Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Salvador: a place you would not want to visit

El Salvador is a Central American country that is slightly smaller than the State of Massachusetts in the US and slightly smaller than Lake Winnipeg in the province of Manitoba in Canada. It borders the North Pacific Ocean between Guatemala and Honduras. It has a land area of 20,720 square kilometers (8,000 square miles) and a coastline of 308 kilometers (191 miles). Land boundaries in El Salvador total 545 kilometers (339 miles). It shares a 327-kilometer (203-mile) border with Guatemala in the northwest, and a 341-kilometer (212-mile) border with Honduras in the southeast.

In 2000, the population of El Salvador was about 6.2 million and was growing by approximately 2.1 percent a year. At this rate, the population is expected to climb to nearly 8 million by 2015. The birth rate in 2000 was estimated to be 29.02 per 1000, and the death rate, 6.27 per 1000.

About 90 percent of the Salvadoran population is mestizo (of mixed Spanish and Amerindian ancestry). Native Amerindians make up about 1 percent of the population, and whites account for the rest. A significant portion of the population, nearly 40 percent, is under the age of 15. Those 65 and older account for only 5 percent of the population. The percentage of Salvadorans living in rural areas declined in the last half century from 64 percent in 1950 to about 40 percent in the turn of this century.

Although El Salvador has a coastline of over 308 kilometers (191 miles) and is home to ancient ruins, tourism in the country is limited. As of 2000, there had been no major initiatives launched to spur growth in tourism. The reason is obvious. People who enjoy traveling to other countries want to have a good time. Living in fear is not conducive to having a good time and that is what the tourists would have to endure if they were vacationing there.

Surfers from all over the world are drawn to the country’s long southern coast, a ribbon of mostly off-white sand that boasts some of the best surfing in the Americas. Inland, much of El Salvador is mountainous and green, punctuated by quaint colonial towns with cobbled lanes and stately whitewashed churches. Unless you are unwise or unfortunate, you can go a long time in much of the country without hearing the crack of a gun. But gunfire still can be heard.

Over the past 40 years, the Salvadoran population has been subject to highly stressful conditions. A number of military coups (domestic takeovers of governments) in the 1970s and sham elections rigged in the army's favor diminished civilian confidence in the political system and spawned a violent guerrilla movement (guerrilla wars which was fought by units with non-conventional military and political tactics). The 1980s were marked by a series of bloody conflicts between leftist rebels and right-wing paramilitary death squads who, with tacit support of the army, violently suppressed all opposition. Thousands fled the country with as many as 1 million of them fleeing to the United States where many are still living there illegally or with uncertain legal status.

A twelve-year civil war left Salvadorans longing for peace but the people of that small nation didn’t really get it. On January 17, 2012, Salvadorians marked the anniversary of 20 years since the peace accords which brought an end to the civil war in El Salvador. A bloody conflict between the military and a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups, the civil war raged throughout the 1980s and left around 80,000 people dead. Peace accords brokered by the UN were signed in Mexico in 1992, inaugurating a peace that has held for 20 years. But did the accord really bring peace to the people of El Salvador?

Violence in El Salvador is the stock-in-trade of any armed conflict and although the civil war in that country has ended, the violence is not that far removed from the butchery that previously took place in that country’s civil war. The cause? Criminals.

For this reason, life in Honduras is no walk in the park. That small nation experiences some 20 homicides daily, giving it the well-deserved description of being Central America's one of two most dangerous countries. As to justice for the families of the victims of those murders, it is almost completely non-existent. For every 100 homicides in El Salvador, only 14 are actually investigated by the police and only four of those murderers are sent to trial and of those who are tried for murder, only two are convicted. If 20 homicides are committed daily; that means that 7,300 homicides are committed every year and of those murders, only 146 were convicted of the murders they committed. That is a dismal outcome for justice in that country.

Even though El Salvador is officially at peace, it has the second-highest annual murder rate in the world (70.5 for every 100,000 population), exceeded only by neighbouring Honduras (82.1. The corresponding figure for Canada is only 1.61.

According to El Salvador’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, there were 4,374 homicides in the country last year, in a population of about 6.2 million. (Canada, with more than five times El Salvador’s population, had 554 homicides in 2010.)

The Peace Corps, which had a presence in El Salvador since 1963, finally decided to pull out of that country. Though it said that the 158 volunteers it had in the country were safe, they all returned home in January of this year rather than be murdered by El Salvadorian criminals.

Drug trafficking and organized crime, and the violence that surrounds them, are on the rise in El Salvador as it is throughout Central America and Mexico.

El Salvadorians must contend with the corrosive and corrupting effects of narcotics trafficking in that country. Drug smuggling in El Salvador is a paradise to the criminals who do it. Obviously the police don’t have the means to solve this problem.

The people of El Salvador have known war, and they have also known peace — or what nowadays passes for peace. They have known dictators and coups, death squads and massacres. They have also seen people gunned down in the street.

