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Hearts, Minds and Body Counts: The Politics of El Salvador’s Security Crisis

The right wing in El Salvador is exacerbating violence for political gain.

Estela Ramírez knows firsthand the debilitating effect that insecurity has on individuals and communities.

As longtime union activists in the precarious garment industry, she and her fellow organizers are increasingly fearful to navigate the working-class neighborhoods that host both garment factories and their employees – neighborhoods with steadily rising murder rates. They are also increasingly concerned about braving the bus routes that take workers to union meetings and activities. Some of her colleagues have faced gang threats, intimidation and violence at the behest of employers for their labor activism in the maquila factories. Ramírez sighs. “All this bloodshed is directed at the poor,” she says. “Here, the rich don’t die. Poor people die.”

Homicide rates in El Salvador have been climbing steadily since the late 1990s, peaking at 4,382 violent deaths in 2009. Those numbers fell by a half in 2012 during a brief and controversial truce established between the two principal gangs (MS-13 and 18th Street). But the truce fell apart as the government refused to assume responsibility for the negotiations, and public opinion fell in full force against any dialogue with the gangs. Murders returned to their pre-truce levels, and have spiked alarmingly since the election of the current leftist administration of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in 2014. In recent months, gang members have started to target police officers and soldiers for assassination, with occasional grenades and even car bombs being used to attack police stations and public buildings; in a disturbing show of force, gang threats forced a mass transit shut down for several days in July. With more than 5,000 homicides so far this year, El Salvador has now surpassed its neighbor, Honduras, with the world’s highest murder rate.

The skyrocketing body count in the small Central American republic of El Salvador has drawn a surge of sensationalist media coverage in recent months. While the government’s response has been subject to scrutiny, few have examined the role of El Salvador’s notoriously recalcitrant right-wing opposition in the surge of violence.

“The truth is, Hilary, that the issue of insecurity is not new in El Salvador,” Ramírez tells me as she leans forward in a plastic chair in a small San Salvador office. “Violence has always existed in the country. During the ’70s there was great repression, there was a lot of bloodshed. Throughout the whole era of the armed conflict in our country, too, the bloodshed continued. We have always been immersed in violence. But when is there a greater surge? The surge comes when a leftist government arrives.”

The Roots of Violence

The current crisis of violence facing El Salvador has deep historical roots – roots in which the United States is inextricably entangled.

Social violence in El Salvador, and particularly the rise of notorious street gangs like MS-13 and 18th Street, has sprung from fertile terrain. The country has endured centuries of economic inequality and exclusion, perpetuated by US-pushed neoliberal economic policies that ravaged domestic industries and degenerated working conditions, giving rise to the notorious sweatshop sector in which Ramírez organizes. Salvadorans withstood decades of homicidal military dictatorships, culminating a brutal 12-year civil war (1980-1992) between the repressive US-backed right-wing regime and leftist guerilla rebels, during which the US financed, supplied and trained the security forces that terrorized the civilian population. In the meantime, families and communities are constantly torn apart by desperate cycles of migration and deportation to and from the United States. In fact, both MS and 18th Street were founded on the streets of Los Angeles before they were exported by Clinton’s deportation policies.

Organized crime, in turn, has historically been tied to both right-wing paramilitary death squads and narcotrafficking in El Salvador. In recent years, however, as US Drug War policies like Plan Colombia pushed the lucrative drug transit industry from Colombia into Central America, organized crime has increasingly turned to gang structures as foot soldiers and hired guns. What began as street gangs fighting over turf and local extortion rackets have evolved into criminal structures with access to military-grade weaponry and a growing stake in the lucrative drug trade.

This undercurrent of organized crime rarely surfaces in news coverage of violence in El Salvador. According to Ramírez, this is no coincidence. The onslaught of homicides, extortions and crime have the greatest impact on El Salvador’s most vulnerable: the poor and working class.

In the neoliberal landscape of the postwar, the nation’s wealthy elite and powerful transnational companies rest easy behind high walls and armed private security firms, while poor neighborhoods and small businesses bear the brunt of the violence, delinquency and fear. “The media says: Violence? Gangs. Death? Gangs. Everything is gangs,” Ramírez says. “When really, it’s not just them; there are organized crime groups here, there’s drug trafficking here, there’s something deeper. But the powers of the media, what do they show? Gangs, gangs, gangs, so that the people are focused on the children of the poor.”

The Government’s Response

Violent homicides in October averaged over 20 per day, and some 50 police officers and soldiers have been assassinated since January. The palpable climate of insecurity, fed by the apocalyptic news cycle, has consolidated public opinion overwhelming in favor of the kind of repressive policing that progressives have long rejected, including the controversial use of the military in public security operations. After the gangs consolidated territory and influence throughout the opaque truce process, Salvadorans are also now adamantly opposed to any suggestion of dialogue or negotiations with the gangs – an option thoroughly foreclosed anyhow, thanks to a recent Supreme Court ruling that classified gangs as terrorist organizations. The population, besieged by gang extortions, threats, theft and violence, is frustrated and fearful, and the Sánchez Cerén administration has obliged by enforcing a widely reported crackdown on the gangs, despite legitimate concerns from human rights defenders about militarization and potential abuses.

