Saturday, December 10, 2016

Continuing to unbury the past at El Mozote


The white and blue Justice of the Peace offices sit at the corner of the central plaza in Meanguera, El Salvador.  From this humble office, Judge Mario Diaz Soto and his small team of assistants are presiding over one of the open legal proceedings involving perhaps the largest massacre of unarmed civilians in the Western Hemisphere, the 1981 El Mozote massacre.   That massacre took place 35 years ago today, from December 10-12, 1981.

Judge Soto presides over legal proceedings directing exhumations to locate and identify the bodies of additional victims of the massacre at El Mozote and surrounding communities.  The legal case before Judge Soto began with a petition from Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the Catholic church, working on behalf of victims’ families, and concerned with the lack of progress and the manner in which previous investigations had been proceeding.

At the exhumation site, a multi-institution team of workers is present.   There is a prosecutor from the attorney general’s office responsible for this investigation phase.   There is a representative of the country’s Human Rights Advocate office (PDDH).    There are the forensic anthropologists from Canada and Argentina.   There are workers from the Ministry of Public Works who provide the muscle to dig at the sites.   There is the president of the victims’ association.    There are police officers providing security.   Judge Soto and his small staff are regular visitors.

Exhumation site in El Mozote


Judge Soto has ruled that the massacre at El Mozote and the surrounding communities 35 years ago was a crime against humanity and that his court had competent jurisdiction to oversee that matter. 

There is another open legal proceeding in Morazan Department involving the massacre at El Mozote. This case commenced in 1990 in the court in the municipality of San Francisco Gotera, but was “archived” or closed in 1993 after the passage of the Amnesty Law.    This case in Gotera has now been reopened with the nullification of the amnesty law by the Constitutional Chamber earlier this year.

There have essentially been three phases of the exhumations at El Mozote which have different legal usefulness.   One set of exhumations took place in the early 1990s, while the Gotera proceeding was still open.    These exhumations identified about 400 bodies of victims and the evidence of that work is admissible in the Gotera proceeding.   Although admissible, that work was performed prior to recent advances in DNA testing technology and other forensic science, and might be subject to attack by defendants in any further proceeding.

After the Gotera proceeding was archived, the Argentine forensic team continued to come to El Mozote and conduct more exhumations as a humanitarian gesture in support of the families of victims.    These exhumations were not conducted under the supervision of a court or prosecutor, and the results may not be admissible in court.

Now with the Meanguera proceeding, a new set of exhumations are being conducted with scientific rigor, including DNA testing to establish genetically the identity of remains, and with forensic identification where usable DNA is not available.

As the exhumations have proceeded, Judge Soto has a concern for the families of the victims.   He has obtained the services of psychologists from the court system to provide counselling before, during and after the exhumations.   When he held a hearing on the exhumation process, he ruled that not just the lawyers, but also the victims should be allowed to speak if they wanted to address the court.

Judge Mario Diaz Soto
Judge Soto has also decided that all parts of the proceeding will be open to public inspection.   Although many court proceedings in El Salvador proceed “en reserve” or under seal, Judge Soto has opted for transparency, which he believes is required by El Salvador’s transparency law.

The exhumations will determine that criminal acts took place.    It will be up to the office of the attorney general (FGR)  to determine whether to charge anyone with crimes and who to charge.   It will also be up to the FGR to decide whether to proceed in Judge Soto’s court or in the re-opened case in San Francisco Gotera.   Judge Soto would like to see the case proceed in his court, but the decision will probably not be up to him.

The questions of the chain of command and who is responsible as one of the “intellectual authors” of the massacre at El Mozote are not yet being addressed.  It is yet to be seen whether El Salvador's courts and prosecutors have the power or the political will to force the armed forces to turn over their records of operations from that bloody time.





Thursday, December 01, 2016

Homicides in 2016 down from 2015

November 2016 closed with  361 murders across El Salvador, or an average of 12 per day.  It is a high number, but it is 9.7% less than October 2016 and 20.3% less than November 2015.   So far this year, El Salvador has seen an 18.6% reduction in the annual level of homicides.    Those numbers are an improvement from the horrendous homicide totals in 2015, but will still leave 2016 with the second highest homicide rate in recent years.     (Source: LPG Datos).  



Wednesday, November 30, 2016

El Salvador -- corruption edition

Corruption investigations,disclosures and prosecutions in El Salvador were a rare thing ten years ago. Not so any more.   (Although convictions are something we are still waiting for).   Here is some of the current news of corruption in El Salvador.

