Corruption, El Salvador Government

Three years of Resistence to the Coup in Honduras

This morning, activists gathered outside the Honduran Embassy in San Salvador to protest the third anniversary of the coup d’état that toppled the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. In the days, months, and now years since the coup, the Honduran government has violently repressed the resistance movement that opposed the coup, and other human rights activists. The protests in front of the Embassy will continue tomorrow, June 28th, the actual anniversary of the coup.

The 2009 coup’s aftershocks rippled throughout Latin American democracies and continue to influence countries such as El Salvador. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes had been in office less than a month when the Honduran Military left Zelaya on a runway in Costa Rica. Rightwing extremists in El Salvador used the coup as an opportunity to warn Funes what would happen if he and the FMLN tried to exercise their new power in an extreme manner. Many of Funes’ actions over the past three years indicate that he took their message to heart.

This article will provide an overview of what happened three years ago and the constitutional crisis that led up to the coup. It will then discuss the international community’s response and arguably oversimplified accounting of what happened. The article then provides an overview of the human rights and social justice issues that have plagued Hondurans since the coup, and concludes with a brief discussion about how the coup continues to affect Salvadoran domestic policies.

Events 3 years Ago

On Monday June 29, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that early the day before Honduran soldiers surrounded the Presidential Palace and removed then President Zelaya from his room and flew him to Costa Rica. The article quotes Zelaya’s version of the events, which he shared with reporters while still in his pajamas standing at the airport.

“I was awakened by shots, and the yells of my guards, who resisted for about 20 minutes. I came out in my pajamas, I’m still in my pajamas… when [the soldiers] came in, they pointed their guns at me and told me they would shoot if I didn’t put down my cell phone.”

A recent NPR article quotes President Zelaya recalling the coup, “[t]he shooting started around 5:20 a.m. I went downstairs and there were about 250 masked soldiers around my house. All you could see was their eyes.” Speaking about his arrival in Costa Rica, he continued, “they took off, and there I was. The democratically elected President of Honduras, standing in my pajamas in the middle of a runway in Costa Rica.”

With President Zelaya ousted, the Honduran military took to the streets in Tegucigalpa to suppress opposition to the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported that the police issued warrants for some of Zelaya’s cabinet members and other supporters, forcing them into hiding. The police and military broke up pro-Zelaya demonstrations, killing and injuring numerous people.

The Constitutional Crisis

The coup was organized by the Supreme Court and National Congress, which at the time issued a statement, “the military had acted to defend the law against those who had publicly spoken out and acted against the Constitution’s provisions.”

In the weeks and months before the coup, Honduras was embroiled in a constitutional crisis. President Zelaya had proposed that Hondurans reform their Constitution, which had been in place since 1982. President Zelaya wanted to include a referendum on the November 2009 presidential ballot to initiate the process. After getting pushback, he scheduled a non-binding referendum for June 29, 2009 to determine whether or not Hondurans wanted to have the referendum that November.

Opponents of the constitutional reforms accused President Zelaya of trying to amend the Constitution to allow him to serve a second term as President. In May 2009, Roberto Micheletti, the President of the Congress accused the President of treason pointing out that the Constitution prohibits changing constitutional term-limits by referendum pr plebiscite. The day before the coup, Al Jazeera quoted President Zelaya saying in a speech before Congress, “Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I’m a free president and nobody scares me.”

In a September 2009 interview with Time Magazine, Zelaya said the allegation that he was trying to change the presidential term limit was a “false pretext for a coup.” He explained the reason for reforming the constitution was “to better help the 70% of the population who live in poverty.”

In May 2009, the Attorney General of Honduras recommended that the judicial branch declare Zelaya’s referendum illegal, which it did. President Zelaya, however, went ahead with his plan and on May 29, 2009 ordered the military and police to provide logistical support for the referendum. The Supreme Court responded by ordering the military and police not to support Zelaya or the referendum, and they complied with the Court’s order. On June 24th President Zelaya fired the Military Joint Chief of Staff General Romeo Vasquez and the Defense Minister for their refusal to help with the referendum. The Supreme Court said the firing was illegal and ordered Zelaya to reinstate them, which he did not. The chiefs of the Honduran army, navy, and air force all resigned in protest.

