Top stories of the decade

As we close 2019, this is my list of the top 10 stories from El Salvador during the past decade.   It was a decade of changing personalities and parties in power, but also a decade in which major themes like violence, slow economic growth, and migration remained as entrenched challenges for the country.

Rise and fall of the FMLN.   The beginning of the decade saw the FMLN achieve its highest level of political power.   The party of the former leftist guerrilla movement won El Salvador’s presidency for the first time with Mauricio Funes in 2009, and his presidency started with very high levels of public approval.   But from this peak, the party’s fortunes steadily declined.   The FMLN lost four seats in the Legislative Assembly in 2012, and in the 2014 election would retain the presidency by the slimmest of margins.  Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who was president from 2014-2019, was an uninspiring leader who enjoyed little popular support.  Conservative parties in the Legislative Assembly prevented the FMLN from make any structural changes in the country to implement its socialist program.   Although there was excitement with young Nayib Bukele retaking the San Salvador mayor's office for the FMLN in 2015, the party's decline accelerated when it expelled the wildly popular millennial politician from the party and promptly went on in 2018 to suffer its biggest electoral defeat ever.  Finally, in the 2019 presidential elections, the FMLN was scarcely a factor.  The party finished the decade out of power and with Mauricio Funes now in political exile in Nicaragua with corruption charges waiting for him back home.

Corruption of three successive presidents exposed.  During the past decade, El Salvador prosecuted three of its presidents for corruption: Francisco Flores (1999-2004), Antonio Saca (2004-2009) and Mauricio Funes (2009-2014).   Flores was prosecuted for diverting a $10 million gift from Taiwan for earthquake relief to partisan uses for his ARENA party.   Flores died in prison before the case concluded.   Saca was prosecuted for diverting more than $200 million from secret government accounts of the presidency to himself, friends, members of his government, ARENA and others.   Saca pled guilty in order to get a reduced prison sentence of 10 years. There is a pending criminal prosecution against Saca’s successor, Mauricio Funes, for also diverting hundreds of millions from the secret executive branch accounts   The case against Funes is stalled currently, however, after he fled to Nicaragua where he was granted political asylum.  While there are many other cases of corruption which could and should have been brought during the past decade, the country still deserves credit for being able to prosecute ex-presidents from both of the traditional major parties.

Gang violence and “la tregua” gang truce.   Throughout the past decade, criminal violence originating from the country’s street gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and two branches of Barrio 18, made public security a prime worry of the Salvadoran people.  There was an illusion of progress from 2012-2013 as the government clandestinely facilitated a gang truce known simply as “la tregua.”  Overnight in March 2012, the homicide rate dropped dramatically as a gang truce went into effect.   The truce had been mediated with support from the government, and it was soon revealed that gang leaders in prison had received accommodations in return for the reduction in killing.   The drop in homicides was undeniable, and soon there were announcements of phase two of the truce including "cities free of violence" with gang leaders and public officials appearing together to announce violence reduction plans in municipalities.   The truce was never popular with the Salvadoran public, however, since extortion continued, and it appeared that the gangs were simply not killing each other and using the time to actually gain strength.   By 2014 la tregua had fallen apart as new president Sanchez Ceren vowed there could be no deals with the gangs.  Soon the level of murders surged in 2015 to make El Salvador the murder capital of the world.  Some of the mediators and government officials involved in the tregua would be tried criminally.   Following the peak in 2015, homicide levels gradually declined, and the last six months of the decade have seen a marked decline in homicides to post civil war lows.  

An independent Constitutional Chamber.  In 2009, the Legislative Assembly appointed a new group of four judges to the five member Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court.  Their nine year term during the past decade left an indelible mark on El Salvador's political systems and understanding of the rule of law.  Their decisions threatened the power of established political parties by favoring the rights of the individual citizen voter in decisions which ended voting for candidate blocks established by party leaders and allowed voting across party lines and for independent candidates.  The Constitutional Chamber ended legislative votes by back-up deputies who had never been elected to the Legislative Assembly.

The independent streak of the Chamber led to a constitutional crisis in 2012 when the magistrates of the Chamber declared invalid the elections in 2006 and 2012 of other judges to the Supreme Judicial Court.  Then president Mauricio Funes attempted to go to an international court to resolve the dispute and for a short period, there was the spectacle of judges locked out of the court and competing groups of judges claiming legitimacy.   Ultimately the magistrates of the Chamber would prevail as Funes and the political parties backed down, and the Chamber would continue to issue important decisions.   None were reappointed in 2019, and it is yet to be seen if the new Chamber majority has the same independent dedication to the country’s constitution.      

