El Salvador Government, Politics

Supreme Electoral Tribunal Dissolves Two Oldest Political Parties

On Friday, July 1, 2011, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of El Salvador “cancelled” the country’s two oldest political parties, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and the National Conciliation Party (PCN). If the ruling stands up to appeal, the two parties will no longer appear on election ballots, having each gained less than the required 3% of the vote in the 2004 elections.

Although the Legislative Assembly passed a decree in 2005 allowing both parties to continue to officially run, in April the Supreme Court declared that decree unconstitutional. In order to register for the ballot, the parties would each have to collect 50,000 signatures of support, rather than the 3,000 that were required by the Legislative Decree.

Both parties have roots in the military right wing. The PDC was the ruling party during the Civil War years of the 1980’s, whereas the PCN had been the political face of the military dictatorships in the two decades prior.

We’ll be reporting on the other TSE electoral reforms for the 2012 municipal elections in the next couple of days… stay tuned!

 

Mauricio Funes, Politics

Funes Quickly Losing Support over Decree 743 Discontent

A few weeks after President Funes signed Decree 743 into law, requiring the Constitutional Court to make decisions by unanimous consent, Salvaodrans remain very concerned about the impact of the law and how the current standoff between the judicial and legislative bodies of government will play out. We now know that President Funes was involved in formulating Decree 743, and two representatives of his own FMLN were supportive of the measure, going as far as to ask the President to sign the bill into law the day it passed the legislature. This is contrary to the impression given by an FMLN press release last week that indicated it was the right-wing parties that pushed the bill through. ARENA party representatives were in fact supportive of the bill, but shortly after it became law, party leaders seemed willing to back its repeal. Their early support of Decree 743 was apparently motivated by their fear that the Constitutional Court was going to repeal the Amnesty Law as well as the law that ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement. In expressing willingness to support a repeal of the law, the ARENA said they were misinformed about the law, but it seems more likely that they were reacting to the public’s disapproval of the law and saw a way to get an advantage in the 2012 municipal and local elections.

Another notable update is that the President did not in fact sign the original version of the decree that was passed by the Legislative Assembly; instead, he signed a one paragraph version of it. The missing four paragraphs of the measure included provisions that indicate what will happen if not all five magistrates are present may it be due to vacancies, inabilities to serve, absences, or any other circumstance.

As this crisis unfolds, one thing is clear – President Funes is losing support from all sides. His approval ratings have plummeted to 41%, down from 83% in April. While he may recover some of that support, its an understatement to say that President Funes spent some of his political capital on Decree 743, and it still remains unclear what he got in return. Maybe he didn’t expect such extreme fallout?

The FMLN is not united on this issue either. Though some have supported Decree 743, former Secretary General of the FMLN, Fabio Castillo said that after years of supporting the President, he now regrets voting for him in 2009. Shortly after his statement, Castillo was asked to resign from his current position in the consulting commission of the Ministry for External Relations.

Norma Guevara, a department secretary of the FMLN, says that she has proof that FUSADES, a non-profit organization that is often called a right-wing think tank, caused this constitutional conflict in order to destabilize the government. Whether or not this true remains to be seen, but it is certainly reasonable to think that organizations and individuals view this as an opportunity to discredit and weaken the Funes Administration.

The President was recently in Mexico from June 20-21 on a state visit aimed at addressing several of the issues facing both El Salvador and Mexico, such as migration, gang violence, commerce, and climate change, among other things. This visit comes amid this power struggle among the branches of government in El Salvador. With many people calling for the repeal of this decree, it will be interesting to see what actions will be taken upon President Funes’ return after a subsequent security conference in Guatemala.

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.

Politics, U.S. Relations

Salvadoran-Americans an Increasingly Important Latino Group in the U.S.

The Contra Costa Times (San Jose, California) reported on May 26th of this year that, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, Salvadoran-Americans now make up the fourth-largest Latino group in United States and 3.3 percent of the domestic Latino population. More than 1.6 million Salvadorans live in the United States as of the 2010 Census, two thirds of which are foreign-born. In another significant demographic shift, the current Salvadoran population came to the United States after 1990, which would likely mean that most of them migrated after the end of the Salvadoran Civil War (1992). Salvadorans have overtaken Dominicans as the fourth-largest Latino group in the U.S. and are not far behind Cuban-Americans, whose population is only .2 million higher. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Mexican-Americans remain by a wide margin the largest Latino group residing in the United States at 31.8 million, totaling roughly 63 percent of country’s Latino population.