According to Aljazeera, President Zelaya did not have the support of the military but labor leaders, farmers, and civic organizations agreed that the constitution needed to be reformed to improve the lives of the majority.

The referendum was scheduled for June 28th. Before the polls opened, however, the Military stormed the presidential palace, arrested Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica, and confiscated the referendum materials. The Supreme Court said the Military had executed an arrest warrant they had issued for the President for his non-compliance with the judiciary’s ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. Similarly, the National Congress passed a decree removing Zelaya from office and replacing him with Roberto Micheletti, who was the President of Congress and next in line to the Presidency. Micheletti served out the remainder of Zelaya’s presidency, which ended on January 27, 2010.

A Gallop poll taken in early July found that 46% of Hondurans opposed the coup while 41% thought it was justified.

The International Response to the Coup

The international community immediately condemned the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported, “the international reaction was swift and surprisingly united.” A Congressional Research Service report said the United States, European Union, and United Nations condemned the coup and called for Zelaya’s immediate return. “Countries throughout Latin America and Europe withdrew their ambassadors… isolating the de facto regime.” The day of the coup, the Organization of American States issued a statement condemning the coup and calling for the unconditional return of President Zelaya to his constitutional duties.

In 2011, a truth commission concluded what most had been arguing from day one – the coup was illegal. Recognizing that both President Zelaya and the Honduran Congress were responsible for the events that led up to the coup, the commission concluded that Honduras did not have clear procedures to resolve power conflicts, and that the Congress and Supreme Court had overreached their power by ordering his arrest and forcing him into exile. Even if President Zelaya had broken the law, there were other processes in place to check his power. Artile 102 of the Constitution, however, says that authorities may not expropriate any Honduran to another country. But that’s what the military did – they arrested him and dropped him off in Costa Rica, and refused him re-entry.

Though U.S. officials condemned the coup, many in the international community thought the response was insufficient. The day after the coup, The New York Times wrote on July 29, 2009,

“President Obama on Monday strongly condemned the ouster of Honduras’ president as an illegal coup that set a ‘terrible precedent’ for the region,’ as the country’s government defied international calls to return the toppled president to power and clashed with thousands of protesters.

“’We do not want to go back to a dark past,’ Mr. Obama said, in which military coups override elections. ‘We always want to stand with democracy,’ he added.”

In the days and weeks after the coup, the U.S. cut off aid to Honduras and revoked the visas of Honduran officials involved in the coup. But that hasn’t stopped many from accusing the U.S. government of supporting the coup. One Guardian editorial asked, “does the U.S. back the Honduran coup?” while calling President Obama’s statements following the coup “weak and non-committal.” The article compares Obama’s measured response to stronger statements made by Lula de Silva, then President of Brasil, and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, both of which denounced the coup and called for Zelaya’s return. The U.S. received even more criticism over the past couple of years as they helped Honduras re-enter the OAS.

Similarly, a North American Congress of Latin America (NACLA) article criticized the U.S. media for its “pro-coup bias, inaccuracies, and incomplete coverage.” The NACLA article criticized coverage for incorrectly reporting that Zelaya had been trying to reform the constitution so that he could run for a second term. They also disputed reports by the Wall Street Journal and other publications that a plurality in Honduras supported the coup, when the Gallop poll found the opposite – that 48% opposed the coup and 41% supported it. The NACLA article also alleges that the media under-reported opposition of the coup by members of the U.S. Congress, while giving Congressional support for the coup significant coverage. Finally, the article raises the important point that the U.S. media has failed to cover the human rights abuses and repression under the coup.

NACLA’s point that Zelaya was not trying to run for a second term and that the U.S. media presented a very pro-coup bias is echoed in an August 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus article. The authors summarize,

“the story most U.S. readers are getting about the coup is that Zelaya – an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – was deposed because he tried to change the constitution to keep himself in power.”

