El Salvador Update: Octubre 2014 / Informe mensual El Salvador, octubre 2014

A PDF version of the El Salvador Update is available here.
A PDF version of the September 2014 Peacemaking Chronology is available here.
Versión en formato PDF aquí.

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Living in a time of Ebola reminds us that diseases and other hazards are never confined by borders. While no cases of Ebola have been reported in Latin America, Archbishop Romero Airport in El Salvador is ready to take temperatures of incoming passengers, has prepared a quarantine area, and has 50 biohazard suits on hand. Of more immediate concern for the region, however, are chikungunya and dengue, both mosquito-borne viruses that are rarely deadly but which can be very painful. In El Salvador, some 60,000 suspected cases of chikungunya have been reported by health authorities this year, and nearly 50,000 people are ill with dengue. Meanwhile, a 7.3-magnitude earthquake struck offshore on October 14th. The damage was slight, but it was a reminder of terremotos in the recent past — 1986 and 2001 — and the terrible potential for damage lurking beneath the surface.

The proposal for regional development Alianza para la Prosperidad, written in the wake of the migration crisis earlier this year, is still under consideration. Officials from the region will meet in Washington in November for further discussions. Meanwhile though, without much reasonable explanation, both El Salvador and Honduras are upping their air force capabilities with donations and financial support from the U.S. and Taiwan, respectively. Many observers question whether additional attack wing capability should be a priority for these economically strapped countries, where A-37’s, F-5’s, and Bell Helicopters are not likely to promote the economic and social development needed to slow poverty-driven migration

With the economy in tatters, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funding was finally approved in September, but political machinations could stall the Legislative Assembly’s ratification of the loans necessary to meet El Salvador’s contribution of $88 million as a counterpart to MCC’s $277 million grant. For its part, the EU has committedsome $200 million, without strings attached, for social programs. El Salvador’s Technical Secretary Roberto Lorenzana said the EU “made no demand, they simply evaluated that the country has the conditions (transparency and capacity) to improve.”

The newly-installed National Council for Citizen Security and Coexistence (CNSCC) is working diligently but facing what some call a “war” by gangs against the police. Since the first of the year, 33 police have been killed in clashes or executions by gangs. Authorities believe the killings are not personal but are opportunistic attacks on the institution, perhaps ordered by imprisoned gang leaders in order to negotiate with the government from a position of strength.

Political parties are gearing up for the March 1, 2015 legislative and mayoral elections. Currently, the FMLN and ARENA hold 31 and 28 seats (of 84), respectively, in the Assembly. ARENA represents 116 and the FMLN represents 85 of El Salvador’s 262 municipalities. The rest are held by smaller parties and coalitions. The upcoming elections will determine the abilities of ARENA and the FMLN to implement their political strategies going forward. The ARENA strategy is to boycott all government economic and fiscal initiatives, while the FMLN is focused on building coalitions with minority parties in order to isolate ARENA.

Autumn is a time of commemorations in El Salvador. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the October 31st bombing of the office of the trade union federation (FENASTRAS) and of the November 16, 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and their housekeeper’s daughter. It is also a time to remember those who died during the FMLN offensive that started on November 11th of the same year and ended with a peace agreement two years later.


“We are going to achieve things that seemed impossible.”
Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez

Auxiliary Bishop Rosa Chávez, a strong critic of the 2012 gang truce, has emerged as a spokesperson and cheerleader for the National Council on Citizen Security and Coexistence (CNSCC). The Council was officially inaugurated on September 29th after several months of consultations and preliminary dialogue. In contrast to the 2012 truce effort, the Council aims to be transparent and to represent a broad spectrum of Salvadoran society — government, churches, academic institutions, political parties and business — with active technical support by the UNDP and OAS and financial assistance from the European Union. It is noteworthy that USAID, which was uncompromisingly opposed to the 2012 gang truce and to participation by gang members in any U.S.-supported prevention programs, has joined the technical team of the CNSCC, along with the Spanish development agency AECID.

