Saturday, February 06, 2016

Salvadoran police detain former military officers in Jesuit case

Friday night, February 5, Salvadoran police detained 2 or 3 (news accounts differ) of the 17 former military officers sought by a court in Spain in connection with the 1989 slaying of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter.   This is the first step in their extradition towards Spain, but we are a long way from seeing El Salvador actually send former military officers to face justice in the infamous case.

Also on Friday, a US judge ordered the extradition to Spain of former Salvadoran vice minister of security Inocente Orlando Montano.   Montano had been in jail in the US on charges of immigration fraud and now will be heading to face Spanish justice in the Jesuits case.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Investigating the gang truce

Ever since the so-called "tregua" or truce between El Salvador's leading gangs began in March 2012, the details of the government's role in the truce have been murky at best.   It is acknowledged that top gang leaders were transferred from a high security prison to lesser security prisons on the same weekend that homicide rates dramatically dropped.    But beyond that fact, and whether the transfer was part of a quid pro quo, is the subject of dispute.

The issue exploded back to the surface this week when La Prensa Grafica published details of statements from a court proceeding involving a 2014 attack in Quezaltepeque.  Anonymous gang member witnesses alleged in those statements that in 2012 the government had negotiated with the gangs as part of the truce and made a series of benefits available to the gang leaders.  Those benefits included not only the transfer to lesser security prisons, but also the installation of electricity in their cells (important for charging cell phones), delivery of 300 cell phones, availability of increased intimate visits from women, and, in a hard to believe claim, an agreement to provide one new weapon for every two old weapons turned in by the gangs.  

The anonymous gang members gave their statements in another prosecution where they were seeking to get more favorable judicial treatment as a result of providing such statements.    

Before now, there had been an investigation of the truce opened under former attorney general Luis Martinez which had not generated any results.  New attorney general Douglas Melendez promises a serious investigation, saying that the Salvadoran population deserves answers to these questions.   Melendez started that serious investigation by summoning  former president Mauricio Funes to answer questions.  

Mauricio Funes was interviewed by prosecutors in the FGR' s office on Wednesday.   Funes asserted that he was interviewed as a witness testifying to what he knew, not as a target of the investigation.    Funes asserted that he followed the progress of the truce in briefings from his Minister of Public Security, David Munguía Payés.   Funes repeated that the government had never negotiated with the gangs or made agreements with the gangs.   He described the government's role as providing logistical support to the truce process (whatever that means), and described the transfer of the top gang leaders to lower security prisons as part of this process of logistical support.   He rejected the statements of the anonymous witnesses as the lying statements of gangster assassins.

This investigation of the truce will be the first demonstration of what kind of attorney general Douglas Melendez will be.  His predecessor Luis Martinez used an investigation of the truce solely for purposes of publicity and to attack anyone who disagreed with his hatred of the truce.   Hopefully Melendez will use the investigation to bring actual facts to light.   Transparency would be a very good thing.

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

January murders continue 2015 trend

The beginning of the new year in El Salvador has seen a continuation of the very high levels of killings seen in the second half of 2015.  According to government statistics, 738 homicides were committed in El Salvador during January 2016.   This compares to 336 in the same month in 2015.   Put another way, in 2015 the country averaged a horrific 19 homicides per day.   In January 2016, the average was 24.

This tragedy in El Salvador has produced many articles in the English language press in the past month trying to understand this unprecedented level of violence.   Here are some:

The Washington Post tried to explain Why El Salvador became the hemisphere’s murder capital.

Forbes had an interview with Adriana Beltran of the Washington Office on Latin America regarding El Salvador's public security crisis.

At OpenDemocracy, Carlos Rosales and Ana Leonor Morales have an article on the growing prevalence of "social cleansing" reflected in the murder rate.

photo gallery at Al Jazeera documents the human cost of the wave of violence.

As a result of the violence, Salvadorans continue to flee, seeking refuge outside of the country, reports the UNHCR today.

Monday, February 01, 2016

Zika in El Salvador

The world has woken up to the mosquito-borne Zika virus, and today the World Health Organization declared it a global health emergency.  El Salvador has already had 6310 suspected cases of the disease starting in 2015.

At the moment, there are no confirmed cases of Zika-related microcephaly in El Salvador, the birth defect producing abnormally small heads in babies, which has been tentativley linked to Zika in Brazil.   The advice of El Salvador’s health ministry that women postpone pregnancies until 2018 was widely reported.  

