Advocacy, Economy, Environment

Anti-Walmart Action in Mejicanos, El Salvador

This past Thursday civil society organizations, international solidarity groups, students, and community associations came together to protest the construction of a mega Walmart store in Mejicanos, a municipality in northern San Salvador.

Protest organizers issued a statement that read,

“We are aware that transnational companies like Walmart create more precarious environmental conditions, exploit our workers, and put our lives at risk.  We demand that the Environmental Ministry, the Office on Metropolitan Planning, and the Mejicanos Mayor’s Office, release the technical information that demonstrates the viability of Walmart’s construction in the area.  The communities must be consulted, since they are the ones threatened by floods and landslides, and who have resisted the project for years.”

Photo courtesy of Georgina Salinas

According to community leaders , construction of the super-store poses a serious risk to the surrounding communities along the folds of the San Salvador volcano.  Mejicanos is already ranked as the third most vulnerable urban center in El Salvador, and 45% of the households lack at least one basic service such as water, electricity or proper shelter.[1]

Mauricio Cortéz of the Inter Communal Coordinating Committee has been demanding answers to the various risks that the municipality faces for decades.  The Picacho ravine of the volcano is unstable, and residents fear a repeat of the devastating 1934 and 1982 landslides that covered entire communities.  Intense urbanization has forced poor families off of the their land in favor of up-scale residential development and new boulevards  – projects which heavily impact watershed patterns and hill side stability.

Rene Bermudez, who has been part of the Walmart resistance movement for the past 5 years, also denounced Walmart’s demolition of an important access road along the parameter of the property.  Municipal land-use maps establish the Arenal road to provide residents of Las Marias access to their community. In order to prepare for the new Walmart, contractors bulldozed the road claiming that it was just a drainage ditch.  Las Marias residents now have to use a winding path through residential properties.

Today’s protest was in response to the new mayor’s sudden approval for the construction permits.  Prior permits had been denied due Walmart’s inability to meet environmental regulations, but within weeks of taking office, the new conservative mayor, Juanita Lemus de Pacas, announced that Walmart would be open by December of this year.

Walmart has been in Central America since 2005 and is already the region’s largest retailer. Walmart Centroamérica has 79 stores open in El Salvador; Despensa Familiar – 51; La Despensa de Don Juan -25; Walmart Supercenter – 2; and Maxi Despensa -1.

Community leaders are upset by the mayor’s eager support of the project, and have signaled that Walmart was able to cull favor with the new administration through tactics that were similar to those used in Mexico and exposed this past April.  Lemus de Pacas’ entire campaign was based on inviting large business contracts into the area, and she has continued to align the mayor’s office with private interests.  Gloria Andrade, a community leader in San Pedro, Mejicanos, said that local market women had planned on participating in the protest, but the mayor threatened to pull funds for their new market if they were to attend.

 

Photo courtesy of Georgina Salinas

[1] FLASCO, Mapa de Pobreza urbana y exclución social. FLASCO-MINED. 2008.

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El Salvador Government, violence

El Salvador Marks 100 Days of the Gang Truce and 2nd Anniversary of the Mejicanos Bus Burning

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, June 19th and 20th, marked two important dates in El Salvador’s long struggle for peace and security. Tuesday celebrated 100 days since the country’s two primary gangs signed a truce that has resulted in a rather dramatic decrease in violence. Wednesday was the second anniversary of the bus burning in Mejicanos that killed 17 people. The horrific act, which government officials and the public blamed on members of the 18th Street gang, shocked the national conscious and arguably led to the truce that was celebrated yesterday. How government officials, civil society, and the private sector respond in the coming days and weeks will determine whether this is a turning point in the country’s history or another lost opportunity.

The Bus Burning

The morning of June 20th, 2010, an armed group stopped a small bus in Mejicanos, an urban area on the outskirts of San Salvador, doused it in gasoline, and lit it on fire. In all, seventeen people were killed and many others maimed and injured.

