Corruption, El Salvador Government, violence

A New Approach to Youth Violence?

The number of students murdered in El Salvador more than doubled from 52 students in 2010 to 126 in 2011. In January 2011, even before the increase of violence in Salvadoran schools, the Ministry of Education (MINED) and the National Civil Police (PNC) began developing a plan that would, in-part, put police patrols in the schools most affected by gang violence. In late January 2012, Sub-director of the PNC, Manuel Ramírez Landaverde, announced they would begin implementing the new programs for the 2012 school year, with the goal of reducing student violence and the murder rate.

One of the new programs is “Discipline through Sports,” which aims to bridge the divide between students and police officers. According to an expert on Salvadoran youth and gangs, there is a very common belief in El Salvador that the police are “corrupt to its core.” The source, which requested anonymity, said that many communities, rural and urban, believe the PNC has “been infiltrated by gangs, by organized crime, by narco-trafficking, and you name it.” The source also said, “police brutality is common,” and they also “extort kids in the gangs so they don’t beat them or their families, or investigate them.”

It is unclear what the new program, which police officials tout as both preventative and protective, will look like, but the goal seems to be to get police officers active in coaching or even playing sports with the kids. Through direct interactions with students, the PNC hopes to be more than just a police presence. Landaverde said that the program “will allow us to detect, before any warning or situation, a problem developing within any group of students.”

While it is important that the police recognize the divide between the police and youth, Discipline through Sports seems to do little  to address the reason for the divide – the perception that the police are the actual “bad guys.” Instead of addressing accusations of abuse and corruption, police officials seem more interested in gathering information and detecting issues early, rather than strengthening their relationships with youth.

The PNC and MINED have identified 300 schools as “high risk,” 166 of which are also considered the “most vulnerable.” The program will assign 160 officers to work on sports programs in the 300 schools, which is just over 1 officer for every 2 high-risk schools. The 160 officers will join another 400 officers who are patrolling the 166 schools that are already marked as the most vulnerable. Sub-director Landaverde also said that thousands of other personnel would continue supporting schools around the country with “patrols, control, education, and road security, regulating vehicle traffic around the schools.”

The program is part of the PNC’s effort to reduce El Salvador’s extremely high murder rate (66 per 100,000, second highest in the world). Police officials recently said they would reduce the murder rate by 30% in 2012, in part by reducing the levels of violence among youth. According to David Munguía Payés, a retired General who is now the Minister of Justice and Public Security, and other government officials, violence perpetrated by youth gangs accounted for 90% of El Salvador’s 4,223 murders in 2011. El Salvador’s Government Forensics Institute, former PNC officials, and several civil society organizations, however, assert that youth gangs account for only 10-20% of the nation’s murders. They attribute the majority of El Salvador’s violence to international organized criminal networks involved in trafficking drugs, guns, and people, money laundering, and other illicit activities. Though the 126 student victims only account for 3% of the murder in 2011, the PNC is focusing on schools because they believe them to be recruiting centers for the gangs. They hope that by increasing the police presence, active gang members will no longer have the access that they once did, and youth will focus more on their studies instead of turning to gangs and violence.

The focus on murdered students may also be a good public relations move for the PNC and Funes Administration. Highlighting the tragic murders of these students,  the PNC and other officials are able to continue casting youth gangs as the heinous enemy and justify the same kind of draconian security plans implemented in the past (Mano Duro, 2003 and Super Mano Duro, 2004 – both laws were found to be unconstitutional by El Salvador’s Supreme Court). In just the past month, the Funes Administration has militarized the country’s domestic security institutions in a manner not seen since the Peace Accords were signed in 1992.

In 2011, the Funes Administration proposed to steer youth away from gangs by requiring “at risk” youth ages 16-18 to participate in a military training program. Activists and experts rejected the plan arguing that the youth would emerge from the program as skilled laborers for the gangs and drug traffickers. Instead of putting youth into a military program, the PNC’s latest idea puts the police into the schools.