But the iron fist is not the administration’s long game. The FMLN has overseen unprecedented increases in social spending to strike at the root causes of violence, including crucial education, health care and agricultural policy. Other initiatives, like those of the National Youth Institute, work to provide young people with employment, education and recreation opportunities as alternatives to migration, violence and crime. These programs are beginning to rebuild the social safety net that was decimated by US-pushed neoliberal policies implemented under the four consecutive governments of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party (1989-2009), and to strengthen the deteriorated social fabric of Salvadoran society.

Most significantly, the president convened a Citizen Security and Coexistence Council, which brings together stakeholders from across the political, governmental, religious and civil society spectrum to forge a consensus on a national security strategy. The plan produced by the Council focuses 74 percent of its proposals on violence prevention and job creation, with other programs to foster rehabilitation for offenders, provide care for victims and improve law enforcement capabilities. It is a truly groundbreaking document, not only for its comprehensive, long-term vision of violence as a structural problem, but for the participatory process through which is was produced.

The Council’s plan, however, requires a $2.1 billion budget, and while some of the proposals are now being rolled out in the most at-risk municipalities, the government requires a great deal more funding before it can be fully implemented. And ARENA, still a formidable force in the legislature and the FMLN’s principal political opposition, has refused to give its votes for international loans to finance such projects. At the same time, the conservative Supreme Court has struck down recent progressive tax reforms and frozen $100 million in loans destined towards public security and violence prevention.

The Opposition

With the country in such turmoil, why would some public servants actively block funding for crucial public safety measures? As it turns out, the opposition has everything to gain from the unfolding security crisis.

The 2009 electoral victory of the leftist FMLN party of the former guerillas swept the elite from power for the first time in El Salvador’s history. After FMLN leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén won the next presidential elections in 2014, the right, led by ARENA, began escalating their destabilization tactics against the government. Using their control of the commercial mass media, rumors on social media and reckless political obstruction in the legislature, and allied magistrates on the Supreme Court, the opposition has sought to foment a climate of fear and instability, and to impede successful leftist governance at any cost.

“When we analyze the issue of violence, it’s necessary to dive into the roots,” says Ramírez. “Who finances it? Who provides the weapons?”

El Salvador’s booming private security industry is dominated by former right-wing military officials. Retired Army Capitan César Ivan Rivas Guevara and his family, for example, control at least three private security groups. Col. Salvador Adalberto Henriquez of the Salvadoran Airforce, in turn, cofounded another local security giant. The late Adolfo Tórrez, an infamously corrupt leader in ARENA and former soldier under the Somosa dictatorship in Nicaragua, was also the owner his own security firm. “How many millions to those companies make in the arms trade?” asks Ramírez, her voice rising. “It would outrage people! They are profiting from our pain. They are profiting from our dead.”

But the right doesn’t just profit from violence: It manipulates it for political gain. I asked Ramírez what the right achieves politically from instability. “Well, because then they point to the government as incapable of giving the people security. What do they gain? As we say in El Salvador: el rio revuelto es ganancia del pescador (a churning river is a boon to the fisherman),” she says. “The right strengthens itself by raising this issue, because they are taking advantage of people’s pain. They are taking advantage of people’s outrage. And the more that are killed, it’s like stoking the people to rise up against the government. That’s what’s at the bottom of the bloodshed. That’s what the right gains: the recovery of executive power.”

Ramírez is not alone in her analysis. In April, social movement leader Margarita Posada of the National Healthcare Forum publically denounced what she called a, “perverse campaign that has been launched by the ARENA party and all its associated partisan bodies, like the National Association of Private Enterprise and the Salvadoran Foundation for Social and Economic Development and some media outlets, exacerbating the levels of violence, calling on the population not to leave their houses.” Posada reasoned: “Since one of the problems most felt by the people is insecurity, they grab onto this issue in a perverse way that through using and seeding terror they generate anxiety and fear and leave the population inactive. From an economic standpoint, they are the owners of arms businesses and the owners of the private security service businesses, and therefore the insecurity and the climate of anxiety generates more business for them.”

Faced with a daily barrage of fear-mongering headlines like “Homicides Cause a Serious Impact of Terror” (published August 17), “September Could Close with 700 Homicides” (September 22), “Thousands of Gang Members Will Go Free in a Decade” (published October 14) and “Gangs Operating in Former Guerilla Bastions (October 18), it’s no wonder that the September CID Gallup Poll showed that 63 percent of Salvadorans identify death, crime and terrorism as the country’s biggest news, but only 24 percent were personally victim of a crime in the last four months.

In a recent interview, Juan Carlos Sánchez of the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice also warned against the opposition’s “clear intention of harming the functioning of the state apparatus for its own political interests.” Sánchez cautioned that the mainstream media coverage in El Salvador “aligns with the same discourse of that of the economic sectors, which present a vision of a country that doesn’t exist, given that they are presenting a country in which nothing is working, an ungovernable country, a failed state.”

