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.

Mauricio Funes, Politics, violence

Funes Proposes Mandatory Military Service for “At-Risk Youth”

In a speech to the legislative assembly on June 1st, President Mauricio Funes provided commentary on his second year in office and proposed goals for improvement of the country’s state of security.  Notable among these proposals is Funes’ plan to create a system of obligatory military service for youth at risk of being recruited, or targeted by gangs.  If enacted, those deemed to be “at risk”, a denomination given at the discretion of the National Civil Police, would be required to complete a total of 2 years of military training without weapons (6 months), civil protection training,  rehabilitation, and vocational training aimed to shape them into productive citizens.  Funes believes that removing an estimated 5,000 at-risk members of society off of the streets and putting them through this program will resolve many of the country’s security issues caused by the prevalence and entrenchment of violent gangs in Salvadoran society.

 

While Funes’ introduction of the plan was only general, with details and logistics to be decided upon at a later date, some of the infrastructure necessary to implement it is already in place: the Salvadoran Constitution stipulates obligatory military service for citizens age 18-30, although this provision (designated as a “dead letter” rule) is not implemented   The caveat is that recruiting minors is of the essence to the success of the plan; FBI statistics show that gangs often target middle and high school students for recruitment, who range from approximately 12-18 years of age.  The program would theoretically need to work with at-risk youth before they join the gangs.  These statistics and the need to recruit minors may necessitate some legal revisions.  However, “youth” in El Salvador includes both minors and young adults, so it is unclear as to whether he plans on targeting minors, or if the participants would be over 18.

 

Funes’ plan, while controversial, does have proponents. Aída Santos, the former director of the National Public Security Council, in her interview with El Faro applauded Funes’ plan, citing that many adolescent members of gangs often feel like prisoners who cannot escape the constant threats and harassment they experience as gang members.  She believes that military training will provide them with this escape, as well as the sense of community and support they may have been seeking to find through gang membership.

 

Those opposed to Funes’ plan for obligatory military service for at risk youth argue that the program will only serve to exacerbate gang violence, as when adolescents are recruited into the program, it is highly likely they will already be associated with a gang.  This would effectively mean that the Salvadoran government would be training gang members and possibly providing them with resources and connections within the government.  There are already reports of the police and the military being corrupt and having connections with organized crime and gang activity; this could have the potential to intensify that problem.

 

Others opposed to the plan make claims that it will violate human rights.   Henry Fino of the Human Rights Institute at the Central American University (IDHUCA), also in an El Faro interview alleged that Funes’ proposed use of the army is unconstitutional, as the army is only meant to intervene in matters of public security in extreme cases.  He believes that the prevention of crime is not an extreme circumstance, nor does he even consider it to be a matter of public security.

 

In addition, as Funes’ plan to impose obligatory military service on youth continues to develop and does, in fact, include minors, the President must be careful not to violate his treaty obligations under the Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC).   The CRC, which El Salvador signed and later ratified in July of 1990, provides rigid protection for the rights of minors, of the sort that Funes seeks to recruit.  El Salvador also ratified an optional protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflicts (A/RES/54/263) proposed in May of 2000 and signed and ratified by El Salvador by 2002.  Article 2 of the protocol is explicit when it states, “States Parties shall ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.”  The protocol in its third article also stipulates that any involvement of minors within the army must be “genuinely voluntary [and]…carried out with the informed consent of the person’s parents or legal guardians.”  If Funes continues to pursue the development of such plan, he must be aware of his obligations to the international community and the scrutiny he will come under if he violates his treaty obligations.

 

 

 

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.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, Politics

Among Apparent Rampant Corruption in the Region, El Salvador Ranks Surprisingly Low

The second part of USAID’s survey on the political culture of Latin America examined the effects of crime and corruption on democracy. As trust is a necessary facet of democracy, fear of violence and a lack of confidence in the police or other public officials are detrimental to its development.