Teachers, organizations and other experts, however, have criticized the PNC’s proposal fearing that it will only lead to more police brutality. A spokesperson for Bases Magisteriales, a teacher’s union, shared a recent story from the Joaquín Rodenzo school in downtown San Salvador as an example. He said that police would hit students and even put their service weapons to the student’s heads. The Bases Magisteriales spokesperson said that schools simply don’t have the resources to support the PNC presence and protect the rights of the students.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s Vice President and Minister of Education, signed off on Dicipline through Sports on January 30, 2012, and Security Minister David Munguía Payés hopes to see the plan in place within two months. Whether putting police officers into school sports programs and patrolling the hallways is something new that will deter involvement in gang activities or just another heavy-handed security measure that will result in more abuse remains to be seen. But with such uncertainty about who is responsible for the violence and the motive behind the crimes, there is plenty of reason to doubt the plan will help reduce El Salvador’s murder rate by the 30% officials are hoping for.

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Corruption, El Salvador Government, International Relations, Mauricio Funes, Organized Crime, Partnership for Growth

Decriminalization and the Impact of Drug Trafficking in Central America

Decriminalization, or legalization, of drugs in Central America is a hot topic in El Salvador and Guatemala right now. Last Friday, Inside Story Americas, an Al-Jazeera news program, ran a program on the effects of drug trafficking on Central America, touching on the pros/cons of decriminalization.

The program was in response to comments made last week by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who said he would be open to decriminalizing drugs in an effort to address Guatemala’s security issues. The comments came after a meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes who also said he is also open to the idea. President Funes stated,

“Our government is open to discussion on any proposal or measure which achieves a reduction in the high levels of consumption in our countries, but particularly (to reduce) the production and trafficking of drugs. As long as the United States does not make any effort to reduce the high levels of (narcotics) consumption, there’s very little we can do in our countries to fight against the cartels, and try to block the production and trade in drugs.”

After returning to El Salvador from his meeting with President Perez Molina, President Funes backtracked a bit, saying that he does not favor decriminalizing drugs.

Saving the discussion about the pros and cons of decriminalization or legalization for another blog post, an interesting point of these recent conversations is the growing emphasis on the failure of the U.S. to curb its demand for drugs. Al Jazeera cited a recent government report that found that 22.6 million Americans used illicit drugs in 2010, nearly 9% of the population. While the number of users dropped from 2.4 million in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

The Inside Story panelists said the heads of state in Central America, and even Mexico and Colombia who have talked about decriminalization, may be discussing decriminalization in order to pressure the U.S. into taking more actions to decrease demand. Experts from around the world agree that the “war on drugs,” as it has been fought over the past 40 years, has failed. Even President Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. needs to address the demand issue, and treat the issue as a public health problem.

U.S. policies have yet to change, though. In 2011, the National Drug Control Strategy had a budget of $15.5 billion, and the expenditures were roughly the same as in previous years. Approximately 1/3 ($5.6 billion) of the federal budget for the war on drugs was allocated for treatment and prevention – an increase of $0.2 billion from the 2010 budget. The remaining $9.9 billion was allocated for law enforcement, interdiction, and international support, the same as previous years.

In addition to the well-documented affects on Mexico and South America, the U.S. demand for illicit drugs produced in South America and trafficked through Central America and Mexico have very real consequences in Salvadoran communities.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now comprise the most violent region in the world. While police officials blame 90% of the murders on local youth gangs, other government agencies, recently demoted police officials, and civil society organizations believe the violence is the result of international organized criminals who are trafficking drugs, guns, people, and laundering money. They estimate that only 10-20% of El Salvador’s murders are attributable to local gangs. The high murder rates have resulted in such insecurity in El Salvador that the U.S. aid program, Partnership for Growth, indentified it as one of the country’s two primary barriers to economic growth.

Traffickers use border communities, coastal villages, and other regions to move shipments from South American producers to North American markets. But they don’t just use these communities quietly – they often take them over, corrupting local government and police officials, making sure that local citizens and law enforcement do not interfere with their activities.

