of MOVIAC, makes this point well. “During the design phase of the FOMELINIO [proposal], they did not consult [the communities] with respect to the type of projects needed for the development of the communities. We have a series of proposals aimed at reactivating production in the region – the construction of levees, improving roads and drainage systems. However, none of these were incorporated into the proposal that the Government of El Salvador sent to the MCC.” The only people consulted were private investors and others with financial or political interests in the outcome of the proposal.

3. In order to have a project proposal considered for MCC funds, an applicant must be able to invest at least $100,000. There are no communities or community-based organizations that are able to front those kinds of funds meaning the only people who can develop projects are outside investors.

4. There has never been a public discussion or debate about the content, objectives, and impacts of FOMELIO projects. State institutions control the information about plans and projects, releasing only vague statements to the media when it is politically expedient.

Over the past couple of years the U.S. Embassy has used the $277 million MCC grant to get El Salvador to adopt several laws and policies that promote corporate interests. Just last year the Legislative Assembly passed the Public Private Partnership Law, which the U.S. Embassy had made a prerequisite for approval of the MCC funds. The Embassy, however, did not like a couple provisions in the final draft of the law and are requiring reforms before they will release the MCC funds. The U.S. Embassy also made reforms to the Law on Money Laundering a requirement for receiving MCC funds. And of course, the Embassy is requiring the MAG to reform the seed program so that international seed producers like Monsanto can compete for contracts alongside Salvadoran agricultural cooperatives.

Just this week, Medardo Gonzàles, the Secretary General of the FMLN, said the government has done everything the Embassy wants, but it seems they will never be able to satisfy their demands. Yesterday, Danilo Perez, the Director of the Center for Consumer Protection, recommended that the Government of El Salvador reconsider signing the second MCC Compact because of all the U.S. Embassy’s conditions.

Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay see the reforms and MCC funds as a really bad deal – adopt pro-development economic policies so wealthy developers can receive financial support to take their land and destroy the region’s mangrove forests, beaches, and agrarian culture. They prefer that the Salvadoran government just say no to the MCC; maintain the seed program the way it is; and start pushing back on the pro-corporation economic policies being pushed through the Legislative Assembly.

Yes, folks in the Jiquilisco Bay are angry that the U.S. is trying to get El Salvador to change a seed program that provides so many benefits for so many families. But they are even more concerned about the long-term negative impacts that the $277 million will have on the region.

 

The Case of Privatizing Happiness

_______________________________________________

Dozens of reporters, spent an entire day, braving the heat to cover a story concerning one of the major issues Voices is currently working on. The story is about the implementation of mega-tourism, sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Lower Lempa Region of El Salvador. The main theme is it’s negative impacts on the communities living in and around the Jiquilisco Bay.

IMG_0017

IMG_0040 IMG_0055  IMG_0031 An article published by the Foreign Policy Journal said: “U.S. foreign aid is expected to promote poverty alleviation and facilitate developmental growth in impoverished countries. Yet, corporations and special interest groups have permeated even the most well-intended of U.S. policies.”

The United States has $277million in aid money to grant El Salvador and much of it will promote tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay by funding infrastructure projects like wharfs ans marinas in order to encourage private investment.

IMG_0116 IMG_0108 IMG_0092 IMG_0134Voices has been working extensively with communities and NGO’s in the Lower Lempa region to ensure that residents are bring represented, rights are being protected and those in charge are being held accountable for non-ethical practices. La Tirana and El Chile are two communities most affected by the plans and have expressed concerns about the potential threats to the land, the water, the culture and the economy of their communities. Voices even collaborated with them to create a detailed report on the situation.                >> Read the report here                                                                                                        >> Read the article here

IMG_0138
IMG_0149  IMG_0009“They are privatizing our happiness. They are stealing our smiles.”  La Tirana’s community leader said as he looked over the bay where kids were playing. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like him, many of these people here know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t free money coming into their communities and they are banding together to demand that their lives and rights be taken into consideration.

The day’s event was a great opportunity for exposure. Many diverse, national and international journalists were able to experience the reality these communities face. These communities have been taking good care of the natural resources through climate change, contamination and even flooding with little to no help from the government. To them, these resources are their lifeline. This is something that tourists who are primed to vacation here will never understand.

IMG_0144

The Price for a $277 Million MCC Grant

Since Sanchez Cerén became the President of El Salvador on June 1, his administration has said securing the $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant is a top priority. Vice President Oscar Ortiz said they want to get it done within their first 100 days in office, which means within the next three months.

