November 1, 2011 |

El Salvador Update – October 2011

El Salvador has had its share of deadly earthquakes and hurricanes over the years, but President Funes described Tropical Storm 12E as “the greatest disaster in our recent history.” The storm battered the country from October 10th-20th with 60 inches of rain, leaving thousands without housing, large swaths of territory devastated, crops destroyed, infrastructure severely damaged, and the potential for serious health consequences. The president declared a national emergency and appealed for international attention and assistance.

While the storm was barely covered by the international media, for ten days all activity was paralyzed in El Salvador and in the other Central American nations affected by the rains.  “We are talking about a catastrophe,” UN Coordinator for El Salvador Roberto Valent said.  On October 25th the UN issued an urgent appeal for disaster aid, reporting that 56,000 people were displaced and 69% of El Salvador affected by the storm.

In the wake of the disaster, President Funes requested an easing of deportations from the U.S. and an extension of Temporary Protected Status (TPS), first granted following the 2001 earthquake and due to expire in March 2012.  Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez plans to travel to Washington to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to discuss this extension and possible expansion of the protected status for Salvadorans.

In the midst of the storm, the Jesuit community mourned the loss of Father Dean Brackley who died of cancer in El Salvador on October 16th.  Father Brackley, 65, was a community organizer in the South Bronx in November of 1989 when the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were massacred at the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA). He immediately volunteered to come to El Salvador and stayed for 21 years, teaching at the UCA and working in impoverished urban and rural communities.

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“El Salvador is suffering one of the most dramatic disasters of its history.”
President Mauricio Funes

Once again, El Salvador has suffered a natural disaster that reveals the vulnerability of the country.  It is a disaster with devastating consequences for the millions of people living in high-risk impoverished communities built along river banks and on the sides of mountains and ravines, always under the threat of mudslides, flash floods and overflowing rivers.

El Salvador is one of most vulnerable countries in the world, according to the UN disaster agency UNDAC, with 88.7% of national territory and 95% of the population prone to natural disasters. Minister of Environment Herman Rosa Chávez attributed the trajectory of the storm and the quantity of rain to climate change. Storms come every year, he said, but now they are more frequent and of greater intensity.

There were few complaints about the government response. U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte extolled the government’s performance, highlighting the transparency and logistical efficiency of the response. An ARENA deputy praised the work of the ministers of Public Works and Civil Protection, the army and police. “For the first time the entire country mobilized with great heart,” a National Conciliation Party (PCN) Deputy said.

Challenges for the immediate future include the need to rebuild bridges, roads, houses and schools, health concerns from contaminated well water and overcrowded shelters, and considerable crop losses that could affect the country’s food security.

On October 25th, the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, Costa Rica and El Salvador and representatives from Nicaragua and Belize met at the airport in San Salvador to evaluate regional needs for reconstruction and mitigation of vulnerabilities. In the “Declaration of Comalapa”, the leaders agreed to form a consultation group on reconstruction and to invite international donors to a meeting in El Salvador on December 16th.

As part of the Salvadoran government’s call for international assistance, Secretary of Social Inclusion and First Lady Vanda Pignato met in New York on October 27th with the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who promised to send a “flash appeal” requesting aid for the country. Later that day Pignato also met with former President Bill Clinton who praised the decisive action of President Funes during the storm. Clinton offered to send a message to members of the Clinton Global Initiative requesting their collaboration with the rehabilitation and reconstruction of the country.

In an address to the nation on the last day of the storm, the president spoke of the “titanic task” ahead, saying the “battle against vulnerability is a question of life and death” and is an “essential task for the future of our country.”

Human Rights and the Judiciary:

“Non-cooperation with INTERPOL can poison all international cooperation.”
German Deputy Tom Koenigs

Following a week of delays due to lack of quorum, the Supreme Court (CSJ) announced on October 6th that five more military officers implicated in the 1989 Jesuit massacre would not be arrested under a second round of INTERPOL warrants requested by a Spanish judge. Nine of the 15 magistrates supported the decision, reiterating arguments issued in August to reject the first warrants for nine officers. In both instances, the judges supporting the decision argued that INTERPOL red notices require location, not detention, and that a diplomatic request from the Spanish government was never received.