The advice on pregnancy, however, also highlights the question of how such advice could even be followed in El Salvador, where rape is common, teen pregnancy prevalent, and access to reproductive health services often limited.  As reported on the website of RH Reality Check:
The potential inability to plan for pregnancies—or prevent them—is exacerbated by El Salvador’s weak policies around sexual and reproductive health services. Both García and Salvadoran OB-GYN and specialist in women’s health, Dr. Aleida Marroquín, noted to RH Reality Check that comprehensive sexual education that includes contraception is not available in schools. 
Such barriers to access are not limited to education, however. Contraception is not legally restricted in the country. Even so, in a study-in-progress carried out by the feminist organization Organización de Mujeres Salvadoreñas por la Paz (Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace, known as ORMUSA), which shared a preliminary draft with RHRC, early findings based on interviews indicate that although local health centers might prescribe contraceptives, centers can go for months at a time without actually having any in stock. Young women say they routinely encounter humiliating treatment or have their requests to purchase contraception denied at public clinics and private pharmacies.   
In addition, the study reports, although the country’s policies direct that there be specialized services and personnel trained to serve adolescents and young adults, in reality those services rarely exist. Gang violence and territoriality also impact clients’ ability to physically access clinics, and the reporting of rapes for fear of retribution.
Any discussion of reproductive health in El Salvador also requires mention of El Salvador’s absolute ban on abortion.   There are no exceptions, and the country will prosecute women who have abortions for murder. 

Pregnancies are going to happen in El Salvador in the coming months and years.   While we may see some reductions in birth rates among the small middle and upper classes, it seems unlikely in the many areas of the country where poverty is persistent.   From a Washington Post story titled The country with the world’s worst homicide rate now grapples with Zika:
In this web of slums, there are blocks where 8 in 10 houses are breeding sites for mosquitoes. The city is a patchwork of rival gang territories that are defended so fiercely that health authorities cannot enter some neighborhoods. In just the first three weeks of January, El Salvador recorded 2,474 new suspected Zika cases, nearly half of them here in the capital. Many infected pregnant women live in these densely packed southern neighborhoods. 
“It’s uncontrollable,” said Eli Leiva, 40, an elementary school teacher in San Jacinto who has several students with Zika. “It’s a problem that has gotten totally out of hand.” 
Doctors are worried that basic public-health messages are not reaching their audience. Many residents ignore the recommendation to destroy mosquito breeding grounds by disposing of standing water, even though El Salvador has suffered repeated outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya, fevers transmitted by the same type of mosquito that carries the Zika virus. Teen pregnancy is rampant, abortion is illegal and contraception is discouraged in the heavily Catholic country. Many women interviewed dismissed the advice not to become pregnant as unrealistic.
It is not a matter of lack of information being disseminated throughout the country.   The newspapers and airwaves are full of stories about the virus and public service announcements on avoiding mosquito bites.    But the country has been fighting dengue and chikunguya for years, two diseases carried by the same mosquito which carries Zika.  Unless that fight becomes more effective, we can expect to hear about Zika as a recurring public health problem in El Salvador.  

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Francisco Flores, former president of El Salvador, dies

Former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores died today, after going into a coma a week ago when he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage.  His death came in the middle of his prosecution for corruption charges based on revelations that he had misappropriated $15 million in earthquake relief funds  and used them for political purposes.

Flores was El Salvador's president from 1999-2004, elected on the ticket of the right wing ARENA party.  His time in office included the change of the country's currency to the US dollar, two massive earthquakes in 2001, attempts to privatize various public sector services, a close relationship with the Bush administration, and rising gang violence.

 From the AP report of his death:

Flores had a meteoric rise to the presidency, but once there gained a reputation for being arrogant and distant from his people. He became El Salvador’s first president to be charged and put on trial for acts of corruption during his time in office.
“The people will remember him for the terrible dollarization, for the Firm Hand (to combat crime) and as corrupt,” said Angelica Rivas, who works with a nonprofit organization promoting women’s rights. 
Jeannette Aguilar, of the University Institute of Public Opinion at the Central American University Jose Simeon Canas, said that various studies showed Flores’ presidency to be among the worst based on public opinion. 
“He was a leader with an arrogant style, a lot of hubris, not close to the people, who responded to the interests of the economic elite who at that time dominated Arena,” Aguilar said.
 The criminal case against Flores ended with his death, but civil proceedings can continue.  In addition, civil society organizations want an investigation and prosecution of accomplices of Flores.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

UN sponsored anti-corruption program in El Salvador

The following post originally appeared on the website of Insight Crime.   

The United Nations has announced the creation of a US-financed anti-graft program in El Salvador, underscoring the United States' resolution to tackle corruption in Central America's gang-plagued Northern Triangle region.

