Please read and share our current Gofundme campaign. LINK HERE
Every donation contributes to the emergency relocation and short-term economic assistance for a Bajo Lempa family in need.
Please read and share our current Gofundme campaign. LINK HERE
Every donation contributes to the emergency relocation and short-term economic assistance for a Bajo Lempa family in need.
This week, El Salvador’s Ombudsman for Human Rights, David Morales, reported that police and military forces likely committed extrajudicial executions on at least two separate occasions last year. One was the March 2015 massacre at the San Blas Finca in which security forces killed at least eight alleged gang members. The other was an August 2015 massacre at Los Pajales in Panchimalco in which security forces killed five alleged gang members.
The Ombudsman announced that, “in both cases we concluded that there were extrajudicial executions.” They reached their findings based on evidence that police moved bodies to make the scene appear like a shootout. In addition, some of the bodies showed signs of being beaten prior to being shot. Of the 13 killed in these two incidents, 4 were minors under the age of 18.
The Ombudsman also said that his office is reviewing 30 other incidents involving 100 deaths that they suspect to be cases of extrajudicial killings.
The allegations are not new. Experts have long suspected f that many of the shootouts reported in the papers are actually extrajudicial killings committed by police and military. Because the victims are reported to be gang members, few citizens or government officials ask questions or demand more information.
The Ombudsman’s announcement comes just over a year after President Sánchez Cerén’s administration said publicly that the police should use their weapons in defending against gangs without fearing that they will “suffer consequences.”
The question of extrajudicial killings of alleged gang members goes beyond on-duty police and military forces. In January 2016, the Ombudsman for Human Rights said, “in this country we see that there exists a pattern of violence concerning death squads. According to our observations as the Ombudsman’s Office, I presume the existence of these groups, it is very likely that they are in operation.” Just in the past year and a half, extermination groups have taken to social media to claim responsibility for many homicides of alleged gang members, but they are not investigated and the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity.
As the Ombudsman announces their findings of extrajudicial killings, the government is doubling down on the use of force to combat gangs. The government recently deployed a special combat force to attack gangs in rural areas. It is comprised of 600 elite military soldiers and 400 members of the police, and will start by focusing on hard to reach rural areas where they believe that gangs are operating. Vice President Oscar Ortiz said, “This is a firm action that says to the gangs that the State is stronger.”
In addition, last week the Legislative Assembly passed reforms to the Penal Code and other laws making it illegal to provide aid to or act as a intermediary for gangs. It also makes it a crime for government officials to agree not to prosecute gangs or in any way negotiate with gang members. The penalty for being found guilty of violating these laws is up to 15 years in prison. Raul Mejango said the reforms “burn all boats that could somehow afford to find other solutions to this problem [of violence], betting solely on repression as the solution, and historically this has proven not to resolve the problem.”
What is especially terrible about extrajudicial killings, extermination groups, use of Special Forces, and the new laws is that repression and force this is the only approach the government is taking to addressing insecurity in El Salvador. Salvadorans need more. El Salvador is among the most violent countries in the world, and instead of moving towards long-term solutions, or even identifying the roots of the violence, the government is responding with even more violence and more repression.
The gang issue is complicated, and the violence and extortion perpetrated by these groups destroy communities around the country. Voices on the Border staff has seen this first hand. But reverting to wartime tactics will only lead to more violence and more violence. Gangs exist, at least in part, because there is a void created by socio-economic and political inequalities. Even if a militarized solution led to the destruction of the gangs, something else less than positive would take their place. And even in war, extrajudicial killings like those being reported by the Ombudsman for Human Rights would be a war crime and should be punished.
On the 1st, we launched a Global Giving fundraising campaign for an intensive educational project in the Bajo Lempa. To date, we’ve recieved numerous generous donations and have less than a week to reach our goal. Today Global Giving will be matching donations at 20%.