When survey respondents were asked about their perception of personal security, 44% of Salvadorans reported feeling “somewhat” to “very” unsafe, the third highest level of insecurity in the Americas, ranking behind only Peru and Argentina. El Salvador also has one of the highest rates of violence in the Americas, so these results aren’t surprising. In fact, these abstract perceptions of insecurity are approximately in line with the crime respondents have actually experienced: 38.6% of households report having at least one member who was a victim of violent crime in the past 12 months (crimes specifically mentioned in the survey question are robbery, burglary, assault, fraud, blackmail, extortion, and violent threats). This rate places El Salvador in the group of countries with the highest levels of victimization, on par with Mexico and Venezuela – an alarming place to be. Generally, the young, the wealthy, and those who live in urban metropolitan areas are most likely to be victimized, though citizens with greater economic problems also report high levels. USAID interviewers further found that respondents in neighborhoods with gang presence (pandillas) were more likely to have been victimized, though it is impossible to determine from these data whether this is causation or simply coincidence.

After discussing crime, survey questions turned to the issue of corruption. When asked directly how common it was for public officials to be corrupt, 66.7% of Salvadoran respondents answered that it was “common” or “very common,” a decline from 2008, and only 8.2% believe the problem of corruption is non-existent. Though at first glance these rates may seem high, it’s important to note that this is the 2nd lowest rate of perceived corruption in Latin America, lower even than that of the United States (69.9% of U.S. respondents think corruption is common practice in the country). Furthermore, only 11.4% of Salvadorans polled said they had been victims of corruption: again, one of the lowest levels in Latin America. These numbers would appear to be heartening, but given what we know about El Salvador, they are mostly just perplexing.  Nor do the results match up with other surveys, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which places El Salvador more moderately, as the 16th most corrupt country in the region (out of 28).  According to Transparency International’s metrics, corruption in El Salvador definitely exceeds levels in the US, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil, among others.

It is difficult to determine whether these responses of perceived corruption correspond to the real levels.  Any number of factors can influence the accuracy of responses, be it a misformulation of the survey questions, the well-known ‘honeymoon period’ of recently elected President Funes, who still enjoys a 72% approval rate, or the simple subtlety of corruption.  A cultural accustom to corruption, along with differing personal definitions of the term can greatly affect the public’s perception.  On the other hand, since there is no way to measure the actual level of corruption in a country, there is no evidence contrary to the survey’s results.  The level of perceived corruption could very well be an accurate representation of the level of practiced corruption.  Also, the percentage of those who perceive the country to be corrupt, puzzlingly, seems to be lower than that of those who note that police don’t protect their citizens.  Many people would consider corruption to be a factor in situations where police fall short of their responsibilities.

Perhaps this is because corruption motivated by power is inherently harder to measure than that motivated by money. Even financially-motivated corruption, however, is much more complex than the survey implies.  The only question used to assess the entire culture of actual (rather than perceived) corruption is about authority figures asking law-abiding citizens for bribes. This is where the survey’s information most significantly falls short of a full investigation of the issue.  Corruption is more than actions, it is a culture.  When it takes hold of a society, it builds impunity and a weak rule of law, which erode democratic values.

If the perception of corruption is so low, relative to the other nations in the region, then the lack of respect for the law is puzzlingly high. More than 52% of interviewed Salvadorans agree that officials would be justified in occasionally acting outside of the law in order to catch a criminal, giving El Salvador the 2nd lowest population support for rule of law. Moreover, just over 50% of citizens say that a coup d’état would be justified in conditions of high crime and high corruption.

Overall, the seemingly low level of perceived corruption relative to other nations in the region is promising.  Although the true level of corruption is extremely important to the success of a democratic system, the public’s perception of corruption is also important.  The more corrupt the public views the government, the less trust people have for the government, which eventually destabilizes democracy.  The public’s optimistic attitude towards the level of corruption implies a certain level of trust in the government’s democratic system.

International Relations, News Highlights, Politics, U.S. Relations

Former Salvadoran General Faces Deportation from the US

General Eugenio Vides Casanova currently has been living as a legal resident in South Florida since 1989.  He moved to the United States after retiring honorably from his post as El Salvador’s minister of defense, a position he held for 6 years during El Salvador’s brutal civil war.  During this time, he was a close ally of the United States because of his intense efforts against the Marxist guerillas.