The country’s years of civil war, which ended in 1992, constituted the worst of the times the people of that small nation have seen. In 12 years of fighting, as many as 80,000 were killed and 8,000 disappeared. Thousands more were tortured, displaced, or forced into exile. Then there was economic breakdown, social blight and the people still suffering from festering psychological wounds.

Today, the problems of the economy and security are worse than before because there is no economic growth or jobs for many of its people.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the peace accords that were signed in Mexico City in January 1992. People on both sides of the country’s still- ideological division are able to speak out without winding up in prison or being mutilated and or executed. These were common fates that everyone expected to experience during the war when right-wing death squads slipped into the communities during the scary tropical nights with impunity.

Because of the accords, this small, densely populated coffee-growing republic, which for more than a decade served as a regional epicentre in the global Cold War, has become a democracy in practice as well as in name. In fact, just three years ago, the country experienced a peaceful changing of the guard — when Mauricio Funes won the presidency on behalf of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN.

The victory for Now the one-time rebels constitute El Salvador’s leading political force, a position they hope to retain following congressional and municipal elections in March 2012. The former armed rebels ended 20 years of right-wing rule by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the arch-conservative political organization founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was widely viewed as the mastermind of El Salvador’s infamous death squads of the 1980s.

And yet, for all its benefits, peace has not brought prosperity to this star-crossed corner of the impoverished isthmus of Central America. That is because the criminals have taken over the neighbourhoods.

Criminals make a living by snatching purses and picking pockets which is a common profession in El Salvador. Meanwhile, street gangs known as pandillas or maras haunt the cities as well as the larger towns, supporting themselves mainly through extortion rackets, supported at times by violence, and gang wars which often brings about vicious turf battles.

In exchange for being left alone and being left alive, bus drivers in rough neighbourhoods are typically obliged to make protection payments to gang members amounting to $1,000 (U.S.) a month or more, according to a recent report in El Diario de Hoy, a Salvadoran newspaper. Business owners must pay even larger bribes. Residents in many neighbourhoods are forced to fork over money to gangsters for the simple privilege of being allowed to return to their homes after work unmolested.

Ovidio Mauricio Gonzalez, director of the Catholic Church’s human-rights office, estimates that about 30 per cent of El Salvador’s murders are committed by pandillas, whose members reputedly ascend through the ranks in direct proportion to the number of people they kill.

The reason why the criminals for the most part get away with committing crimes in that country is that the public prosecutor and the police do not have the resources needed to stop the criminal activity by arresting and bring to trial the criminals. There are simply too many deaths to investigate and worse yet, there is no determination on the part of many police officers to investigate the murders which is brought about either by fear or indifference.

There are a myriad of causes for this dilemma, many of them dating back to the social breakdown engendered by the war years — the decline of the family as a social unit, combined with the continuous wave of mostly illegal emigration that has separated parents from their children.

It has been suggested that roughly a third of all Salvadorans live abroad and of those nearly 3 million who left El Salvador, about 2.5 million are said to live in the U.S.

According to Javier Martinez, mayor of Suchitoto, a community that was once a bitterly contested war zone and now is an island of tranquility in a far-from-tranquil land—approximately 90 Salvadorans are sent back from the United States each week.

Admittedly most of them being returned are simply undocumented migrants who were only looking for decent jobs however a fairly substantial number of about 10 or so a week are criminals who were trained and battle-hardened in Latino ghettos in U.S. cities. And as to be expected, the pandillas are waiting in the barrios of El Salvador with arms open wide for the criminal deportees to join them. The two largest street gangs in El Salvador are the Mara Salvatrucha 13 and Calle 18 that both bear the names of Latino gangs that originated in California in the 1980s.

It would be misleading however to depict El Salvador today as a land where most of the law-abiding people cower in constant mortal fear because they don’t. In the countryside, where 40 per cent of the population dwells, life is hard but mostly safe. The affluent areas of the capital — San Benito, Escalon, Santa Elena — seem little affected by violent crime.

Lately, shadowy groups of off-duty police officers have begun to emerge, bearing an unnerving resemblance to the death squads that haunted the El Salvador during the 1980s. They are operating as assassins for hire. I don’t know if they are hired by the gangs or businesses.

Originally controlled by the army, El Salvador’s old, repressive police agencies were disbanded after the war and then replaced by civilian forces. There are a lot current police officers who had ties to the old security forces.

Like neighbouring Guatemala and Honduras, El Salvador must also contend with the corrosive and corrupting effects of narcotics trafficking, especially cocaine. The drug traverses all three countries on its seemingly ongoing journeys from South America to the United States and Canada. El Salvador is already something of a paradise for drug smuggling.

The police by themselves do not have the capacity to solve this problem. They need assistance from the federal government. Although they try to confront gang violence and common crime, Salvadoran authorities do not go after the kingpins of the narcotics trade.

Luis Cardenal, president of the country’s chamber of commerce and industry, believes the problem is more insidious. He asks rhetorically, “Where do political parties get their money? He answered his own question by saying; “From organized crime, narco-traficantes. All of them do. They’ll lose money and power if they fix things.” If he is right, then drug trafficking in El Salvador will never stop until the crooked politicians are voted out of office.