  • An El Faro investigation has detailed how the legislative assembly awarded more than a half million dollars to an organization founded by the wife of the founder of the GANA party and current president of the National Assembly, Guillermo Gallegos.   The organization is run by one of his assistants.   The money was supposed to support violence prevention efforts in seven municipalities -- efforts that the municipalities say they never saw.

  • Hearings concluded today regarding allegations of illegal enrichment of the former director of the state Institute of Social Security, Leonel Flores.   Flores is accused of being unable to justify how his net worth grew significantly during his time in office.


  • A video has surfaced which seems to clearly show Salvadoran businessman Miguel Menéndez delivering a cash bribe to former attorney general Luis Martinez.  (The delivery starts at 1:25 in the YouTube video).

  • The Attorney General sued the former private secretary to president Tony Saca, Élmer Charlaix, for $18.7 million for illegal enrichment during Saca's presidency.   (No doubt Saca, and not Charlaix, is the real target of this proceeding).

  • The National Assembly is in the midst of determining whether a prosecution can proceed against José Atilio Benítez, the country's ambassador to Germany and former minister of defense, for trafficking in military weapons.
So no one should be surprised that the citizens of El Salvador do not hold their public officials in very high esteem.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The mayor and the newspaper



For more than a year now, there has been a very public war between the mayor of San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, and one of El Salvador's major newspapers, La Prensa Grafica (LPG).   The dispute relates to a "cyber-attack" on the LPG website in the summer of 2015 in which a cloned version of the site was created, to mislead web-surfers with a fake version of the site.

In November 2015, police raided Bunker, an online marketing company located in San Salvador and arrested its CEO in connection with the cloned LPG site.   Bunker had previously been hired by parts of the national government in El Salvador as well as by the municipal government in San Salvador.

LPG claims that Nayib Bukele was the person who ordered the cyber-attacks against the newspaper. LPG coverage of its claim has been continuous over the past year.    LPG claims the attacks were in retribution for articles in the paper critical of the mayor.

For his part, Bukele recently compared the ongoing published attacks from La Prensa Grafica to a cancer, calling the allegations an invention of the Dutriz family, owners of LPG.

Now a year after the initial arrest, according to ContraPunto, the attorney general says the investigation is still open and that his office would not be commenting on links to any specific persons including Bukele.   The attacks have gotten personal as LPG went after Bukele's wife claiming that Bukele had put her on the municipal payroll, to which Bukele responded that Jose Roberto Dutriz was a greedy man who was acting out of spite because Bukele wanted the Dutriz family to pay its taxes,

I have no idea where the truth lies on this issue. There is little doubt in my mind that Bukele has a well-oiled cyber-machine polishing his image and political fortunes.  On the times when I have blogged or tweeted about the mayor, I have seen dramatic jumps in retweets and sharing of my posts.   El Faro journalist Roberto Valencia has commented on the same phenomenon.      

But an effective cyber-strategy does not mean that Bukele is (or is not) behind the cloning of the LPG newspaper site.   And, as far as I can tell, the fury of LPG has done nothing to diminish the popularity of the capital city's mayor.





Thursday, November 24, 2016

Lack a lawyer? Expect to be deported

As the refugee crisis from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continues, immigration courts are swamped with cases where judges must decide whether or not to grant asylum to those fleeing violence in their home countries.   


In immigration court proceedings, there is no right to an attorney.   The US government does not provide lawyers for those who cannot afford them.   But having a lawyer makes an enormous difference in the outcomes of these proceedings.   Statistics gathered by the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University (TRAC) show that less than half of the women with children who go in front of an immigration court have managed to obtain a lawyer.   TRAC figures reveal that without a lawyer, less than 2% of the unrepresented families who try to make an asylum claim have avoided being deported.   With a lawyer, however, the chance of making a successful claim rises to approximately 41%.

