El Salvador Update: September 2014 / Informe mensual El Salvador, septiembre 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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September 18th was a notable day for El Salvador. The U.S. finally approved disbursement of the $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) development grant, former president Francisco Flores, who had been charged with embezzlement and went into hiding for 123 days, was ordered from house arrest to jail, and Francisco Altschul presented his credentials to President Obama for the second time as El Salvador’s Ambassador to the U.S.


obama-350x251Ambassador Francisco Altschul with President Barack Obama
Photo: La Prensa Gráfica

Although this summer’s stampede of migration north subsided somewhat in August and September, 1,281 Salvadoran children were still detained by the Border Patrol in August. In part, this slowdown is due both to unfavorable weather conditions and to deterrence efforts promoted by the U.S. in Mexico and in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Most of the 15,800 unaccompanied Salvadoran children detained between October 2013 and August 2014 have been placed with family members in the United States. Many families are seeking attorneys as they await asylum hearings for their children.

Following their meeting with President Obama at the end of July, the presidents of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala agreed to cooperate on a regional strategy for development with the long-term goal of reducing migration. The document, “The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle,” released in late September, outlines a plan to promote productivity, opportunity, citizen security, and access to justice, and to strengthen institutions. The tri-national plan is supported by the Inter-American Development Bank, (IDB) and includes a focus on regional infrastructure.

A formal signing ceremony for the $277 million MCC compact was held in San Salvador on September 30th. The final approval for this second round of MCC funding followed years of rigorous planning and a series of political and legislative reforms demanded by U.S. officials. Approval had been delayed for most of 2014.

The grant, designed for the development of “human capital” (which includes education) and infrastructure in the coastal zone, should stimulate investments and provide a much-needed boost for the country, which suffers from a fiscal crisis, low growth, and unemployment, all factors that contribute to insecurity and migration. El Salvador has shown “tangible and sustainable progress in improving the investment climate and strengthening the rule of law,” the MCC board said. Politico reports that U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte expressed pleasure that $101 million of the grant would be destined for training and education, which could create opportunities for youth in El Salvador, but added that her Embassy would need to be “vigilant” to ensure that El Salvador’s government delivers on its promised reforms. Implementation of the compact and the performance of the government will be evaluated every three months by the MCC for specific indicators including “democratic governance” and “economic liberties.”

During his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén said he hoped the international community would provide support for the “titanic struggle” faced by El Salvador and the region in overcoming poverty and violence. The President also called for the “protection of the rights of our children that guarantee respect of due process and support for reunification with their parents.”

In this issue we will touch on developments in immigration, public security and human rights.


“They will keep crossing until the end of time.”
A boatman on the Suchiate River, between Guatemala and Honduras

“Everyone finds a way….Everyone needs money and everyone is hungry… Arrangements can be made.”
A coyote

The U.S., Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have each increased efforts to deter the flow of immigration north, but in the opinion of one coyote “things will calm down” by next year. “They are never going to be able to stop it,” he says. The number of detainees is down, but because of increased efforts in transit countries like Mexico to stem migration, there are now stories of coyotes advertising “VIP” journeys that are more expensive but don’t include a ride on one of the notorious “Bestia” freight trains. In addition, official data does not reflect those who cross the border undetected.

In a recent poll, 43% of Salvadorans said they wanted to migrate to the United States, with 30% of adults citing insecurity as the main reason. Among Salvadorans who have family abroad — there are an estimated three million Salvadorans living outside the country, most in the U.S. — 52% want to leave, and, according to the study, every extended family in El Salvador has on average five relatives in the exterior.

Meanwhile, though, fewer people are leaving and more of those who attempt the journey are being deported from Mexico back to their home countries. Police have been deployed along the train route with orders to arrest, jail, and deport all migrants. As of September 1st, 34,000 people had been deported back to El Salvador from the U.S. and Mexico this year, a 37% increase compared to the same time period in 2013. Most of those deportees were sent back from Mexico, where 3400 minors have also been detained and deported. The journey has become more dangerous as families attempt to elude police, gangs, and criminals.

El Salvador’s government insists on the right of family reunification, but it has taken a hard line against families that attempt to send repatriated minors north a second time, threatening to bring them to court where they could face fines and even jail sentences. The agency in charge of the care of children and adolescents (CONNA) actually called on neighbors to denounce any families that are planning to send children out of the country a second time, warning that they could be fined up to $11,000. “If they can afford to pay acoyote,” one official said, “they can afford the fine.”