Metropolitan Demography

While the Census Bureau has yet to release population data by city or county, recent surveys show the San Francisco Bay Area, Washington, DC, and Boston as the major hubs for Salvadoran-American communities. In a survey conducted by the Pew Hispanic Center, 8 percent of the Latino population in the Bay Area cites El Salvador as their country of origin, a percentage only behind those of the DC and Boston metropolitan areas. According to the survey, the regional placement of Salvadoran communities has slightly more than one-third (35%) of Salvadoran-Americans residing in California, while one-in-seven (15%) reside in Texas.

Quality of Life Indicators

The Pew study of the Salvadoran-American population also compiled statistics on education, income and healthcare. As concerns education, many Salvadorans still do not maintain a working knowledge of English. Less than half are proficient in English (45%) and 55% of Salvadorans aged 5 and older report not speaking English “very well”, compared with just 37% across all Hispanic groups in the U.S. The survey notes that Salvadorans generally have lower levels of education than the broader Hispanic population, 53% of Salvadorans 25 and older report not having received a high school diploma, contrasting with the 39% reported by the larger Hispanic population surveyed. Despite the comparatively poor education statistics, Salvadoran poverty rates at 19% come in lower than the overall Hispanic poverty rate of 23%. Fertility rates among Salvadoran-American women were also higher than both the domestic average of 35% among U.S. women and 40% among other Hispanic women. Salvadorans are acutely affected by a lack of health insurance when compared with the rate of uninsured Hispanics (31%) and the overall U.S. population (14%). Four-in-ten (41%) of Salvadoran-Americans do not have health insurance.

What This Means

Despite extensive efforts by both the U.S. Census Bureau and the Pew Hispanic Center, the numbers are not thought to be a totally comprehensive representation of all the Salvadorans or Central Americans who live in the United Sates. Both groups reported a higher than average percentage living illegally in the U.S., making them harder to count and harder to account for. What the studies do show however, is an increasingly large and culturally important Salvadoran contingent here in the United States. This large group of Salvadorans will likely have their greatest effect to date on their home country in the 2014 presidential elections. In the years prior to 2009 (the beginning of the Mauricio Funes Presidency), the government refused to allow absentee voting for the approximately one-third of its population living abroad. With the addition of absentee voting, it will be interesting to see how the politics play out, the Census Bureau and Pew Center data reflect that the United States will again have a pronounced effect on the outcome of Salvadoran elections.

International Relations, Organized Crime, Politics, U.S. Relations, violence

OAS Meeting is the Latest Regional Effort to Combat Organized Crime in Central America

The Organization of American States is currently holding its 41st General Assembly in San Salvador, the theme of which is “Citizen Security in the Americas.” The agenda includes discussions on combating organized crime.  These discussions will include consideration of a draft proposal for fighting transnational crime, drawn up by El Salvador.  The Secretary General Miguel Insulza said that he expects “concrete results, because [they] are not going to confront the topic of transnational organized crime in [Latin America] with declarations alone.” This meeting will set the perimeters for an action plan that will be finalized for the November meeting in the Dominican Republic.

The OAS General Assembly in San Salvador

The OAS is not the only group to discuss the growing lack of citizen security and the problem of organized crime.  A recent meeting in Managua, Nicaragua of the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama produced a new level of regional ownership of Central American organized crime.  The presidents met to affirm their commitments to collaboration in the fight against drug trafficking and trans-national crime.  Additionally, they recognized each nation’s respective weakness in the face of increasingly well-organized and -funded criminal syndicates.  Unfortunately, no specific actions were planned, but the budding cooperation between the countries is a positive step towards promoting greater security.

The United States Has pledged support and acknowledged that citizen security in the region is a “shared responsibility,” through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The State Department describes CARSO as an initiative to achieve five goals in Central America: 1) Create safe streets for the citizens of the region; 2) Disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband within and between the nations of Central America; 3) Support the development of strong, capable and accountable Central American governments; 4) Re-establish effective state presence and security in communities at risk; and 5) Foster enhanced levels of security and rule of law coordination and cooperation between the nations of the region.

