Top 10 El Salvador News Stories of 2008

My annual list of the top 10 stories of the prior year:

Economic woes face Salvadoran families
. Economic conditions in 2008 saw a worsening of the circumstances of many Salvadorans. High food prices, high gasoline prices and continued rates of sub-employment caused an increase in the level of poverty in the country. One lifeline, remittances from Salvadorans abroad, continued fairly strong, but was beginning to shows signs of weakness towards the end of the year as the economic crisis in the US deepened.

End of the terms of two allies. Tony Saca and George Bush were both in the final years of the presidency during 2008. Saca has visited the White House more than any other leader from Latin America over the past 5 years. Saca supported Bush with troops in Iraq, and kept El Salvador's economic policies aligned with the free trade "neoliberal" strategy favored by the administration in the US. Both presidents saw election campaigns for their successors where the theme of "change" has been very powerful with the electorate.

Mauricio Funes ignites FMLN prospects. 2008 was one year of perpetual campaign for the FMLN's presdential ticket. The FMLN is united behind the popular Mauricio Funes, and Funes enjoys double digit leads in many polls over Rodrigo Avila for ARENA. Funes has gone out of his way to portray a moderate image -- wearing white shirts rather than FMLN red, rejecting the ideas of abandoning the US dollar or the CAFTA treaty, and distancing himself from Hugo Chavez and others, preferring to speak of a Salvadoran brand of social policies. Critics view Funes as a mere figurehead who will be forced to succumb to the more hard-line policies favored by the traditional FMLN leadership. The FMLN also leads polling for the January 2009 elections of legislators and mayors.

ARENA selects Avila and Zablah. ARENA did not select a presidential candidate until months after the FMLN had settled on Funes. After much campaigning, the right-wing party picked Rodrigo Avila, the former head of the National Police and a traditional ARENA candidate. More time went by before ARENA and Avila picked a vice presidential candidate. When they did, ARENA moved towards the center in picking businessman Arturo Zablah, who was not an ARENA party member and had actually been trying to run for president as a center-left coalition candidate earlier in the year.

No solution to criminal violence. The year 2008 started with a spasm of murders and ended that way too, and the year in between was not much better. Murders were down approximately 9% from the year before, but El Salvador seems to be retaining its title as murder capital of Latin America.

Impunity still reigns. Several stories highlighted the problem of impunity for the powerful and well-connected in El Salvador. The year began with the Inter-American Court for Human Rights issuing an order that the government conduct a real investigation in the Garcia-Prieto murder case. At year end, the government had not started to comply, claiming that the judgment needed to be clarified and the IAHCR issued another order. Similarly, activists started a campaign for justice in the case of little Katya Miranda, raped and murdered 9 years ago by male family members who are high ranking police and military officials. The case must be reopened by April 2009 if there is to be justice. The FMLN aligned itself with ARENA when it indicated that it would not support repealing the amnesty law which protects those who commited crimes during the civil war, and one of the most infamous of those crimes, the murder of the 6 Jesuits in 1989, is now the subject of a proposed human rights proecution in Spain.

Charges dropped against Suchitoto 13. In July 2007, several persons protesting against Tony Saca's plans to decentralize water systems, were arrested and charged with acts of "terrorism." During the second half of 2007, human rights groups and civil society organizations kept up a steady drum beat of pressure on the Saca government and the legal authorities prosecuting the case. Finally, in February 2008, the charges were first reduced, and then dropped after the prosecutor showed up late for a scheduled court hearing.

Pacific Rim Mining fumes. The Canadian gold mining company Pacific Rim has discovered a vein of gold ore at its El Dorado location in El Salvador. It wants to open an underground mine, using "green" mining techniques to extract the gold, creating tax revenue and jobs for the country. Civil society groups continued their protests during 2008, however, citing concerns over risks to the country's water resource and the surrounding environment. Whether because of these protests or some other reason, the Saca government has so far failed to grant Pacific Rim's application for a mining permit which would let it actually begin mining the gold. At the end of 2008, Pacific Rim gave notice that it plans to start an international arbitration under CAFTA against the government of El Salvador for violating the company's legal and contract rights.

Elim church bus tragedy. Flooding rains in the San Salvador area on July 3. In a fierce thunderstorm that night, more than 5 inches (128mm) of rain fell, and the river Acelhuate overflowed its banks. The torrent caught the bus full of worshipers from the large evangelical church and pulled it into the river's concrete channel. The story highlighted the lack of progress by local and national government bodies to pursue risk mitigation projects which would reduce the possibility of such tragedies which occur in some form or another each rainy season in El Salvador.

National soccer team progresses. Under the leadership of coach Carlos de los Cobos, the El Salvador's national soccer team enjoyed real success this year in qualifying matches for the 2010 World Cup in South Aftica. The team has to be one of the top 3 qualifiers in the hexagonal round in 2009 to get a World Cup berth.


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