According to one advocacy group in the U.S., 70-90% of the unaccompanied children who were detained don’t have legal counsel, and, without legal counsel, their prospects for asylum are greatly reduced. Since about mid-July, the Border Patrol has been sending women with children to controversial detention centers in Artesia, New Mexico and Karnes, Texas. The entire immigration system is clogged and backlogged, with a shortage of judges, lawyers, and funding. In New York, Federal Judge Robert Weisel spoke for many of the overwhelmed immigration judges: Seeing the young children in court, he said, “breaks your heart.”

Nearly 2,000 of the unaccompanied children who arrived this year have been placed with family in the Los Angeles area. At least 1,000 enrolled in public school in September, but many of the children will need therapy, according to Salvador Sanabria, Executive Director of El Rescate, a non-profit legal services agency based in Los Angeles. Many of them suffered abuse in their home countries or on the journey, he said, and “Many are resentful that their parents left them. There are a lot of consequences that we are not seeing yet but that we will have to deal with as an Angeleno community.”



Reception at El Rescate, Los Angeles
Photo: LA Times

Fighting the immigration reform battle on many fronts, the Obama Administration has been reluctant to show compassion for the child migrants. However, just a few weeks before resigning, Attorney General Eric Holder insisted that the U.S. has a moral obligation to grant children legal counsel, even if it is not a constitutional right. Holder also announced funding to train lawyers for the children. “The way we treat those in need, and particularly young people who may be fleeing from abuse, persecution and violence, goes to the core of who we are as a nation,” he said.


“Peace is impossible if you don’t talk with the gangs.”
Luis Monterrosa, Central America Violence Prevention Coalition

The homicide rate continues to be the principal measure of violence in El Salvador. The rate decreased from about 14 per day before the March 2012 gang truce to about five per day until May 2013, when Ricardo Perdomo was appointed Minister of Security. Under Perdomo, the rate gradually increased again to about 11 per day over the summer as the truce collapsed. The first three months of the new Sánchez Cerén Administration, inaugurated on June 1st, were a disappointment to many who expected or hoped for a dramatic overnight solution to the problems of violence and crime. Instead, turf wars and violence continue seemingly unabated. Some analysts contend that the gangs are even stronger as a result of the truce. Responding to critics, Minister of Security Benito Lara said, “Nowhere in the world can problems [of this magnitude] be solved in 100 days.”

Supporters and detractors of the 2012 truce agree that it was badly managed by the Funes Administration; it was never transparent and was a public relations disaster from the first day. Minister of Security Lara has been carefully ambiguous about the new Administration’s strategy with the gangs, never ruling out or endorsing a truce or a dialogue that could include gangs as part of a comprehensive public security strategy.

Publicly, it seemed that little progress was being made. The original truce mediators, including Raúl Mijango, have been nearly invisible in recent months. On September 15th, Mijango said there had been “an excess of prudence” on the part of the new Administration but added, “There is a positive evolution.” Behind the scenes, officials were in a dialogue with influential religious, academic, political, and business leaders, to organize what could be just one more dialogue commission – or what might prove to be a significant contribution to what might be a substantive public security strategy that brings a semblance of peace to the country’s embattled communities.

The National Council of Citizen Security and Coexistence (CNSCC) was convened by President Sánchez Cerén and formally constituted on September 29th. The minutes of a preliminary September 11th meeting indicate that the diverse group, which represents churches, academics, business leaders, and government officials, is serious about transforming marginal communities for all residents and reclaiming territory abandoned by the state without relying on repression to do so.

The advisory group of the CNSCC agreed to request a transparent dialogue process with victims and perpetrators. “We are all victims of violence,” the Council said. The goal, President Sánchez Cerén said, “is to open spaces for dialogue and the transformation of the perpetrators.” State institutions such as health, education, and sports will develop programs for marginal communities in an effort to reduce gangs’ social influence without resorting to methods of repression. The goal is to break the cycle of gang violence and turf wars and implement policies that benefit everyone. “The entire community must benefit from the [social] policies,” Minister of Security Lara emphasized. “Nothing must be done that maintains the territorial divisions of the gangs.”



Participants in the September 11th meeting, from La Página

Members of the new CNSCC include representatives of the University of Central America (UCA) and of the institutional Catholic Church, both of which are highly critical of the 2012 truce. The international community is represented by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Organization of American States (OAS), and the European Union. The UNDP and the OAS will provide technical support, and the EU will supply funding, possibly through a trusteeship. The Council will also invite long-time opponents of the truce, including the owners of the national media, El Salvador’s National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), the Attorney General, the Supreme Court, and political parties.