During a two-hour conversation in his cluttered office on the second floor of a building-supplies company, Aseradero el Triunfo, the U.S.-educated businessman offers a crash course on how much, and how little, has changed in El Salvador during the past two decades.

He says that during the war, El Salvador’s right-wing elite were sometimes lampooned abroad as anti-communist crackpots who saw “a red under every bed,” as the old saying went. But they weren’t entirely wrong. At least some of their armed opponents were Marxist revolutionaries, determined to impose a Communist system in El Salvador.

When Cardenal looks at the FMLN of today, with its savvy campaign slogans, its hip T-shirts, its sleek red-and-white insignia and its photogenic leader, he sees the same threat he feared more than a decade ago — minus the guns.

Cardenal realizes he is leaving himself open to caricature — more beds, more reds — and he implores a reporter not to depict him as just another paranoid Central American troglodyte.

In fact, although Cardenal’s analysis of the FMLN’s political tendencies is extreme, it is not wholly misguided.

Established in 1980, and named for a left-wing nationalist hero of the 1930s, the FMLN — or simply el Frente, as it is usually called — was originally an umbrella group for five separate rebel organizations, including the armed wing of the Salvadoran Communist Party.

After the signing of the 1992 peace accords, the different groups quickly fell to internecine bickering. Within two years, the leaders of three factions had withdrawn from the organization — those who favoured adopting a European-style social democratic platform — and the FMLN officially declared itself in favour of what it calls “revolutionary socialism.”

In 2009, the party fielded a presidential candidate who, for the first time, was not a former guerrilla commander.

A popular TV journalist with no previous formal ties to the rebels, Funes won a first-round victory over his ARENA opponent. His party now holds the largest block of seats in the National Assembly and controls a majority of the country’s municipalities.

But suspicion between the left and the right persists as many of them nurse personal wounds.

In 1985, Diaz was shot five times, then he was captured by government troops and imprisoned for six months. He was finally released in exchange for the daughter of then-President Napoleon Duarte, whom the rebels had seized.

Diaz does not believe the Salvadoran right wing has properly owned up to its abuses during the war, much less atoned for them.

Many horrific crimes have yet to be fully resolved, including the 1980 assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero and the Mozote massacre in December 1981, in which at least 800 villagers were killed by a Salvadoran army battalion.

“We have to live together,” she says now. “But I can’t forget. I don’t hate. I pardon. But I can’t forget.”

Still, El Salvador in 2012 is a very different land from the agricultural autocracy that went to war against itself in 1981.

Then, the country was ruled by a small, landowning elite — often referred to as las catorce familias or the 14 families — a tightly knit and fiercely conservative oligarchy that had little interest in economic development. It regarded the army as a private police force and saw the rural peasantry as a bottomless pool of cheap, compliant labour.

By most accounts, ARENA did not do much to alleviate poverty during its 20 years in power. Nonetheless, some things have improved. The poor are still poor, but their lot is less desperate than before.

“I grew up in the countryside,” says Bonilla, the Salvadoran historian. “Before the war, half the peasants coming into the town were barefoot. Today, you don’t see country folk barefoot.”

Since assuming the presidency, the FMLN has introduced measures providing school uniforms and shoes for all children, controlling the cost of medicines and cancelling taxes for the poorest of the poor.

A U.S.-backed land-reform program has also improved the lives of many rural dwellers, even as it broke the economic grip of the traditional landowning autocracy.

“The oligarchy was pushed out of large-scale agriculture,” says Bonilla. “You don’t talk of an oligarchy anymore. You talk of competing elites. The oligarchical system has ended. They no longer have absolute power.”

Perhaps the greatest economic change in El Salvador in the years since the war, however, is the ever-increasing role of foreign capital.

All but one of the country’s banks is now foreign-owned. The Salvadoran international airline, TACA, is controlled by a Colombian firm. A Swiss company, Holcim, owns the cement business. South Africans dominate the beer industry. Wal-Mart has purchased two of the three department-store chains. America Mobil, headed by Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, controls the country’s largest phone company.

Since 2001, El Salvador has had just one circulating currency — the U.S. dollar.

Increasingly, this country’s economic future depends on business decisions made by investors in foreign lands, rather than the convictions of politicians here, no matter what their political stripe is.

As a result, the yawning ideological rift that has long divided this land, causing so much misery and death, may soon become moot. Maybe it already is.

“It’s still a very polarized country,” says Bonilla — and a violent one, with consequences that remain harrowing and may yet grow worse. But he believes the long-running battle between the Salvadoran right and the Salvadoran left is over — except the right and the left don’t know it yet.“Who’s going to win?” he asks. “International capital.” is his answer.

Until El Salvador has a better grip on the criminals that roam that otherwise beautiful country, it would in my opinion, be unwise for tourists to venture into it.

No comments: