2014 Elections, El Salvador Government, Organized Crime

Crime Continues to Rise in El Salvador

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.

DSCF0265President 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.

2014 Elections, U.S. Relations, violence

USAID and SolucionES to Invest $42 Million in Gang Prevention Programs

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will contribute $20 million to SolucionES, a public-private partnership led by the Foundation of Businesses for Economic Development (FEPADE, in Spanish). The program’s goal is to decrease youth violence and crime in El Salvador.

The program, which was first reported by the Miami Herald and elsalvador.com, will begin this month with a focus on youth development and in 50 communities across five municipalities. SolucionES has identified San Martin and Cuidad Arce as the first two municipalities where they will start.

The program will last five years and an alliance of Salvadoran businesses and non-governmental organizations will match the USAID funds with $22 million they will raise from “foundations, businesses, municipalities, and civil society.”

A USAID press release announcing the project focused as much on the funding and organizations involved as the projects themselves. It describes SolucionES as a new and innovative focus on prevention of youth crime and violence in Salvadoran communities through a partnership between the private organizations and municipal governments.

The Alliance of NGOs includes the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE, in Spanish), the Salvadoran Foundation for Health and Development (FUSAL, in Spanish), Glasswing International, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES, in Spanish), and FEPADE. All five organizations have strong ties to the Salvadoran business community and the right-wing ARENA party.

The Alliance will work alongside local government to provide workshops on prevention of violence, youth leadership, entrepreneurship training, and extracurricular clubs. The program will also work with businesses on violence prevention programs for their employees, and finance studies that will inform policy makers on effective strategies for crime prevention.

The USAID contribution is part of the Partnership for Growth initiative that has identified security (i.e. crime and violence) as one of the two main barriers to economic growth. The other barrier identified is low production of tradable goods.

Partnership for Growth and SolucionES are not the only ones to link economic growth to security issues. Last year, leaders of El Salvador’s gangs signed a truce to reduce violence. In doing so, they said that economic disparities and lack of jobs are main factors that drive youth to gangs in the first place. In order for the truce to hold, gang leaders called for support programs by the government for ex-gang members.

In an interview published yesterday in La Pagina, Viejo Lin, the leader of the Mara 18, said, “if we want our brothers to stop robbing and extorting, you have to create the right conditions.  The conditions that permit them to get dignified jobs.” Later in the interview he says, “our companions are not asking for thousands of dollars a month, they ask for a job that lets them work based on their strengths. It’s a right.”

USAID and SolucionES are steering clear of rehabilitation of gang members, focusing entirely on prevention – keeping youth from joining gangs.

A statement made by Haydée Díaz, the Director of the Strengthening Education Program for USAID said that “this initiative [SolucionES] is not related to the truce between the gangs, and the objective is not to eradicate the gang problem, but to prevent it.” Voices staff spoke with a USAID official who said the same thing – this is not about working with gang members, it is about preventing violence among youth not already involved in gangs.

Prevention is certainly important and a $42 million investment in youth, depending how the programs are implemented, can yield real benefits. It seems shortsighted, however, to believe that a prevention-only program will dramatically decrease rates of crime and violence in El Salvador. There will still be roughly 50,000 gang members in El Salvador who are marginalized and unable to participate in the formal economy, which will leave them few options other than crime and violence.

Gang prevention projects are pretty safe. All involved can feel good about investing in youth and sho that they are committed to helping El Salvador. Businesses look good for giving back to the communities. NGOs and their benefactors look like good, productive citizens. Politicians get to say they are taking action without worrying about looking like they are giving into the gangs. And USAID gets to report back to the American taxpayers that their money is being used to address one of the two barriers to economic development in El Salvador.

With less than a year before the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, these appearances matter. But we’ll see if prevention-only will actually improve the security situation.

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.

Elections 2009

Electoral Violence in 2009

According to the National Civilian Police (PNC) there were 115 reported incidents of election-related violence during the first two months of 2009. Of those, 65 occurred since January 19, the date of the local and legislative elections. (Click here for article)

Confrontations between party activists have ranged from damage of private property to pushing and fist fights, and even the exchange of gun shots. With 9 days left until the presidential elections, it’s expected that the frequency and severity of confrontations between ARENA and FMLN supporters will increase.

In response, a number of political and religious leaders have issued condemnations of the violence.