On January 25, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced the establishment of an anti-corruption program in El Salvador, reported Reuters. The program will work with existing institutions by training Salvadoran officials to detect and investigate cases of corruption, reported El Diario De Hoy.

However, the program will lack the broad investigative powers enjoyed by the UN-backed anti-impunity commission in Guatemala, the International Commission against Impunity inGuatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG).

"This is not the CICIG," said Monica Mendoza, a UNODC representative who will oversee the program.

The CICIG has been instrumental in investigating several high-level politicians in Guatemala for graft, including former President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, both of whom are currently in prison awaiting trial.

The US government will finance the three-year project, although the budget is not yet known. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The United States is making a strong push to combat corruption in El Salvador, which along with Honduras and Guatemala make up Central America's Northern Triangle region. In addition to the new UN program, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) is sponsoring a separate anti-corruption body in El Salvador with a price tag of $25 million. The US government has also pressured El Salvador to accept a UN commission with a mandate and investigative authority similar to the CICIG in Guatemala, albeit without success.

This emphasis on combating corruption is linked in part to the Central American migrant crisis that has overwhelmed the US immigration system in recent years. The US Congress recentlyearmarked $750 million for aid programs that will attempt to address rampant gang violence and poverty, which has ravaged the Northern Triangle and driven millions from their homes.

But US officials are fearful this money could go to waste unless corruption is addressed. Indeed, 75 percent of the aid money is conditioned on Northern Triangle governments reducing the level of corruption and impunity while improving rule of law standards.

Still, this anti-corruption push may not amount to much without more support from the region's governments. The UN and USAID programs in El Salvador are by design much weaker than the CICIG, while similar concerns have been raised about the anti-impunity body that was recently launched in Honduras. This means government officials will continue to be responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases of graft, something for which neither El Salvador nor Honduras has a strong track record.

This post originally appeared on the website of Insight Crime

Monday, January 25, 2016

Assorted El Salvador news

Here's a selection of stories about what's going on in El Salvador:

Former president Francisco Flores in coma after cerebral hemorrhage.  Flores has been under house arrest and on trial for corruption when he had a stroke.  He is reportedly in critical condition and in a coma following emergency surgery.

Sanchez Ceren changes top security officials.    El Salvador's president replaced his top public security ministers this week.   The new minister of public security is Mauricio Ramírez Landaverde, and the new head of the PNC is Howard Cotto.    The president indicated that he made the changes because he wants to see results in the war against gang violence in the country.

El Salvador health minister advises women to delay pregnancies until 2018.   The spread of the mosquito-borne Zika virus which is linked to brain damage in unborn children has prompted the unusual health warning in El Salvador and five other nations.

 Government announces new online university offering.   The online university is being developed in conjunction with the State Distance University of Costa Rica to broaden access to college level learning.  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Nayib Bukele -- a good start for San Salvador's mayor

He was elected less than a year ago, but Nayib Bukele is already a different kind of mayor for San Salvador, and people are noticing.    At the end of last year, mayor Bukele was named by Forbes magazine's Mexico edition as one of the 25 most influential people in Central America for 2015.   The thirty-four year old businessman turned politician was easily elected in 2015, carried on a wave of popular support by the young people in the city.    Although Bukele ran as a candidate of the FMLN, he distanced himself from the party in a campaign focused on his own charisma and ideas and not based on party affiliation.

Since coming into office, he has not disappointed.    Under Bukele's guidance, the city government has focused on a series of projects aimed at quality of life in San Salvador.  The city's new infrastructure initiatives are performed under the slogan:  one thing done every day.   Some of those projects include:

  • San Salvador without potholes.    Municipal crews are seen throughout the city patching its notoriously hole-filled streets.
  • Mercado Cuscatlan,  This modern new market has spots for 700 informal vendors who currently clog the streets and sidewalks in the historic center of the city.
  • San Salvador illuminated.   Under Bukele, the municipal government is deploying LED street lighting throughout the city to improve safety and security.
  • Sivar, A smartphone app to report streets needing repair, trash needing pickup, and other city issues.

This weekend Bukele signed a commitment with the Minister of Health for the city to donate the land for the construction of a new public hospital to replace the dilapidated Hospital Rosales.  (The National Assembly needs to approve borrowing the necessary funds before construction could begin).

Bukele has also shown himself adept at other touches.   For example, during the August festivals in San Salvador, city sanitation workers and their families were able to ride the carnival rides for free.   In June, Bukele showed up with city youth for Go Skateboarding Day, and announced a plan to build a skateboarding park.   He is donating his salary to provide scholarships for poor students.

