Showing posts with label El Salvador. Show all posts
Showing posts with label El Salvador. Show all posts

31 January 2012

Leah Wilson and Alexis Stoumbelis : El Salvador's Funes Apologizes for El Mozote Massacre

Memorial to the massacre of the people of El Mozote, El Salvador. Image from No Fixed Address.

‘Removing the veil’:
El Salvador apologizes for State violence
on 20th anniversary of Peace Accords

By Leah Wilson and Alexis Stoumbelis / The Rag Blog / January 31, 2012

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- On Monday morning, January 16, crowds gathered in the small community of El Mozote to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended El Salvador´s 12-year-long civil war.

El Mozote, in the rural department of Morazán, is the site of a 1981 massacre of more than 1,000 civilians, primarily children, carried out by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. At the solemn event, El Salvador’s first leftist president, Mauricio Funes, named the military officers implicated in the horrific massacre, stating, we must “remove the veil that has blinded us for three decades.”

Funes asked for forgiveness from the victims and the Salvadoran people on behalf of the State and then announced a series of reparations for the victims and their families. In addition to physical and mental health services and an economic development plan for El Mozote, the government has promised to declare the community a protected historic site and has committed to updating public school curricula as well as police and military training materials to acknowledge the history of human rights violations by the armed forces.

Funes is the first president in Salvadoran history who has acknowledged the crimes against humanity committed by the government during the civil war that resulted in 75,000 deaths, in their majority civilians. However, the prosecution of the responsible actors is prohibited by an amnesty law approved in 1994 by the right-wing parties five days after the release of the U.N. Truth Commission report, which attributed 85% of civilian deaths to the armed forces and 5% to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The Peace Accords, the result of negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the leadership of the FMLN guerrilla army, were signed in 1992 in Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle. The accords ended the war, allowed the FMLN to become a formal political party, and included a series of agreements to address the social, political, and economic causes of the Civil War.

To commemorate the historic date, the FMLN held a massive Festival for Peace with tens of thousands of supporters in San Salvador. President Funes participated in a summit with ex-guerrilla combatants, where he unveiled a new government program to ensure that veterans of both the FMLN and the armed forces receive the benefits that correspond to them -- one of the agreements of the Peace Accords that was largely sidelined by the right-wing administrations that held power from 1994 to 2009.

Funes’s announcement of reparations for the families of victims and ex-combatants is one of several steps being taken by the new government to fulfill outstanding commitments of the Peace Accords. Addressing the crowds at the FMLN’s commemoration march, Vice-President and long-time FMLN leader Salvador Sánchez-Cerén, who is one of the signers of the Peace Accords, explained that the FMLN’s guiding objectives in its first period of government (2009-2014) were “the consolidation of the democratic transition initiated during the Peace Accords and the construction of a new economic and social model.”

Perhaps the most popularly recognized victories of the Peace Accords include the end of over 60 years of military dictatorship and the opportunity to create a viable democracy.

“The Peace Accords created a new political process, one in which all would have a chance to participate,” said FMLN member Jose Nuñez during a community celebration in Washington, DC. The presidential victory of the FMLN in 2009, and the fact that the FMLN currently holds the largest number of seats in the Legislative Assembly, is a testament to the effective implementation of this pillar of the Peace Accords.

Many major agreements were successfully implemented in the days, months, and years following January 16, 1992. The sprawling Salvadoran armed forces were dramatically reduced and several of its most repressive wings, including the National Guard and the Treasury Police, were disbanded completely. The role of the armed forces was strictly limited to the defense of national territory and sovereignty.

According to the Accords, the “broader concept” of security, including “economic, political and social aspects which go beyond the constitutional sphere of competence of the armed forces,” became the “responsibility of other sectors of society and of the State." To this end, the Peace Accords created a new institution, the National Civilian Police (PNC), to be composed of former soldiers, demobilized FMLN combatants, and civilians.

However, in the past five years, the strict lines between the armed forces and public security have started to blur. Former president Antonio Saca (2004–09) was the first president to send soldiers to the streets to assist the PNC, a protocol that Funes has continued. Recent changes in Funes’s security cabinet threaten to undermine the ideological separation between the military and the police, as does the influence of increasing U.S. security aid to Central America.

Mauricio Fumes, President of El Salvador. Image from

In November, David Mungía Payés, a recently retired military general who had previously served as Funes’s Minister of Defense, replaced Manuel Melgar, a former FMLN commander, as Minister of Public Security. This is the first time that a military officer will hold this position. Funes’s defense of his decision underscored the very concerns raised by the FMLN and many in the population.

“The designation of David Munguía Payés doesn’t constitute any violation of the spirit of the Peace Accords, nor a step backwards in the consolidation of the democratic process, much less a violation of constitutional order,” he said.

At the end of December, Eduardo Linares was removed from his position as head of the State Intelligence Agency, thus effectively removing the FMLN leadership from the security cabinet in less than two months. Many have speculated that the cabinet shakeup was influenced by the United States in light of two new agreements: the Partnership for Growth and the Central America Regional Security Initiative, an expansion of the Mérida Initiative to which the United States has designated $260 million.

High-ranking members of the Ministry of Public Security told the online newspaper El Faro that Melgar’s removal was a U.S. condition for implementing the Partnership for Growth, a series of economic and security agreements, which was signed by both countries just four days prior to his resignation. The FMLN has expressed concern that the partnership may “be inclined toward increased military participation."

Military influence seems to be re-emerging in those Central American countries where the United States has concentrated its security aid under the banner of the “War on Drugs,” namely El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

In December, Honduran president Porfirio Lobo presented a constitutional amendment to the Honduran Congress to grant police power to the armed forces at the same level of authority and independence as the National Police. On January 14, former general Otto Pérez Molina, who has been accused of genocide due to his participation in “scorched earth” operations in the 1980s, was inaugurated as President in Guatemala, the first military officer to be elected since the end of the civil war.