Have you been wondering what our Bajo Lempa education project is all about? Click on the PDF below to get a better understanding of the nuts and bolts and, as always, feel free to share.
Residents of Amando Lopez, a Canton of Jiquilisco, Usulután, and local civil society organizations, want to stop large-scale cultivation of sugarcane in their community. On one level, theirs is an environmental struggle. On another, it’s a struggle against globalization and the imposition of neoliberal economic policies of private investment and consumerism.
A 2013 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture projected that “higher yielding sugarcane varieties, diversification of the industry into the production of energy and alcohol/ethanol, investment in milling equipment to improve sugar yields, and additional access to the U.S. market due to CAFTA-DR will all benefit El Salvador’s sugar industry over the next 3 to 5 years.” What investors want and need is more land.
In the final months of 2014, more than 10% of the population of Amando Lopez fled the community, many overnight, to escape death threats from violent gangs. They left behind their possessions, homes, businesses, and farmland. Some relocated to other regions of El Salvador. Others fled north to the United States and were detained on the border (a topic for another post). When they left, sugarcane producers wasted no time acquiring abandoned farmland. Families that would have never considered leasing land to sugarcane farmers were all of a sudden unable to say no because they needed the income to rebuild their lives.
Those who fled did so because they were in serious danger. Political scientists identify a nexus between globalization and the violence Amando Lopez and other communities are experiencing (good reads here and here). They argue that economically impoverished communities exposed to market forces and consumerism are unable to participate in the globalized economy in a meaningful, healthy, or satisfying way. This produces strong feelings of inequality, and a breakdown in family structures and social networks that allow for gangs and violence. Residents of Amando Lopez have largely protected themselves from market forces and consumerism, but last year gangs from other regions moved in and recruited local youth with phones, clothing, shoes, and money. As the threats and violence commenced, the community became even more vulnerable to globalized interests seeking land for sugarcane production.
Sugarcane is not new to Amando Lopez; farmers have grown small, organic crops for years to feed livestock and make sugar for local consumption. While these small crops are ok, the community is opposed to large-scale production that negatively affect their environment and public health, and further expose them to market forces. Their main concern is the use of toxic agrochemicals – insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizers, and ripeners. When sprayed these agrochemicals drift to nearby farms, forests, water resources, homes, and schools. Post-application they leach into the soil and water.
For example, the community is concerned about is Glyphosate (Monsanto’s Round Up), which is used as an herbicide and a ripener (ensures that a crop is ripe and ready to harvest all at once). In March, the World Health Organization released a report concluding that Glyphosate is a “likely carcinogenic” and associated with spontaneous abortions, birth defects, skin defects, respiratory illness, and neurological disease. Russia, Mexico, and the Netherlands have banned the use of Glyphosate, and last month 30,000 doctors and health professionals in Argentina demanded that their government also ban it. Colombia recently prohibited the use of Glyphosate in national parks, citing environmental impacts.
In addition to the use of agrochemicals, residents oppose the practice of burning fields before harvesting a crop – growers do so to remove foliage, making cane easier and less expensive to cut, load, and transport. Burning, however, sends chemical-laden smoke and ash throughout the region, contaminating soil, farmland, water, and communities, causing high rates of respiratory illness.
Residents of Amando Lopez are also concerned that once one sugarcane producer starts growing and contaminates neighboring farmland, other farmers will be forced to lease their land just to survive. Others might be tempted by short-term financial gains. Once exposure to these market forces and investors begins, it will disrupt the entire economic and social structure that community leaders have tried to preserve.
Amando Lopez is not the first community in the Bajo Lempa to be faced with large-scale sugarcane production. Jose “Mario” Santos Guevara, the President of ACUDESBAL, a local organization recently said, “Sugarcane cultivation is growing at an exponential rate in the Bajo Lempa. It is being planted all the way up to the yards of houses, and the damage caused is serious. We have to put an end to these abuses. We are poor people, but we have dignity and we are not going to permit these types of violations of our right to live in a healthy environment.”