Dissenting Justice Mirna Perla criticized the ruling and the “lack of political will” on the court. “I am not in agreement with this ruling,” she declared, “because it is a formalistic interpretation to avoid pursuing crimes against humanity.”

The leader of a German delegation from the Human Rights and Humanitarian Aid Commission of the Bundestag expressed “shock” at the levels of violence, impunity and injustice in the country. Germany has been generous with aid to El Salvador over decades, but Tom Koenigs warned that international assistance could be jeopardized unless there is cooperation with INTERPOL.

From Spain, Judge Eloy Velasco scheduled a video conference call with the indictees, to be held on November 8th. According to one press report, General Juan Rafael Bustillo, Colonel Carlos Guzmán Aguilar and Colonel Joaquín Arnoldo Cerna have agreed to participate.

In another development related to war crimes during El Salvador’s civil war, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights (IACHR) ordered El Salvador to investigate the disappearances of children, particularly in the 1981-82 period, citing “the systematic pattern of forced disappearances” of children taken by the military during counterinsurgency operations and often sold on the international adoption market. The IACHR has targeted the

cases of three sets of children that are emblematic of the over 800 cases documented by Pro-Busqueda, a Salvadoran organization that since 1994 has located nearly half of the children in those cases. Over the last two decades, the military has refused to open files that could lead to information on the fate of those disappeared children, now adults.

In late October, the Constitutional Court agreed to hear a case charging the current Attorney General with failure to investigate another alleged war crime: the 1981 massacre of dozens of people in San Francisco

Angulo, Tecoluca, San Vicente. Bodies were exhumed in 2006 and survivors requested a new investigation in November 2009, but Attorney General Romeo Barahona has not taken action. Survivors charge that the failure to investigate violates the “right of access to justice and to know the truth.”

Foreign Policy:

“The Salvadoran government has excellent relations with Israel and
we can have them with Palestine; we know that Israel will understand the decision.”
President Mauricio Funes

The Funes administration has cultivated a strategic partnership with the U.S. while maintaining its commitment to a foreign policy “open to the world without ideological ties,” in the words of Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez.

Concretely, the Funes foreign policy is one that “doesn’t obey a group of people, a political group or a commercial group, but one that responds to the interests of all Salvadorans,” the Foreign Minister explained in an interview. As part of the new policy, the government opened diplomatic relations with Cuba on June 1st, 2009 and has been evaluating its posture toward the Middle East for some time, according to Martínez, in an effort to contribute to the peace process “without affecting our bilateral relations with Israel.”

In August, President Funes declared his support for Palestinian statehood, a decision repeated in his address to the United Nations General Assembly. Shortly thereafter it was announced that Mahmoud Abbas, The President of the Palestinian Authority, would pay a brief visit to El Salvador during his Latin American tour to lobby for statehood.

Just days before the Palestinian delegation arrived, the Israeli ambassador invited  President Funes to visit the Middle East to share …the “excellent model” of the Salvadoran peace experience, saying, “I am sure we have a lot to learn from El Salvador.”

During a press conference following the Funes-Abbas meeting on October 9th the Palestinian leader also praised El Salvador’s peace process. Not to be outdone by Israel, he invited President Funes and First Lady Vanda Pignato to visit the region and declared, “Mr. President, you can play that conciliatory role mediating between Palestine and Israel on a final settlement.”

It remains to be seen if El Salvador has a role to play in the Middle East but in an interview with Telesur, President Funes suggested his country could assist, “because they see El Salvador as neutral territory…We can put our experience and good will at the service of the negotiating process.”

Meanwhile, agreements were reached to formalize diplomatic relations between El Salvador and Palestine and open embassies “as soon as possible.” In the words of President Funes, “It is a decision that we feel proud of and with which to settle a historic debt.”