Nullification of amnesty law.  One of the Constitutional Chamber’s most important decisions was a blow against impunity for war criminals.  In 2012, the InterAmerican Court of Human Rights had ruled against El Salvador in a case involving the massacre of women, children and the elderly at El Mozote. The international court found that El Salvador had an obligation under international human rights standards to bring to justice persons responsible for gross crimes against humanity.  In 2016, the Constitutional Chamber followed up by overturning a general amnesty law enacted in 1993 following the close of the country’s bloody civil war.   Suddenly crimes against humanity could at least theoretically be heard in El Salvador's courts.   While many cases are now nominally open and being investigated by the attorney general's office, the only human rights case moving forward is the El Mozote massacre case where witness testimony has detailed events surrounding this atrocity.   As the decade closes, El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly is debating a law to replace the 1993 amnesty, which might again limit the possibility of justice in Salvadoran courts.   

Migration and return.  Throughout the decade Salvadorans continued to make the perilous journey northward to attempt to cross the border into the US.  They were often fleeing for their lives from the country’s gangs in situations where the police were unable to protect them.  Their numbers soared with the unaccompanied minors crisis n 2014-15 and with the caravans of 2018 and 2019.  Meanwhile the US under Obama and Trump acted to deport ever increasing numbers in an endless cycle of migration and involuntary return.  One group not being deported (yet) are the 200,000 Salvadorans granted Temporary Protected Status by the US government following the 2001 earthquakes.   Successive Salvadoran governments focused their US relations on maintaining TPS for this group, but Donald Trump cancelled the program in 2017, and only preliminary court injunctions keep the status from soon disappearing.   Meanwhile Salvadorans with and without legal status in the US continue to send money home which regularly represents 1/6th of El Salvador’s economy.      

Gold Mining Ban.  El Salvador's environmental movement achieved passage of a historic law banning gold mining and its toxic environmental effects in the country.   Although there had been a de facto ban on gold mining since the presidency of Antonio Saca, the country faced an enormous international arbitration suit from Pacific Rim (later acquired by Oceana Gold) which saw its mining plans thwarted.  ElSalvador won that lawsuit in 2016.   Then a coalition of universities, the Roman Catholic church and other parts of civil society came together to push through the Legislative Assembly the law banning gold mining in 2017.   The coalition built in the gold mining struggle now has turned to focus on protecting El Salvador’s severely threatened water resources

A stagnant economy.   Tied to the fortunes of the US economy, El Salvador entered the decade in an economic downturn as the result of the Great Recession's impact worldwide.  The country would slowly recover with the rest of the world, but economic growth was slower than much of the region throughout the decade. Today, only a minority of Salvadorans hold full time jobs in the formal economy, wages are low, and students graduating with college degrees have hard times finding employment outside of call centers.   The lack of economic opportunity continues to act as a push factor for migration.  A significant number of families could not survive without remittances sent back by relatives living abroad.

The rise of Nayib Bukele.   The second half of the decade saw the dramatic rise of Nayib Bukele to power.   The young advertising executive was mayor of the town of Nuevo Cuscatlan from 2012-2015 and then was asked by the FMLN to run for mayor of San Salvador.   Aided by a gift of self-promotion and a talent on social media, Bukele grew his popularity rapidly.  His rapid ascent did not sit well with the traditional FMLN hierarchy which refused to put up with his criticism and expelled him from the party rather than letting him run for mayor again in 2018.   This gave Bukele the opening he wanted to launch an independent run for president.   The decade ends with Bukele having defeated the old parties of the left and right and enjoying an enormous level of popular support.    The millennial president who governs on Twitter and promises “Nuevas Ideas” will lead the country into the next decade.

Canonization of Oscar Romero.   The martyrdom of archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 by an assassin’s bullet marked the beginning of the country’s 12 year long civil war.   His prophetic witness on behalf of the oppressed victims led many to refer to him as Saint Romero of the Americas for decades before his eventual beatification by the Roman Catholic Church in 2015 and canonization as a saint in 2018.  The prosecution of Saint Romero’s killers remains stalled in the Salvadoran judicial system.  The lingering question is whether Saint Romero's message of the imperative for social justice and solidarity with the poor has been diluted with the passage of time and will still be heard in the next decade.