Diálogo / April 21, 2011
By Larry Luxner
In the heart of San Salvador’s Parque Cuscutlán, the solemn Monumento a los Desparecidos [Monument to the Disappeared] bears the names of over 25,000 victims of El Salvador’s long-running civil war. The 85-meter wall of black granite stands as a stark reminder of this country’s violent past.
“We come here every year on November 11, the day of the offensive, and also on November 2, the day of the dead,” said Carolina Solis, a middle-aged woman and staunch supporter of the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN), the leftist rebel group whose successors are today running El Salvador.
Solis was here to honor the memory of her brother, Edwin Omar Solis. The FMLN guerrilla was only 17 when he was killed in a 1989 battle in Nanastepeque, a tiny village in the department of Cabañas.
Yet the country has made tremendous strides since then. A peace treaty in 1992 ended the 13-year civil war, which killed an estimated 75,000 people and created millions of refugees. The economy eventually rebounded, and in 2009, former journalist who became a member of the FMLN Mauricio Funes became president, defeating Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in balloting widely deemed to be free and fair. It marked the first time in 20 years ARENA had lost an election.
On June 5, El Salvador will host the 41st General Assembly of the Organization of American States. The theme of the three-day gathering is “Citizen Security in the Americas,” coming little more than two months after the historic visit of U.S. President Barack Obama, who pledged $200 million to help El Salvador fight drug trafficking and gang violence.
El Salvador’s minister of defense, David Mungía Payés, told journalists that the struggle waged by Mexican authorities to combat drug trafficking in that country poses one of Central America’s gravest threats.”
“As you press on the north, the cartels strategically move south into Central America. The presence of the Los Zetas drug cartel in Guatemala is serious, and they are also in Honduras now,” he said at a recent press conference in San Salvador.
In December, the government of Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege in the department of Alta Verapaz, where Zeta smugglers have turned the area, near the border with Mexico, into a center of operations.
Mungía Payés, underlining the gravity of the situation for all of Central America, warned that “Honduras has become the main route for drug traffickers” because the ongoing political crisis in that country “has led the Honduran government to focus more on political issues than security issues.”
No wonder, then, that “citizen security” is the theme of the OAS General Assembly to take place in San Salvador.
“Your choice of topic speaks of your understanding of what is important to the Americas,” said Albert Ramdin, assistant secretary general of the OAS, during a recent meeting in Washington with El Salvador’s foreign minister, Hugo Martínez. “Security and development are both issues of main concern for our people, and therefore the eyes of the world will be on El Salvador during the first week of June.”
Ramdin added that “we should be proud that a country like El Salvador — a relatively small country but an important member of the OAS — makes itself available to host such a meeting, with all the costs it implies.”
For his part, Martínez reaffirmed his country’s willingness “to strengthen the hemisphere and take concrete actions that benefit the peoples of the Americas, especially in an area that is very sensitive, such as security.”
These days, El Salvador’s biggest problem is not political violence but rather rampant violence caused by drug traffickers that have terrorized the region. Even so, Funes —despite a struggling economy and rising crime — is still backed by some 79% of voters, making him Latin America’s most popular leader.
One of those Salvadorans who support Funes is businessman Eduardo Quiñónez Caminos, a director at real-estate developer Grupo Agrisal.
“This is the first time we have a leftist conservative government,” said Quiñonez, whose company owns the Crowne Plaza Hotel, official venue of the upcoming OAS meeting. “Most people expected a Marxist-Leninist approach to government after the FMLN came to power. But this president has proven that he’s not so left-wing. He’s more of a centrist, and he has the biggest popularity ratings of any president we’ve had in the past 20 years.”
Asked what the biggest obstacle to doing business in El Salvador, Quiñonez replied “security” without any hesitation.
“Our crime rates are still very high, and there’s a big problem with the maras [gangs],” he said. “The government is heading in the right direction with these issues, but of course it takes time to fight crime. Everybody feels threatened.”
El Salvador — with the collaboration of the other Central American countries and the United States — is organizing an international conference directly after the OAS General Assembly to focus on regional security, Martínez said. The meeting will address issues such as finance, technology and cooperation in aviation and maritime patrols to intercept drug traffickers.
“The U.S. has a specific vision for Central America. Before, this whole area was seen within the context of Plan Mérida, and Central America was diluted,” he explained. “We’ve always told them that if there’s a Plan Colombia in the south and a Plan Mérida in the north, then the pressure from both sides would push all the narcotraffickers towards the center.”
The result has been a U.S. program called the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Yet since that program’s establishment in 2008, funds allotted to CARSI’s seven members amount to around $260 million — less than one-fourth of Mexico’s share of counternarcotics assistance.
The irony is that Central American nations have confiscated more than three times as much cocaine as confiscated in Mexico — about 100 metric tons per year. And the northern half of the isthmus, comprising Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, is now the most violent region in the world outside of active war zones.
“We don’t only want to punish criminals, we also want a social development plan,” said Martínez. “Even though we must combat crime with all our strength, we must also generate opportunities for the new generation. If we don’t, they will become the perfect targets for criminals.”