20th anniversary of killer quake and its legacy in the Salvadoran presidency

 Today is the twentieth anniversary of the first of two devastating earthquakes which hit El Salvador in 2001.  That quake registered 7.6 on the Richter scale.  Exactly one month later, on February 13, another earthquake would cause more damage.  Between those two, the damage was enormous:

  • 1,259 deaths, 9,000 injuries and 1.6 million homeless victims in a country with a population of approximately six million.
  • 150,000 homes were destroyed; 185,000 were damaged.
  • Highways and roads were heavily damaged ).
  • Eight hospitals and 113 of 361 health facilities were severely damaged representing 55 percent of the country’s capacity to deliver health services.
  • Nearly 35 percent of all schools were affected (1,681 out of 4,820).
This BBC story from January 13, 2001 describes the aftermath of that first earthquake ten years ago.   Worst hit was the neighborhood of Las Colinas, close to San Salvador, where a hillside gave way, burying the homes below it and killing more than 585.

Las Colinas following quake

Working to rescue the survivors of the quake were the dedicated volunteers of Comandos de Salvamento.  You can read the reflections of some of those volunteers from the tenth anniversary here.   There is also a photo gallery of some images from that earthquake here.

Beyond the immediate cost in human lives and destroyed homes, the earthquakes would have important impacts on El Salvador going forward.  El Salvador's president at the time, Francisco Flores, misappropriated a $10 million donation for earthquake relief from the country of Taiwan.  Much of that money ended up in the coffers of the ARENA political party.  Flores was put in jail and charged with the crime more than a decade later and died before going to trial.

The Taiwan 2001 earthquake relief money in ARENA's hands would become part of the campaign funds for the next ARENA president, Tony Saca.  Saca is currently in prisons for having embezzled hundreds of millions from government coffers.

The Flores government was accused of incompetence and corruption in managing its response to the 2001 earthquakes.  Mauricio Funes was a television journalist asking tough questions of government officials at the time.  Using the popular reputation he garnered as a journalist, Funes was elected El Salvador's first president from the left in 2009. While president, he leaked a law enforcement document which revealed the actions of Flores with the Taiwan funds.  Subsequently Funes was charged for his own massive misappropriation of funds and fled to exile in Nicaragua.

The exposure of this fraud and corruption of Flores, Saca and Funes, from both ARENA on the right and the FMLN on the left, produced the opening for current president Nayib Bukele and his "Nuevas Ideas" movement which took advantage of citizen disgust with both of the traditional dominant parties.   

Twenty years after the 2001 earthquakes, El Salvador has a current government resulting directly from the fraud and incompetence in responses to that earlier national tragedy.