Focusing on counternarcotics efforts (drug trafficking is at the center of organized crime), the U.S. spent $260 million on the CARSI initiative alone during 2008-2010 and President Obama pledged another $200 million during his meetings with Funes in March 2011.  Beyond financial support, several U.S. agencies are on the ground in El Salvador, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and USAID, all of which are partnering with Salvadoran ministries to fight organized crime.  The DEA, through their Drug Flow Attack Strategy, aim to intercept drug trafficking.  DEA agents recently played an instrumental role in a gun trafficking bust and confiscated 28 tons of ethyl phenyl acetate, a chemical used to make crystal meth.  The U.S. Military works in the region to combat drugs as well, coordinating their activities from the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras.

In April of 2011, Panama inaugurated the Central American Integration System’s Operative Center for Regional Security (COSR-SICA), intended to be a cooperative center for the coordinated fight against organized crime.  It’s a network through which Central American agencies can share information and technology on drug trafficking, organized crime, human smuggling, gang activity, and other security threats.  It will also receive logistical support from a similar information-sharing center in Key West, Florida, where 31 U.S. agencies operate.  Each Central American nation will be sending experts to work in the Center to organize the coordinated efforts for citizen security.

The recent creation of cooperative bodies to ensure citizen security in Central America, and the increased focus on the issue by existing organizations is an indication of the growing threat that organized crime poses to individual security.  The highest levels of government are finally talking about organized crime, and that is a good first step.  But it will be important for the citizens of each of these countries to continue applying pressure so that the discussions grow into concrete actions.


El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, Politics

Salvadorans Protest the Government’s Actions Against Constitutional Court

Over the weekend, El Salvador continued to react to Decree 743, which the Legislative Assembly passed Thursday and President Funes signed into law on Friady. As we posted on Saturday, decree 743 requires all five magistrates of the Constitutional Court to sign off on a decision before it becomes binding. The law is targeted at the four progressive magistrates (Belarmino Jaime, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González y Sidney Blanco) that have taken on several controversial issues since joining the court two years ago.

Salvadorans protested Friday afternoon at the Presidential Palace and again yesterday at the Salvador del Mundo monument in San Salvador, where hundreds gathered. Organizers of the protests have used Facebook, email, text messages, and other social media to increase turnout at events and inform people of the potential importance of the law (click here for the movement’s Facebook page). The protest was notable not so much for its size, but for the diversity of people in attendance. People from all sectors of Salvadoran society were there – rich, poor, and those somewhere in between. (Click here for photos from Sunday’s protest).

Even Supreme Court Magistrate Mirna Perla attended the protest
A view of the diverse crowd that showed up in protest of Decree 743

Yesterday, the four Magistrates affected by the law issued a statement that the law is unconstitutional and inapplicable. El Mundo reports that they are working on a decision declaring the Decree’s unconstitutionality, and that they will publish it soon. According to the El Mundo article, their announcement may result in a protracted power struggle between the branches of government, as the judiciary fights to maintain its independence from the politics that drive legislators and administration officials.

The FMLN party also issued a statement on Saturday denouncing Decree 743. Their statement criticizes the right wing parties (ARENA, GANA, PNC, and PDC) that together have a majority in the Legislative Assembly, but fail to mention that President Funes, who ran as an FMLN candidate, signed the bill into law.

In addition to the FMLN, Attorney General Romeo Barahona denounced the law stating that it is unreasonable to think that a Constitutional Court can accomplish anything by unanimous vote. Other politicians from the left and right have also expressed concern over the law.

The El Mundo article argues that there are many reasons why right-wing parties would want to shut down the current Constitutional Court. We discussed several controversial decisions in our post on Saturday, but the El Mundo article believes it has more to do with the recent indictments of twenty Salvadorans in a Spanish court for their role in the 1989 murders of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter (today El Faro posted an interesting article on that case). The current Constitutional Court has indicated that if INTERPOL issues an arrest warrant for anyone associated with that or other international cases, El Salvador must turn them over. Similarly, the El Mundo article believes that the current court is a threat to the amnesty law, which prevents the prosecution of crimes committed during El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war that ended in 1992. If the amnesty law were struck down as unconstitutional, ex-president and current leader of the ARENA party Alfredo Cristiani and many others could be prosecuted for numerous crimes detailed by the UN Truth Commission or other post-war investigations.

