El Chile: Land Rights, Environmental Conservation, and Tourism on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula

TESAK propertyTension over tourism development  in the Bay of Jiquilisco, specifically in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula, is rising. Over the past few months Voices on the Border has partnered with communities in the region to identify threats related to tourism and document how development plans are starting to affect specific communities.

In December 2013 we finished a report called Tourism Plans for the Jiquilisco Bay, which outlines the general plans to promote tourism in the region and their potential impacts on El Salvador. This week we finished a report on El Chile, a small community that is fighting to keep their land and protect their local environment. Here are links to both articles in Spanish and English:

Tourism Report Cover spaTourism Report Cover eng





El Chile Cover spaEl Chile Cover EngDuring  numerous conversations and meetings about development plans, residents of the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula made it clear that they oppose the kind of large-scale tourism outlined in the 2016 and 2020 National Tourism Plans. They fear that golf courses, hotels, resorts, condominiums, marinas and wharfs, shopping centers, and other development will destroy local mangrove forests, beaches, and farmland. Residents also fear that thousands of people will be displaced as the demand for real estate grows. On a more macro level, environmentalists argue that an influx of 20 million tourists from the U.S. and Europe, a goal identified in the 2020 National Tourism Plan, will completely drain El Salvador’s already scarce water supply.

Communities insist that they are not anti-tourism. They just oppose the large-scale projects that are currently planned. In La Tirana, Voices on the Border staff is accompanying the community board as they plan their own tourism initiative that will consist of a few small huts in the center of town, a community-run restaurant, and a few canoes for giving tours through the forests. Community members appreciate the beauty and importance of the mangrove forests in their community and they want to be able to share it with others, but in an appropriate manner.

La Tirana 11 At the moment developers and investors seem to be waiting on the release of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funds to move forward on their projects. Last year the MCC approved a second compact with the Salvadoran government worth $277 million. The U.S. Congress and State Department are holding the funds until the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly reforms the Public-Private Partnership Law (P3 Law) passed last May. U.S. officials say the reforms are necessary to ensure investors have access to all Salvadoran assets and resources, including water, education, and health. The U.S. also doesn’t want the Legislative Assembly to have a role in approving or overseeing public-private partnership contracts. In the days after being certified as the winner of the March 9th presidential elections, President-elect Sanchez Cerén (FMLN) said that when he is sworn in on June 1, his administration would work to make sure the MCC funds are released.

The MCC funds are not specifically earmarked for tourism. They will be available to encourage private investment along El Salvador’s coast. The majority of projects proposed so far are related to tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay and other coastal areas.

Even though the MCC funds are stalled, speculators have continued to acquire land for tourism projects. The most recent acquisitions occurred earlier this year in El Chile. Residents of the community have lived on and worked their land for more than 22 years, but their ongoing efforts to secure legal titles to their land have been unsuccessful. As a result, when Salvadoran investors came to acquire land along the community’s beach, they were powerless to stop them. And government agencies seem unwilling or unable to step in to help.

Developing mega-tourism projects in La Tirana, Montecristo, Las Mesas, San Juan del Gozo, Isla de Mendez, El Chile, El Retiro, Corral de Mulas, and many other communities in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula would be as disastrous as allowing Pacific Rim to mine gold and silver in Cabañas. The mangroves are El Salvador’s defense against climate change. The beaches are nesting ground for at least four species of sea turtle, including the Hawksbill, which is a critically endangered species. Golf courses and 20 million visitors would diminish El Salvador’s water supply very quickly.

Please take a few minutes and read our Overview on Tourism and the Report on El Chile (see links above), and stay tuned… local organizations and communities will be organizing ways for you to become involved in the struggle against mega-tourism in the Bajo Lempa and San Juan del Gozo Peninsula.


Corruption, El Salvador Government, violence

A New Approach to Youth Violence?

