Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Auto drivers rate El Salvador worst

The smartphone navigation app Waze has released its international 2016 Driver Satisfaction Index.  In those rankings of 38 countries where Waze has more than 20,000 monthly users, El Salvador was dead last.   San Salvador was ranked 184th out of 186 metropolitan areas. The Waze rankings included a variety of metrics such as traffic, road quality, road safety, access to services like gas stations and parking, auto and gas prices, and general driver satisfaction.

No argument from me on these rankings.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Of guns and impunity

InsightCrime continues its regular reporting on issues of crime and security in El Salvador, including partnerships with the investigative news sites El Faro and RevisaFactum.   Here are some of their recent articles worth reading:

El Salvador Gangs Wielding More Weapons of War.   El Salvador's security forces have been coming across increasing numbers of automatic assault weapons in the hands of gangs.   Many of these weapons were originally used in El Salvador's civil war.

El Salvador Announces New Anti-Impunity Unit.  El Salvador’s attorney general announced the creation of a new anti-impunity unit in the prosecutor's office that will work on politically sensitive corruption cases and have strong backing from the US government, although it lacks direct international participation.  The cases include an arms trafficking case against the country's current ambassador to Germany who was formerly defense minister.  

El Salvador Disappearances Down From Post-Gang Truce Peak.  More than 100 people disappear each month in El Salvador.   The peak numbers were in 2014, and have declined since then, but the reasons for the trends are not clear.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Despite court order, horrific prison overcrowding continues

On June 3 of this year, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court ruled that El Salvador's horribly overcrowded prisons violated the country's constitution and the human rights of incarcerated prisoners.   The court ordered a series of corrective measures be taken.

Three months later, there has been little improvement.   A recent review of the failure of the government to improve the situation revealed:

  • El Salvador's prisons have the capacity to hold 8000 prisoners, but they currently hold 37,000 prisoners, not counting the 5000 held in local police jails.
  • The head of El Salvador's prisions says there has been no significant investment in the prisons in the last 50 years, some of which date back to 1904.
  • Implementing measures to substitute for incarceration might reduce the prison population by only 3000 prisoners.
  • There is no budget to feed prisoners in local police jails. The prisoners depend on family members bringing them food, and if no one brings food they must find someone to share.
  • The overcrowding is forcing the police to become prison guards, a task the PNC says they were not trained for.
  • There is so little room that prisoners take turns sleeping and standing on foot.   Some prisoners must spend their time with arms or legs stuck out of their cells because there is so little space.  Hygiene is almost non-existent.
  • As many as 50% of the prisoners have spent as long as 10 years in these over-crowded conditions.

The conditions of overcrowding are exacerbated by the government's current "exceptional measures" to fight the country's street gangs.   From AFP:
[For the UN Development Program], the prisons have become hotbeds of violence where human rights violations, criminal networks and recidivism abound. 
In a heightened crackdown on gangs this year, El Salvador in March imposed strict measures to prevent many of the 16,197 gang members locked up -- 46 percent of the country's prison population -- communicating with the outside world in a bid to curb their criminal activities. 
Yet there are some signs the region is realizing the need for a change in direction. 
"In the current conditions of overcrowding, the inhuman living conditions and the human rights violations experienced by most of the inmate population, prison is doing the opposite of what it's supposed to, which is to resocialize," said a recent study of El Salvador's prison system carried out by the University of Central America.
In a country with limited governmental resources and a soaring crime problem, improving conditions for prisoners is not a politically popular position.   The country's highest court may have ordered improvements, but the court has no real tools to make it happen.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

The flag of El Salvador

As El Salvador celebrates its Independence Day this week, I thought I would share a bit about the country's flag.  

From WorldFlags101.com:
Coat of arms
The blue stripes represent the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea; while the white stripe symbolizes peace. The state coat of arms on El Salvador's flag is based on the coat of arms of the former United Provinces of Central America. The coat of the arms shows a triangle which represents equality and the three branches of El Salvador's government. Inside the triangle are five volcanoes which symbolize the five former members of the federation, flanked by the blue of the ocean and sea. The triangle contains symbols of liberty, ideals of the people and peace, which are represented by a red cap, golden rays and the rainbow. The triangle also shows the date that El Salvador gained independence from Spain. Underneath the triangle lies El Salvador's national motto which translates in English to 'God, Union and Liberty'. The fourteen clusters of leaves represent the 14 departments or states of El Salvador.
El Salvador adopted its present flag in 1912.   As an article in El Faro this week points out, the adoption of this flag was an action prompted by US imperialism in the region.    That year saw US Marines invade neighboring Nicaragua, in an occupation that would last the next twenty years.   El Salvador's flag at that time was modeled after the US flag -- it had blue and white stripes, and a field of red with 14 stars for the 14 departments of El Salvador.   By adopting its current flag, El Salvador was showing that it was standing in solidarity with its Central American neighbors against Yankee imperialism in the region.

