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Showing posts from December, 2004

Top El Salvador Stories of 2004

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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.
"Why?" his mother asks.
"Because if Schafik becomes president of…

Honduran bus massacre

One week ago, on December 23, gunmen opened fire on a public bus in Honduras, massacring 28 of the 70 passengers and wounding another 28. The assault was calculated and cold-blooded, and the attackers left a message claiming to be part of a guerrilla movement opposed to the death penalty and other governmental policies in Honduras. Today's article in the Miami Herald does a good job summarizing what is known about the attack.

Honduran authorities blame the notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang for the massacre and have arrested nine gang members in connection with the shooting. The Herald points out that many Hondurans believe that a new guerrilla movement may have been behind the attack and are discounting the government's theory of gang involvement.

The massacre has also been big news in Salvadoran papers, especially with the connection to the Mara Salvatrucha gang which operates in El Salvador and throughout Central America and the United States.

Supermarkets and Globalization

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The New York Times publishes a detailed article on December 28 titled Survival of the Biggest: Supermarket Giants Crush Central American Farmers. The story details another aspect of globalization and its impact on the developing economies in Central America.

The article reports on the arrival and dramatic growth in Central America of large supermarkets run by Wal-Mart and other multi-nationals. The very large multi-national supermarket chains "crush" small, local growers. The modern supermarkets begin to squeeze out the traditional markets where local farmers would sell their produce. But selling to these supermarket chains is a great challenge for the small local farmer. The chains have the clout and purchasing network to buy produce and foodstuffs from all across the world. They thus force the local farmer to compete with producers on a global basis.

The destruction of the small local farm has severe social consequences for the affected countries. When local farme…

Salvadorans may stay longer in Iraq

Salvadoran President Tony Saca has been quoted in an AP story as saying that the country may extend the deployment of its troops in El Salvador beyond early next year. El Salvador has 380 troops on the ground in Iraq, and is currently the only country in the Americas supporting the US war effort. The Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras have all withdrawn their troops.

As we have noted before, the troops are not the only Salvadorans in Iraq. Private US contractors have been recruiting in El Salvador and other third world countries to find laborers for security details and other jobs. The lure of wages higher than they can earn at home entices recruits to face the dangers of the Iraqi war zone.

Illegal migration -- Latino USA

Another report from Latino USA's excellent radio series on social conditions in Central America in the decade following the conclusion of civil wars has been made available on the web. This segment reports on the obstacles and dangers faced by those persons trying to make their way to "el Norte," the United States, from Guatemala and El Salvador.

The Joy and Pain of Fireworks

Fireworks are a traditional means of celebrating Christmas Eve, "Nochebuena," in El Salvador. Vendors set up small stalls in towns and cities across the country where all sorts of pyrotechnics can be purchased. The rockets and exploding shells make a noisy and raucous welcome to the celebration of the birth of the Christ child.

Yet the widespread practice of celebrating with fireworks comes at a tragic price to many children. Over the night of December 24, 36 children were severely burned by fireworks throughout El Salvador. The images in this story from El Diario de Hoy give witness to the tragedy which often comes to innocent victims on a night intended to be filled with joy. The Director of the Benjamin Bloom Children's Hospital in San Salvador is indignant and told the press that he will not rest until fireworks are prohibited.

In addition to injuries from the use of fireworks, the cottage fireworks industry of El Salvador is well known to employ child workers…

Feliz Navidad

A reflection from Christmas Eve 25 years ago.


We must not seek the child Jesus
in the pretty figures of our Christmas cribs.
We must seek him among the undernourished children
who have gone to bed tonight with nothing to eat,
among the poor newsboys
who will sleep covered with newspapers in doorways.

Archbishop Oscar Romero
December 24, 1979

Quotations of Oscar Romero collected in The Violence of Love which is available here.

More details on Soto killing

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When I began posting articles on this blog, I did not imagine that many articles would be devoted to a murder mystery. But the case of the murder of Gilberto Soto continues to raise questions.