The MCC approved the grant in September 2013, but the US Embassy blocked the release of the funds until the government met conditions such as reforming the Public Private Partnership Law (P3 Law) and restructuring a popular seed program.

The P3 Law facilitates government contracts with private entities to provide public goods and services. The US Embassy made the P3 Law a prerequisite for the MCC funds but they don’t like the law passed by the Legislative Assembly. They don’t approve of the oversight role the Legislature created for itself – a committee that must approve all P3 contracts. The Embassy and business community also don’t like that the law exempts important public goods and services like water, health, education, and public security from public private partnerships.

One of the most vocal opponents of the P3 Law has been El Salvador’s labor movement. Unions fear that public private partnerships will result in a loss of jobs, decrease in wages, and even worse working conditions as private investors maximize profits. Other civil society organizations fear the P3 Law, even with the exemptions, will lead to the privatization of important goods and services – like water, health care, and education.

The US Embassy also doesn’t approve of the Seed Distribution Program operated by the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG). Officials argue the procurement process violates the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) because the government only buys seeds from Salvadoran Farming Cooperatives, excluding international seed producers like Monsanto. The program provides thousands of jobs for people working for the cooperatives and ensures that more than 400,000 farmers have quality, non-GMO seeds.

Last week US Ambassador said that the Embassy’s problem was not with the seeds, but with the process. On May 2 Voices wrote an article arguing that the problem was not the seeds or the procurement process, but CAFTA.

The MCC program is popular with a lot of Salvadorans and politicians who see it as free money for development projects. But a growing number of environmentalists, unions, and communities argue that the Embassy’s conditions are too high a price to pay for development projects they don’t want anyway. And many see the conditions as an encroachment on El Salvador’s sovereignty.

Among those who oppose the MCC program outright are environmental groups and communities in the Jiquilisco Bay. MCC funds will support tourism development in the Bay and residents fear it will cause irreparable harm to mangrove forests, nesting grounds for the critically endangered Hawksbill sea turtle, and El Salvador’s most fertile agricultural land. (Voices has written about Tourism on this blog in the past – here are two reports we wrote on tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay).

Roberto Lorenzana, President Sanchez Cerén’s Chief of Staff said two weeks ago that the administration already has a draft Fomelinio Law (in El Salvador the MCC is called Fomelinio) that they will send to the Legislative Assembly soon. It’s unclear what is in the Fomelinio Law, but it likely contains all of the reforms the US Embassy is requiring for release of the MCC funds. Even before he became Chief of Staff, Lorenzana said the new administration is going to open the procurement process to national and international seed producers, in an apparent effort to satisfy the Embassy’s concerns.

While some Salvadorans have spoken out against the second MCC compact, the P3 Law and other neoliberal policies, many have not. The politics of opposing neoliberal economic policies grew more complex when the leftist FMLN party took office in 2009 and again on June 1, 2014. People and groups that organized against privatization, dollarization, CAFTA, and the first MCC compact (all policies adopted by the rightwing ARENA party between 1994 and 2008) have not been as critical since the leftist FMLN party took power. The result is that opposition to these destructive policies is less now that the FMLN is power.

El Salvador will soon get a $277 million grant from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation, but it should be clear – this is not free money.

The 17 farming cooperatives that have been growing seed corn and beans for the MAG’s Seed Distribution Program will pay for the MCC grant when they have to compete with Monsanto and other international seed giants.

Communities that depend on the mangroves for their survival will pay for the MCC grant when developers cut down forest to build resorts and golf courses.

The Salvadoran labor force will pay for the MCC grant when private contractors take over government services and cut jobs and wages to increase profitability.

And all Salvadorans will pay if public goods and services like water, education, and health are contracted out to for-profit entities, especially if there is no oversight in the process.

 

FGR Investigating Minister of Defense for Arms Trafficking and Raul Mijango for Gang Truce

The new Sanchez Cerén Administration has been in office for two weeks and is already having to manage in its first conflict between government agencies.

Attorney General Luis Martínez recently opened an investigation into Minister of Defense David Munguía Payés, in part for arms trafficking. The military was supposed to have destroyed hundreds of weapons but it seems they never got around to it. The Attorney General alleges they were instead sold to gang members.

The Minister Payés clarified this week in a conversation with La Prensa Grafica that the Attorney General “did not say that I was involved, he said that I was part of investigation.” While that might be the case, the Attorney General seems to be going after Payés pretty aggressively.