The number of students murdered in El Salvador more than doubled from 52 students in 2010 to 126 in 2011. In January 2011, even before the increase of violence in Salvadoran schools, the Ministry of Education (MINED) and the National Civil Police (PNC) began developing a plan that would, in-part, put police patrols in the schools most affected by gang violence. In late January 2012, Sub-director of the PNC, Manuel Ramírez Landaverde, announced they would begin implementing the new programs for the 2012 school year, with the goal of reducing student violence and the murder rate.

One of the new programs is “Discipline through Sports,” which aims to bridge the divide between students and police officers. According to an expert on Salvadoran youth and gangs, there is a very common belief in El Salvador that the police are “corrupt to its core.” The source, which requested anonymity, said that many communities, rural and urban, believe the PNC has “been infiltrated by gangs, by organized crime, by narco-trafficking, and you name it.” The source also said, “police brutality is common,” and they also “extort kids in the gangs so they don’t beat them or their families, or investigate them.”

It is unclear what the new program, which police officials tout as both preventative and protective, will look like, but the goal seems to be to get police officers active in coaching or even playing sports with the kids. Through direct interactions with students, the PNC hopes to be more than just a police presence. Landaverde said that the program “will allow us to detect, before any warning or situation, a problem developing within any group of students.”

While it is important that the police recognize the divide between the police and youth, Discipline through Sports seems to do little  to address the reason for the divide – the perception that the police are the actual “bad guys.” Instead of addressing accusations of abuse and corruption, police officials seem more interested in gathering information and detecting issues early, rather than strengthening their relationships with youth.

The PNC and MINED have identified 300 schools as “high risk,” 166 of which are also considered the “most vulnerable.” The program will assign 160 officers to work on sports programs in the 300 schools, which is just over 1 officer for every 2 high-risk schools. The 160 officers will join another 400 officers who are patrolling the 166 schools that are already marked as the most vulnerable. Sub-director Landaverde also said that thousands of other personnel would continue supporting schools around the country with “patrols, control, education, and road security, regulating vehicle traffic around the schools.”

The program is part of the PNC’s effort to reduce El Salvador’s extremely high murder rate (66 per 100,000, second highest in the world). Police officials recently said they would reduce the murder rate by 30% in 2012, in part by reducing the levels of violence among youth. According to David Munguía Payés, a retired General who is now the Minister of Justice and Public Security, and other government officials, violence perpetrated by youth gangs accounted for 90% of El Salvador’s 4,223 murders in 2011. El Salvador’s Government Forensics Institute, former PNC officials, and several civil society organizations, however, assert that youth gangs account for only 10-20% of the nation’s murders. They attribute the majority of El Salvador’s violence to international organized criminal networks involved in trafficking drugs, guns, and people, money laundering, and other illicit activities. Though the 126 student victims only account for 3% of the murder in 2011, the PNC is focusing on schools because they believe them to be recruiting centers for the gangs. They hope that by increasing the police presence, active gang members will no longer have the access that they once did, and youth will focus more on their studies instead of turning to gangs and violence.

The focus on murdered students may also be a good public relations move for the PNC and Funes Administration. Highlighting the tragic murders of these students,  the PNC and other officials are able to continue casting youth gangs as the heinous enemy and justify the same kind of draconian security plans implemented in the past (Mano Duro, 2003 and Super Mano Duro, 2004 – both laws were found to be unconstitutional by El Salvador’s Supreme Court). In just the past month, the Funes Administration has militarized the country’s domestic security institutions in a manner not seen since the Peace Accords were signed in 1992.

In 2011, the Funes Administration proposed to steer youth away from gangs by requiring “at risk” youth ages 16-18 to participate in a military training program. Activists and experts rejected the plan arguing that the youth would emerge from the program as skilled laborers for the gangs and drug traffickers. Instead of putting youth into a military program, the PNC’s latest idea puts the police into the schools.