Last October/November the community of La Tirana, a small coastal community to the south of Amando Lopez, stood up to an investor who wanted to plant several hundred acres of sugarcane in a field adjacent to fragile mangrove forests. La Tirana residents, accompanied by civil society organizations, were successful, at least for the short term, and continue working to prevent future efforts to plant sugarcane.
La Tirana, Amando Lopez and civil society organizations are trying to get the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN, in Spanish) and the municipal government to intervene. Lic. Lina Pohl, Minster of the Environment, acknowledges that the law prohibits actions that harm mangroves. She also said that MARN will approve a plan that, in part, will reduce the use of agrochemicals and burning sugarcane in and around those protected regions. That is positive for La Tirana, but offers little protection for Amando Lopez.
Min. Pohl recognizes that there are lands subject to change of use, indicating that they would be appropriate for sugarcane production. She also indicated that MARN would have to approve changes, perhaps meaning that new sugarcane crops would be subject to environmental permitting. The law requires a permit for new agricultural projects, but MARN has never enforced it. Sugarcane growers in Amando Lopez have already begun plowing and clearing trees, and are likely to plant later this month when the rainy season begins in earnest. But there is no indication that the grower has applied for or received an environmental permit, or that MARN officials will require them to do so.
La Tirana and civil society organizations have also been pressuring the municipal government of Jiquilisco to stop destructive large-scale sugarcane production. The municipal council is considering a new ordinance that would regulate the use of agrochemicals and prohibit new sugarcane projects. The ordinance has not passed yet, and would do little to stop the new project in Amando Lopez.
Residents of Amando Lopez have worked hard for many years to protect their environment and natural resources in order to provide their youth a healthy place to grow up. Even though the community has been struggling and lost 10% of its population, they are not going to stand by and allow private investors to contaminate their land and water, and make their children sick with agrochemicals, just so they can make money. And they are not going to allow globalization and market forces to deconstruct the campesino culture and local economy.
Last Friday we posted that Northern Triangle and U.S. governments are proposing more neoliberal economic policies in order to create jobs and thereby address the emigration crisis and high levels of violence. Their plan, in part, is to attract more textile maquilas, agro-industries, manufacturing, and tourism. We think it’s a bad idea and will result in even greater inequalities and more emigration.
Over the past couple of days we came across a couple new articles that demonstrate why more sub-poverty minimum wage jobs in textiles, manufacturing, and tourism won’t address the serious issues that El Salvador and other Northern Triangle face.
Gangs and Maquilas
On Monday, the Inter Press Service (IPS) reported that employees of LD El Salvador, a Korean textile maquila that operates in San Marcos, just south of San Salvador, is using gangs and death threats to break up an employee union. One employee told IPS “They would call me on the phone and tell me to quit the union, to stop being a trouble-maker.” Another employee says, “they told me they were homeboys (gang members) and that if I didn’t quit the union my body would show up hanging from one of the trees outside the company.”
These are probably not empty threats. In January 2014 Juan Carlos Sánchez Luna, a member of SITS from the LD El Salvador maquila was assassinated. He began receiving threats at the end of 2013 after he participated in a press conference denouncing threats made against organizers at the LD El Salvador maquila. Less than a month later was gunned down in what officials classified as a “common crime.
Of the 780 employees at LD El Salvador, 155 used to belong to the Salvadoran Textile Industry Union (SITS, in Spanish). Since the threats began the number of union members has dropped to 60.
LD El Salvador is not the only company using gangs to prevent their workers from organizing. The IPS article references a report published in January 2015 by the Center for Global Worker’s Rights and the Worker Rights Consortium titled Unholy Alliances: How Employers in El Salvador’s Garment Industry Collude with a Corrupt Labor Federation, Company Unions, and Violent Gangs to Suppress Worker’s Rights. The report contains several accounts of maquilas using gangs to threaten and intimidate workers, and documents many other abuses.