In a case that the New York Times calls “an about-face in American policy,” General Vides is now facing possible deportation following being charged with torture in a U.S. immigration court.   This is the first time the Department of Homeland Security has pursued immigration charges against a high-ranking foreign military official.

Both the prosecution and defense are expected to call former U.S. ambassadors to testify: Robert E. White for the prosecution and Edwin G. Corr for the defense.  Another witness is Juan Romagoza Arce, a Salvadoran doctor who was tortured by the National Guard in 1980.

General Vides has already faced legal trouble in the U.S. for his actions during El Salvador’s civil war.  He, along with General José Guillermo García, was accused and acquitted by a Florida jury in 2000 in a civil case for the killing of four American churchwomen who were murdered by Vides’ Salvadoran National Guard.  The same year, the justice center filed charges of torture against the two generals.  In 2002, they were found guilty of torture by a Florida jury and ordered to pay $54.6 million to three torture victims, a decision that was upheld by an appeals court in 2006.

This case is an example of the lingering effects of El Salvador’s civil war, effects that can even be seen in the United States.  No American officials have been held accountable for their part in human rights abuses in El Salvador during the war.  Even though more than 400 people have been deported from the US since 2003 for rights abuses, this is an important effort to hold Salvadoran allies of the US responsible for their actions in a war that often slips under Americans’ radars.

Those who fought on the other side in the war, the FMLN guerillas, have been at odds with U.S. officials since the war, first for their communist/Marxist ideals and later for actions taken during the war.  For example, US diplomats still refuse to meet with El Salvador’s Public Security Minister Manuel Melgar.  He was a guerilla during the war who is accused of killing 4 US Marines in 1985.  In a July 2009 cable released by the WikiLeaks website, American diplomats described seeing his appointment as the imposition of FMLN hardliners, despite President Funes’ pretty moderate political stance.

The case against General Vides is an important step in acknowledging the human rights abuses by both sides during the civil war, including those who the US government strongly supported.  The trial is expected to last a week, so it should be decided by the end of April, which could set a significant precedent for finally responding to El Salvador’s dirty war.

Economy, El Salvador Government, Politics

Economic Well-Being Strongly Tied to Democratic Attitudes in El Salvador

The AmericasBarometer survey has recently published their biannual report, The Political Culture of Democracy in El Salvador.  Funded by USAID and other organizations, it focuses on a multitude of social and economic factors and their effect on citizen’s evaluation of democracy in El Salvador. Given the variety of important topics covered in this report, Voices will be publishing a series of articles on the results and their significance.

AmericasBarometer conducts surveys on the political culture of democracy in the Americas every two years, meaning that 2008 was the last year of data collection prior to the current. Since 2008, the economic recession has hit the Americas, and the rest of the world, hard. In Latin America especially, the rates of unemployment and the ‘extreme working poor’ (defined in the report as those who live on less than US$1.25 a day) rose significantly.  Unemployment rose to 8.5%.  Additionally, 9.9% of citizens are now considered members of the extreme working poor. Further, remittances from the U.S. to El Salvador (which account for 17% of El Salvador’s GDP) declined by approximately 12%. Thus, a special focus in this round of AmericasBarometer surveys emerged: the effect of hard economic times on citizens’ perception of democracy.

The economic recession seems to have gone hand-in-hand with a decline or even reversal of democratic development in many developing countries. El Salvador is no exception, reporting a 4-point decrease (68 to 64 on a 0-100 scale) in public support for democracy since 2008. This decline makes sense, especially in light of a 1996 study by Adam Przeworski, a democratic social theorist and political economist, analyzing the link between income and political stability.  Called the Przeworski Threshold, his finding was that no democracy has ever collapsed when the per capita income exceeded $6,055. Unfortunately, El Salvador has not reached that threshold, pointing to a connection between the country’s constant state of political unrest and its ongoing economic struggles. The reason behind this connection is two-fold: besides a lack of funds to support basic infrastructure, public discontent over the government’s money management and institutionalized economic inequality can incite violent political protests. In keeping with this analysis, survey data consistently indicated that democratic dissatisfaction increased as household income decreased, and household income has decreased the most for those who were already the poorest.