On Monday, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas called on both political parties to exercise greater control over their bases, and to end the partisan violence. He also urged both parties to let the voters decide and be willing to accept defeat in a peaceable manner on Election Day. (Click here for article)

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), along with the Human Rights Ombudsman, the Attorney General, and the Director of the National Civilian Police held a meeting on Tuesday with leaders from both the FMLN and ARENA in which both parties verbally agreed to prevent partisan violence in the run up to the elections. In statements after the meetings, FMLN and ARENA leaders asserted that their respective supporters have always been nonviolent and will continue to be, and that the other party’s militants have been the provocateurs. (Click here for article)

Looking to Election Day

The PNC announced that it has identified 10 groups of political activists that could potentially provoke violence on elections day, and they will continue to monitor these groups. The PNC said that the groups were from both parties.

In an effort to bolster security, 18,406 police agents will be deployed, plus 571 police in training. Of these, 8,000 officers will be posted at the 461 voting centers, and the remainder will be patrolling or ready to be deployed where necessary. (Click here for article)

Food Security

Food Security in the Lower Lempa

Last week, the United Nations World Food Program made the last of three food handouts to citizens of the Lower Lempa. Severe drought followed by flooding resulted in near 100% crop failure throughout the region last year, and families needed the donations to ensure their survival until the August 2008 harvest. The World Bank defines food security as “access by all people at all times to enough food for an active and healthy life.” Last year’s crop loss and the need for food handouts highlight how far El Salvador is from achieving “food security.”

While it is easy to attribute the current food shortage in the Lower Lempa to last year’s sever weather, the region’s unstable position and the nation-wide food crisis are rooted in bad economic policy and the government’s failure to serve the interests of all Salvadorans.

Since before the civil war ended in 1992, the Salvadoran government and international community have weakened El Salvador’s food security by promoting a neo-liberal, open market system that prioritizes the industrial and service sectors over the agricultural sector. The new economic focus favors foreign investment that requires cheap labor, and permits food imports to replace domestic products. Between 1979 and 1981, which was a period of great civil unrest, El Salvador exported $552.6 million more in agricultural products than it imported. Between 1989 and 1991that number dropped to $92.6 million more in exports than imports. By 2004, however, El Salvador was importing in excess of $456 million more in agricultural products than it was exporting. While levels of agricultural exports grew between 1991 and 2004, El Salvador became more dependent on imports for their food consumption. Then President Alfredo Cristiani led the movement by lowering tariffs on imports, deregulating agricultural markets, and promoting foreign investment. At the same time that he was lowering tariffs on imports, President Cristiani also set up a agricultural import business.

Fifteen years into these reforms, agricultural production is limited to large corporate farms that produce coffee, shrimp, cereals, and sugarcane for export, and small sustenance farmers that grow enough beans, rice, and corn to sell at market and feed their family. Sustenance farmers, however, are paying 80% more to plant their crops than they did even four years ago – the result of higher prices for seeds and agrochemicals (an industry dominated by a company owned and run by ex-president Cristiani), and higher rates on the agricultural loans needed to purchase them. Many farmers that receive remittances from family members living and working in the United States have stopped planting, while others have moved to urban areas to work in the industrial or service sectors. Small farmers that still cultivate their land have to produce enough so they are able to pay off the loans they took to by seed and agrochemicals, while setting aside enough to feed their family. With exceedingly tight margins, a bad year can be devastating and jeopardize their very survival. So when the drought last year killed the first crop and floods drowned the second, families in the Lower Lempa had to turn to the World Food Program for assistance.

The decrease in domestic food production and the dependence on imports has weakened El Salvador’s food security. With almost no control over market prices, Salvadorans are now subject to the ups and downs of the international market, which has seen a lot more ups (in prices) than downs. The recent oil crisis, for example, has increased the cost to transport food imports to the Salvadoran marketplace, causing drastic increases of food prices, even those produced domestically. The high oil prices have also increased the demand for bio-fuel, resulting in increased market prices for corn, a staple in all Salvadoran diets, and the main ingredient in the national food (the famed Pupusa).

While El Salvador is wise to expand other sectors of their economy, they ought not do so at the expense of their agricultural markets and food security. Government agencies ought to take affirmative steps to strengthen food security by raising tariffs on cheap imports, subsidizing small farmers and giving them greater access to regional and national markets, lowering or suspending taxes on domestic food products, encouraging more sustainable forms of agriculture, and taking other such measures. While some solutions may be counter to the global movement towards open markets and free trade, El Salvador has to achieve a certain level of economic and social stability before it can participate in or realize the advantages of a global market.