Teachers, organizations and other experts, however, have criticized the PNC’s proposal fearing that it will only lead to more police brutality. A spokesperson for Bases Magisteriales, a teacher’s union, shared a recent story from the Joaquín Rodenzo school in downtown San Salvador as an example. He said that police would hit students and even put their service weapons to the student’s heads. The Bases Magisteriales spokesperson said that schools simply don’t have the resources to support the PNC presence and protect the rights of the students.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s Vice President and Minister of Education, signed off on Dicipline through Sports on January 30, 2012, and Security Minister David Munguía Payés hopes to see the plan in place within two months. Whether putting police officers into school sports programs and patrolling the hallways is something new that will deter involvement in gang activities or just another heavy-handed security measure that will result in more abuse remains to be seen. But with such uncertainty about who is responsible for the violence and the motive behind the crimes, there is plenty of reason to doubt the plan will help reduce El Salvador’s murder rate by the 30% officials are hoping for.

El Salvador Government, violence

Not Quiet on the Eastern Front

Diario Co Latino reported Wednesday that the National Civil Police (PNC)  is increasing their presence in the Easter departments of Morazán, La Unión, and La Paz.  This is in response to the spread of gang activity into the region.  The Ministry of the Defense and the police attribute the spread to their efforts to combat gang violence in the central region.  The most likely reason is that the military has begun combating gangs in San Salvador and the surrounding areas, making it riskier for gangs to operate there.   Because of this, the gangs have begun a type of outsourcing- traveling east where they recruit new members and set up operations before returning to their original city.

The Office of Public Security arranged a meeting between COENA and members of the ARENA party to go over proposed security initiatives to combat gang activity, organized crime, and drug trafficking.  The Public Security Office has bee accepting, though not necessarily taking, the advice of various sectors of society in its effort to implement the best policies.

Our volunteer in Segundo Montes, Morazán said she has not heard anything about gang activity or increased violence.  Segundo Montes and the other municipalities around it are in a rural area, and she said that the increase in gangs and now police presence is probably in more populated areas, such as Gotera, the governmental head of Morazán.

An increase in police forces to contain the spread of gang activity is a good effort in the complicated fight against gang violence, however, the initiative’s effectiveness will ultimately depend on its management by the PNC and whether there are sufficient resources.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Organized Crime, transparency

Update on Inspector General of the PNC, Zaira Navas

Since last week when we posted an article about the Legislative Assembly’s plans to form of a Special Commission to investigate the Investigator General of the National Civil Police (PNC) Zaira Navas, several top ranking officials, including Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes have spoken out on her behalf. Members of the Legislative Assembly, including Diputado José Antonio Almendáriz, accuse Navas of improperly investigating Police Commissioner Douglas Omar Garcia Funes, former Commissioner Godofredo Miranda, ex-Director of Police Ricardo Menesses, and many others for corruption and ties to organized crime and drug trafficking.

During the legislative session last Thursday, the 45 votes in favor of the Special Commission were enough to move ahead with the investigation of the Inspector General. While no left-wing FMLN diputados voted in favor of the special commission, 45 right-wing ARENA, PCN, PDC, and Gana legislators supported it.

Yesterday, President Funes expressed his support for Navas, confirming that she has only followed the guidelines he gave her in conducting a thorough “cleaning’ of the PNC. Simialrly, the Minister of Justice and Security, Manuel Melgar, has claimed that the commission may be unconstitutional and should not be permitted to go forward. Even Carlos Ascencio, the Director of the PNC, defended Navas, saying that she was simply following the lines of investigations that President Funes had ordered. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights has also stated “we must respect the work of the Inspector General.”

Government Agencies in El Salvador have operated in the shadows for a little too long.  A little sunshine every now and then is good for everyone, unless they have something to hide.

Corruption, Organized Crime

Salvadoran Police Find a 4Th Barrel of Money

Last night, Salvadoran police found a forth barrel of money in El Salvador. The first three were found last weeked and contained a combined total of $10.2 million.  This latest barrel was found buried on a property in La Quinta Residencial Las Mercedes, in Canton Lourdes of Colon, La Libertad, while the other barrels were found in a canton of Zacatecaluca, La Paz. The police have not said how much was in this latest barrel only that “approximately 80% of the bills are large.”

While we don’t have much information on how the police came to search this particular property, the search last weekend was the result of information provided to Salvadoran police by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). The Attorney General’s office has stated that the $10.2 million found in Zacatecaluca is without a doubt the product of drug trafficking, though he did not provide details. Authorities also report that Guatemalans owned the property where the latest barrel was found.