In response to the event, President Funes introduced an anti-gang bill that made it illegal to belong to a gang, punishable by up to ten years in prison. The law was the same kind of “mano duro” (heavy handed) law that previous administrations had employed, albeit unsuccessfully, to combat gang violence. It was also the exact kind of law that President Funes had campaigned against.

The gangs responded to the proposed legislation by imposing a nation-wide curfew and 72-hour bus stoppage, threatening to kill anyone who defied the mandate. Towards the end of the 72-hour period, gang leaders held press conferences and issued statements calling for policies of inclusion and greater opportunities for youth, and dialogue with government officials about how to end the violence. They also called on the government to improve the inhumane prison conditions and offer opportunities for personal development. The administration ignored their demands and request for dialogue, and that week President Funes signed the new anti-gang bill into law.

The curfew, 72-hour bus stoppage, and press communications were the first times that leaders from the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs worked together. Until that point, the gangs had been mortal enemies and such collaboration had not been an option. Their unity was an indication of the urgency and conviction behind their words and actions.

The bus burning and curfew left the government and Salvadoran people in no mood for talking. Government officials said publicly they would not be blackmailed into negotiating with gangs that had terrorized the population. Even if administration officials had desired to negotiate with the gangs, doing so in the fall of 2010 would have had severe political consequences. Hardliners from the conservative parties would have criticized them for being weak and unable to protect the Salvadoran people.

The Truce

Something happened, however, and this past March news broke that the leaders of MS-13 and two factions of the 18th Street gangs had signed a truce that has successfully reduced El Salvador’s murder rate, which has been among the highest in the world. Salvadorans welcome the reduction in violence but fear that it is unsustainable if the government and other stakeholders fail to address the social and economic exclusion that gave rise to the violence in the first place.

The two people credited with facilitating the negotiations between the gangs were Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres and former FMLN legislator Raul Mijango. Government officials initially denied involvement in the truce but ex-military General and Minister of Justice and Public Security Munguía Payés recently acknowledged that the truce was “part of his strategy” to address the gang problem. Just before news of the truce broke, 30 incarcerated gang leaders were transferred from maximum-security prisons to lower security facilities, and were allowed more visitations along with other rights. These concessions were consistent with those laid out by gang leaders in 2010.

Just how much the murder rate has decreased varies depending on who is reporting it. Government officials often use shorthand and simply say that the daily average number of homicides has fallen from 14 to 6 – that would be a 57% decrease. InSight Crime reported the government’s actual numbers, which put the overall drop from March to May at 42%. The actual totals they use are:

March 2011/2012 – 377/255 (decrease of 32%)

April 2011/2012 – 340/156 (decrease of 54%)

May 2011/2012 – 368/172 (decrease of 53%)

Total March-May 2011/2012 -1085/583 (decrease 0f 42%)

The InSight Crime article points out,

“The National Police statistics on homicides have differed from those kept by the Public Forensic Institute (Medicina Legal), which has released slightly higher murder counts for each month.”

Calculating the homicide rate and the success of the truce has been somewhat complicated by reports that the rate of disappearances has risen, which would seem to indicate that gang members are just disposing of their victims. According to El Faro, these reports seem somewhat unfounded. As of June 10, the police have recorded 677 disappearances so far in 2012. Minister Munguía Payes insists that this is in line with previous years. Medicina Legal reports a much higher number of disappearances, 877 in just the first four months of 2012. There were more disappearances in the first two months of the year before the truce was signed than the second two months. Based on these numbers it is difficult to even speculate that murder victims are being buried and that the homicide rate is higher than reported.

While Salvadorans welcome the decrease in violence, many remain skeptical of its long-term sustainability. Some question whether the gang leaders were sincere in signing the truce and that perhaps other motives exist. Others are concerned that the imprisoned leaders who signed the truce do not have enough control over the extensive network of ‘cliques’ that make up their gangs to enforce it. One bus driver said recently that in his line of work he has gotten to know many gang members – he fears the kids on the street will only listen to gang leaders for so long until they start killing their rivals again. He fears that if they break the truce, the violence will be more extreme than ever. It remains to be seen whether this skepticism is warranted.