The well-organized, detailed plan of action for the CNSCC is based on the principles of dialogue, inclusion, consensus, discretion, and respect for all opinions. The Council will make recommendations based on analyses and best practices from many institutions and experts and is also responsible for monitoring the implementation of agreements and preparing a funding proposal.

Perhaps the most delicate decision for the Council will be the issue of a dialogue that includes gang members. It is impossible to imagine a reduction in gang violence or peace in the communities without a truce, but UNDP Representative Roberto Valent understands that even the word “truce” is “politically contaminated” He believes, however, that while attention to the victims is fundamental, dialogue with the perpetrators of violence should not be viewed as an insult to the victims but “must be managed in an intelligent, systematic manner.”

For his part, Bishop Rosa Chávez insists everyone must be included in the dialogue: “A large part of the reason [for the violence] is the marginalization, the lack of opportunities and the lack of inclusion,” but, “in the ‘how’ [to include] there are many different opinions,” he said. “We are on a new path to peace.” The Bishop has requested that conversations with perpetrators of violence “not be criminalized.” “Even they want peace,” he said. “It is necessary to talk with everyone.”

The UNDP will present a composite proposal for action to the Council in December. For the most part, discussions among the seven working groups remain confidential, but some suggestions have surfaced, including the institution of the death penalty, an end to the segregation of prisons by gang affiliation, and the release of well-behaved prisoners over 65 as part of an effort to reduce the prison population.

The ARENA party, participating on the sidelines of the Council, will propose legislation that would militarize the 22 most violent communities by authorizing the deployment of 10,000 soldiers and sending the police to the 79 municipalities that have had zero homicides. In 2010, then-President Funes authorized the controversial deployment of soldiers for public security duty with a limited role as back-up to the civilian police force. The ARENA proposal could lead to a state of siege and was rejected immediately by Minister of Security Benito Lara as a step back to the past. “I am not in agreement with this,” he said.

Meanwhile, the killings of police — seven in a two-week period and 33 this year as of October 25th — “cannot be taken lightly,” Bishop Rosa Chávez warned. “It is a provocation…a direct challenge [to the government] and must be analyzed as such.”


Electioneering Underway for Legislative and Local Elections

Back-room negotiations are underway for candidates and coalitions for the March 1stelections that will determine control of the legislature and the nation’s 262 local governments. El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly consists of 84 “deputies,” who are elected for three-year terms. Most political parties have selected old, familiar faces as candidates. As a result of legislation enacted in 2013, city council seats for the first time are to be divvied up based on vote count rather than being exclusively controlled by the majority party. ARENA and other minority parties object to the change, fearing loss of control and arguing that it was made without consultation.

The highlight of this election will be the hotly contested mayoral race in San Salvador. ARENA has controlled the municipality for two terms under Norman Quijano, this year’s failed presidential candidate. Following that defeat, Quijano announced unilaterally — without the endorsement of the powerful party executive committee COENA — that he would be a candidate for mayor again in 2015. But, he is unpopular in the divided party. It was Quijano himself who selected former President Francisco Flores, the country’s first president to be indicted and brought to jail, as his campaign manager. He is blamed by the party for losing the presidential election, and internal opposition to him was fortified by low poll ratings. On October 8th, after much public squabbling, Quijano withdrew his candidacy for mayor and announced a run for the Legislative Assembly, but there, too, he faces a negative reaction.

COENA selected current Deputy Edwin Zamora, a textile, energy, and real estate businessman whose term began in 2012, as its mayoral candidate. Audio leaked last year from Zamora’s private phone conversations have revealed harsh criticism of ARENA leaders, including indicted ex-president Francisco Flores. Zamora is calling for lower taxes, more development, and alliances between private enterprise and government.

The FMLN mayoral candidate is Nayib Bukele, a young entrepreneur who is seen as a transformational mayor of the small community of Nueva Cuscatlán. By convincing the owners of new middle-class homes on the outskirts of the town to pay taxes, and with the support of the business community, Bukele has been able to improve social services and build a modern, free community clinic. Though he is the FMLN candidate, he is not a member of the political party.

A third announced candidate is Roberto Cañas, a former FMLN commander. Currently an economist and political analyst, Cañas is running on the CD (Cambio Democratico) ticket and promises a campaign based in ideas rather than one of political attacks. Cañas sees security as a cornerstone of development. “You can’t have urban development without security,” he says.