As a result of what he has been accomplishing, Bukele now has the highest approval rating of any politician in El Salvador.   A recent CID-Gallup poll showed that 73% of the Salvadorans polled had a favorable view of the mayor, compared to only 9% having an unfavorable view.    The next closest politician was Oscar Ortiz, the current vice president and former mayor of Santa Tecla, with a 50% favorable rating.    

The area for quality of life in the capital city where Bukele has less influence is crime and violence.   Policing in El Salvador is handled at the level of the national government, and the National Civilian Police (PNC) do not report to the country's mayors.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Good-bye to a popular Ambassador

El Salvador is saying good-bye to US Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte.  The Ambassador, who was appointed by president Obama, is ending her five years of service to El Salvador.    She has been appointed by the US president to be the new permanent representative to the Organization of American States, but that nomination is still pending confirmation in the Senate.

The US Embassy website describes some of the recognition being bestowed on the ambassador:
Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez awarded the National "Jose Matias Delgado" Order in the Grand Cross Silver Plaque in recognition of her work and commitment in strengthening the relations between El Salvador and the United States.  
"We found in Ambassador Aponte an exceptional professional, with a great spirit of solidarity and a renewed vision," said Minister Martinez.....
The second recognition received by the Ambassador this week was the Golden Zenzontlat, granted by the municipal government of Sonsonate, for her humanitarian work in the performance of her duties as a diplomat in the country. 
The ceremony was held in front of the town hall in the center of Sonsonate, led by Mayor Roberto Aquino. 
During his speech, which took place in front of the Municipal Palace of Sonsonate, the Mayor Roberto Aquino told the Ambassador: "To us, you are a leader who has invited us to moderation and dialogue. You are leaving your mark across El Salvador. "
What Puerto Rico born Aponte brought to the job, which her two predecessors lacked, was a great heart for the Salvadoran people and the ability to speak Spanish.  She was respected by political figures on both the left and the right, and the Salvadoran people responded warmly to her outgoing personality.   She will be missed.

Aponte will be replaced by incoming Ambassador Jean Manes. Manes is a career State Department officer. Her two most recent assignments include serving as the Director of Resources for the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, overseeing $1.2 billion in resources for public diplomacy domestic and worldwide operations. She recently returned from Afghanistan where she served as the Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Chik, Zika and dengue -- mosquito borne illness in El Salvador

The airwaves in El Salvador are currently filled with government public service announcements on how to control mosquito-borne diseases.   And for good reason.    Diseases transmitted by mosquitoes in El Salvador include Chikungunya, dengue and now the Zika virus.  

Chikungunya and dengue infect tens of thousands of Salvadorans each year, and Zika is spreading quickly.  According to an article in La Prensa Grafica today, the country's social security health system (ISSS) treated more than 60,000 people in 2015 and the beginning of 2016 for Chikungunya, dengue and Zika.   This would be only a portion of the population suffering form these diseases, since ISSS covers only those person with formal employment.   Almost 40,000 persons were treated for chikunguya and 14,000 for dengue.

The new arrival in El Salvador is the Zika virus, which is spreading in many countries in Latin America.   4590 patients were treated by ISSS for Zika in 2015, and already 2300 in the first 16 days of 2016.

From a New York Times article on the spread of Zika in the Americas:

For most people, the Zika infection is not particularly serious. According to the C.D.C., only about 20 percent of infected people have any symptoms at all, and the few who become sick usually have a mild fever, sometimes diarrhea or a rash, headache or muscle pain. The illness goes away within a week, and rarely requires hospitalization. Rest, pain medication and hydration are the only treatments, and there is no cure or vaccine. There has never been a death attributed to the Zika virus, according to the C.D.C. 
Still, there are significant dangers for pregnant women because the virus has been linked to congenital microcephaly, a serious and often fatal birth defect in which the fetal brain fails to develop properly.
The CDC issued recommendations related to travel to Zika infection areas for women who are pregnant or considering becoming pregnant.
CDC recommends special precautions for the following groups:
  • Women who are pregnant (in any trimester):
*  Consider postponing travel to any area where Zika virus transmission is ongoing.
*  If you must travel to one of these areas, talk to your doctor first and strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip.
  • Women who are trying to become pregnant:
*  Before you travel, talk to your doctor about your plans to become pregnant and the risk of Zika virus infection.
          *  Strictly follow steps to prevent mosquito bites during your trip.

VOX also offers this background piece on Zika.

Government efforts in El Salvador to control the mosquitoes which carry these diseases primarily include fumigation of areas where mosquitoes are present and efforts to educate the population about reducing the presence of standing water where the mosquitoes breed.    Individual steps to avoid infection should include wearing long pants and long sleeves and using mosquito repellent.