As we pointed out last week, there is nothing in the Northern Alliance Plan that will protect workers rights and ensure that the very employers that are supposed to be part of the “solution” aren’t abusing workers and colluding with criminal organizations.
Tourism and Hotels
On Sunday, the Center for the Study and Support of Labor (CEAL, in Spanish) wrote an update on two hotels in Acajutla, Sonsonate. Both have long histories of abusing worker’s rights and the environment. The two hotels are the Vernaneros Hotel and Resort and the Decameron Salinas Hotel. Both tourism facilities have long histories of abusing workers rights and the environment.
Over the past several years, Vernaneros has faced several legal issues regarding the violations of El Salvador’s labor laws and the destruction of a valuable coral reef. In 2013, the Ministry of Labor found that Vernaneros owner Larry Alberto Zedán owed his workers $17,000 in compensation for not paying overtime, holidays, and overtime and other wages. Inspectors found that employees “worked most of the day, and in some cases 60 hours a week, but did not receive the minimum wage, did not have written contracts, and that [the hotel] operated informally with total disregard for labor standards.”
As a result of the abuses group of workers formed the Food, Restaurant, Hotel and Tourism Industry Union (SITIGHRA) with employees of The Decameron Hotel and other facilities. After they formed the union representatives wrote to the owners of several hotels and asked for a meeting. Larry Zedán responded by firing the 15 of his employees who had joined the union.
The Verdaderos has also received a lot of attention over the years for their destruction of a large reef off the coast from their resort. They destroyed the reef by installing a seawall to make their beach more pleasant for their guests. The reef, located in a region called Los Cóbanos, was the only place between Mexico and South America on the Pacific side, where coral grew.
The Decameron Hotel has its own share of labor disputes. In September 2013, the Decameron fired 145 workers for supporting the SITIGHR union, the same union that the Verdaderos employees had been fired for joining. One worker told Contrapunto in 2013 that they formed the union because “a lot of the bosses and supervisors treated us really poorly.”
These are just a couple of real examples in the news this week of what the globalized race to the bottom looks like. El Salvador needs solutions – economic inequality, emigration, and violence are all serious problems. But selling off the labor force and environment to the lowest bidder won’t resolve anything.
Related to these issues:
With regard to tourism, we came across a short peice on Cancun and what tourism development has done to local Mayan populations and environment. This is relevant for a lot of reasons, including that developers in El Salvador have proposed turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the “Cancun of Central America. Here is a link:
Our friends at CISPES are hosting an event in the DC area this week – Estela Ramirez, the General Secretary of the Salvadoran garment workers’ will be in DC this week to talk about their work. This will be a good opportunity to hear from on-the-ground organizers.
Yesterday, elsalvador.com posted an article about gangs extorting tourists in the Jiquilisco Bay, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.
The article reports that police have investigated three cases of extortion and arrested six adults and a minor. The gangs seem to be stopping tourists and delivery trucks when they slow down for speed bumps on the road through the Bajo Lempa and out the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula and charge them between $5 and 25 to continue
Gang activity has increased dramatically in the region over the past few weeks, with a greater presence in El Zamorano, La Canoa, Isla de Mendez, San Juan del Gozo, and Corral de Mulas, as well as smaller communities where they have not had much of a presence in the past. Police estimate that there are between 60-90 gang members now living in the region.
The elsalvador.com article also reports that l gangs are intimidating locals by walking around and even eating in restaurants with automatic rifles and shotguns slung over their shoulders. Police confirm that gangs have at least 3 M-16 rifles in the region.
The reports of extortion and increased gang presence are already affecting small, locally operated restaurants and hotels that serve the region’s small tourism industry. The number of Salvadorans who visit the area has already begun to drop off. As news of the arrests and extortion activities increase, traffic in the region is likely to decrease even more.
