Friday, January 02, 2015

Top 10 stories from El Salvador in 2014

Here is my annual tally of the top 10 news stories coming out of El Salvador during the past year:

Salvador Sánchez Cerén from the FMLN wins a tight presidential race.   For the first time since the end of El Salvador's civil war, the presidential election required two rounds to decide.  Former president Tony Saca captured enough votes to prevent either Salvador Sánchez Cerén from the FMLN or Norman Quijano from ARENA from winning in the first round.   In the second round, Sánchez Cerén won by only 6000 votes out of some 3 million votes cast, in a highly polarized election.   Quijano conceded only after weeks of challenges before the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the courts.

The election of Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander and member of the FMLN's traditional leadership, put in place an administration farther to the left than the prior government of Mauricio Funes.  It means the social programs put in place under Funes will continue, but also means even greater antagonism between the government and the country's business and conservative elites.

The collapse of the gang truce.   The so-called "tregua" or truce between El Salvador's largest gangs completely collapsed during 2014 leading homicide rates to climb back to 2011 levels.   The tally in 2014 of 3875 murders was a 56% increase over 2013.

Although Salvadorans ranks criminal violence as the top problem facing their country, no party or presidential candidate presented a plan to deal with the problem which had any credibility with voters.  After newly-elected president Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office, his two crime initiatives have been an emphasis on community policing and the formation of a national council on citizen security.  A group of religious leaders suggest that ongoing dialogue with the gangs is necessary, but the sole initiative of the national council, so far, has been to hire former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as a consultant.  

A president jailed for corruption.   The end of 2014 finds former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores under house arrest on corruption charges.   The charges relate to $10 million or more of cash from the government of Taiwan, allegedly intended for relief of victims of the 2001 earthquakes, but which were apparently used for ARENA political purposes.   The lack of progress on the case has led to calls to remove the judge overseeing the case as well as criticism of attorney general Luis Martinez.

Child migration.   Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras crossed into the US, creating a political and humanitarian crisis in the US.   The young migrants were fleeing violence in their home countries, often seeking reunification with parents in the US, and frequently led on by promises of migrant smugglers.  The plight of the unaccompanied minors made the conditions of poverty and violence in Central America a prominent news item in the US for a period of time as journalists worked to explain the causes of child migration to a northern audience.

Constitutional Chamber continues to reform democracy.    The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court continued to issue decrees favoring the power of individual citizens over the power of the country's entrenched political parties.   The court ruled that the political parties had to be transparent about their finances and make internal elections more democratic.   It ruled that politicians who had been elected as members of one political party could not defeat voters' expectations by defecting to another party.   The court made elections for the National Assembly much more complicated by ruling that voters should be allowed to vote for candidates in more than one political party if they wished.   Politicians and the political parties grumbled about the rulings, but are reluctantly complying.  

Chikungunya.   A mosquito-borne virus from Africa reached the Americas this year and El Salvador was particularly hard hit.    Chikungunya, a disease which causes fevers and severe joint pain, is transmitted by the same mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever.

Padre Toño.   Spanish priest Father Antonio Rodriguez has been well known for his work in the barrios of Mejicanos, where gangs rule the streets.    The work of the priest known as Padre Toño included efforts to provide ways out of the gangs for gang members and alternatives to gangs for at risk youth.   He had a complicated relationship with the gang truce.    But in 2014, things took a bizarre turn when Padre Toño was arrested, and eventually pled guilty, to delivering illegal items into prisons for gang members and influence peddling.   His sentence was suspended and he was permitted to leave the country.   The case showed the political risks for anyone who ventured too close to El Salvador's gangs and the truce process.

Romero sainthood cause appears closer.    The first Roman Catholic pope from Latin America, Pope Francis, has made no secret of his admiration of the murdered Catholic archbishop Oscar Romero.   Already popularly known as "Saint Romero of the Americas,"  official beatification by the Church might actually happen in 2015 according to some.

Second round of MCC financing.  US relations with El Salvador during 2014 were highlighted by US approval of a second $277 million round of Millennium Challenge Compact aid financing for El Salvador.  The two largest projects are $110 million for improvement of the coastal highway along El Salvador's Pacific coast, and $101 million for improvements to El Salvador's education system, including vocational and technical education.   But there may be even more impact on El Salvador from president Obama's executive action towards the end of the year to protect millions of undocumented migrants living with children in the US from deportation.

Chaparrastique volcano eruption.  The Chaparrastique volcano near San Miguel volcano erupted on December 29, 2013.   Throughout 2014, nervous residents watched the signs of internal seismic activity and occasional output of volcanic gases, but El Salvador's most active volcano did not repeat its activity despite warnings from the environment ministry that magma seemed to be moving closer to the surface.

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