A recent story from PRI's The World, describes one such asylum case from El Salvador before a US immigration court.   Here is an excerpt:
In 2014, the extortion letters came under her own door. The first demanded $1,000, the second, $3,000. This amount of money, she tells the court, would have taken her years to make. Her lawyer asks her how she felt when gang members came to her home. They shouted at her to give them money or they would kill her, she says, looking straight ahead. “I felt gripped with fear.” Gang members accosted her oldest son, César, at school, telling him he must join or his family would suffer. At the time, he was 11. 
That was when she decided to leave El Salvador for good. She and her two boys traveled by foot and bus to the US-Mexico border in Texas. The journey took about a month. At the border she declared that she was seeking asylum. She and her boys spent one night in detention. Though their stay was short, the frigid conditions in the detention center, known by migrants as “las hieleras” or ice boxes, made a lasting impact on her younger son. Pablo is still afraid of air conditioning.
Read the rest of their story here.  They were the lucky ones with a team of volunteering law students from a local law school to develop and advocate their case.  The process requires the collection and filing of numerous documents and forms with specific timelines, and judges are quick to reject cases that don't comply with the requirements, regardless of the merits of a case.  It is certain that thousands of other meritorious cases fail for lack of a lawyer to guide mothers with children, or to assist unaccompanied minors.   Like many other parts of the US legal system, the poor and unsophisticated are the persons least likely to receive justice and a humanitarian response to their plight.    

            

Monday, November 21, 2016

The intrepid reporters at El Faro

Regular readers of this blog have seen me often refer to stories published in the online periodical El Faro.  The investigative journalism there often provides the best insights into crime, politics, gangs,the economy and corruption in El Salvador.    The most recent example of this work was a collaborative project with the New York Times published on Sunday titled Killers on a Shoestring:  Inside the gangs of El Salvador which looks at the finances and structures of gangs in El Salvador:
With an estimated 60,000 members in a country of 6.5 million people, the gangs hold power disproportionate to their numbers. They maintain a menacing presence in 247 of 262 municipalities. They extort about 70 percent of businesses. They dislodge entire communities from their homes, and help propel thousands of Salvadorans to undertake dangerous journeys to the United States. Their violence costs El Salvador $4 billion a year, according to a study by the country’s Central Reserve Bank. 
And yet, the reporting determined, MS­13 and its rival street gangs in El Salvador are not sophisticated transnational criminal enterprises. They do not begin to belong in the same financial league with the billion­dollar Mexican, Japanese and Russian syndicates with which they are grouped. If they are mafias, they are mafias of the poor. El Salvador has been brought to its knees by an army of flies.
Read the rest of the article here.

Journalist Sarah Esther Maslin has now published an extensive profile of El Faro and its journalists in the Columbia Journalism Review titled A Light in the Underworld.   She describes the work on the NewYork Times collaboration:
[F]or the last seven months, reporters from El Faro have been working closely with The New York Times on an investigative piece about the finances of Salvadoran gangs. “Killers on a Shoestring,” which was published on Sunday, dispels the myth that El Salvador’s gangs are lucrative criminal enterprises, using El Faro’s exclusive access to gang sources and internal government documents to reveal that they are, at best, “mafias of the poor.” 
 The effort was a pilot project for the Times—an attempt to expand and deepen international coverage by collaborating with a foreign publication. Three El Faro reporters—Efren Lemus and brothers Óscar and Carlos Martínez—did the groundwork, with Times investigative reporter Deborah Sontag supervising and coordinating with senior investigations editor Paul Fishleder. The Times paid El Faro nearly $15,000 for its work on the story.
As Maslin points out, the New York Times story is just the latest in more than a decade of prize-winning stories going where El Salvador's big media companies had scarcely ever gone:
Despite their age—or perhaps because of it—the reporters were impervious to intimidation from political and economic power brokers. Over the years, El Faro has exposed corrupt presidents, conniving officials, negligent businessmen, and a drug-trafficking network so powerful that police provided bodyguards to four reporters for three months after the story was published. Dada’s profile of a military captain who participated in the 1980 assassination of beloved Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero was so popular it broke the server. 
Eighteen years later, ElFaro.net has an annual budget of $850,000, a staff of 31, a two-story newsroom in a chic San Salvador neighborhood, more than 355,000 Facebook followers, 280,000 Twitter followers, and more than a million unique visitors per month. It has become one of Latin America’s most trusted news sites, and is probably the most decorated. This year alone, El Faro won the Gabriel García Márquez prize from the Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism, and Óscar Martínez received both an International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Maria Moors CabotPrize, which is administered by the Columbia Journalism School.
Certainly I owe a lot to El Faro's reporting in helping me understand the ins and outs of current day El Salvador.

El Faro is in the midst of a campaign for financial supporters to help it continue its tradition of investigative reporting.  If you want to contribute, you can do so here.


Sunday, November 20, 2016

A face lift for Cuscatlán Park

Located close to the historic center of San Salvador is Cuscatlán Park.   This  tree-filled urban park is a welcome oasis from the noise and congestion of central San Salvador.  On any given day you will see lovers embracing on park benches, scouts engaged in group activities, or an older couple strolling.   It is also home to the Monument to Memory and Truth as well as a small art museum.