Flag of El Salvador from 1877-1912

Monday, September 12, 2016

Former Attorney General freed on bail, actress and human rights activist is not

The former Attorney General of El Salvador, Luis Martinez, has been freed on $5000 bail pending his tiral on charges that he had illegally divulged intercepted communications of Father Antonio Rodriguez (Padre Toño) .   Martinez had previously received the right to release on bail for charges that he had engaged in a corrupt conspiracy to use his office to benefit businessman Enrique Rais.

Many anti-corruption crusaders were indignant, but because I come from a country where bail for criminal defendants is common, I don't have a problem with the decision (although maybe the bail should be higher than $5000).   

Still, the decision to free Martinez stood in stark contrast to the detention of Wendy Morales, a young actress and human rights activist, who is being held in provisional detention without bail in a case of extortion, where the only link between Wendy and the crime is that a cell phone that was stolen from her had links to the extortion calls.    

There is an active campaign going on through social media to try to get Wendy freed.  You can read more about Wendy's case (in Spanish) here.   Justice is not even-handed in El Salvador.

Wendy Morales


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Sharing memories, hoping for tourism

Traveling through El Salvador, I have come across many local tourism projects.   They may feature a small museum, or a "casa cultural" or a path to a local geological feature like a waterfall.    The ones with museums are usually collections of artifacts from the war, collected by ex-combatants, hoping to share their memories and perhaps earn a few tourist dollars.

One such community is Cinquera, located in Cabañas department, about 60 km from San Salvador. In her blog, Linda introduces us to the little museum constructed by the population that returned to their town after the civil war:

The first room was filled with photographs of the ancestors.  Papa walked from photo to photo, reading every description.  The other Salvadorans were drawn to the artifacts and posed for photos near the pots, jars and comal (cooking griddle) made from clay.  The women moved excitedly from item to item, remembering how they used these things in the past (less than a generation ago!).  The giant tree stump was hollowed out to create a mortar used with a large wooden pestle for pounding rice to remove the hulls.  "Our first car!" as the women ran over to the ox cart.  "My first stove!" cried Gloria, touching the comal.  "And here is the refrigerator," said Mari as she pointed out the hanging mora bowl (it looked like a hanging planter with a bowl made from the hard shell of the mora fruit).  Papa continued on quietly, studying and remembering.
 Read the rest here.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

International arbitration over gold mining may be close to decision

It has been one year since I last wrote a blog post about gold mining in El Salvador and the international arbitration commenced against El Salvador by Oceana Gold (formerly known as Pac Rim).   It has been two years since the final hearing in that arbitration.   It has been seven years since the arbitration started.  

Now there are statements floating around that a decision by the arbitration panel is imminent.   According to some reports, the parties have been told that a decision could come in September and that the decision has been written but simply needs to be translated into Spanish.  It was also reported that OceanaGold recently approached El Salvador with a request to negotiate over the dispute but the overture was rejected.

As a reminder, OceanaGold sued El Salvador because of a moratorium on mining permits imposed by the Tony Saca administration and continued by the following administrations.  Despite the existence of this de facto moratorium, El Salvador's National Assembly has never acted to pass a law banning gold mining despite pressure from environmental activists and significant popular support.
OceanGold asserts that this moratorium changed the rules and deprived the mining company of the value of its investment in gold mining exploration in El Salvador.   The arbitration seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages from El Salvador.  

To understand the issues and what's at stake, see this primer which I prepared when the final hearing began.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Mauricio Funes granted asylum in Nicaragua

Mauricio Funes, El Salvador's first popularly elected left-wing president, has sought and been granted asylum in Nicaragua.  From the Guardian:
Nicaragua said on Tuesday it has given political asylum to former El Salvador president Mauricio Funes, who has come under scrutiny back home for a truce with gangs during his administration and is also facing multiple legal cases. 
The Nicaraguan government’s official Daily Gazette published a notice announcing that Funes, his partner and three children have all been granted asylum. It said their lives and physical integrity are in danger as a result of “fighting in favor of democracy, peace, justice and human rights”. 
Funes said via Twitter that he decided to seek asylum on 31 August “after confirming the political persecution that is being initiated against me”. 
According to the Gazette, the petition was dated 1 September, the same day El Salvador’s supreme court ordered the release of a list of Funes’s government-funded trips abroad while in office. Asylum was granted the following day.
From the BBC:
Mr Funes, a former journalist, moved to Nicaragua three months ago, after prosecutors began their case against him. They say he has not explained the origin of more than $700,000 (£521,350) of his income. 
Following the announcement of his asylum, he posted a declaration of his innocence to his Twitter and Facebook accounts. 
He said he had spent three months working in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, before he decided to apply for asylum because of political persecution. He said there were plans by the "extreme right" to attack him. 
"I have not given up fighting the judicial process or proving my innocence," he wrote.
There are three groups of investigations currently being conducted involving Funes or his presidential administration.   One investigation involves "illicit enrichment" after Funes was reportedly unable to substantiate the source of approximately $700,000 increase in his wealth during his presidency.    The second investigation involves his relationship with a Salvadoran businessman, Miguel Menéndez (known as "Mecafé"), which recently made news when multiple properties of the businessman were raided.   The third investigation involves the 2012-2013 gang truce supported by his administration and whether the government made improper concessions to gang leaders.