“I would be delighted if GANA were the party of President Funes.”
Silvia Argueta, GANA candidate for San Salvador mayor

An El Faro report, “The New Friends of the President,” looks at the inner workings of the presidency and describes a significant shift in the chief executive’s closest advisers. According to the online journal, no decision was made without these advisers – some cabinet members and others – during the president’s first year in office, but none of them were consulted on the most controversial decision of his presidency: the June 2, 2011 endorsement of Decree 743, an attempt by conservative legislators to curtail the power of the four reformist judges on the Supreme Court. Members of the cabinet were shocked and outraged by the president’s action, El Faro reports, but no one resigned due to concerns about who would replace them and, one cabinet member said, despite profound disagreements, “Each one (of us) believes he is doing something from his own trench.”

El Faro documents the president’s growing relationship with two controversial figures.  The first, Herbert Saca, is a cousin of the former ARENA president Tony Saca and a well-known political operator, and is now a member of the center right GANA (Gran Alianza Nacionalista) party. El Faro describes him as “one of the darkest and most controversial operators of the Saca government.” The other is also a former ARENA member, wealthy businessman Miguel Meléndez, whose interests include the private security firm COSASE. Meléndez was a participant in “Amigos de Mauricio,” the Funes campaign organization, and was appointed by the president as head of San Salvador’s convention center.

Analysts have often speculated on the president’s relationship with Tony Saca and the GANA party, founded in October 2009 by dissident ARENA members. According to a US Embassy document dated November 2009 and released by WikiLeaks, two GANA members said Funes “privately” supported the party and “the only thing lacking was that he adopt them as his children.”  As former ARENA leader, now GANA member Silvia Argueta said, ex-president Tony Saca and President Funes both have high approval ratings and, “If the two were in my party it would be an honor.”


Fitch Ratings reported that El Salvador has experienced the lowest rate of growth in the hemisphere since the global crisis, but added that Salvadoran banks have “outstanding loss absorption capacity” and the country “excelled in capitalization.” Analysts attribute the country’s lagging economy to its ties to the U.S., its difficult security situation and the refusal of the business community to invest.

The President’s proposed $4 billion budget for 2012 included increases for education, health care, public works and security, with reductions for defense, environment and foreign relations. Enormous damage caused by the October storm may result in a shuffling of priorities.

Remittances in 2010 comprised 17% of GDP, according to the Juan José García, Vice-Minister of Salvadorans in the Exterior. 337,000 homes received remittances amounting to 60% of those families’ income. The average family received between $46-$113 per month and spent over 90% on consumer goods. Other data from the census: 21% of all nuclear families (1.58 million people) receive funds from relatives outside the country; 90% of Salvadorans have relatives in the U.S.; and total remittances in 2010 amounted to $3,539.4 billion, an average of $294.95 million per month.


Additional analysis by El Faro of Embassy cables includes:

“The U.S. is sure that PCN and GANA receive money in exchange for their votes.”

In various cables from October 2009-January 2010 the Embassy describes the parties as “for sale”… “to the highest bidder”…”opportunists”…and “up for auction.”

“The U.S. believed that the human rights ombudsman manipulated the case of the assassinated union member.

This cable refers to the murder of Salvadoran–American labor organizer Gilberto Soto.

“GANA told the U.S. Embassy that Funes practically adopted them.”

The response of President Funes to the ARENA-dissident party, GANA.

Looking Ahead:

November 8:   Video conference call between Spanish Judge Eloy Velasco and indictees in the Jesuit case

November 10: Electoral period convened for March 11, 2012 elections

December 16:  Central American leaders and international donor’s conference in El Salvador

Recommended Reading:

“Dressing Babies in Sweatshop Clothing,” Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. Exposé of labor conditions in a Philippine-owned textile firm in El Salvador that manufactures infant/toddler outfits for the Dallas Cowboys, among others.

“El Salvador: The New Disappeared.” Insight report on disappearances of young people, most gang-related.

In the Gangland of El Salvador.” New York Review of Books. Journalist Alma Guillermoprieto returns to El Salvador after many years to investigate gangs and violence.