Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Top El Salvador stories of 2016

Here is my annual round-up of the top ten stories from the previous year in El Salvador.

"Exceptional measures" to combat gang violence.   In March 2016, the government announced that it would be deploying exceptional measures in its fight against the country's gangs.   The measures included transferring gang leaders to high security prison and placing them in solitary confinement, increasing the military presence on the streets including in San Salvador's historic center, and an overall level of increased hard-line tactics.   In response to attacks on security forces, the government announced "Plan Nemesis" in November, to increase further the hard-line tactics directed towards the gangs.   But by the end of the year, there was not a great deal of evidence the measures were working. While the homicide rate was down from the bloody high in 2015, 2016 would still go down as the second bloodiest year since the year 2000.

San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele.  San Salvador's young, dynamic mayor Nayib Bukele continued to draw good reviews for his efforts to improve living conditions for the residents of the country's capital city.   Programs like the restoration of the City's historic center and a new marketplace for informal vendors were praised.   Still, the popular mayor sparred with the country's media as well as trading accusations with Douglas Melendez, the new attorney general.

Corruption investigations.   This year the news was filled with stories of corruption investigations.   The country's last two presidents, Mauricio Funes and Tony Saca, were being investigated for enriching themselves during their terms in office.   Funes sought  asylum in Nicaragua, while Saca is facing questions over more than $246 million in funds directed by his personal secretary.    The former attorney general was charged with selling his office to a prominent businessman, and the former minister of defense was charged with weapon sales.

Zika virus.   At the beginning of the year, dire warnings were being sounded about the Zika virus as El Salvador reported a significant number of cases.    El Salvador's health minister even advised women to postpone pregnancies for the next two years.  Despite an early spate of suspected cases, Zika never reached crisis proportions in El Salvador and instead may be headed to be simply one of the mosquito-borne diseases which regularly plague the country along with dengue and chikunguya.

Increase in minimum wage.   There was a year long battle over increasing minimum wages in El Salvador.   Ultimately the government of president Salvador Sanchez Ceren prevailed over the business sector and sizable increases were put in place.   Still, many noted that the wage scale continued to have a considerable disparity between agricultural and urban work and that the wages were still not high enough to provide a dignified income.

Migration continues.   Salvadorans are continuing to flee their country as a result of gang violence, primarily heading towards the US.   A surge in migrants from El Salvador and other countries in Central America was seen at the US southern border.  Despite the well-documented levels of gang violence in the country forcing thousands of families to be displaced, Salvadorans had little success in winning asylum cases in the US, and formal programs to address the issues were tiny and ineffectual.

A new attorney general.   After protracted political negotiations. Douglas Melendez became the country's new attorney general.   He immediately made his presence known with a series of high profile prosecutions including his predecessor Luis Martinez, former presidents Saca and Funes, persons who had participated in the 2012 gang truce process, and financial leaders of Mara Salvatrucha.   He was much more quiet about the possibility of war crimes prosecutions following the nullification of the amnesty law.

Revelations about politicians who dealt with gangs.   Politicians learned that, when they deal with the gangs, the gangs might be recording the conversations.   Recordings surfaced of party officials from both ARENA and the FMLN discussing accommodations for the gangs in return for help in the 2014 presidential elections.   Municipal leaders in different cities were charged with colluding with the gangs to enrich the leaders and the gangs.  

Government fiscal crisis.   El Salvador's government increasingly struggled to pay its bills.   The reasons were many:    Tax evasion by many individuals and businesses.   International borrowing which was blocked by the Constitutional Chamber, and a deadlock in the National Assembly in approving legislation for new borrowing.   Increased social spending and increased spending on domestic security while the country struggled to find new sources of income.   The ongoing crisis caused the country's credit rating to fall and hobbled the government's ability to address many social problems.

 

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