The article then says this presentation of the coup is “a massive distortion of the facts,” and that

“all Zelaya was trying to do is to put a non-binding referendum on the ballot calling for a constitutional convention, a move that trade unions, indigenous groups, and social activist organizations had long been lobbying for.”

Human Rights and Repression in Post-coup

Repression and human rights abuses against those who opposed the coup and otherwise advocate for social justice have become dramatically worse over the past three years. In July 2009 Amnesty International sent a delegation to investigate reports that the Honduran security forces were aggressively repressing those who opposed the coup. They found that an

“increasingly disproportionate and excessive use of force being used by the police and military to repress legitimate and peaceful protests across the country. Female protesters are particularly vulnerable and some women and girls taking part in the demonstrations are reportedly suffering gender-based violence and abuse at the hands of police officers. At least two protesters have died as a result of gunshot wounds.”

In August 2009, Ester Major from Amnesty International said,

“We’re seeing a deterioration in the whole respect for human rights on the whole situation in Honduras right now. People cannot count on having their rights protected if they go out on the streets. The police are sending a message, and the de facto government are sending a message to people, saying, “If you come out on the streets and peacefully demonstrate, this is what happens. We will arbitrarily detain you. We will beat you.” This is the signal they’re sending out.”

On the one-year anniversary of the coup, Gerardo Torres, who is an independent journalist and member of the National Front of Popular Resistance in Honduras, told Democracy Now “the repression is getting harder.” In May 2011, almost two years after the coup, the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras reported, “a dramatic increase in the ongoing violent repression of human rights in Honduras.”

In May 2011, Jesse Freeston produced a series of video reports that detail numerous aspects of the government repression of the growing opposition movement. The four-part video series is worth watching and can be found on the Upsidedownworld.org site. The videos detail abuses against rural populations who are advocating for access to land, attacks on teachers unions, and more.

Several people who opposed the coup were forced to flee Honduras and live in other Central American countries. They live in countries such as El Salvador where they are unable to receive refugee status, study, or get jobs.

Similarly, human rights activists report that since the coup an estimated 24 journalists have been killed.  Alfredo Villatoro, for example, was a radio reporter who as abducted and murdered in May 2012. His death came days after the assassination of journalist and gay rights campaigner Erick Martinez.

These political murders and human rights abuses are part of a general trend in Honduras since the coup. In 2009, Honduras’ murder rate was 46 per 100,000 – third highest in the world. In just two years, Honduras became the most violent country in the world, registering over 80 murders per 100,000 people. During that time, drug trafficking and organized crime have flourished, making security the number one issue. Just last month, the Honduran police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in helicopters killed four people, including two pregnant women and a 14-year girl, and injured four others when they fired upon a boat that was taking them to their rural community. The massacre is just the latest example of the violence and insecurity that has swept through Honduras over the past three years.

The Honduran Coup and El Salvador

A few weeks before the military ousted President Zelaya in Honduras, Mauricio Funes was sworn in as President of El Salvador – the first leftist administration to control the executive branch. Military leaders and conservative power brokers use the coup to warn the new administration that they would not tolerate extremist actions.

A NACLA article published in 2009 identifies several military leaders who justified the Honduran coup, arguing that the military did what it needed to do to uphold the constitution, and that similar actions would be justifiable in El Salvador. Former general Mauricio Ernesto Vargas went as far to say that if President Funes were to repeal the amnesty for military officials, he would face an uprising (Benjamín Cuélla, The Honduran Coup: View From El Salvador, NACLA Report on the Americas, p. 38-43, Nov/Dec 2009).

President Funes seems to have heeded their warning, and many of his more extreme actions have erred towards supporting more right-wing positions. And pacifying the Military seems to have been a top priority. Early in his presidency, Funes integrated the military into his security plan, allowing them to patrol “gang-controlled neighborhoods” and previously unmanned border crossings. In January 2012, President Funes went so far as to appoint former military leaders to top positions within the National Police and Ministry of Defense.

