Here are some of the top stories from 2004 in El Salvador:
- Presidential Election -- El Salvador conducted its third peaceful presidential election since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992. Once again, the ARENA party candidate won. The new president is Tony Saca, a former media owner and garnered 57 percent of the vote. Schafik Handal, the FMLN candidate, was a former guerilla leader from the militant wing of the party.
On March 21, there was a record turnout of 63 percent of the eligible voters. Early polls leading up to the election had forecast a close race, but in the end, an ARENA campaign which appealed to fear proved victorious. A typical pro-Saca television spot that aired repeatedly in the closing days of the campaign showed a middle-class Salvadoran couple receiving a phone call from their son in Los Angeles.
"Mom, I wanted to let you know that I'm scared," the young man says.The US openly supported ARENA with suggestions that relationships with the US would suffer if Handal were elected, and the widely reported comments of a US Congressman that remittances might have to be curtailed. CIS election observers prepared this report following the election reporting on the electoral process.
"Why?" his mother asks.
"Because if Schafik becomes president of El
Salvador, I may be deported," her son answers, "and you won't be able to receive the remittances that I'm sending you."
- Gang Violence -- The struggle with gangs continued. Headlines of gang murders and photos of handcuffed gang-members lead by masked policemen toting submachine guns were a regular staple of the news. Gangs played a central role in a bloody riot in the Mariona prison in August which resulted in the deaths of 31 inmates. The government's Super Firm Hand policy was popular with the electorate, but by the end of 2004 there seemed to be little evidence that the number of murders was decreasing.
- Approval of CAFTA -- El Salvador ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and other Central American countries. The agreement is designed to lower trade barriers in the region on the model of NAFTA. The agreement is opposed by many activist groups, religious leaders, labor leaders and the FMLN. The Bush Administration faces a close vote in the US Congress when it comes to getting approval of the treaty.
- Iraqi War -- El Salvador kept its 380 soldiers in Iraq throughout 2004. El Salvador is the only other country in the Western Hemisphere with troops supporting the US war effort. Schafik Handal had vowed to remove the troops if he were elected.
- Gilberto Soto Murder -- Trade unionist Gilberto Soto was a US citizen born in El Salvador. On November 5, he was murdered by multiple assailants outside his mother's house in Usulutan. Soto had been in El Salvador both to visit his family and to meet with labor activists regarding organization of container truck drivers in the country. Many suspected his killing was connected to his union activities. Yet only days after a high profile US delegation had left the country, the police announced that they had arrested Soto's mother-in-law as the intellectual author of the crime and four others including gang members as the assailants. Still, many doubt the government's assertion, and the Human Rights Ombudsperson has raised serious questions about the investigation and asserts that some of the suspects had been tortured. The Soto murder case, and the state of protection of workers rights in the country, may play a role in the US debate over ratification of CAFTA.
- Organized Protests -- Throughout the year, Salvadorans took to the streets in organized protests on a wide variety of issues. In the first quarter of the year, protests and marches took place in the context of the presidential campaign. Following the election, groups such as the Popular Social Block (BPS) and the Popular Resistance Movement of October 12 (MPR-12) took to the streets on a number of issues. Protests included opposition to privatization of the health care system, opposition to CAFTA, opposition to further construction of a highway through neighborhoods surrounding San Salvador and more. A common theme was a fear that government policies were designed to favor business interests at the expense of the poor.
- ANDA Corruption -- Carlos Perla, the ex-president of the Salvadoran water authority (ANDA), was apprehended in France. Perla is accused of misappropriating more the $31 million in funds during his tenure at ANDA during the 1990s. Legal proceedings against Perla are continuing, and it is not clear whether the Salvadoran government and courts are up to the task of effectively prosecuting such cases of corruption.