Since the arrest of Soto's mother-in-law and the alleged contract killers, I have been wondering what information might exist about the supposed family dispute behind the murder. This article by Traci Carl of the Associated Press provides some additional details. Apparently Soto and his wife did have a rocky relationship and were planning to separate. The family, however, does not believe that these problems would lead to a contract killing.

There may also be a connection to the November break-in to the offices of El Salvador's Center for Labor Studies and Support, an organization which monitors workers' rights in El Salvador. Soto had contacts at the center.

The web site for the US Embassy in El Salvador continues to offer a hotline for information about the killing and to adve…

Lutheran Pastor injured by blows from police

Diario CoLatino ran this story today regarding the beating of a Lutheran pastor by anti-riot police during anti-CAFTA demonstrations last Friday, December 17. Rev. Ricardo Cornejo is now receiving medical treatment in the United States for the blows he received. The medical treatment was made possible by the generosity of various churches in the United States.

The beating was denounced in El Salvador. Lutheran pastor Efrain Cerna called on the various sectors of Salvadoran society to repudiate this new attack against the church and its ministers. He denounced the director of the PNC, Ricardo Menesses, for ordering the violent break-up of the citizen protests and urged the Legislative Assembly to censure Menesses for abuse of power. Lutheran pastor Roberto Pineda called for the immediate firing of the PNC director, calling him a "threat to democratic civility" in El Salvador. Pineda announced that they would present the case to the Human Rights Procurator and the Instit…

Opening Borders

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While the United States acts to increase immigration and border controls and checkpoints, Central American countries are acting to streamline the process of crossing borders. The changes are described in this Associated Press story.

El Salvador and Guatemala have been the first to move forward, by reducing border formalities to a common checkpoint for passport review. Nicaragua and Honduras are expected to follow. Costa Rica and Mexico do not plan to change their border controls.

How this will impact illegal immigration, drug-trafficking and gang activity is not clear. The participating governments hope that such streamlining will facilitate the free flow of people, goods and commerce throughout the region and be an engine of economic growth. The U.S. government will be nervous, since part of the U.S. border control strategy is to have governments to the south acting vigorously to stop persons illegally crossing borders on their way to the U.S.

President Bush on Immigration Reform

In a press conference on Monday, December 20, President Bush was asked about his agenda on immigration reform. His answer received little coverage in the United States but was front page news in El Salvador. Here is his answer from the transcript of the press conference:

"Now let me talk about the immigration issue. First, we want our border patrol agents chasing crooks and thieves and drug runners and terrorists, not good-hearted people who are coming here to work. And therefore, it makes sense to allow the good-hearted people who are coming here to do jobs that Americans won't do a legal way to do so. And providing that legal avenue, it takes the pressure off the border.

Now, we need to make sure the border is modern, and we need to upgrade our border patrol. But if we expect the border patrol to be able to enforce a long border, particularly in the south -- and the north, for that matter -- we ought to have a system that recognizes people are coming here to do jobs tha…

Remittances hit new record

The Salvadoran press reported that remittances from Salvadorans living abroad to their families in the country exceeded $230 million in November, a single month record. The total of more than $2 billion so far this year exceeds the total remittances for all of 2003.

Remittances are a significant portion of the Salvadoran economy, making up approximately 15% of the country's GDP. The country's dependency on funds sent from family members living in the United States became an issue in the 2004 presidential election when ARENA and comments from some government figures in the US suggested that the US might cut off such money transfers if Schafik Handal were elected. The growth in remittances reflects both the increasing numbers of Salvadorans who have made their way abroad in search of economic opportunity and the increasing resources of those expatriates.

El Salvador Ratifies CAFTA

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The El Salvador National Assembly ratified CAFTA on Friday, December 17. Although ratification was not unexpected, many wondered at the speed and process by which the vote was taken. SHARE has a report on the ratification on its web site. The battle over ratification now moves to the U.S. Congress where the vote is expected to be very close. The SHARE site is a good source for resource materials on CAFTA and how it might impact El Salvador.

Migration and Coffee

In a posting two weeks ago I wrote about the coffee economy. As a follow-up, this article on the Counterpunch web site describes in detail how the coffee crisis in Central America has produced a wave of migration and poverty throughout the region.