Critics of the CNSCC say many ideas have been floated in the preliminary meetings, but there have been no concrete proposals. Council member Carlos Rivas, who is also pastor of the TIA mega-church, admitted it is necessary to think “medium and long-term.,’ saying it could be 15 months before any real action is taken.

One key player missing in this possibly consequential step toward peace is the U.S., which has been opposed to the truce. USAID has funded a number of violence prevention projects around the country, but because the U.S. Department of Treasury classified MS13 as a transnational criminal organization in 2012, gang members are prohibited from participating. An estimated 60,000 youth are excluded from benefiting from violence prevention programs in the most high-risk communities.

The first step toward success for all peacebuilding efforts is a ceasefire. As long as there is war in the communities, journalist and mediator Paolo Lüers said, “prevention programs are useless, it is money down the drain.”

Human Rights:

“I want to know where my wife and daughter are. I want to know what happened to them and who ordered that they be taken.”
Héctor Bernabé Recinos

“To live, to see this book, it makes you happy to be alive, that they weren’t able to kill you. Because the decision to eliminate you had been close.”
Héctor Bernabé Recinos.

The Salvadoran military has steadfastly denied human rights investigators access to war-time archives. The Libro Amarillo (the Yellow Book) is the only internal security document to be found that clarifies the surveillance strategy of military intelligence (CII) in its efforts to track and eliminate the “delinquent-terrorist” threat posed by the opposition forces from the 1970s through most of the civil war (1980-1992) until the final entry dated July 6, 1987. The document was discovered hidden in a house in San Salvador in 2010. It contains the names, pseudonyms, organizations and responsibilities of 1,975 people.


Cover of the Libro Amarillo: “Photo album of the delinquents — terrorists (D/T) from the different organizations of the FMLN/FDR”

According to a detailed investigation of the 270-page document by the University of Washington Center for Human Rights (UWCHR), the National Security Archives (NSA), and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG), 43% of those listed in the Yellow Book were tortured, disappeared, or assassinated. Investigators collated records compiled by human rights organizations such as Socorro Juridico, the Salvadoran Human Rights Commission [CDHES], and the Truth Commission, among others, with the Libro Amarillo. The results, investigators believe, could be the “missing link” between the military/security forces and death squad activities carried out by the ubiquitous “heavily armed men in civilian clothes.”

The entire book became available online on September 28, 2014, which is the International Right to Know Day. It can be seen at www.unfinishedsentences.org.



Page from Libro Amarillo, published by La Jornada in 2013.
List by name, pseudonym, organization and responsibility.

Héctor Bernabé Recinos was an electrician who rose to the leadership of the powerful labor federation, FENASTRAS. His case is one of three who were named in the Libro Amarilloand featured in the UWCHR investigation.


hector-350x251Héctor Bernabé Recinos, then and now.
Photo: El Faro

As a young leader of the STECEL electrical workers’ union and member of the FAPU (Frente de Accion Popular Unificada), the grassroots organization of the RN (Resistencia Nacional), Recinos was detained twice – in 1977 and 1978 – but was released. On August 22, 1980, following a nation-wide strike and electrical blackout, he was captured by El Salvador’s National Guard together with other union leaders, and was held and tortured in the Guard’s Santa Tecla prison for 70 days. In late 1980, he was transferred to Mariona Prison, where about half of the 1,100 inmates were political prisoners. Recinos and others organized the Committee of Political Prisoners (COPPES). Following a series of hunger strikes and protests, COPPES was able to control the “political sector” of the prison, forcing authorities to agree to certain rights including visitors and improvements in basic living conditions.


rosary-350x251The political prisoners wove these tiny crosses for visitors.
Photograph: Linda Garrett

Two years after his arrest, on August 22, 1982, Recinos’ wife, María Adela García, and his 13-year old daughter, Ana Yanira, were “disappeared” from their home by agents of the notorious Treasury Police (Policia de Hacienda.) They were never seen again. Interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor in 1983, Recinos said, “A year ago they took my wife and daughter. You know that when they disappear people in this country they do not come back.” Shortly after the kidnapping, men arrived with trucks and removed everything from the house: “I do not even have a picture of my wife and children.”

At the time when their mother and sister were kidnapped, Recinos’ three young sons were at the home of a neighbor and were whisked to safety. They remained in hiding in the country until early 1984. When it became apparent that a prisoner exchange might be possible, arrangements were made for the boys to leave the country. In early 1984, they traveled to the U.S. as unaccompanied children. Hector, 15, Jaime, 13, and Luis, 7, crossed the Suchiate River into Guatemala, then walked and rode buses to the U.S. border in Tijuana. They were detained in Calexico and released on bond to stay with a relative in Los Angeles. Rev. Jesse Jackson, then a candidate for U.S. president, took up their cause and the boys traveled around the U.S. as part of a “Children of War” tour for several months.



