Monday, July 27, 2015

After killings, buses stop running and thousands stranded

Traffic in the greater San Salvador area was in utter chaos today.   The chaos was created when as many as 40 bus routes, run by private operators, refused to send their buses out.   The bus stoppage was in reaction to the murders of four bus drivers in the past two days by El Salvador's gangs, and the burning of two micro-buses in the San Salvador suburb, Ciudad Delgado.  The bus operators claimed they had pulled their buses from the streets to demand the government do a better job in tackling the gang violence.   Private bus operators pay thousands of dollars each month in extortion payments to the gangs.

The streets of the capital city were choked with traffic as people who normally ride the buses sought out cars and the back of pick-ups and small trucks to get to work or school.   Everyone wanted to know what the government was going to do, but it was not clear what the government could do.   The government tweeted that it was providing school buses and other transportation to citizens stranded by the bus stoppage, but there were no new ideas about tackling the root causes.

It was not immediately certain what had happened to trigger this round of attacks on El Salvador's buses by the gangs, and the bus operators' response. It may have been a reaction to a police operation on Sunday which was pulling over buses and then rousting all the young men on the bus.   A picture I took of the operation is at the end of this post.   The bus routes most effected ran from Apopa, near where this photo was taken, into San Salvador.  

Friday, July 24, 2015

Claims of coup d'etat

The FMLN government in El Salvador is making claims that elements on the right are attempting to foment a coup to destabilize and overthrow the government.  Describing it as "obscure groups" advancing a "black hand strategy,"  the FMLN asserts that these anti-government plots are being advanced through social networks.   They described it as an attempt to foment a "soft coup" and not necessarily a violent overthrow using the armed forces.

The right wing ARENA party has reacted angrily to the accusations and demanded that the government show its proof of any plan against the government.   To date, the government has not publicly shown any proof.

I am no fan of the right wing parties in El Salvador.    But it seems to me that talk of coups is a pretty transparent attempt by the FMLN to rally the party faithful at a time when the government's popularity is slipping because of its failure to address the public security problems in the country.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

El Salvador gangs call for a renewed truce

Originally published at, written by Sam Tabory, July 17, 2015

In a letter addressed to government officials, gang leaders in El Salvador have called for the reinstatement of a gang truce, challenging the government's hardline security policies.

The letter was made public on July 15, a month after it was delivered to authorities in mid-June, reported La Prensa Grafica. In the body of the letter, gang leaders ask for a "mechanism" that would allow for dialogue and an eventual peace agreement. The gang leaders who signed this latest statement are all currently being held in El Salvador's maximum security prison.

News of the letter comes amid a slight dip in homicide numbers, with police reportingthat the first two weeks of July saw an average of 14 killings a day, down from 22 in May and June. This follows what has been reported as record levels of violence for the country.

Unsurprisingly, government officials have responded dismissively to the letter. Vice President Oscar Ortiz told reporters that El Salvador has a "very clear security strategy" and that "you cannot want to negotiate with people who are attacking police officers, prosecutors, and judges."

However, representatives of the Catholic and Lutheran Church who sit on a national citizen security council -- a core initiative of the government's security policy -- are publicly supporting the idea of increased dialogue with gangs.

InSight Crime Analysis

This is not the first time that gang leaders have called for the renewal of a truce. The message that they have been delivering over the last several months has been remarkably consistent: violence will continue to rise unless the government calls off its hardline security offensive.

While gangs promise a decrease in violence in exchange for a truce, it is worth noting that there are legitimate concerns about whether gang leaders can make good on that promise. Many of the leaders responsible for such claims are behind bars and have limited operational control over daily gang activities. That said, violence was down significantly during the last gang truce, only for homicides to surge after the agreement fell apart.

Tim's additional comment. The imprisoned gang leaders issued a similar letter early in 2015 through Raul Mijango. They indicated that they were unilaterally telling their members outside of prison to desist from attacking police and civilians. Yet the homicide rate went steadily up from that point, not down, and attacks on police and the army increased. This may shed doubt on the ability of the authors of any of these letters to be credible parties to dialogue today, even though they delivered a dramatic reduction in homicides during the first truce in 2012. It may also be the case that the government eliminated any possibility of reduced violence through another truce process when it stepped up its hard-line response, including giving police officers the right to shoot gang members whenever the officers feel "threatened" without worrying about being prosecuted or second guessed.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Opposition to gold mining runs deep in El Salvador

A recent poll by the University of Central America shows that three fourths of Salvadorans in affected areas are opposed to the resumption of mining of gold and other metals in their country.   There has been a moratorium on granting permits for such mining since the mid-2000s under the Tony Saca ARENA administration and continuing under the subsequent FMLN governments.