The very popular former first lady, Vanda Pignato, was frequently mentioned earlier in the year as a candidate for mayor but has stayed out of the party fray. In addition to management of the innovative Ciudad Mujer projects around the country, she has continued her advocacy work for women and children as Secretary of Social Inclusion under the Sánchez Cerén administration, most recently urging women to organize and fight for their civil and human rights. For his part, former President Mauricio Funes announced plans to participate in the development of an alternative television station where he is expected to continue his former career as a journalist.

COENA President Jorge Velado called for a renovation of the party in a promise to incorporate civil society in party discourses. Former President Alfredo Cristiani (1989-2004), named coordinator of the party Political Commission, called the 2015 election “transcendental for the country.” ARENA is hoping to take 60 municipal governments and 35 seats in the Assembly. The “renovation” that Velado called for apparently does not apply to some of the old faces running for deputy, including now-retired generals Maruicio Vargas and Orlando Zepeda, graduates of the infamous class known as the “Tandona.” Zepeda was Vice-Minister of Defense in 1989 and is one of the officers indicted in Spain for the Jesuit massacre that took place that year.

In this context, it is fair to ask: how will the elections for the National Assembly affect the fortunes of El Salvador’s President to fulfill the goals of his government? He was inaugurated into office on June 1, and has emphasized dialogue and consensus over confrontation, but any honeymoon for the five-month-old Sánchez Cerén-FMLN government is long over. As an opposition deputy commented weeks ago, there is no honeymoon, because we were never married.

ARENA is refusing to approve desperately-needed international loans, including the government’s contribution to MCC funding for the FOMILENIO II coastal development project. The conservative refrain is familiar: put an end to debt, cut taxes, and reduce the deficit by curtailing social services. The logic, according to FMLN Deputy Lorena Peña, is “if the country does poorly, the FMLN does poorly.”

Meanwhile, President Sánchez Cerén’s image is not one of a proactive head of state. His low-key style of governance has led to low poll ratings and criticism that he is showing a lack of leadership. For his part, Vice-President Óscar Ortiz is less visible, in charge of back-stage management of the national agenda and relations with opposition political parties.


“The U.S. must support this or the crisis will kick off again.
You can count on it.”
Carlos Morales, Foreign Minister of Guatemala

Migration from the Northern Triangle countries to the U.S. slowed in the heat of summer following the unprecedented surge in unaccompanied children and women with children from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador earlier this year.

By the end of September, 68,541 unaccompanied children and 68,445 families — “crossers,” as they are referred to by the U.S. Border Patrol — had been detained since October 2013, most in the spring of this year. A total of 16,404 unaccompanied Salvadoran children made the difficult and dangerous journey through Mexico, entered the U.S., were detained by the Border Patrol, and are now somewhere in the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) system or with family members around the country. None of these children are believed to have been deported, although 252 mothers and 420 children from Central America are still held in detention centers in Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes, Texas. The U.S. government is in a big hurry to deport them, according to lawyers who say that no families are being granted bail if they have filed an asylum petition.

Washington has moved on to other crises, but in the lead-up to November 4th mid-term elections both Ebola and ISIS added fuel to the arguments of anti-immigrant activists — the loudest advocates for increased border security in the U.S. — who warned of Ebola-carrying ISIS migrants crossing the southern border. President Obama has promised to take executive action on immigration policy following the November elections. Such action could provide relief to millions of undocumented immigrants and perhaps address the driving forces that have pushed some children to attempt to reunite with families in the U.S.

On October 1st, the Obama Administration announced an initiative that will allow minors to apply for refugee status at the U.S. embassies in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The hastily drawn plan, which authorizes a maximum of 4,000 refugees from the three countries, is described as a “safe, legal and orderly alternative” to the dangerous journey north, but as one cynic noted, “4,000? It’s like posting a job announcement with no jobs.”