Along the coast, traffickers use small villages, ports and tourist destinations to refuel the small boats they use to transport drug shipments by sea. They also use these villages to transfer shipments that arrive by boat to cars and trucks, which then continue the journey north via land routes. Traffickers use communities along El Salvador’s borders with Honduras and Guatemala to move shipments without interference from border agents.

The cartels control these towns by putting local government and police officials on their payrolls. In turn these officials arrange for locals to move and provide security for shipments, and make sure that law enforcement agencies do not interfere. The local government and police officials maintain a culture of lawlessness that prevents political opposition and limits civil society.

One of the best examples of how traffickers work in El Salvador is the Texis Cartel, which was exposed in a report put together by El Faro in May 2011 and a companion video produced by the Washington Office on Latin America. The Texis Cartel ran a land route that trafficked drugs and other contraband from Honduras through northern El Salvador and on to Guatemala.

While it remains unclear how decriminalization or legalization would affect Central American communities, experts and even President Obama agree that the long-term solution must include a decrease demand in the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have yet to shift their priorities, forcing Central and South American governments to discuss other options. And until the U.S. can kick its cocaine problem, the violence will continue and the cartels will continue to control communities throughout the Americas.

Advocacy, Cabanas, Corruption

“Extermination” group threatens Radio Victoria Reporters Again

Yesterday six Radio Victoria reporters, including a North American, received a death threat in their e-mail boxes.  The threat comes after a rally in Victoria City where community members from Santa Marta demanded transparency from their Mayor Juan Antonio Ramos; and 2 months before mayoral and congressional elections.

The text came from the e-mail address “exterminiottrr@hotmail.com” and says, “Warning f*@! at Radio Victoria you keep screwing around as you like filling your mouths with the sh@* you talk, like the day that those mother f*#@rs leaders of Santa Marta tricked those people to talk sh#@ in Victoria.”

The reporters have been denouncing the threat on local radio stations and are adament that the authorities investigate these threats, especially now that they are clearer than ever in their motives and possible authors.

Advocacy, Climate Change, Corruption, Disasters

Rains continue, flood waters recede in the Lower Lempa

Today community members report renewed access to San Marcos Lempa via the ‘paved’ road.  Many sections are washed out or still covered with a few inches of water, but smaller vehicles are now able to enter the communities.

Families from less directly affected communities such as Amando López and Octavio Ortiz are anxious to return to their homes, but Voices staff and other authorities are urging them to stay while the rain still falls.  It has been raining without pause throughout the country since the early hours of this morning.

ACUDESBAL (the local inter-communal association) and CESTA (an environmental NGO) published a press release denouncing the role of the September 15th hydroelectric dam in the near total devestation of many communities in the Lower Lempa.  The release says “During this climatic phenomena, the CEL again released 11,500 cubic meters per second, but unlike Hurricane Mitch, this amount of water was released for a prolonged period of time, and the river bed is more clogged [than in ’98’], which caused flooding from San Marcos Lempa all the way down to Montecristo Island”.  The release demands that CEL accept responsibility for their negligence, especially after an interview with the CEL president Irving Tochez, where he claims that CEL is in no way responsible for the devestation, but rather mitigated further disaster by ‘helping to retain water and releasing it in a controlled manner’.

They end by stating ” the road to recovery will be extremely difficult, but we know we can count on the support and solidarity among the organized communities, here and abroad”.

Cabanas, Corruption, Organized Crime, Politics, violence

Anti-mining Activist Juan Francisco Duran Found Dead in San Salvador

Yesterday, officials found the body of disappeared anti-mining activist Juan Francisco Duran Ayala. On Sunday we posted an article about Juan Francisco’s June 3rd disappearance after he left classes at the Technological University in San Salvador where he was completing his masters in linguistics. The day before he had been hanging anti-mining flyers in Ilobasco as a volunteer for the Environmental Committee of Cabañas in Defense of Water and Cultura (CAC), when he was followed and harassed by members of the local police and mayor’s office.

Though few details are available at this time, officials report that Juan Francisco’s body was found in a common grave in the Lamatepec neighborhood located in San Salvador, close to Soyapango. The cause of death appears to be a single gunshot to the head.