From the bulletin describing the poll results:

Consistent with the majority of people who think that the country is not appropriate for this activity, 76% of those polled expressed disagreement with the opening of mining projects in their municipality. Only 19.8% expressed agreement and 4.2% either did not respond or expressed indecision. 
According to the respondents,this broad based rejection of metallic mining is associated, in large part, with the negative impact that metallic mining would have on the environment and on natural resources.Of those consulted, 89.9% expressed the view that mining would have grave effects in terms of water contamination, 85.1% expressed the same view with regards to air contamination; 88.3% consider that mining would have a grave impact on the destruction of forests and green areas, 88% consider that metallic mining would affect the life of wild animals and 79.1% believe that mining would deteriorate the scenery.
Currently an international arbitration lawsuit is pending against the government of El Salvador, brought by Ocean Gold (formerly Pac-Rim) which alleges that the moratorium on metallic mining violates El Salvador's investment laws and illegally and arbitrarily deprives the gold mining company of its investment in developing a gold mine in northern El Salvador.   The arbitration, which seeks hundreds of millions of dollars in damages against the government is currently awaiting decision from the arbitrators.

The poll also asked respondents about other kinds of environmental damage in the country:
When asked about the principal problems affecting the environment in El Salvador today, the responses showed that deforestation (49.9%), the contamination and scarcity of water (14.1%) and the poor management of trash (13.6%) are the main environmental problems perceived by the respondents. Other phenomena mentioned with less frequency included air contamination, climate change and the contamination of soils by toxic chemicals, among others.

When asked who was most responsible for the damage to the environment, 42.1% of those polled pointed to the citizens themselves of El Salvador, followed by 29.4% who pointed to private enterprises as the most responsible, Government (6.3%), political parties (4.3%) and market sellers (4.2%). Of those polled, 13.7% considered that all of the Salvadorans are equally responsible for environmental destruction.

Concerning the principal causes of environmental destruction in the country, respondents primarily indicated the failure to apply established laws (21.7%), low educational and cultural levels among the citizenry (17.7%) and the irrational exploitation of natural resources (17%).The rest of respondents alluded to weak regulation, lack of information and other factors.
I think that's a pretty accurate assessment of care for the environment in El Salvador.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Drone captures El Salvador's beauty

Enjoy this video of the wonders of El Salvador as captured from a drone-mounted video camera.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

US State Department Human Rights Report for El Salvador

Last month the US State Department issued its Human Rights Report for 2014 for El Salvador.   The following is the Executive Summary:
El Salvador is a constitutional multi-party republic. In March voters elected Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as president for a five-year term in generally free and fair elections. Free and fair legislative assembly and municipal elections took place in 2012. Authorities failed at times to maintain effective control over the security forces.  
The principal human rights problems were widespread corruption; weaknesses in the judiciary and the security forces that contributed to a high level of impunity; and abuse, including domestic violence, discrimination, and commercial sexual exploitation of women and children.  
Other human rights problems included isolated unlawful killings and cruel treatment by security forces, harsh and life-threatening prison conditions, lengthy pretrial detention, some restrictions on freedom of speech and press, trafficking in persons and human smuggling, including of unaccompanied children, and discrimination against persons with disabilities and persons with HIV/AIDS. There was also widespread discrimination and some violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) persons. Child labor and inadequate enforcement of labor laws also were problems.  
Impunity persisted despite the government taking steps to dismiss some officials who committed abuses in the penitentiary system and within the police force.
Read the entire report here.