A more realistic concern about the sustainability of the truce is that it does little to address the root-cause of the violence –  social and economic exclusion. This is an issue that gang leaders mentioned back in 2010 and have stressed over the past 100 days. Salvadoran youth lack appropriate opportunities for education and work, and often have no options but to join gangs.  The truce is not the solution – it’s a break in the violence so the various stakeholders can work out a long-term solution.

The gangs seem serious about working out a long-term solution. In a statement released this week, gang leaders said they are ready to start negotiating a permanent peace treaty that would hopefully end the violence for good. According to an AP report, Oscar Armando Reyes, a leader of the 18th Street gang, said,

“We want to reach a definitive cease fire to end all the criminal acts of the gangs. But we have to reach agreements, because we have to survive. There was talk of jobs plans, but we haven’t gotten any answers, and it is time for the government to listen to us.”

A few weeks ago, President Funes announced that he had an agreement with members of the private sector that they would hire youth who had been involved in gangs in order to support their reintegration into society. The same day that Funes announced the private sector agreement, gang leaders announced that they would stop recruiting new members in schools and consider ending extortions in the near future. It is unclear that the government and private sector have taken more affirmative steps to work on long-term solutions.

Some civil society leaders have expressed support for the gangs recently and called on the greater Salvadoran community to support their reintegration. Mario Vega, head pastor at Elim Christian Mission, recently stated,

“I believe that the leaders of the gangs are earnestly involved in this process, because giving one’s word implies the highest code of respect, and they don’t speak just to speak; however, they could change a commitment at any moment if they feel they are not being listened to or respected.”

Rodrigo Bolaños, the general manager of the Salvadoran Factory League of Central America that employs former gang youth, recently said gangs are a product of Salvadoran society, and therefore the responsibility of Salvadoran society.

“The kids in the gangs weren’t born in Korea… they are from here. This is a problem of our own. They are our Salvadoran brothers. Society has to understand why all this began, and there has to be some capacity to forgive.”

Raúl Mijango, who helped facilitate the truce, recently said

“We’ve got to be frank – the gangs are waiting for a response from Salvadoran society and the state, but the most difficult part will be for society to stop looking to the past, accumulating hatred and resentment.”

While the truce is extremely important to achieving peace in El Salvador, it is not THE final solution. For too long the government and media have made young gang members, tattoos and all, the scary face of violence in El Salvador. The police, attorney general’s office, other government agencies, and media have been too quick to attribute political murders, international organized crime, femicide, and so many other crimes to gangs – neighborhood kids fighting their peers.

Job programs and reintegrating gang members into society will be an important first step, but at some point Salvadorans will also have to tackle the organized criminals that use all levels of government to facilitate their drug trafficking and money laundering. They will also have to get over the machismo culture that has led to El Salvador being the world leader in femicide.

Over the past couple of years, the gangs have taken steps to end the violence they are responsible for. Hopefully, the government, civil society, and private sector will do their part.

Thanks to our good friend Colette Hellenkamp for her invaluable contributions to this article.

Economy, Environment

Protest Against Walmart in Mejicanos, El Salvador Next Thursday

Last month, Walmart received permits to build a store in Mejicanos, a municipality within the greater Metropolitan San Salvador Area. The 86,100 square foot store will be located on a lovely 6.6-acre lot on the Constitution Boulevard, at the base of the San Salvador Volcano. Walmart officials estimate that the store will create 500 new direct jobs and 250 new indirect jobs and inject a bunch of new tax revenue into the local and central governments.

Sadly, the 6.6 acres where Walmart is going to build was a forest, which was removed to accommodate the large building and parking lots.