Given Juan Francisco’s involvement with the CAC and his activities the day before his disappearance, as well as his father’s leadership within the FMLN veterans group in Ilobasco, there is plenty of reason to suspect that this was a politically motivated crime. If so it would be the tenth homicide over the past two years related to civil society’s participation in the debate over mining and other controversial issues in Cabañas. In addition to the murders, civil society leaders have received a constant stream of threats and several have been assaulted.

As the police and Attorney General’s Office begin investigating Juan Francisco’s murder, it is important to remember that no one has been held accountable for the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Felícita Echevarría, Dora Alicia Sortos Recenos and her unborn child, Horacio Menjívar, or Esperanza Velasco. Simiarly, though several gang members were convicted for the disappearance, torture and murder of Marcelo Rivera, many in Cabañas believe that the police and Attorney General’s office ignored evidence that intellectual authors paid to have him killed. And the police have yet to make arrests for the murders of Darwin Serrano and Gerardo Abrego León.

Investigators tried to depoliticize these murders by attributing them to a drinking binge, as in the case of Marcelo Rivera, or a family feud, as with the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Felícita Echevarría, Horacio Menjívar, Esperanza Velasco, and Dora Alicia and her unborn child. Rodolfo Delgado, the prosecutor in charge of those investigations, has a history of depoliticizing murders. In 2004 he led the investigation of the murder of Gilberto Soto, the union activists killed in Usulután. Though the case had all the attributes of a political assassination, Delgado blamed the murder on Soto’s mother-in-law claiming it was a domestic issue. Delgado also depoliticized the murders of Francisco Antonio Manzanares and his wife Juana, who were killed in Suchitoto in 2007. Instead of investigating political motives for their deaths, Delgado investigated their daughter, Marina Manzanares, claiming that it was a domestic issue.

We don’t know who will be in charge of Juan Francisco’s murder, but the international community should join his family and friends, as well as local civil society leaders in calling for a thorough investigation, including the possibility that there are intellectual authors that paid to have him killed.

As long as impunity exists, murder, fear and intimidation will be a part of public debate in El Salvador, and we can expect more violence in the future.

Yesterday we posted a call to action, asking readers to call or write Attorney General Romeo Barahona and Minister of Security Manuel Melgar. Now it is more important than ever for you to get involved. If you’ve already emailed or called, we thank you and ask that you invite your friends and family to do the same. If you haven’t called yet, please do so by clicking here.

Our thoughts and prayers are with Juan Francisco’s family and friends, as well as all others who are risking their lives in the fight for justice in Cabañas.

Cabanas, Corruption, violence

Another Disappearance in Cabañas

We are sad to report that another activist in Cabañas has been disappeared. Juan Francisco Duran Ayala is a volunteer with the Environmental Committee of Cabañas (CAC, in Spanish) and was hanging posters in Ilobasco denouncing Pacific Rim and mining last Wednesday. He disappeared the next day.

A press release from CAC representatives states that the Mayor of Ilobasco, Eliseo “Cheyo” Castellano, ordered the municipal police to take down all of the posters that Mr. Duran Ayala had been hanging. Others report that while Juan Francisco Duran and others were hanging posters, the Mayor’s employees were following and watching them.

Like other mayors in Cabañas, Mayor Castellano is no stranger to conflict and controversy, especially with regards to his support of Pacific Rim and local efforts to mine gold. Pacific Rim mining company’s primary asset is the El Dorado mine, which is just up the road from Ilobasco. When Pacific Rim first arrived in Cabañas, they explored La Caldera, a large area covering Illobasco and parts of San Vicente, a neighboring province to the south. Mayor Castellano joined Mayor Jose Baustista, Mayor Edgar Bonilla and others in aggressively suppressing the local anti-mining movement.

Two years ago, activist Marcelo Rivera from San Isidro, Cabañas was disappeared and found dead at the bottom of a well. While sources who wish to remain anonymous believe that Jose Bautista of San Isidro was involved in Mr. Rivera’s disappearance and murder, it occurred in Agua Zarca, a small village in Ilobasco.

