Saturday, January 14, 2012

Top El Salvador stories of 2011

Here is my annual recap of the top stories of the past year.


The Deluge of 2011.   Torrential rains drowned El Salvador in October of 2011.    The downpours from Tropical Depression 12-E totalled as much as 58 inches in some spots.  These totals made the deluge of 2011 the worst flooding disaster in the country's history, exceeding Hurricane Mitch in 1998.        Although a good government response meant that "only" 35 persons died, the economic costs was enormous with  extensive damage throughout the country.   Most concerning was the destruction of a significant percentage of the bean, rice and corn crops, raising the spectre of higher food prices and hunger before the next harvest.     Relief work continues, so please consider donating.

The El Salvador Spring.    In a series of 4-1 rulings, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court had been expanding the rights of citizens to vote at the expense of the entrenched political parties.  The politicians were determined to stop it.   In a direct challenge to judicial independence, the National Assembly passed a law known as Decree 743 which president Funes quickly signed.    Decree 743 attempted to change the rules to require the Constitutional Chamber to have a unanimous vote before it could rule a law unconstitutional.     The politicians miscalculated, however, because the passage of Decree 743 was met by an uprising of civil protest, supported by social media like Twitter and Facebook.   Several weeks later, the National Assembly backed down and repealed Decree 743.  The repeal of Decree 743 serves to strengthen the principal of judicial independence in the country and will fortify El Salvador's democracy in the long run.

Homicide rate continues to climb.   Despite a slight reduction in 2010, the murder rate in El Salvador surged even higher in 2011 to record levels as the country continues to have one of the highest homicide rates in the world.   Government officials differed publicly over whether 90% or only 30% of the murders were gang-related, but there was no doubt that gangs, the narcotics trade, and a general level of societal violence contributed to the ongoing tragedy.   The level of crime led  the US to stop sending new Peace Corps volunteers to the country.

Ex-defense chief become security minister.    With homicide rates higher than when he took office, president Funes decided to make a change in his administration.    Minister of Justice and Public Security Manuel Melgar was sacked.  Funes appointed in his place former Defense Minister and career military officer David Munguía Payés.  The former general promptly declared a war on crime and vowed a 30% decrease in homicides in a year.   His appointment raises concerns about a growing militarization of crime-fighting in the country, and Munguía's proposal that soldiers should be immune from prosecution if they shot and killed a criminal was alarming.

Obama visits El Salvador.    US relations were highlighted when president Barrack Obama visited El Salvador including a highly symbolic visit to the tomb of slain archbishop Oscar Romero.   The US is pushing for regional action on drug-trafficking.   2011 also saw El Salvador and the US sign the  Partnership for Growth, a US aid initiative to help the country with issues impeding its economic development.

The gold mining fight remains in international arbitration.   The focus for efforts to block gold mining in El Salvador remains in international arbitration under DR-CAFTA where mining companies are suing the government of El Salvador.  One mining company, the Commerce Group, had its arbitration complaint dismissed.   The more important Pacific Rim arbitration continues forward in Washington, D.C.   Meanwhile a law to prohibit mining remains stuck in the National Assembly.

Spanish court indicts officers for Jesuit murders.     A court in Spain indicted 20 former Salvadoran military officers for the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The court in Spain is acting under a doctrine of "universal jurisdiction" in which some crimes against humanity are so serious that they can be prosecuted anywhere. The case against senior officals, including two ministers of defense, had never been brought in El Salvador because of the 1993 amnesty law.  El Salvador's Supreme Court so far has found a way to avoid sending the officers to Spain, leaving impunity in place.

Drug trafficking lengthens shadow over country.  There were worrying signs about the increased activity of drug-trafficking cartels within El Salvador.  The US added El Salvador for the first time to its list of major drug transit countries.  El Faro ran a major story on the Texis cartel and a network of corruption which protected it in El Salvador.

Funes and FMLN gap widens.   The split between president Mauricio Funes and the party which got him elected president continues to grow.   Perhaps the prime example of this was the replacement of ex-FMLN guerrilla commander Manuel Medgar as Minister of Public Security with ex-government army officer David Munguía Payés.   Funes' closeness to the US, including sending troops to Afghanistan and signing the Partnership for Growth, was also criticized by the FMLN.   Funes' popularity as president continues to slip but remains high compared to other leaders in the region.

30th Anniversary of El Mozote massacre.   December 10, 2011 marked the 30th anniversary of the massacre at El Mozote.  This blog carried a series of stories which highlighted the history of this war crime.  At the anniversary commemoration, the government of El Salvador apologized for the first time.  Many said it did not go far enough.



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