Guatemala’s government is lobbying the U.S. for 60% of the $10 billion called for by the Inter-American Development Bank-supported proposal, “Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle.” Guatemalan government officials have warned that waves of immigrants will continue northward unless the necessary economic incentives are put in place to encourage potential migrants to remain in their home countries. The proposal calls for renovation and construction of regional infrastructure to create jobs and reduce poverty-induced migration in the long run. Central American leaders are scheduled to meet once again with Vice President Joe Biden in November to discuss the proposal.

World Vision released the results of a study on the reasons for migration by Salvadoran minors conducted with the participation of 577 families in 27 municipalities. The results support the Salvadoran government’s insistence that family reunification is the principal “pull” factor, while international institutions like UNICEF argue that violence is the primary driver.

World Vision reported that:

79.1%  of respondents cited family reunification as the primary reason for migration;

56.6%  cited economic reasons, and;

31.2%  said violence and/or threats from gangs led to migration.

(Some respondents cited more than one reason for migration)

Of those who migrated to re-unite with a family member, 40.8% were looking to re-unite with their mother, 37.2% with their father, and 30.2% with siblings. Of those who arrived in the U.S. this year, 86.4% were received by a family member — 29.6% by mother, 23.8% by father and 20.9% by an aunt or uncle.

The vast majority of the children who migrated are from the departments of San Salvador, Ahuachapán, Sonsonate, San Vicente, Usulután, San Miguel and Morazán. The average journey from the Guatemala-El Salvador border to the U.S. took 23 days.

The study also concluded that the average age of the smallest children was 3.82 years, while the adolescents and teens average 13-14 years of age.

According to Director of Migration Hector Rodríguez, 3,695 minors were deported from Mexico this year, as of October 1st. As noted above, no unaccompanied children have been deported from the U.S., but 38 Salvadoran family groups (mothers with children) signed voluntary departures and have been repatriated. Liduvina Magarín, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs for Salvadorans Abroad, considers the detention of children a violation of the rights of the child, compounded by the extremely cold temperatures inside the facilities: “Just the fact of being in a ‘refrigerator’ (hielera) is a violation,” she protested.

Meanwhile, remittances from documented and undocumented Salvadorans abroad jumped 8% in September over the same month in 2013. The monthly average this year is over $350 million posted in nearly 12 million recorded bank transactions. Migrants and their hard-earned remittances are the linchpin of the frail Salvadoran economy.

Human Rights:

  • In 1979, the short-lived Revolutionary Junta ordered a report on the fate of political prisoners and the disappeared. Its “Special Investigation Commission on Political Prisoners and Disappeared” apparently issued a report but it has never been revealed. On May 3, 2014, El Salvador’s National Development Foundation (FUNDE) requested a copy of the document and a list of all persons detained by the Treasury Police in 1981 and 1982. The request was made under El Salvador’s access to information law, but according to Minister of Defense David Munguía Payés, “most of the archives were destroyed immediately after the war.”
  • Former Ambassador to Washington, Ernesto Rivas Gallont (1981-89) asked forgiveness for his role in denying the El Mozote massacre (December 10-11, 1981) of nealy 1,000 men, women and children. As Ambassador, Rivas Gallont publicly supported the contention of his government and the U.S. administration that reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post had falsified information. “The wounds of the war are difficult to heal,” Rivas Gallont wrote in his blog 33 years later. “So asking for forgiveness helps, although to a smaller dimension, to erase memories that only worsen political passions. For that reason, I ask forgiveness for was I admit was a serious offense.”
  • On October 21st El Salvador was elected by the UN General Assembly to the 47-memberUnited Nations Human Rights Council. The term will last three years and will begin January 1st. Latin American members on the Council include Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela. “This is a historic and joyous moment for our government,” Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez declared.

NOTE: The next and final issue of the Update will be published in January.

Recommended Reading:

A Smuggled Girl’s Odyssey of False Promises and Fear,” Damien Cave and Frances Robles. New York Times.

Peace is possible: Annual Report 2013,” Interpeace Newsletter #24

La red que exportaba niños de la guerra,” Sergio Arauz, El Faro.

The Death Squad Dilemma: Counterinsurgency Policy and the Salvadoran Model.” Steven Dobransky. Foreign Policy.