Community leaders say gangs have told residents they won’t bother them. But there are two warring gangs in the region and people are worried about getting caught in the crossfire. One NGO worker said he is not worried about the gang members from the community where he works – he knows them and their families, and they have never bothered him. He is concerned about being caught in the middle if rival gangs come looking them.
Local leaders and parents are also concerned about the influence of the gangs on their youth. Communities on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula are economically depressed and youth often lack access to education. Sometimes access is not a question of distance, rather an issue of getting to and from school safely. Youth that have finished the sixth grade are often unable to continue studying and lack job opportunities, making them prime candidates for gang recruitment.
There have been gangs in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula for a while, but their numbers and activities have been limited. The rather sudden influx of gang members from other areas and their brazen show of arms have led some in the region to believe the issue goes beyond extortion of cars along the main road. Several people are concerned that those with an interest in large-scale tourism are using the gangs to destabilize the region’s growing opposition to their development plans. Others fear the gangs and extortion are an effort to drive off the small-scale, local restaurants and hotels that serve Salvadorans who visit the zone. This will make room for larger, well-financed tourism projects that will serve North Americans and Europeans.
This would not be the first time that gangs have been used to shake up a social movement or influence public opinion. In June/July 2009 alleged gang members in Cabañas killed anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera. Other alleged gang members were involved in the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Sorto, others, in Cabañas later that year.
At this point there is no way to know who is supplying the automatic weapons or whether the influx of alleged gang activities is related to tourism and an effort to destabilized organizational efforts. But residents throughout the region understand that this is certainly a possibility the have to consider.
Yesterday, Salvador Sanchez Cerén took office as the new president of El Salvador, becoming the first former FMLN militant from El Salvador’s Civil War to ascend to the presidency.
President Sanchez Cerén’s political victory has not been the glorious triumph many wanted for the former guerrilla leader. The runoff election against the ARENA’s Norman Quijano was surprisingly close, as Sanchez Cerén squeaked out a victory with only 50.2% of the vote. Quijano’s late surge seemed to stem from Salvadorans’ discontent with the lack of security and the failing truce between the country’s two rival gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18.
The FMLN and the country’s mood have only soured since the election. In May, the police reported 396 homicides, 170 more than the same month last year, and fingers are being pointing in all directions. Now former President Mauricio Funes recently said recently that political interests “want to give the impression that there is a failed state incapable of facing crime,” meaning that foes of the FMLN want to make the leftist government seem unable to address crime.
Indeed, the State appears helpless in stopping the violence. The gangs have taken steps over the past few years by signing a truce but the government was unable or unwilling to support their efforts. And past administrations and political leaders continually fail to address economic and social equalities, or provide youth with good alternatives. Until they do so, gangs will continue to fill in the gaps left by the stagnant economy and broken families.
President Sanchez Cerén said yesterday during his first speech as President that he would lead a System of Citizen Security. He also said, “improving the security of citizens will require that we work together against organized crime, traffickers, extortion, and all expressions of violence. We will fight delinquency in all its forms, with all legal instruments and tools of the State.”
President’s and politicians have made so many speeches over the years but taken little action. If President Sanchez Cerén is going to promote security and end the country’s violence he will have be willing to take bold and creative measures that set aside politics. Language like fighting delinquency in all its forms and using all legal instruments seems to indicate more of the same Mano-Duro or heavy hand kind of law enforcement, which has never been successful.
Unfortunately, President Sanchez Cerén also seems to be embracing the same neoliberal economic policies that the U.S. government has been promoting since the end of the civil war – creating an export economy and attracting foreign investment. These policies have failed to address the social and economic inequalities that have allowed the gangs to flourish, and in fact made divisions even wider.
Most Salvadorans seem to have pretty low expectations for their new President and his administration, and he has given them little reason to have hope for something new. Salvadoran communities and Diaspora seem willing to support the new administration, but President Sanchez Cerén and his team will have to show a level of creativity and boldness that we haven’t seen yet.