Funes even generated his own constitutional crisis last year by signing a law that would have crippled that Constitutional Court. Though the real reason for his going after the Constitutional Court remains somewhat unclear, Funes seems to have been trying to prevent the more progressive judges from striking down the amnesty law that protects former military leaders from being charged for crimes committed during the civil war.

Over the past 20 years, most Latin American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, have at least tried to maintain a democratic façade, electing presidents and congressional leaders, and functioning under a constitution. Every once in a while events like the Honduran coup, and the more recent coup in Paraguay, demonstrate how thin these facades can be. Funes seems to have understood this well. Though his efforts to keep the military busy and happy have been unpopular, it may ensure that his presidency doesn’t end on a runway in Costa Rica. 

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.

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.

Corruption, Organized Crime, U.S. Relations, violence

Gun Trafficking in El Salvador- Hard to Track, Harder to Stop

One thing is certain about El Salvador – there is no shortage of firearms. Along with explosives, firearms are the leading cause of violent death in the Republic. The frequency of violent attacks, such as the December 8, 2010 hand grenade assault on the City Hall in San Salvador, and recent highly publicized investigations of gun traffickers, such as former Brigadier General Martínez-Guillén, calls for a closer examination of where the weapons come from and how criminals get them.
El Salvador has an extensive and easily accessible black market where buyers can find firearms and explosives of all shapes, sizes and origins, with little interference from law enforcement. The black market is comprised of individual dealers who operate out of their homes, cars, or even the backrooms of local businesses. Most often, black market weapons come from international sources in the US or Europe and are trafficked through Mexico down to El Salvador, or they are stolen out of Salvadoran military or police arsenals.
One of the biggest buyers of illegal weapons is El Salvador’s numerous security firms that protect private and government interests. Though they are legal entities, security firms prefer to purchase arms off the black market to avoid government scrutiny. Security companies have thrived over the years, making millions from Salvadorans who increasingly live in fear of being robbed or killed by the country’s notorious street gangs. These security firms also serve as a large source of weapons for thieves.  In the past two years alone, more than 1,700 weapons have been reported missing by private security companies.

Every year, Salvadorans purchase roughly $20 million in small weapons from the legal market, and approximately two to three times that amount from the black market. Though government officials tend to blame street gangs for the high murder rates that make El Salvador one of the deadliest countries in the world, political scientists and international experts have been questioning whether they could really accomplish the 10-15 murders per day they are blamed for. One of the points they make is that the youth involved in these gangs probably  cannot afford to purchase the high-grade weapons that are often used.

Many of the weapons used in crimes have been in El Salvador for decades, left over from the 12-year civil war that ended in 1992. Despite the United Nations’ numerous efforts to disarm El Salvador following the conflict, a large percentage of wartime weapons continue to be bought and sold on the streets. Additionally, the Salvadoran military’s large arsenals are frequently stolen from, and their weapons end up being sold on the streets. Such weapons include M-16 AK-47 automatic rifles and hand grenades, such as the ones used in attack on San Salvador’s City Hall that killed two and caused $20,000 in damage. Last summer, the Washington Post published an article highlighting the issue of “1980s-era hand grenades, originally distributed to the militaries of El Salvador and Guatemala, making their way onto the black market. Drug cartels have used them in firefights with police and military, and against rival gangs.

As the Wall Street Journal recently explained, large-scale gun traffickers are responsible for a negligible percentage of the weapons in illegal circulation.  Gun theft and small-scale distribution of stolen and found weapons are much more common and even harder to combat, especially since policymakers are focused on the very few large-scale distributors.  Current strategies like this one, and using the United States Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms databases to trace U.S.-made guns used in crimes abroad, turns up fewer than 15 high-volume (more than 250 guns per year) gun trading networks each year.

The Ministry of Defense has uncovered numerous gang plots to steal or illegally buy small numbers of weapons from the armed forces or police.  Traffickers tend to prefer lower-volume sales or thefts, and guns that change hands up to four or five times, making the guns harder to trace, and the buyers harder to find.