Soto Investigation

Many questions were left unanswered by the arrest of gang members and Gilbert Soto's mother-in-law as "intellectual author" of the slaying of the union activist. The Human Rights Procurator of El Salvador questioned the arrests and the interrogation in the days immediately after the arrest. Family members of Soto have expressed doubt about the arrests and the theory of the crime. Today the Teamsters published a demand that an independent investigation of the crime be conducted.

Stay tuned.

Anti-CAFTA Protests in San Salvador

A group of 300 protesters converged on the Salvadoran National Assembly today to protest ratification of CAFTA. A group of protesters managed to get into the Assembly chambers and to disrupt the opening of today's session which was scheduled to approve the treaty. An update from the CISPES web site is here. (At the moment it is the only English language coverage I can find). The web sites of La Prensa and El Diario del Hoy report that authorities are working to clear government areas of the protesters including the use of tear gas.

What's a young ex-president to do?

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Francisco Flores, who handed over the reigns of El Salvador's presidency to Tony Saca earlier this year is looking for a job. Elected El Salvador's president at the age of 39 in 1999, he was out of a job at the conclusion of his five year term. (The president cannot serve more than a single term). Now Central American countries are lining up to support Flores for the position of Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS).

The U.S. is also said to have a preference for Flores. One black mark against Flores in other Latin American countries was his very quick backing of the short-lived coup in Venezuela which attempted to overthrow the government of Hugo Chavez.

This story from the Santiago Times discusses the various candidates for leadership of the OAS. Others in the running are the ex-foreign minister of Mexico and the interior minister of Chile.

ARENA and Saca popular in recent polls

Some recent polls from November show that President Tony Saca and the ARENA party continue to be popular in El Salvador.

A poll taken by La Prensa asked respondents who they were likely to vote for in the March 2006 legislative elections, 17 months away:

ARENA -- 41.3%

FMLN -- 14.1%

Undecided -- 39.0%

With the election so far away, this poll is probably useful only for identifying the hard core supporters of the two major parties.


Another poll asked respondents to rate President Saca on a scale of 1-10. His average November 2004 rating was 7.1, down from 7.4 in September, but still a favorable mark.

The Gang Problem

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Two articles this week present lengthy descriptions of the gang problem in El Salvador and the rest of Central America. The LA Times has a lengthy article describing the gang violence in El Salvador and describes both pro and con views of the government's Firm Hand anti-gang policy. The Copley News Service runs a story which focuses on the connections across borders between the branches of the various gangs.



The statistics are depressing: Almost 30,000 gang members in El Salvador. An average of 5 gang killings each day. At least part of the wave of gang violence relates to the deportation since 1998 of 12,000 Salvadorans with criminal records from the United States who brought gang culture and prison-hardened attitudes back to El Salvador.

The past few years have seen the Salvadoran government adopt first the Firm Hand (Mano Dura) and now the "Super Firm Hand" policy to deal with gangs. These get-tough approaches to gang-violence have included wide-spread round-ups …

Unlucky 13 and Earthquakes

A moderate earthquake struck El Salvador, today, December 13. The quake measured 6.0 on the Richter scale and was located off the Pacific coast near the Guatemalan border. There were no reports of damage or injuries in the first few hours following the quake.

The 13th day of the month appears to be bad luck -- the tragic earthquakes of 2001 struck on January 13 and February 13.

Maquiladoras

Last week there was a UPI Report that Mexican maquiladora factories are leaving Mexico for lower cost locations in countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador. Other reports have talked about the ongoing loss of jobs from Mexico to China.

While this might mean a short-term influx of low wage maquiladora jobs in El Salvador, the lesson from the Mexican experience is that an economic plan founded on maquiladora-type factories as a source of economic growth is a tenuous one. The purchasers of maquiladora production will always be looking for a better deal. The race to the bottom is a necessary consequence of global "free" trade.