But the park which opened in 1939 is showing the effects of age and a lack of care and maintenance.  The unpaved roads inside are rutted and dusty; vegetation is trampled, and sidewalks and steps have cracks and holes.  

Now the city of San Salvador and USAID are teaming up to give the venerable park an overhaul to make it a point of civic pride for the city.  The $8 million remodeling project has a goal of providing modern public spaces to promote a culture of peace.

The project will include overhead walkways, new exhibition space for art, areas for children, and improved amenities throughout.

El Diario de Hoy has some videos showing the proposed facelift for the park here.  La Prensa Grafica has diagrams of the project here.




Saturday, November 19, 2016

Plan Nemesis: El Salvador doubles down on had-line policies

Responding to a series of attacks on security forces, the government of El Salvador announced that it will hit back even harder.   In November, there have been at least 13 murders of police officers and soldiers by the gangs. In response, the government's point man on security issues, vice president Oscar Ortiz, announced that the armed forces and police would be initiating "Plan Nemesis."   (In Greek mythology, Nemesis was the goddess of divine retribution).

Ortiz announced:

"Plan Nemesis will have as its objective to harden still further the regime of action against these criminal structures." 
"We are striking blows against organized crime." 
"We are going to deploy our units, pursue [the gangs] and beat them with force/"
The vice president also stated that gang leaders responsible for attacks on police would face even stricter prison conditions, and his minister of security stated that such gang members would face "the worst conditions" in jail.

Several hundred young people, all labelled as gang members, were rounded up in sweeps by the PNC and authorized by the country's attorney general.   They are thrown into the unbelievably bad and overcrowded conditions of El Salvador's jails and prisons.        

Also this week, El Salvador, along with Guatemala and Honduras announced the deployment of a Tri-National force against organized crime.   This highly militarized response to the problem of crime in the region is supposed to respond to the flow of gangs and narco-traffickers across country borders in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

The rhetoric of retribution and vengeance, with its emphasis that the country's security forces are authorized to use all force necessary, creates a situation where respect for human rights has disappeared.    There is no talk of justice, but only talk of smashing the gangs.   Without a doubt, there are vicious murderers, rapists and extortionists within the gangs.   But how many innocent victims will suffer as collateral damage in this war?  How many young men will have a target on their backs, just because they have grown up in the wrong neighborhood?  




Thursday, November 17, 2016

Twelve years of blogging about El Salvador

Today is the 12th anniversary of this blog.  In that time I have written more than 2400 posts. Thanks to everyone who continues to read, comment, and share ideas for the blog.   I appreciate all the interest you show in this little country.

Looking over the tags I put on posts, these were the most common topics I have covered:

  • Crime and Violence -- 213 posts
  • Elections -- 165 posts 
  • Economy -- 135 posts
  • Migration -- 133 posts
  • Gangs -- 132 posts (probably just a subset of Crime and Violence)
  • US Relations -- 109 posts
  • History -- 102 posts

The author, on the left, at beatification ceremony for Oscar Romero


Wednesday, November 16, 2016

27 years after Jesuit murders



Today, November 16, 2016 marks 27 years since elements of the armed forces of El Salvador entered the grounds of the University of Central America and assassinated six Jesuit priests, and under orders to leave no witnesses, they killed the Jesuits' housekeeper and her daughter.   Here are the developments on this case in the past year:

  • The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Judicial Court nullified the 1993 Amnesty Law which had been used to justify the lack of legal proceedings in the country.
  • The human rights prosecution in Spain against 17 high ranking officers of the Salvadoran military continues, but El Salvador's Supreme Court rejected the request of the Spanish court to extradite the officers to Spain.
  • One of the defendants in the Spanish case, Orlando Montano, is in custody in the US for immigration fraud and the US intends to extradite him to Spain so the trial there can proceed.  The extradition order is currently being appealed by Montano.
  • One year ago Jorge Galán published his book Noviembre, which is part journalism and part historical fiction regarding the events of November 1989.   Shortly after the book was published, Galán had to flee the country because of threats.  The book gave new momentum to the proceedings in Spain.
  • The courts in El Salvador have ruled that Colonel Guillermo Benavides must return to prison to continue serving a 30 year sentence which had been commuted at the time of the Amnesty Law, now that that law has been nullified.

In short, at 27 years, impunity continues for those who ordered the massacre and subsequently covered it up.