Interestingly, though there is a correlation between a survey respondent’s worsening personal financial situation and a lower level of support for democracy, respondents tended to be much more critical of the democratic system when it was the wider government that was in economic trouble. In a way, this is a positive indicator of citizens’ understanding of the democratic system: it signifies a recognition that the success of a country as a whole and the competence of its leaders have a more permanent positive effect than does individual prosperity. At the same time, however, these statistics highlight how important it is that the democratic government in El Salvador dedicate itself to improving the system in place, so as not to lose the support of its people in times of hardship.  It is during difficult times when public support is the most necessary.

Interviewers also asked participants to rate and compare their levels of ‘life satisfaction’ between 2008 and 2010 (note that 2008 life satisfaction levels are retrospectively reported, and results thus do not reflect real satisfaction in 2008). The results are still astounding: 40.8% of Salvadorans reported a decline in life satisfaction in these two years, most closely influenced by a negative perception of their personal economic situation, which has resulted in lower levels of confidence in democracy.

Other significant factors in a respondent’s appraisal of democracy are education, gender, and class. There is a positive correlation between higher levels of education and support for democracy: 61.7 % of Salvadorans with no or only primary education ‘at least somewhat’ support democracy, compared with 64.1% of middle/ high school graduates, and 68.4% of those with a post-secondary education. Historically, women in El Salvador have been less supportive of democracy, most likely due to their lower social status and rising violence towards women. The survey’s 2010 results confirm this. Only 61.7% of women professed support for democracy, compared with 66.7% of men. Lastly, as one descends through the quintiles of wealth, support for democracy likewise declines, confirming the correlation between economic well-being and approval of the democratic system.

We must ask, then, if a decrease in support for democracy necessarily a) implies a denial of the legitimacy of the political system or b) threatens political stability in a region. It seems to not do either. Despite a significant decrease in support for democracy as a political theory, survey results from El Salvador indicate a 7.1% overall increase in support for the functioning political system, most significantly tied to perceptions of the government’s economic success. The indicator for political system support is calculated based on responses to five different survey questions, which address the fairness of the judicial system, the respectability of the country’s political institutions, the protection of basic rights, citizens’ national pride, and, more abstractly, the perceived ideal level of support for the system. Many of the significant factors in determining support for democracy (such as economic well-being) remain significant when considering system support. In practice, though, they indicate opposite trends. Where the most highly educated were the biggest supporters of theoretical democracy, they show the lowest levels of support for the current political system as a whole. This is unsurprising, however, as this general trend appears in most developing and developed nations. Likewise, though women were more likely to be democratically disinclined, they reported higher levels of support for the actual political system than did their male counterparts. The general increase in system support seen here is also due to citizens’ perceptions of improvement in government economic performance, a hopeful indicator that the Americas may soon emerge from the recession.

The results of the AmericasBarometer survey are in keeping with those of the El Faro survey we covered previously, though the former is notably less partial. Where the El Faro survey tended to ask leading questions and thus overstate respondents’ dissatisfaction, AmericasBarometer kept questions as open as possible and seemed to do its best to remove bias and suggestion. That said, anti-democratic sentiment is still unmistakably present in El Salvador: on AmericasBarometer’s 0-100 scale, El Salvador scored third highest in public support for military coups (40.9 in 2010). Still in keeping with El Faro’s results, where the majority of respondents agreed that they would “support an authoritarian government if it resolved economic problems,” AmericasBarometer finds that support for a coup is highest among those who see the (national and personal) economic situation as grave. Again, significant determinants in support for a coup are education level, relative wealth, sex, and age: the more educated and/or wealthy the respondent, the less likely it was that he or she would support a military coup; and men and older members of society were less likely to be in support than women or youth.

The results of the survey show, for the most part, that economic well-being, whether that of individual families or that of the nation’s government, is one of the strongest factors that affect the public’s support of democracy.  In El Salvador, recently, personal economic well-being has been decreasing, and along with it, the support of democracy.  On the other hand, the public’s perception of the government’s well-being has brought an increase in support for the current system.  While public support for democracy as a political theory is important, support for the current, though imperfect, democratic system is more important to immediate political stability, and this does not seem to have been negatively impacted by the recent economic troubles.