Sunday, March 01, 2015

El Salvador's elections today

El Salvador is voting on Sunday March 1 for:

  • 262 mayors
  • 84 deputies to the National Assembly
  • 20 deputies to the Central America Parliament (PARLACEN)

There are

  • 4.9 million eligible voters, voting at
  • 1595 voting centers across the country, assisted by
  • 278,125 poll workers, and watched by,
  • 1800 international election observers
  • 1900 Salvadoran election observers

according to statistics from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)

During election day,  I will be tweeting @TimMuth, and then check back to the blog to see the election results and analysis.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

El Mozote and Bill O'Reilly

Recent stories in The Nation and Huffington Post have criticized Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly, then a young TV reporter for CBS News, for his role when the US government and US mass media turned a blind eye to the 1981 massacre at El Mozote.

The focus is on O'Reilley's  1982 CBS News report from Merenguera in Morazan department. 
Greg Grandin in The Nation describes the problem with the report:
O’Reilly was sent by CBS Evening News to El Salvador. In his words, he was sent “to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory.” This had to have been the El Mozote massacre. No other massacre was being reported on in the press that would have caught the attention of CBS news editors.

O’Reilly went to El Salvador. But he didn’t go to El Mozote. Instead, he went to the next town over, a fairly large municipal seat. In his memoir, O’Reilly writes: Meanguera “was leveled to the ground and fires were still smoldering. But even though the carnage was obviously recent, we saw no one live or dead. There was absolutely nobody around who could tell us what happened. I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there.”

This is all a lie, as O’Reilly’s own report—broadcast on CBS on May 20, 1982—clearly shows. Meanguera is not leveled; there are no fires; at least eight people can be seen, going about their business. O’Reilly also writes that he arrived at Meanguera by car in a harrowing journey, but the clip reveals he travelled part of the way in a Salvadoran helicopter.

But these lies—however fun they are to catch O’Reilly in—are not important. It should be no surprise to anyone that O’Reilly exaggerates and distorts. What is important is that O’Reilly was asked to investigate the El Mozote massacre. He didn’t. O’Reilly was sent to follow up reports (by Bonner and Guillermoprieto) of a major atrocity committed by US allies that would have had implications for Ronald Reagan’s hardline Central America policy. He didn’t.
O'Reilly's report is filled with images of Salvadoran soldiers and comments that they should be able to resist any guerrilla offensives with new troops who had just been trained in the US. There is no mention of the reports from Ray Bonner of the New York Times and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post that troops trained in the US had massacred 900 civilians in the same zone where he was reporting just months before.  

O'Reilly wrote in his book that he was sent to check out reports of a massacre. He didn't fulfill that assignment. Instead, his reporting just mirrored the party line of the Reagan administration. The massacre got buried, and the truth would only be acknowledged years later.

O'Reilly was not the only one, however, as Roque Planas in the Huffington Post points out.
Historian Virginia Garrard-Burnett, who specializes in Central America, likewise viewed O’Reilly’s failure to mention the allegations of a massacre at El Mozote as a major lapse. But she also said it was common at the time for foreign journalists to over-rely on sources in the U.S. government and Salvadoran military, leading to what she described as superficial or inaccurate reporting.

“There were some very brave journalists at the time in El Salvador, but there were others that were not as brave,” Garrard-Burnett told HuffPost. “They weren’t all the same kind of free and independent thinkers that you might wish. They weren’t all questioning government sources ... I don’t want to make it sound like I’m giving Bill O’Reilly a walk, but there were a lot of people there who were lazy back then, or scared.”

Friday, February 27, 2015

March 1 elections -- things to watch for

Here are a list of some of the questions I'll be watching as El Salvador goes into national elections on Sunday to select mayors, and deputies to the National Assembly and Central American Parliament:

  • How challenging is this first election to allow "cross voting" where voters can choose legislators from multiple parties?    Two things to watch for:   delays in counting the ballots and an increased number of "impugned ballots" where the ballot is void because a citizen voted incorrectly.
  • Does the FMLN win back the cities surrounding San Salvador such as Apopa, Ilopango and Soyapango that it lost in the 2012 elections?  
  • Does the trash crisis in the streets of Mejicanos lead to a replacement of the City's ARENA mayor?
  • How does the percentage vote for Nayib Bukele as mayor for San Salvador under the FMLN banner, compare to the percentage of votes for deputies in the National Assembly which the FMLN receives? This will be an indication of just how much of Bukele's support came from his charismatic, youthful candidacy rather than a base of FMLN support in the capital city.   My sense is that Bukele will become the FMLN mayor of a city which increasingly votes for ARENA.
  • Does the FMLN's strategy work to urge people to vote "por bandera" -- a straight party vote -- or does it backfire?   For the most part, FMLN candidates for the National Assembly did not have individual campaign posters urging voters to select them.   In contrast,  the country was covered with posters of individual ARENA and GANA candidates with a big "X" over their faces -- the manner in which someone votes for an individual candidate.  
  • Does the FMLN retain the mayor's office in Santa Tecla formerly held by the popular Oscar Ortiz who is now vice president?    ARENA has put up Roberto D'Aubuisson, Jr. as its candidate.
  • Is there an election eve gang-related surprise?   On the weekend of the March 2012 elections, murders suddenly dropped by more than 50% and certain top gang leaders were transferred to lesser security prisons.   It was the start of the so-called "tregua" or truce declared by El Salvador's major gangs which led to a dramatic drop in homicides over two years.   Within the last few weeks before this election, those gang leaders have been transferred by Salvadoran authorities back to maximum security prison.  