Mayor Castellano, who is serving his fifth term in office, is known for more than just suppressing the local anti-mining movement. Over the years he has used extreme measures to repress the leftist FMLN party in Cabañas. During the campaign for the 2009 local elections, he stated in a speech in Agua Zarca, the community where Marcelo Rivera was killed, that the FMLN “are communists and eat babies.” According the Miriam Hernandez, who was the FMLN mayoral candidate during the 2006 elections, Mayor Castellanos and his four loyal bodyguards threatened her and her supporters at gunpoint on at least two occasions.

At the time of his disappearance, Juan Francisco Duran was studying at the Technical University. His father is Benjamín Ayala Flores who resides in Ilobasco and is the coordinator for the group of FMLN war veterans. His role in organizing FMLN veterans has likely put him at odds with Mayor Castellano and his supporters.

As you may recall, when Marcelo in June 2009, his friends and family were frustrated because the police and Attorney General’s office did not organize search parties, stating that he was probably partying with friends. CAC representative and friends of Juan Francisco Duran are asking for your help in demanding that authorities form search parties and properly investigate threats and attacks against other activists in the region. We will post again tomorrow with instructions on who and how to call and write.

Juan Francisco Duran (Photo from CAC press release)

Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Juan Francisco Duran and all others who are being threatened and attacked for taking on local power structures, engaging in public policy debates, and contributing to a stronger civil society.

Corruption, El Salvador Government

Arrest Warrant Issued for Former ISTA President, ARENA Party Executive

This week El Faro reported that the Attorney General’s office of El Salvador issued an arrest warrant for Miguel Tomás López Iraheta, former president of the Salvadoran Institute for Agrarian Transformation (ISTA), as well as Armando Zepeda Valle and Magdaleno Guzmán, also former presidents of the Institute. Each of the men is charged with abusing their power and dereliction of duty. Authorities believe López is out of the country and forwarded his arrest warrant to Interpol.

ISTA is the state controlled land reform institute that is charged in part with implementing land reforms passed in the 1980s and 1990s. The charges allege that López Iraheta gifted state-controlled land to his political allies, personal security personnel, and even his driver. They also allege that plots of farmland were distributed to ISTA employees, which is a violation of the laws governing ISTA that prohibit the distribution of land to government employees. The prosecuting attorney is also seeking the dismissal of eight other ISTA officials for their roles in signing off on the allegedly illegal gifts.

Karla Albanez took over ISTA in 2009 when the current administration of President Mauricio Funes took office. When she took over ISTA she uncovered documents that recorded the distribution of Grade 1 and Grade 2 lands to employees of ISTA, as well as the Presidential House and the Ministry of the Interior during the Administration of President Tony Saca.

Albanez recently commented that “the ISTA law is very clear: the lands distributed by ISTA are for campesinos without land, not for public employees, and the Court of Auditors has made that clear to directors of ISTA.” She also states her belief that both López Iraheta and Magdaleno Guzmán appear to have violated this law. The documentation her office provided to the Attorney General’s office contains sufficient evidence to establish that there was indeed corruption and dereliction of duty. She specifically cites the existence of a list of ARENA party members and activists who were given land by ISTA, noting also that López Iraheta was a member of the National Executive Council of ARENA.

Almost exactly four years before the arrest warrant was issued, López Iraheta resigned from ISTA to dedicate himself fulltime to party activities. He was also accused at the time of authorizing the distribution of part of the La Hoya and Tehuacán-Léon de Piedra nature preserves in the province of San Vincinte as a favor to his unlce Luis Rolando López Fortiz and other ARENA party members.

This case comes less than two months after Salvadoran police arrested former Minister of Health José Guillermo Maza Brizuela on corruption charges stemming from the reconstruction of hospitals in El Salvador.  While these arrests are important first steps, the Attorney General has a lot of hard work ahead of them in prosecuting these cases and securing convictions. Government prosecutors do not have a good track record when it comes to tough political cases, and the arrest of former Presidents of ISTA and the former Minister of Health are as about as political as they come.