Over the past two years, the Constitutional Court has played an important role in strengthening democracy and government in El Salvador, and now the powerful interests they have taken on are striking back. Decree 743 has brought El Salvador to a real crossroads. If the law stands, the Constitution and rule of law will be significantly weakened, and its affects will endure long after the provisions expire in July 2012. If the members of the Constitutional Court and civil society can prevent implementation of Decree 743 and maintain the integrity and independence of the Court, the institution will be stronger for it, and may inspire more Salvadorans to believe in the rule of law and El Salvador’s developing democratic process.

Advocacy, El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, News Highlights, Politics

INSTITUTIONAL COUP IN EL SALVADOR

Photo Credit: El Faro's Mauro Arias

As of Friday, June 2nd, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and the Presidency succeeded in sabotaging the Judiciary. A legislative initiative led by the National Coalition Party (PCN) proposed to change the process by which the Constitutional Court operates, requiring unanimity among the five magistrates on the bench to approve a decision. Such consensus is rare and would essentially prohibit the court from producing new decisions. Without deliberation, debate or amendments, the legislation passed Thursday afternoon and PCN representative Elizardo González Lovo left the assembly before the session was over to take the reform directly to the presidential palace to be approved or vetoed.  To the dismay and shock of many, President Funes signed the reform within hours and it was made effective immediately.

The reform is an overt attack against four of the Constitutional Court magistrates whose term began in July 2009 following the election of current President Mauricio Funes. Their three-year term will expire in July 2012, and the drafters of the legislation included a sunset provision so that the unanimity requirement will expire in July 2012, after the four are off the bench.

Since becoming magistrates in 2009, Belarmino Jaime, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González y Sidney Blanco have chosen strategic cases to strengthen national institutions and target corruption within government agencies. Over the past two years, the four magistrates have passed down some very important decisions, while the fifth magistrate, Nelson Castaneda, has mostly abstained from votes. In one example, the Court condemned a law that reallocated funds left over from the general budget to the President’s discretionary account.  They also declared as unconstitutional the practice of limiting voters to elect only a political party and then allowing the party leadership to select the people who would fill legislative or other representative seats. In a related issue, the Constitutional Court struck down a ban on independent candidates, weakening the power that political parties have over the electoral process. Members of the Constitutional Court also declared unconstitutional the absolute control that the Attorney General’s Office has over what cases are investigated and prosecuted. The decision that caused the greatest controversy in recent weeks was their declaration against the 2005 reforms that allowed the PCN and PDC parties to continue participating in elections despite their in ability to secure the number of votes necessary to be put on the ballot or have representation on the Supreme Electoral Court.

While these sentences establish clear separation of powers and support transparency, they each considerably affect the powerful grip that the country’s respective political parties have held over Salvadoran governability.

The new law requiring unanimous consent to issue a ruling essentially takes away the court’s ability to take on any of these controversial issues. The timing of the law is not accidental. The Court was about to take up the issue of the “Dividend System” that guarantees seats in the Legislative Assembly for minority political parties, specifically the PCN and PDC.

As the reform was being rushed through the legislative process ARENA representative Ávila Qüel exclaimed, “The reform doesn’t favor institutionalism at all!” and reminded the Assembly that the Constitutional Magistrates are who dictate whether the Magna Carta has been violated, and even if he isn’t in agreement with their sentences, they must be respected.  Before leaving the Assembly in protest, he cried, “Somebody should interpret the Constitution!”

This law and Funes’ support of it is wrong for many reasons. It is a settled principle of democracy that the Judiciary be independent of the Legislative and Executive branches, and left to interpret the constitution and law free from political interests. This new law is an overt action to protect political interests from actions of the court, and punish magistrates for taking on entrenched political and economic interests, as well as corruption. The law also sets a dangerous precedent that subjects the Judiciary to the will and interests of the Legislative and Executive branches.

Debate and dissent are at the very heart of democracy. El Salvador has a civil law system, yet their judicial code has always stipulated voting by majority.  Unanimous voting closes the door to dissenting opinions, because the court must present only one opinion.  Dissenting opinions create a dialogue between past, present, and future courts, in that it allows courts to rely on their predecessors when overturning precedent.

Civil society from all sectors of the political spectrum have expressed their concern.  Also, the Organization of American States is meeting in San Salvador this weekend, and civil society will present a report to the Secretary General to demonstrate that the law violates the Inter-American Democratic Letter. Tomorrow there will be a demonstration at Salvador del Mundo at 3pm, and Monday morning there will be workshops at the UCA.