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Beckham joins campaign against childhood violence

Global football star and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador David Beckham has lent his name and celebrity to UNICEF's "¿No te indigna?" campaign to end violence against children and adolescents in El Salvador.  Watch his video.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gilberto Soto - 10 years later

When I began writing this blog ten years ago, one of the first stories which I covered regularly was the November 2004 murder of Gilberto Soto.   Soto was a Salvadoran born Teamster from New Jersey. While in El Salvador in 2004, he was gunned down outside his mother's home. The police called it a domestic dispute, arresting gang members allegedly hired by Soto's mother-in-law.  She was ultimately exonerated.  Others were sure that it was related to his union organizing efforts among truckers in El Salvador's ports. Other theories tied the killing to connections to drug-trafficking and a criminal cartel known as the Perrones.

Mauricio Funes ordered the Soto case be reopened in 2009,  but there has been no sign of forward movement on the case in the years since then.   This week the Teamsters issued a  press release stating the union had sent a letter to El Salvador's Attorney General, inviting him to Washington to discuss the case:

[T]he International Brotherhood of Teamsters announced that General President James P. Hoffa sent a letter to El Salvador Attorney General Luis Antonio Martinez inviting him to the union's headquarters in Washington D.C., to discuss re-opening the investigation into the assassination of Teamster official Gilberto Soto. 
Hoffa sent Martinez the correspondence after not receiving a response from him to a letter regarding the Soto murder he co-signed with 14 internationally-recognized human rights advocates nearly three months ago. The open letter was published in La Prensa Grafica on Nov. 5, 2014, the tenth anniversary of Soto's assassination. 
In the new letter, Hoffa reiterates that the human rights advocates were requesting that the attorney general "…work cooperatively with the PDDH and independent human rights organizations to identify those who ordered these crimes and those who covered them up." His letter specifically refers to reports "…that the cover-up included the sexual torture of gang members, while in police custody, in order to extract false and misleading confessions" in the Soto case.
Although the Teamsters and US Congressman James McGovern of Massachusetts are interested in seeing this case fully investigated and resolved, it's not clear to me that anyone in El Salvador has the same interests.  I'm afraid "who killed Gilberto Soto?" and "where is Jimmy Hoffa buried?"  will be unanswered questions for the Teamsters for many years to come.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Mauricio Funes Uncensored

First he was one of El Salvador's most popular and independent television journalists.   Then he became El Salvador's first president elected from the left wing FMLN.   Now, Mauricio Funes has taken to social media to express his opinions about politics and issues facing El Salvador.   And he's not mincing any words.

Funes makes his comments available on Facebook and Twitter.   His Facebook page is titled Mauricio Funes Sin Censura -- Mauricio Funes Uncensored.   On Twitter his handle is @FunesCartagena.     In addition, Funes broadcasts weekly  60-75 minute long commentaries on his YouTube Channel.    

One subject Funes constantly returns to is the corruption case against former president Flores, accused of misappropriating $10 million in earthquake relief funds from the government of Taiwan.  Funes had initially revealed the allegations against Flores while Funes was still president.   Not surprisingly, much of Funes' invective is aimed at his old adversaries in ARENA, including a recent essay on his Facebook page titled "Why I am Not Voting for ARENA."

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Central American Parliament

DISCLAIMER -- I am about to write on a topic on which I know nothing: the Central American Parliament.   But according to a recent poll, 85% of Salvadorans don't know much about it either.  Still on March 1, voters will cast their votes for El Salvador's twenty deputies in the Central American Parliament, known by the acronym PARALACEN.

The member countries of PARLACEN are Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Dominican Republic and Panama. (Costa Rica has not joined). It is the political arm of the Central American Integration System (SICA), founded in the late 1980s to "strengthen the dialogue, the common development, democracy and pluralism as fundamental elements for peace in the region and for the integration of Central America."