Instead of considering some of these options or directly addressing food security, the central government has proposed a new Ley de Arrendamiento de Tierras (The Law on Renting Land). While proponents of the law claim it will increase domestic food production, many Salvadorans see it as another attempt by El Salvador’s wealthy to take their land from the poor. Their fears are well founded. Ever since land reforms of the 1980s limited the amount of land an individual could own to 245 hectors (605.4 acres), wealthy land owners have tried to retain or get back their land, while the poor have struggled hold on to the land they have.

If passed, the new law will require individuals and cooperatives to “rent” fallow or under-cultivated land to corporations or individuals so they may cultivate it. The tenants will pay the owners of the land a monthly rent or a percentage of the sale price of the crops. If the tenant makes improvements to or investments in the land, the owner of the property must compensate the tenant at the end of the lease agreement. For example, if a tenant plants lime trees and installs an irrigation system to produce export quality limes, at the end of the lease agreement the owner will have to compensate the tenant for the value of the trees and irrigation systems. If they are unable to do so, the tenant will have the right to continue farming the land indefinitely. While domestic food production is important, it is unlikely that tenants would plant the beans, corn, rice, and produce necessary to increase food security. They are more likely to plant crops for export, which will have a higher return, and require capital investments that the owners will be unlikely to compensate them for. 

Communities, organizations, and farmers in the Lower Lempa, however, are not waiting around for the Salvadoran government to alter its failed economic policies. Instead, they are organizing to promote food security within their micro-region, through communal gardens, alternative forms of agriculture, crop diversity, and improved infrastructure. In addition, they are initiating advocacy initiatives to influence policy-making at the regional and national regions.

In Community Otavio Ortiz (C.O.O.), for example, community leaders are organizing 50 families to each plant a plot of tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, radishes, and eggplant. With proven success in several pilot gardens around the community, this year C.O.O. is likely to meet their entire demand for vegetables and produce from their own local gardens. In doing so they are limiting the costs of production by eliminating all middlemen, transportation costs, and taxes, and significantly improving their level of food security. And though Salvadoran farmers generally do not plant in the dry season, C.O.O. will rotate four irrigation systems between dozens of plots of land, allowing farmers to continue growing corn and vegetables throughout the year and save crops they might otherwise loose during periods of drought. In addition, the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. donated an 8-ton truck to the community so they are able to transport excess products to markets outside there region, freeing them from the high costs of outside transportation.

United Communities, a local grass roots organization, is helping C.O.O and other communities in the Lower Lempa, address the flooding issue that contributed to last year’s crop failure. They are organizing community members to clean and expand the drainage system (with the help of bulldozers and excavators) that will channel floodwaters into the Bay of Jiquilisco. In addition, they are experimenting with more flood resistant varieties of crops such as rice and sesame seed. United Communities also promotes organic and alternative agriculture to break the dependence on agricultural loans and expensive agrochemicals, as well as improve the health of the farmers and their environment. With assistance from Horizons of Friendship, Voices on the Border, and others, United Communities recently began offering women in the Lower Lempa low-interest loans to purchase cattle, one of the main agricultural products in the region.

Communities and organizations in the Lower Lempa are also joining together to fight the Ley de Arrendamiento de Tierras and to prevent large corporations from taking over their land. La Coordinadora del Bajo Lempa, United Communities, representatives from directivas and other local governments, Procaris, and many others have formed the Land and Agricultural Defense movement. The group came together after the government’s recent exclusion of communities in the Lower Lempa from a program that distributed agricultural packages (fertilizers and seed) to small farmers. As with many other government programs, the aid was distributed to benefit the ARENA party’s electoral interests. Communities further east in San Augustin have also joined the movement after surveyors with armed guards appeared and began taking notes on specific plots of land. The group will also address other land use issues that threaten their agricultural community, including corporate and transnational tourism agendas, the promotion of genetically modified seeds, and the need for a national policy to support local agriculture.

So while hundreds of families picked up their supplies from the World Food Program trucks in a somewhat festive atmosphere, community leaders and organizations throughout the Lower Lempa are working hard to eliminate the need for such aide. They are augmenting and diversifying local food production, addressing infrastructural needs, organizing and informing farming families, advocating for the rights of campesinos in their communities and all of El Salvador, and other important measures. In addressing their own food security needs, they are creating a model for other regions in the country.