Hector, Jaime and Luis in Los Angeles shortly after their arrival in 1984.
Photograph: Linda Garrett

Months later, in the middle of the night on October 15, 1984, Héctor Bernabé Recinos, then 43, and the other union leaders were released in a prisoner exchange facilitated by the Dutch government. They were flown to the Netherlands, where he was reunited with his young sons after four years of separation. He visited El Salvador briefly with an international delegation for a labor conference in late 1985 and returned permanently a few years later. On October 31, 1989 he was present in the FENASTRAS office building when a massive bomb blast killed ten union members and wounded 30. Today, he serves as President of the Committee of Ex-Political Prisoners, still searching for the truth of what happened to his wife and daughter and who is responsible for their fate.



Photos from Libro Amarillo include now-President Salvador Sánchez Cerén (bottom, left)

Human Rights Briefs:

  • On September 24th, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Human Rights Violators and War Crimes Center (HRVWCC) announced the arrest of 19 individuals around the country including two unnamed Central Americans. One of the Central Americans served in a military unit implicated in human rights atrocities during civil war, and the other served in military and national police units engaged in human rights violations. Since 2004, HRVWCC investigations have led to the arrest of 270 human rights violators living in the U.S., and ICE has issued deportation orders in 650 cases.
  • At 27 homicides per 100,000 people, El Salvador has the highest rate of homicide among children and adolescents (ages 0-19) in the world, according to a report by UNICEF. Guatemala is the second highest with 22/100,000 and Venezuela is third with 20/100,000. In El Salvador, 33% of youth ages 15-19 have been victims of physical, sexual, or emotional abuse from their partners and 43% of students report incidents of bullying.
  • There were 173 femicides in the country between January and July, ten of those committed by domestic partners, according to a report by Diario CoLatino. Over 1,300 cases of sexual violence were reported, including 576 girls and teenagers (231 of whom were older than 17, and 209 of whom were under 17).
  • Rodrigo Chávez, accused of the August 29th murder and dismemberment of a teenager, may also be the intellectual author of a series of murders in Cabañas in 2010-2011 related to the dispute over the Pacific Rim gold mine, according to a report by El Mundo. Chávez was the Salvadoran Vice-President of Pacific Rim Mining Company. The Asociación de Desarrollo Economico Social (ADES) in Cabañas believes he ordered the murders of Marcelo Rivera, Ramiro Rivera and Dora Sorto, all anti-mining environmental activists. Meanwhile, in Washington, the World Bank’s arbitration court, the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), held final hearings on the lawsuit brought by Pacific Rim (now Oceana Gold) against the El Salvador’s government alleging breach of contract. The ruling is expected early next year.

Recommended Reading:

In McAllen, Texas, faith groups responded, while Washington dithered.” Linda Garrett (CDA), Religious News Service.

La Situación de la seguridad y la justicia: 2009-2014.” IUDOP (University of Central America Public Opinion Institute, English and Spanish).

Investigación revela que 43% de una lista de ‘opositores politicos’ fue victima de tortura, desaparición forzada e asesinato.” Daniel Valencia Caravantes, El Faro.

Twelve Facts About the Abortion Ban in El Salvador.” Amnesty International.

Victims and Perpetrators: Gangs of El Salvador.” Danielle Mackey, Al Jazeera.

Community Roundtable in El Salvador Seeks to Mitigate Violence.” Latin America News Dispatch.

Rompiendo Tabues: Las Maras. Dra. Margarita Mendoza Burgos. Contrapunto.

Ghost Town Detainees: Inside the U.S. Immigration Detention System.” Anthony Loewenstein, The Guardian.

The Expensive Business of Immigration Detention in the U.S.” Brianna Lee, International Business Times.

OAS Report Highlights Vulnerability of Migrants in Mexico.” Patrick Corcoran, InSight Crime.

El Salvador: The Maras, Community Action and Social Exclusion.” Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya, AULA Blog.

Murder of Colonel’s Son Raises Questions over Role of El Salvador’s Military.” Héctor Silva Ávalos, InSight Crime.

Recommended Viewing:

No Refuge: Children at the Border.” Al Jazeera Faultlines.

What They Wore to the Grave.” Photos by Fred Ramos, New Republic.