From the website of the parliament:
Parlacen acts as the regional and permanent organ of political and democratic representation of the SICA with the aim of realizing the Central American integration.  It seeks to achieve a peaceful coexistence within the framework of security and social welfare, not only based on a representative and participative democracy, but also in pluralism, in respect for national legislation and International Law.... 
The PARLACEN is composed of 20 representatives of each member state....Furthermore, former presidents and vice-presidents of the Central American states remain members of the PARLACEN, even after their term of office, for a duration laid down in the constitutions of each individual country. 
Each member state elects its representatives and deputies in accordance with its national electoral law.
While the goals of participative democracy and Central American integration are fine ones, there is no real evidence of concrete progress which PARLACEN has achieved in the past 25 years.  An article titled Falling Out and Falling Apart? from 2009 by Daniel Zueras at IPS describes PARLACEN's role in the overall context of the ineffective efforts towards Central American integration.   

Sunday, February 15, 2015

El Salvador -- the 45 Minute Country

Lake Ilopango

For a small country, El Salvador has a lot to offer visitors.   El Salvador's tourism ministry has been working to package this up and attract visitors from throughout the world.  According to government officials, tourism has grown 27.3% from 2009-2014 with 1.9 million international visitors in 2014.   Tourism revenue in 2014 was $1.1 billion, or 3.9% of GDP.

The country has a slick new tourism website at   The slogan "El Salvador -- the 45 Minute Country" is a little odd   (really -- that's the slogan), but I get the point.   Because the country is so small, everything from mountain ranges to coconut palm-lined beaches is within driving distance.  (Although many of those drives are going to be longer than 45 minutes).

Some of those international visitors to El Salvador blog about their great experiences in the country.  For example, Sam and Amanda from Canada recently wrote Drop What You're Doing and Go To El Salvador.    Researcher Elizabeth Kennedy, who has done important work on child migration, has added a section to her website titled Querido El Salvador where she shares many sites and experiences throughout the country.

Perhaps my favorite El Salvador travel blogging comes from Linda, whose "Off the Beaten Path" series of blog posts takes you both to well known tourist sites as well as locations not written up in any of the guidebooks.  

View from mountains of Chalatenango near Dulce Nombre de Maria

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Final poll results before elections

Several public opinion polls were released last week looking at El Salvador's March 1 elections.   While there is variation among all of the polls, I think the consensus view of the polls would be:

  • Salvadorans view crime as the top problem facing the country.
  • The FMLN will have the most votes for deputies in the National Assembly (somewhere around 35-40%), but will not achieve a majority.   ARENA will have the next highest vote total.   
  • Nayib Bukele will win in San Salvador, allowing the FMLN to retake the mayor's office in the country's largest city for the first time in six years.
  • Most voters will vote for deputies by marking the symbol of their preferred political party, but a measurable number (10-20%) will engage in newly permitted "cross-voting" for candidates of multiple political parties.

You can view all the poll results at the links below.
La Prensa Grafica 
El Diario de Hoy

La Pagina published a compilation of all the recent polls on the San Salvador mayor's race:

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Corrupt unions and gangs suppress worker rights

Researchers from Penn State University released a report last week documenting abusive labor practices in El Salvador's garment industry.  Factory owners are systematically abusing the rights of workers and thwarting workers' ability to organize.   The report is titled Unholy Alliances: How Employers in El Salvador’s Garment Industry Collude with a Corrupt Labor Federation, Company Unions and Violent Gangs to Suppress Workers’ Rights.   Among the report's findings:

Following the end of the civil war in 1992, private employers found new ways to thwart union organizations. The use of “blacklists” proliferated among Salvadoran garment sector employers during the 1990s and continues to this day.10 Employers circulate blacklists with the names of union activists and/or factories that have had a strong union presence. Unionized workers thus have trouble finding employment in another company following their dismissal from the factory where they joined a union. In today’s garment sector in El Salvador, blacklisting is  compounded by apparent collusion between factory owners and other entities both inside and outside the workplace that serve to thwart freedom of association. This report discusses three forms of such apparent collusive behavior by employers that create barriers to workers’ freedom of association in the garment industry: 
1. Collusion with or pay-offs to corrupt unions in exchange for those unions quelling worker activism or workers’ claims to legally owed wages or severance. One labor organization particularly implicated in this practice has been the National Federation of Salvadoran Unions, known by its Spanish acronym, Fenastras, and its affiliate plant-level unions. 
2. Providing illegal preferential treatment toward certain labor organizations. Employers have given preferential treatment to some workplace organizations by requiring employees to maintain membership in them as a condition of employment, by granting them greater access to workers, and by enabling them to offer employees loans from the company. Such preferential treatment undermines the ability of workers to freely join and form independent unions of their own choosing. 
3. The use of threats and violence from members of the country’s street gangs to dissuade union organization. While the days of the Salvadoran death squads have passed, the prevalence of gang violence in the country has introduced new forms of intimidation against workers who attempt to form their own labor unions.
The Penn State researchers call for global brands and retailers which purchase from these factories to be much more active in monitoring codes of conduct and only purchase from factories which actually respect worker rights.   In addition, the Salvadoran government should devote significantly greater resources to investigating and prosecuting violations of Salvadoran labor law.

Read the entire report here.