The capture of such large quantities of money is a blow for drug traffickers. This week, several Salvadoran analysts have speculated that the shutdown of the bus system was less about gang members voicing their frustrations, and more about drug traffickers angry about government officials confiscating their money. While we have no indication that this is the case, it is clear that drug trafficking and money laundering are a serious issue in El Salvador. In recent years, top officials in the police department, and even members of the legislative assembly have been accused or convicted of being involved in the drug trade.

While El Salvador is a transit point for drugs en route from South American producers to North American markets, many experts believe that the country’s main value added to the drug trade is laundering money.  There are several routes that traffickers take to North American markets, all of which include various legs over land, sea, and air. Narcotics often enter El Salvador in the Gulf of Fonseco or other areas along the coast, shipped in on small, fast boats that easily escape detection from DEA or Salvadoran Navy patrols. They also enter over land, through any one of El Salvador’s punto ciegos (unmanned boarder crossings).  Earlier in the summer, President Funes deployed military units to help close these boarder crossings and stem the flow of drugs and other contraband in and out of the country.

Less is known about money laundering in El Salvador, though experts claim that the country’s stable banking system and lax regulations create the right conditions for drug cartels wanting to convert their ill-gotten cash into clean bank deposits. Two other factors that facilitate the process is that El Salvador has a constant flow of remittances from the U.S. (remittances are the cash sent by Salvadorans working in the U.S. to their family members back home) and the fact that El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar as its official currency back in 2001. Experts fear that drug traffickers are using the system for sending remittances to El Salvador as a way of laundering their drug money. In addition, money launderers operate businesses and report false sales and transactions to clean their drug money.

It remains unclear how the barrels of money found over the past couple of weekends fit into this process, but it is a very big reminder that drug cartels are using El Salvador for shipping their product and managing their cash.

Corruption, violence

Part II – Recent threat of Curfew Displays High Levels of Fear and Insecurity in El Salvador

A couple days ago we posted an article on how violence and insecurity is gripping El Salvador, as exemplified on October 19, when a rumor of a gang uprising or riots was enough to impose a 6 pm curfew on San Salvador.   Violence in El Salvador is much higher than it has been in previous years. The Salvadoran police are reporting 3,673 homicides so far in 2009, a 40% increase over the same period last year.

If the allegations reported by Diario Co Latino are true, a few government officials could be responsible for stoking the violence and sense of insecurity in an attempt to destabilize the new Funes Administration.  One or more police investigators allege in a letter that PCN Congressman Antonio Almendáriz has been working with police officials, government prosecutors, and judges in San Salvador to weaken the legal system and thereby allow the violence to continue.  According to the plot, the new administration, which took office in June of this year, would appear as though they are unable to ensure security, and weaken their high-level of support with the Salvadoran people.

The police investigators allege that four judges of the peace had united and declared that they were “against the system.”  This was a particular problem for the police investigators who sought support from the judges in arresting those responsible for spreading the rumors of the supposed gang attack on October 19.  The police managed to find other judges to work with and finally arrested twelve suspects who were in possession of hand grenades, firearms, and police uniforms. When in custody, the suspects said that a police official in Apopa, a municipality north of San Salvador known for its high levels of gang activity, gave them the arms and uniforms. The same police chief has strong ties to the four judges who declared themselves “against the system.”  It remains unclear whether there was an actual gang uprising planned, or if it was a scare tactic that the Congressman, police, and judges had come up with.

In a related story, the Associated Press, El Faro, Tim’s Blog, and others are reporting that the Funes administration has approved a plan to increase the military’s role in domestic security.  For many years, the military has provided 1300 soldiers to help police patrol high crime areas.  The Funes’ administration did not provide a specific number, but thousands more soldiers will join police in patrolling dangerous areas, searching for persons of interest, increasing security at prisons and youth rehabilitation centers, and other such tasks.  The extra troops will support police in five of El Salvador’s departments – San Salvador, Sonsonate, La Libertad, Santa Ana, and San Miguel.