Movies to Watch For

2004 saw the release of two new documentary films on El Salvador.
El Pueblo Unido is a film about the struggle for political, economic and social justice in El Salvador during and after the civil war. Voces Innocentes is based on the true story of Oscar Torres' childhood in El Salvador as civil war ravaged the country throughout the 1980s and boys like Torres were forcibly conscripted. Voces Innocentes recently won the 2005 Stanley Kramer Award from the Producers Guild of America which recognizes films the highlight provocative social issues. The film is also Mexico's entry in the foreign film category for the 2005 Academy Awards.

I haven't had a chance to see either movie, and hopefully they will find a way to get distribution in the U.S. or will be released in the future on DVD.

El Mozote Massacre Anniversary

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December 11 is the 23rd anniversary of the massacre at El Mozote. This event stands out as one of the worst atrocities of the civil war and was committed by U.S. trained troops of the Salvadoran armed forces. Following the war, the United Nations Truth Commission issued its report with this summary:
"On 10 December 1981, in the village of El Mozote in the Department of Morazan, units of the Atlacatl Battalion detained, without resistance, all the men, women and children who were in the place. The following day, 11 December, after spending the night locked in their homes, they were deliberately and systematically executed in groups. First, the men were tortured and executed, then the women were executed and, lastly, the children, in the place where they had been locked up. The number of victims identified was over 200. The figure is higher if other unidentified victims are taken into account."
Today a silent memorial stands as a memorial to these innocent victims.

Anti-CAFTA Position Statement

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The Popular Resistance Movement of October 12 (MPR-12) is a coalition of activist and labor organizations in El Salvador. On Wedneday, December 8, 2004, MPR-12 issued the following statement opposing adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States:




Last week, various cabinet members of the government submitted CAFTA to the Legislative Assembly for them to ratify and make into a law. CAFTA is being promoted by the government under the false notion that it will solve the problems of our nation. However, there are many real reasons for our people to reject it. Some of them are the following:



1. CAFTA will provoke mass importation of products from the United States, which will deepen our trade deficit (the difference between our exports and our imports,) and raise even higher our external debt. We must take into account that without this free trade agreement with the powerful North American economy, our trade deficit increased 1.2 billion dol…

Poor Salvadorans Chase the 'Iraqi Dream'

The Washington Post runs a story today about private U.S. contractors who hire Salvadorans to act as security forces in Iraq. Between 175 and 200 Salvadorans have been hired and are in Iraq working as armed guards. El Salvador has proven a fertile recruiting ground for such forces because of the high number of Salvadorans with military or police experience dating back to the civil war and El Salvador's low wages and high unemployment. Salvadoran recruits are jumping at the chance to go to Iraq for jobs paying $1240 per month.

This story gives "outsourcing" a whole new meaning.

Iraq and El Salvador

El Salvador and its history have had a connection to the prosecution of the American war in Iraq.

El Salvador has contributed to the so-called "Coalition of the Willing" by sending troops to Iraq in support of the U.S. war effort. To date, one Salvadoran soldier has been killed in combat. Despite the withdrawal of troops by other countries such as Spain, El Salvador has stuck with the U.S. The Salvadoran military participation in the Iraq war is opposed by the FMLN and the Salvadoran Lutheran Church among others.

In talking about elections in Iraq, Vice President Cheney attempted to point to El Salvador in the 1980's as an example that elections can be conducted in the midst of an insurgency. In the vice presidential debate on Oct 5, 2004 Cheney stated: "Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had -- guerrilla insurgency controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections. I was there as an observer …

Latino USA | Program 606

Latino USA, a weekly radio program which runs on public radio stations, is in the midst of a 13 part series, titled Despues de las Guerras. The radio series concerns the current situation in Latin American countries following the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s. This week's program, which discusses the lack of progress for the poor in Latin America since the wars, can be heard at this link. You will need to have RealPlayer on your computer to listen to the program, and I am not sure how long this link will work. Information about the entire series is at afterthewars.org.