The illicit weapons market in El Salvador and other Central American countries is closely tied to drug trafficking. Not only do traffickers use the same routes, but drug traffickers buy weapons to protect their shipments and territories. Most significantly, guns are the most common method of payment for drugs.  One explanation for this lies in the trade equity between the two products. Because guns and drugs are both high-value and low-density items, it is easier to trade based on bartering rather than using currency as a medium of exchange.  Since weapons (especially small, cheap guns) are more abundant than drugs, the higher-ups in the drug trade networks have begun to demand and subsequently gain access to newer, bigger, and more sophisticated weaponry, making the potential for violence even greater.

A recent story that has been widely reported by the Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the Canadian Press, among others, highlights exactly how far this black market reaches.  Three missing M-16 rifles from military barracks sparked an investigation aided by the US Drug Enforcement Agency, which has an office in El Salvador.  The investigation revealed that Brigadier General Hector Antonio Martínez-Guillén was illegally selling arms to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States considers a terrorist organization.  Although the general resigned in May 2010, the DEA spent nearly a year on a sting operation that focused heavily on him.  In a meeting with an undercover agent, Martínez-Guillén agreed to illegally sell rifles after being warned by the agent that they would be used to kill American troops and consultants in Colombia if possible.  This agreement along with a later trip to the US to sell more than $1 million in cocaine in what he believed was a FARC drug deal, put the issue under US jurisdiction.  He was arrested upon arrival to the Washington Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia and has been awaiting trial, which is scheduled for July 29.  Also accused of selling more than 20 pounds of C-4 plastic explosive, he allegedly fully supported the FARC’s cocaine trafficking and Anti-American ideology.  He admitted selling “automatic rifles, ammunition and plastic explosives” to FARC members, but the investigation continues in El Salvador to unearth similar actors in illegal gun trades and narcotrafficking.  His guilty plea came as part of a plea deal in which the prosecution agreed to seek no more than 45 years for terrorism charges.

This case is just one of many that highlights exactly how far the illegal black market for weapons extends. The cooperation between the Salvadoran authorities and US agencies was instrumental in this case, and it shows one way this widespread and dangerous trade can be confronted.  The case is also a good sign, showing that El Salvador may be beginning to take seriously both illegal arms deals and military officials acting outside the law.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Organized Crime, Politics

El Faro Exposes Huge Drug Trafficking Network

Last Monday, May 16, El Faro published a bombshell of a report detailing the activities and connections of the Texis Cartel, an organized crime network that has operated in Santa Ana and Chalatenango since at least 2000. The report exposes what appears to be the largest drug-trafficking network operating in El Salvador, and the involvement of officials from all levels of government.

The El Faro alleges that Salvadoran businessman José Adán Salazar Unaña, also known as “Chepe Diablo,” leads the Texis Cartel (Texis is an abbreviation for the city of Texistepeque located in Santa Ana) along with several local politicians. The Cartel controls the Northern Cocaine Route, also called El Camino or El Caminito. Unlike other organizations that work for one of the large, international cartels, the Texis Cartel operates more like a free agent. They contract with the Sinaloa or Golf Cartels, the Zetas, or anyone else willing to pay them to transport contraband. Shipments of cocaine often arrive by air to the Honduran border where they taken across the Salvadoran border into San Francisco, Chalatenango. The Texis Cartel then moves the shipment through Chalatenango to Metapán, Santa Ana before going on to Guatemala and up to the U.S. markets. In addition to trafficking, the Texis Cartel has an extensive money laundering operation.


(video credit-El Faro)

To ensure it is able to move drugs and other contraband around with impunity, the Cartel pays off police, soldiers, mayors, diputados (representatives in the National Legislative Assembly), farmers, local businesses, street gangs, and others. The police are paid to guard and transport drugs, prevent arrests, and advise others of investigations. Local mayors are paid to approve construction projects, incorporate businesses used for money laundering and fronts for trafficking, and provide information. Street gangs serve as assassins for the Cartel and sell drugs in local markets. Representatives in the National Legislative Assembly provide leaders of the Cartel with access to the highest levels of power in the Salvadoran government. The Cartel also pays off judges and officials in the attorney general’s office to terminate investigations into their activities. Of course, not everyone in the Salvadoran Civil National Police and attorney general’s office is corruptible, but those who have tried to investigate have encountered significant obstacles within their own departments.

The El Faro report also provides information on the Cartel’s leader, Salazar Umaña. The 62-year-old alleged crime boss is a prominent businessman who owns hotels, funds a soccer team in Metapán and is president of a large soccer division. He is also a successful cattle farmer. Over the past five years, Salazar Umaña reported over $30 million in income from his business activities. In 2008 alone, while others were struggling through the global economic crisis, the crime boss reported an income of $9 million. In response to El Faro’s investigation, Salazar Umaña stated that, “When one has struggled all his life to be an honest person, when one cannot even imagine it, they involve him in things that don’t make sense.  We don’t know why they have fabricated these things, we don’t know who invented them or what they hope to gain from it.”

The El Faro report also alleges that Juan Umaña Samayoa, the mayor of Metapán, Santa Ana, is a close associate of Salazar Umaña and another leader of the Texis Cartel. In a video interview posted on the mayor’s official website, Mayor Umaña Sama calls on investigators to look into who is responsible for making these accusations, which he argues are false and only meant to discredit and harm him. The Mayor defends Salazar Umaña as an honorable and hardworking person who knows a lot of people in the community and in the national government. He also says that the people who are responsible for the accusations are people who want to hurt El Salvador and have political motives.


(video credit- Metapanecos.com)

Other prominent politicians mentioned in connection with the Texis Cartel are Armando Portillo Portillo, the mayor of Texistepeque, and Reynaldo Cardoza, who represents the province of Chalatenango in the National Legislative Assembly. So far, all of the politicians named in the case are from the National Conciliation Party (PCN, in Spanish), and they all deny being involved in the Texis Cartel.

Part of the significance of the report is that it provides specific examples of how drug trafficking and organized crime has infiltrated local and national governments, and all other segments of society. While street gangs are blamed for the high rates of violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, they are often used as a smokescreen to hide the activities of the more sophisticated organized crime networks with international connections.  Street gangs are involved, but so are prominent businessmen, mayors, police officers, military soldiers and officers, and officials within the national government.

The Texis Cartel is one network that covers Santa Ana and Chalatenango, but there are surely others. Similar organized crime networks likely operate along the coast, trafficking drugs and other contraband through El Salvador and on to Guatemala and Honduras. Since April, for example, the Salvadoran police and the U.S. DEA uncovered three shipments of chemicals that entered El Salvador through the port in Adcajutla, Sonsonate, and were bound for laboratories in Guatemala that would have used them to produce crystal meth. The size and value of the shipments indicates a sophisticated network of traffickers. Other networks likely control other border regions such as Cabañas, Morazán, San Miguel, and others.

The Texis Cartel seems to have been in operation for over ten years, and, as the El Faro report points out, spanned at least three presidential administrations (Flores, Saca, and Funes) and five directors of the national police. Investigators wrote their first report back in 2000, but only last week did the Supreme Court and President Funes call on the attorney general to investigate or open their own investigation. Last Tuesday, Attorney General Romeo Barahona said that an investigation into the Cartel is underway, but he wouldn’t release any details.

Last week, a reader of the Metapán website commented on Mayor Umaña Samayo’s video response to the accusations, calling on the people of Metapán to open their eyes to the kind of mayor they have. People throughout El Salvador should follow this reader’s advice and determine whether their local governments and national representatives are serving their interests or others. To be certain, some of El Salvador’s local governments are hard working and strive to serve their communities. But upon examination, the citizens of many municipalities would have to come to terms with the common knowledge that their local leaders and even representatives in the national government are corrupt and involved in organized crime.  Only when people begin openly addressing the problem and holding their elected representatives to a higher standard will El Salvador be able to address the detrimental impact that organized criminal networks like the Texis Cartel is having throughout the country.