With the dramatic increase in gang violence and the iron-fisted police and military response to it, I expect that the 2015 report will show a significant deterioration in the area of extra-judicial killings and cruel treatment by the security forces.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Severe drought affecting eastern El Salvador

For the second year in a row, drought is greatly reducing the production of corn, beans and other foodstuffs in El Salvador.   The map above shows the number of days without rain since June 14.  As the map shows, the most severe impact is in the east, where the rains have not been falling since June 14 in what is supposed to be the rainy invierno season.  Much of the first harvest has been lost, and farmers can only hope for rain to resume so that a second planting can mature before October.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Internal displacement and government denial

Researcher Sonja Wolf has published a two part article on gang violence in El Salvador and the forced internal displacement it produces.   Regarding  the issue of displacement she writes:

The full magnitude and nature of displacement are hard to ascertain, because the phenomenon is a silent one. No large population groups are dislocated, as happens during an armed conflict, but rather individuals and families from across the country. The profile of displaced persons is diverse, ranging from traders, teachers, and students to police agents, soldiers, doctors, and evangelical ministers. The victims receive threats for reasons such as the refusal to join a gang, be a gang member’s girlfriend, and to pay extortion; opposition to the gang; gang enforcement; or collaboration with the justice system. For the most part, they do not report the threats to the authorities. Victims relocate internally when their economic situation prevents them from going abroad or travel irregularly to places such as Mexico or the United States. Those who request asylum generally find their applications rejected. Those who remain in El Salvador continue to live in fear, since the gangs – and their intelligence networks – extend throughout the country.

The evidence of forced displacement due to gang violence seems irrefutable, but so far the Sánchez Cerén administration has disclaimed its existence. Government and party officials have resorted to denial (e.g., “people do not flee their homes, they move house”); minimization (e.g., “the victims had apparent gang ties”); and ideological responses (e.g., “the violence is a legacy of ARENA administrations;” “the right is trying to destabilize the government;” “the media are waging a psychological war”). The chief reason for the stonewalling appears to be political. FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) governments have faced unrelenting criticism by the main opposition party, the private sector, and the mass media – the tools that the country’s oligarchy deploys to defend its interests and privileges.

Given political and electoral sensitivities, the Sánchez Cerén administration has chosen to silence the issue. Nor does it maintain records of events that would help measure the scale of displacement. Local NGOs have banded together and tried to put displacement on the political agenda and to offer orientation to victims. But the challenges are many. Displacement due to generalized violence is difficult to address when it is not even being quantified; internal relocation is practically impossible in a small country that lacks a serious witness and victim protection program; intergovernmental organizations and foreign governments argue they cannot provide assistance that is not being requested. The fundamental problem, however, is the security situation, which the Sánchez Cerén administration has so far tackled by pouring more oil onto the fire.
Read the rest of the article here:  (Part 1) (Part 2).

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Stunning wedding chapel is architecture award contender

A stunning chapel overlooking Lake Coatepeque in El Salvador is a contender in this year's World Architecture Festival.  Named "Cardedeu," the chapel was designed by EMC Arquitectura.    Click here for a set of photos of this modern chapel set above a volcanic crater lake.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Where gang violence does not exist

PRI published a report today on small towns in the department of Chalatenango where the gang violence which afflicts many other areas of El Salvador is nonexistent.   The towns share a history of bloodshed during El Salvador's civil war and community organization dating back to organized opposition during the war years:
There are about a dozen towns in Chalatenango where crime has been largely non-existent. They all share a history of massacres and civic participation. These towns are also small, with populations of about 4,000. For the most part, they’ve remained isolated from the rest of the country, along long and curvy roads. But that’s starting to change. 
Another 45-minute drive away from San Antonio de Los Ranchos, along a brand new highway, is the town of Nueva Trinidad. On a recent day, residents from a handful of nearby communities met here to discuss their public security strategies. 
Teachers spoke about the need for after-school workshops to keep kids occupied. Mayors debated efforts to get funding for local development projects. 
Finally, the local police sergeant gave everyone an update on local crime trends.
There have been some petty crimes around town, he says. Maybe the locals should consider manning a 24-hour security station at the entrance to town? (more)
Earlier this week ContraPunto highlighted San José Las Flores, also in Chalatenango.  In the town ContraPunto labels a place "without violence or disenchantment," the characteristics of a history of war, a community which is well organized, and a certain isolation have also produced a location free of murders.   It's a success story attributable as well to long-running international accompaniment from the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Spanish government.

Both the PRI and ContraPunto stories point to the newly constructed "northern longitudinal highway" as bringing both the benefits and the perils of easier connection to the rest of the country.

Perhaps these towns in rural El Salvador, with their strong base of community organization, can provide one model for other communities looking to escape gang violence.