Destruction of the forest and other reasons have sparked a group of Salvadorans to oppose the new Walmart. They are organizing a protest on Thursday June 21 at the Shafik Plaza in front of the new store’s location. In an email invitation to the protest, organizers provided a top-ten list of reasons they oppose the new Walmart. Their reasons include:

  1. The reduction of income and the closing of local businesses as the result of competition with Wal-Mart;
  2. The cutting down of thousands of trees;
  3. Floods, landslides and the obstruction of drainage pipes as a result of deforestation;
  4. Damage to hydraulic basins which would mean less water for human consumption;
  5. Higher temperatures: if there are fewer trees, the temperature will increase;
  6. Labor rights violations: poor employee compensation, with difficult working conditions such as the denial of the right to form a union;
  7. Increased dependence of small producers that sell to Wal-Mart, because as the sole business partner of these producers, Wal-Mart controls the terms and prices of trade;
  8. More genetically modified and unhealthy products would enter the country;
  9. More imported products would worsen the country’s economic crisis; and
  10. There will probably be more illicit processes in the acquisition of permits; which could include corruption and intimidation.

Anticipating that Salvadorans would not appreciate their cutting down trees, the mega-giant store plans to plant 10,000 trees in a deforested areas in the nearby municipality of Nejapa. Whether their reforestation efforts will offset losing 6.6 acres of forest at the base of the volcano remains unclear, but opponents are doubtful.

Protest organizers have a Facebook page with information about the protest and their opposition. Here is a poster advertizing the event:

Elsalvador.com published an article on May 1st of this year giving the new ARENA mayor, Juanita Lemus de Pacas, credit for getting Walmart the permits they need to start building. Up to the March 2012 elections, the leftist FMLN party had held the mayor’s office in Mejicanos and Walmart was unable to secure their permits. Shortly after the new ARENA government took over the municipal government, Walmart broke ground on the project.

Walmart has been in Central America since 2005 and is already the region’s largest retailer. Walmart Centroamérica has 79 stores open in El Salvador; Despensa Familiar – 51; La Despensa de Don Juan -25; Walmart Supercenter – 2; and Maxi Despensa -1.

El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, violence

Funes’ First Year

On Sunday, Linda Garrett from the Center for Democracy in the Americas published a defense of Funes’s first year in office.  She argues that his administration “assumed the mantle of power of a polarized country nearly bankrupt, wrought with poverty, violence, corruption and fragile democratic institutions.”

She applauds the administration for providing new social programs, financing agreements for the next five years, and his public apologies for such past crimes as the assassinations of Monseñor Romero in 1980 and the Jesuits in 1989.   She also cautions readers of the importance of supporting his administration in the face of the current violence and public insecurity that has dominated the news in the past few weeks.  This week’s headlines are evidence of this administration’s harried response.

Funes has reacted to each mounting case of violence with bolder and more repressive measures.  He deployed the military to work along side the civilian police soon after his inauguration.  On June 1st of this year he announced that the military would also intervene in the prisons, which they rushed to implement after the Sunday bus massacre in Méjicanos.  They are now partnering with Migration to patrol the un-manned border crossings, notorious for moving drugs, stolen vehicles, and undocumented people.

In a widely distributed public announcement Funes says social and preventive programs are important for the long term, but repressive measures are necessary now. The Ministry of Public Security is expected to present a bill to the Legislative Assembly in the coming days to outlaw gang membership.  During a press conference reporters asked how police would identify gang members.  Henry Campos, the vice minister for public security responded “by tattoos and other types of evidence”.  A law based on the same premise was declared unconstitutional in 2004.

But Funes made a pointed demand from the Attorney General’s office during his June 23rd speech addressing the bus massacre – the same speech where he announced the new bill.

“The fight against organized crime, delinquents and criminal groups is a task of every State institution.  This means not only the government must do its job well.  We need the public prosecutors and judges to also do theirs.”

The Attorney General’s office is an autonomous institution, and appointments come from the Legislative Assembly.  The ex-attorney general Astor Escalante told the press on Monday that of the 100 homicide prosecutors, only 30% have actually received any training.  The institution appoints prosecutors with very few requisites; there is no policy to recruit prosecutors who have actually won convictions.  At the end of 2009 this group of elite homicide prosecutors had 16% conviction rate.

Garrett is right to call for continued international support of a Funes administration battling violence and weak institutions with very few resources.  That does not mean an acceptance of reactionary and repressive measures – often the most accessible means for the ‘commander in chief’.  Funes needs public pressure to uphold ethical and progressive reforms more than ever; and he especially needs allies for strengthening institutions that he has little power to control.