Since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, the police are responsible for ensuring public security.  According to the Constitution, the executive may only use the military for domestic security in extraordinary circumstances, and only with the approval of the Legislative Assembly.  The plan will begin Friday, November 6, and in 180 days the administration will submit a report to the Legislative Assembly discussing the benefits of the program, and recommend whether or not the military ought to continue supporting the police.

Though the majority of those living in San Salvador support the use of military in domestic security, many civil society organizations and the Church have expressed concerns that the use of military will result in more violence and human rights abuses (Tim’s Blog has posted several of their statements) .

Their concerns are valid and ought to be carefully considered by the Funes Administration, Legislative Assembly, and people of El Salvador. Force is not a long-term solution to gang violence, as we learned with Tony Saca’s “super mano duro.”  Gang violence is deeply rooted in economic and social inequalities that have plagued the country for generations. Real solutions require a long-term commitment to sustainable development that benefits all sectors of Salvadoran society.  Such development will be impossible until stability and security is restored – if the military can help out while the police improve their ability to enforce the law, the Funes Administration may be justified in deploying them.

Perhaps more importantly, sustainable development will be impossible until public servants put an end to the kind of partisanship that leads some to undermine the security and wellbeing of the people they are supposed to serve, in order to further their own cause.


Recent threat of Curfew Displays High Levels of Fear and Insecurity in El Salvador

On October 19th, the high levels of fear and insecurity in El Salvador were on full display. A rumor spread through San Salvador via email and word of mouth that a street gang would conduct raids that night, and that everyone had to be off the street by 6 pm. By afternoon the streets of San Salvador were flooded with people trying to return home by the alleged curfew. Schools in Lourdes, San Martin, Colon and Apopa sent students home early and some businesses closed down in response to the threat.

Police Director, Carlos Ascencio asked residents not to give into a “collective panic over an unreal risk” and to have faith in the PNC and the armed forces in assuring their safety. However, as preventative measures, the armed forces launched helicopters in San Salvador and Illopango, and at 6 pm shut down the highway that connects Soyapango to San Salvador.

No one has yet confirmed that the gangs were the source of the threat, or that there was ever any increased danger. Some in San Salvador continue to believe it was a real threat made by the gangs in response to President Funes’ announcement that he would consider increasing the use of the military to fight gang violence throughout the country. Others believe that some in the opposition party used the scare tactic to destabilize the country and the ruling FMLN government.

Real or not, the response across Salvadoran society is demonstrative of the extreme levels of fear and insecurity among populations across the country. The PNC reports that so far in 2009, El Salvador has had 3,673 homicides, its highest murder rate in 5 years. In October alone, the PNC reports 431 homicides, approximately 16 a day. According to the United Nations Development Program, the violence has resulted in extreme insecurity. Forty percent of Salvadorans limit where they shop due to violence, while 37% do not use public recreational spaces. Another 14.2% of Salvadorans have moved to a different community, while 12.2% have closed a business out of fear of being robbed or killed.

As discussed on Tim’s Blog, President Funes recently announced that he would consider a proposal to integrate 50% of the Armed Forces into the PNC to combat the growing violence. While the plan received some initial support, many Salvadorans believe it to be too radical and fear it would lead to even greater levels of violence and repression. Funes, however, stated in an interview “… it was a courageous proposal” and left open the option of implementing it in the future.

Many civil society leaders have vocalized their disagreement with the plan. In addition to many others highlighted on Tim’s blog, representatives from the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) have spoken out against increasing the military’s role in domestic security. The primary argument against militarization of the police force is that the military will only contribute to the already high rates of violence. The military has been patrolling parts of El Salvador for many years, and point out that during this period, the violence has only risen. Some have also expressed a fear that it would give the military too much power in El Salvador, and possibly lead to an overthrow such as the one in Honduras this past summer.

Whether or not the military becomes involved, it is clear that the PNC has not been able or willing to provide security and curb gang activities, or instill a since of security among residents of San Salvador. Even if the October 19th threat was a hoax or false alarm, the city’s collective reaction is indicative of the great sense of fear that permeates all sectors.