The onslaught has been such that, in July, the government went as far as to publically condemn a brewing coup d’état. The administration’s Communications Secretary warned that anti-government forces were aiming for “the destabilization of a people’s government, a legal government, a legitimate government, that fights every day for the interests of the population.”

In the wake of July’s transit shut-down, the International Democratic Federation of Women of El Salvador published a statement declaring: “It is no coincidence that selective and systematic homicides against the Salvadoran population are increasing: police, bus drivers, mass transit passengers. […] Nor does the media coverage seem coincidental to us that promotes a culture of violence and terror.” The Federation called on the public “not to be surprised by this sort of destructive strategies that seek to subject us to a climate of terror in order to sell more weapons and private security services, while promoting an image of a country in which nothing works well.”

As murder rates in El Salvador have remained at historic highs, peaking most recently with 911 violent deaths in the month of August, evidence has surfaced to suggest that ARENA’s relationship to the violence may be more than opportunistic.

Toward the end of August, Medardo González, General Secretary of the FMLN, declared publically that “There is a relationship between political leaders in the ARENA party and gang leaders.” That month, the bodyguard assigned to the head of the ARENA legislative group was arrested with several known gang members. Also in August, a wake was held in the ARENA party headquarters in the town of Apopa for a gang member who had murdered a police officer. In the meantime, the Attorney General confirmed investigations against the mayors of the towns Apopa and Ilopango, both from the ARENA party, for ties to gang structures, and municipal employees in Apopa and Zacatecoluca, also governed by ARENA, have been charged with conspiring with gangs. “These cases make it much clearer that the growth of violence in the country is tied to a campaign of terror directed at the poor,” says Ramírez. “It’s a new method, a new strategy of the economic power in this country to continue to terrorize the people.”

For those familiar with ARENA’s history, the emerging ties to gang structures may not come as a surprise. The party was founded by the father of the paramilitary death squads that terrorized the country throughout the civil war, a man named in the 1993 United Nations Truth Commission Report as the architect of martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. In the postwar, many of the paramilitary groups, which had been deeply entrenched in the state security forces, transitioned into organized crime, a process well documented by reports such as that of the 1994 Joint Group for the Investigation of Illegal Armed Groups with Political Motivation in El Salvador. Indeed, the party’s history is mired in scandals linking leading ARENA politicians to the drug trade. Nevertheless, the implication that the opposition could be ruthlessly enabling the carnage that has descended upon this small Central American country to score political points is, to say the least, chilling.

The Empire

“As we were reminded last summer when thousands of unaccompanied children showed up on our southwestern border, the security and prosperity of Central America are inextricably linked with our own,” wrote Vice President Joe Biden in the pages of the New York Times in January.

The government of El Salvador, resourced-strapped and under attack from gang leaders and a ruthless opposition, is being put to the test. The FMLN has made great strides in its efforts to rectify historic inequalities and exclusions through social programs, violence prevention, citizen participation and transparency initiatives. These gains, however, are at risk as a reckless destabilization campaign threatens the country’s nascent democratic institutions.

“They don’t care about the harm they are causing to the poorest population in this country, to national governability and to the recent democracy that we are building with so much sacrifice,” warned Magdalena Cortéz of the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice in a recent press conference condemning the oligarchic elite for its destabilizing actions.

But the United States, for all its concern for “good governance” in the region, has also preferred to use the crisis to push its own agenda, rather than address the needs of the Salvadoran people.

Ever eager to spread the gospel of the free market, the US government throws small sums of USAID funding at neoliberal private sector run ‘violence prevention’ programs by partnering with local right-wing foundations and US corporations. The bulk of US security aid, however, goes to police and military equipment and training, aimed in large part to advance the militarization of the region against drug trafficking and irregular migration. These priorities are clearly reflected in the US-backed “Alliance for Prosperity in the Central American Northern Triangle,” a new White House-backed strategy for the region modeled on Plan Colombia. In the meantime, El Salvador-led violence prevention initiatives, such as those put forward by the Citizens Security Council, are struggling for financing.

Ramírez assures me that US policy in El Salvador has only furthered instability: “US interventions have only served to guarantee drug trafficking, to guarantee arms trafficking. That’s what the gringo interventions have achieved.”

I ask her how the US could help the people of El Salvador. She answers without pause: “If they really want to do something for our people, the first thing they can do is withdraw the [military] bases they have here, that don’t help us at all, they do nothing for us. That on the one hand, and on the other, the funds from any agreements that they sign with the government should be directed to violence prevention through social programs.”

I ask her, finally, what she thinks the Salvadoran people must do. Her answer is just as quick: “As a people, we need to organize. Because in the poorest communities where organized crime is gaining ground, they have captured the minds of our young people, because there is no organization. If we don’t work on that, we will never eradicate violence. That, and prevention programs. They have to go together.”

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