Sugar and Free Trade

Today's Miami Herald runs a story on the sugar industry and the prospects for the passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The Herald reports that the U.S. sugar industry opposes CAFTA because CAFTA raises import quotas for importing sugar from Central America by 100,000 tons, or about 10%. These quotas have protected the domestic sugar industry from competition from growers in El Salvador and elsewhere which produce and sell sugar at lower prices than the U.S. growers. The sugar industry is a powerful lobby in Washington.

This story highlights some of the complexities and dilemmas of free trade deals. Even a minor relaxation of sugar import quotas is met with opposition in the U.S., while the U.S. insists that countries like El Salvador lower duties or quotas which protect their own domestic farm products like corn from imports from the highly efficient and subsidized U.S. agricultural sector.

Lower sugar quotas could open markets to allow growers i…

Mother-in-law of Gilberto Soto arrested for slaying

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The mother-in-law of slain Teamster Gilberto Soto has been arrested and charged with his murder according to today's press reports. The arrest came along with the arrest of three other suspects allged to have committed the crime, including two gang members. Salvadoran authorities have stated that the killing was not related to Soto's union activities but instead arose out of a family dispute. Soto's mother-in-law is alleged to have contracted for the killing. Because of the hostile environment to unions in El Salvador, many (including myself) had suggested Soto had been killed for efforts to unionize container truck drivers in El Salvador.

Suspects arrested in Soto killing

Press reports in the Washington Post and elsewhere report on the government's announcement that it has arrested four suspects in the murder of Gilberto Soto. At least one suspect is purported to have ties to the Mara 18 gang. The motives around the murder are still unknown.

Approval Sought for CAFTA in Salvadoran Assembly

On December 2, the Central American Free Trade Agreement ("CAFTA") was introduced in the Salvadoran legislature for approval. The government is calling for a vote within a week on the treaty. The treaty is opposed by the FMLN, but the ARENA and PNC parties support the trade pact and have sufficient votes for its passage. In introducing the treaty to the legislature, the government proclaimed it to be necessary for the economic progress of the country and to avoid El Salvador becoming isolated in the world economy. The treaty is opposed by a variety of nongovernmental organizations, activists and religious organizations in El Salvador. The Bush administration is expected to introduce the treaty in the US Congress for ratification in the spring.

The Washington Post drew the connections between the CAFTA ratification debate and the Gilberto Soto case in its most recent coverage. The Post writes that
Employers in the region have often been backed by governments desperate to attr…

Container truck drivers

The New York Times ran this article today regarding the container truck drivers for whom Gilberto Soto was an advocate before his murder in El Salvador. Soto was in El Salvador to see his family and have meetings regarding organization of container workers in El Salvador when he was shot by unknown assailants. (Access to New York Times articles requires registration, but it is free and worth it).

Salvadorans Buying Up Stakes in the Homeland (washingtonpost.com)

The Washington Post this week carried an article about a boom in sales of more expensive housing in El Salvador as Salvadorans who amassed wealth in the United States return home. The Post article state, "Thousands of Salvadorans living abroad ... according to the Salvadoran embassy, are buying homes and land in this small country, reshaping the housing and development market and helping push up real estate prices.
This is a phenomenon of modern immigration. In an age of the Internet, satellite television and radio, cheap air fares and cheaper international phone rates, immigrants from many countries are more connected to their homelands than immigrants ever could have been in the past. "
I wonder if there is a connection to the recent push to make sure that Salvadorans living abroad have the ability to vote in future elections?

More on Soto murder

La Prensa featured on its web site today a story about a US delegation which travelled to El Salvador in connection with the Soto murder investigation. Linda Sanchez, a Congresswoman from California, and officials from the Teamsters and AFL-CIO arrived in El Salvador on November 30 and were met with top level officials including the attorney general, the Salvadoran ambassador to Washington, the foreign minister and the head of the national police. Such a high-level delegation on the Salvadoran side would seem to show their concern that this muder might be a roadblock to approval of CAFTA.

This article is the longest and most prominent one to run yet in the Salvadoran press. It ran under the headline "Union Pressure From United States."

The second part of the article contains more details about the murder itself, and more particularly, the bungling attempts by the police to secure the crime scene. For example, according to Soto's relatives, one officer picked up and carri…