In fact, this last President Sanchez Cerén called on the Attorney General to make sure he has sufficient evidence before making accusations or filing charges, underscoring the sensitivity of the situation. The current Minister of Justice and Security, Benito Lara, also called on the Attorney General’s investigation to be thorough and objective. “This will have a big impact, because we are talking about the institution of the armed forces of this country, and that is why I say this should be a very objective and serious investigation.”

According to El Faro, Martínez has been investigating Payés since he became the Attorney General in December 2012. On May 30, 2014 just a couple days before Sanchez Cerén was inaugurated, the Attorney General’s Office tried to get records and archives from military bases concerning their arsenals, but they were denied access citing national security interests. Diario CoLatino reports that instead the Attorney General will interview the Minister of Defense on June 18 to discuss the allegations of arms trafficking.

In a related case, Attorney General Martínez is also investigating Payés and former FMLN diputado Raul Mijango for their roles in negotiating the gang truce, which was signed in March 2012. The truce, which reduced the murder rate from 70 per 100,000 own to 41, fell apart at the end of May when the homicide rate spiked to new highs.

Last week, Mr. Mijango met with the Attorney General’s Office for more than 12 hours talking about the truce and the role that he and others played in lowering El Salvador’s murder rate. The investigations are focused on alleged payments made to those who were a part of the process. Earlier in the year, members of the ARENA party said that while serving as the Minister of Justice and Security, David Munguía Payés made at least 10 payments between $2,000 and $5,000 to Mijano and others. The payments, which were allegedly made from the government coffers, would be a violation of Salvadoran law. Mr. Mijango admits that he received monthly payments of $1,500 for his role in negotiating the truce but he says the funds came from a nonprofit organization called Interpeace and not the government.

Last week when Mr. Mijango left his 12-hour interview with the Attorney General he told reporters, “I feel politically persecuted… but I’m not one of those people who pee in their pants in difficult situations.”

It is still unclear whether the investigations into Payés and Mijango are legitimate or the Attorney General is just out to inflict some political damage. Perhaps we’ll know more on June 18th when Payés goes in for his interview with the Attorney General.

Crime Continues to Rise in El Salvador

Yesterday, Salvador Sanchez Cerén took office as the new president of El Salvador, becoming the first former FMLN militant from El Salvador’s Civil War to ascend to the presidency.

DSCF0265President Sanchez Cerén’s political victory has not been the glorious triumph many wanted for the former guerrilla leader. The runoff election against the ARENA’s Norman Quijano was surprisingly close, as Sanchez Cerén squeaked out a victory with only 50.2% of the vote. Quijano’s late surge seemed to stem from Salvadorans’ discontent with the lack of security and the failing truce between the country’s two rival gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.

The FMLN and the country’s mood have only soured since the election. In May, the police reported 396 homicides, 170 more than the same month last year, and fingers are being pointing in all directions. Now former President Mauricio Funes recently said recently that political interests “want to give the impression that there is a failed state incapable of facing crime,” meaning that foes of the FMLN want to make the leftist government seem unable to address crime.

Indeed, the State appears helpless in stopping the violence. The gangs have taken steps over the past few years by signing a truce but the government was unable or unwilling to support their efforts. And past administrations and political leaders continually fail to address economic and social equalities, or provide youth with good alternatives. Until they do so, gangs will continue to fill in the gaps left by the stagnant economy and broken families.

President Sanchez Cerén said yesterday during his first speech as President that he would lead a System of Citizen Security. He also said, “improving the security of citizens will require that we work together against organized crime, traffickers, extortion, and all expressions of violence. We will fight delinquency in all its forms, with all legal instruments and tools of the State.”

President’s and politicians have made so many speeches over the years but taken little action. If President Sanchez Cerén is going to promote security and end the country’s violence he will have be willing to take bold and creative measures that set aside politics. Language like fighting delinquency in all its forms and using all legal instruments seems to indicate more of the same Mano-Duro or heavy hand kind of law enforcement, which has never been successful.

Unfortunately, President Sanchez Cerén also seems to be embracing the same neoliberal economic policies that the U.S. government has been promoting since the end of the civil war – creating an export economy and attracting foreign investment. These policies have failed to address the social and economic inequalities that have allowed the gangs to flourish, and in fact made divisions even wider.

Most Salvadorans seem to have pretty low expectations for their new President and his administration, and he has given them little reason to have hope for something new. Salvadoran communities and Diaspora seem willing to support the new administration, but President Sanchez Cerén and his team will have to show a level of creativity and boldness that we haven’t seen yet.