Although all these investigations are ongoing, no formal criminal case has been filed yet against the former president.

Funes, of course, was elected in 2009 on the FMLN ticket with great optimism and hope for change in the country.  For much of his tenure he was the most popular elected leader in Latin America. The news that Funes chose to seek asylum outside of the country is a disappointment and points out a couple of things about El Salvador.   If guilty of corruption, he has let down millions of Salvadorans who voted for him, seeing the possibility of a new type of leader.   If not guilty of corruption, it is tragic that a former president would have so little confidence in the country's judicial system that he would not stay in the country and fight the charges against him.

No doubt driving Funes' decision is the fact that bail is frequently denied to persons accused of crimes in El Salvador, and you can spend months or years in prison before even coming to trial.   This was the case for former president Francisco Flores, who was jailed while on trial for corruption, except for periods of time when he was under doctors' care. (Flores died suddenly before going to trial).   By fleeing to Nicaragua, Funes has guaranteed that he cannot return to El Salvador while any charges are pending.

Friday, September 02, 2016

Citizen views of crime and policing

A recent public opinion poll by La Prensa Grafica reveals the views of Salvadorans regarding crime and policing in their country.

With regards to crime,  13.7% of those polled reported that they or someone in their family had been the victim of a crime in the preceding three months.    Of those who had been victims, however, 64% did not report the crime to the police.     Presumably those victims either believe that reporting will do no good or that there will be reprisals against them if they make a report.

Despite the majority of victims not reporting crime to the police, Salvadorans have a positive view of the National Civilian Police (PNC).  54% have a positive view of the PNC compared to only 21% with a negative view.   These results were obtained yet 16% of Salvadorans report that they have been mistreated by the police at some point in the past.  

Crime has a big impact on public life in El Salvador.  77.6% of those polled do not feel safe on city buses, 73.4% do not feel safe in public markets, and 63.3% do not feel safe in city centers.   

Thursday, September 01, 2016

A tangled story of corruption

A tangled story of corruption in the attorney general’s office in El Salvador is playing out in El Salvador’s courts.  El Salvador’s former attorney general, Luis Martinez  was arrested on August 22, 2015.    Here is a brief summary of this complicated web of corruption:

Luis Martinez in custody
Luis Martinez was arrested along with Salvadoran businessman Enrique Rais.   Rais has a number of business interests including the operation of El Salvador’s largest landfill.   The allegations against Martinez and Rais involve prosecutorial and judicial corruption in which Martinez accepted favors from Rais in return for protecting El Salvador’s king of solid waste.  

Many of the dealings between Rais and Martinez had been previously  described in reporting by investigative journalist Hector Silva Avalos who publishes the online journalism site RevistaFactum.

The allegations against Rais and Martinez involve Martinez allowing the use of the attorney general’s office to attack Rais’ enemies through litigation, including two Canadian former business partners of Rais who have a long-running legal dispute with Rais.   As an example of the how Rais works, when an aide left his company and began working for the Canadians, both the aide and his wife found themselves thrown in jail by prosecutors directed by Martinez. 
Enrique Rais

There was a preliminary hearing on the charges against Rais and Martinez over the weekend of August 26-28, 2016 to determine whether they would be held in custody pending the conclusion of the investigation and a trial.   Current Attorney General Douglas Melendez called that hearing a circus and strongly suggested that the judge was biased and manipulating the results to favor the defendants.    At the conclusion of the hearing, the judge decided that Rais and Martinez would not be held in custody, but could be released on bond.   Prosecutors have said they will appeal.

But that did not produce freedom for the former Attorney General.    The current attorney general proceeded to hold Martinez on a new set of charges related to Father Antonio Rodriguez.   As readers of the blog will remember, “Padre Toño” was arrested in 2014 and charged with providing contraband cellphones to gang leaders in prison.  Rodriguez pled guilty and was freed after agreeing to leave the country.   Now it appears that Martinez crossed the line in his zeal to prosecute the Spanish priest.   He is charged with having divulged wiretapped conversations of Padre Tono of an “intimate nature” to the Roman Catholic bishops of El Salvador.  (El Faro first reported this story in 2014)   Presented with these charges, a different Salvadoran judge refused to release Luis Martinez and ordered him held over for trial.

Current attorney general Douglas Melendez, who replaced Martinez, has his hands full.   In addition to prosecuting his predecessor and former boss, Melendez is overseeing a major prosecution against the money men of the MS-13 gang, just raided several properties of a prominent businessman as part of a corruption investigation against former president Mauricio Funes, and is charged with prosecuting war crimes following the repeal of the post civil war amnesty law.   All of this as well as running an office charged with investigating criminal violence in the country with the highest civilian homicide rate in the world.   It’s not at all clear that he can be successful.