“It’s no coincidence that Guatemala’s new president is a general accused of genocide, El Salvador’s new minister of security is a former general, and a military officer who masterminded the coup d´état [Romeo Vásquez] is running for president in Honduras,” said Adalberto Elias, FMLN Youth Coordinator for El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador.

Beyond the challenges of organized crime and impunity, the new government in El Salvador must contend with abiding social and economic inequality, ironically, the very conditions which led to the popular struggle in the 1970s that resulted in the war. The economic agreements of the Peace Accords, by far the most limited, were effectively ignored over the last 20 years. Though Funes and the FMLN have taken several steps to fulfill these long-overdue commitments -- for example, legalizing the transfer of over 17,000 land titles to campesinos -- only recently has the new government been able to initiate any structural economic change.

In December, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly approved the FMLN’s proposed tax reform, which will eliminate income taxes on those earning less than $500 per month, increase taxes on high-earning individuals and business, and close loopholes that currently contribute to nearly $600 million per year in corporate tax evasion. The progressive reform is arguably the first action to redistribute wealth since land reform acts were signed during the war.

The upcoming March legislative and municipal elections in March will in part determine the possibility for passing more expansive legislation and, as Vice-President Sánchez-Cerén explained during the commemoration, the country’s ability “to realize the people’s hope to build a better and more dignified life.”

[Austin native Leah Wilson is a journalist and CISPES volunteer based in San Salvador. Her work has previously appeared in Z Magazine, Labor Notes, and The Rag Blog. Alexis Stoumbelis is the Executive Director of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. This article was first published at NACLA: Knowledge Beyond Borders. Find more articles by Leah Wilson on The Rag Blog.]The Rag Blog

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11 January 2011

Patricia Vonne Headlines Jan. 23 Rag Blog Benefit Bash

Graphic by James Retherford / Hot Digital Dog Design / The Rag Blog.
Latina rocker Patricia Vonne
headlines Rag Blog benefit at Jovita’s
What: Rag Blog Benefit
Who: Latina rocker Patricia Vonne and singer-songwriter Gina Chavez
Where: Jovita's, 1617 South First Street, Austin, Texas
When: Sunday, Jan. 23, 2010, 6:30-10 p.m.
How much: $10 recommended donation
The Rag Blog and Rag Radio present acclaimed Latina rocker Patricia Vonne and folk-rock singer-songwriter Gina Chavez at Jovita’s, 1617 South First Street, Austin, Texas, on Sunday, Jan. 23, from 6:30-10 p.m. Suggested donation is $10. Jovita’s full bar and restaurant menu will be available.

The event benefits the New Journalism Project, inc., a Texas 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that publishes The Rag Blog, an influential Austin-based progressive internet newsmagazine with roots in Austin’s legendary 60s underground newspaper, The Rag.

Rag Radio is a public affairs program hosted by Rag Blog editor Thorne Dreyer that airs on KOOP 91.7 FM, Austin's community radio station, every Friday from 2-3 p.m. and streams live on the internet.

Patricia Vonne and Gina Chavez will by Thorne Dreyer's guests on Rag Radio, Friday, Jan. 21. The show will include live performance.

Patricia Vonne is a Latin-roots rocker and song stylist. The Times of London called Vonne, who has toured Europe 19 times, “a hot-blooded mix of Latin Rhythm and rollicking bar-room rock,” and the Austin Chronicle said she “is quickly taking her place among Texas’ musical treasures.”

Vonne’s song “La Huerta de San Vicente” won the grand prize in the Latin division at the 2009 John Lennon Songwriting Contest, and her “Mujeres Desaparecidas” is featured on the Amnesty International website. Vonne is the sister of famed Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez.

Gina Chavez is an indie folk-rock singer-songwriter whose style has been called a cross between Sheryl Crow and Selena. Chavez is also an activist who established Austin 4 El Salvador, a college scholarship fund for girls from a gang-dominated suburb of San Salvador where Chavez spends time working in the community.

Those unable to attend can still help out with a much-needed contribution to the New Journalism Project. Please go here to donate through PayPal, or send a check to the New Journalism Project, inc, P.O. Box 126442, Austin, Texas 78761-6442.

For more information, contact Thorne Dreyer at, or Alice Embree at

The Rag Blog

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14 December 2010

Leah Wilson : Imperialist Uses of WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks cables were used by corporate media to defame the government of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes. Photo from ESAhora.

Wikileaks, El Salvador, and imperialist interests
How corporate media turned a diplomatic crisis into a political advantage for the U.S.
By Leah Wilson / The Rag Blog / December 14, 2010

SAN SALVADOR -- Since the “Cablegate” leaks were first announced, I have been championing Wikileaks and Julian Assange as at the forefront of the struggle for government transparency. I considered the release of these cables a major blow to the Empire, exposing the unsavory practices of U.S. foreign policy and its arrogant, hegemonic worldview.

The cables I was reading were mostly just providing proof that the U.S. was consciously doing what we already knew it was doing: legitimizing the Honduran coup despite being fully aware it was an illegal coup d’état, trying to isolate Venezuela and Cuba, pressuring foreign governments to not investigate war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, spying on heads of state and foreign functionaries, etc.

And then the first cables that mention El Salvador were published by the Spanish online news source I was in a San Salvador pizzeria Tuesday night when the TV that had only been background noise up until that point grabbed my attention: “Breaking News: Wikileaks cables call President Funes’ government schizophrenic.”

At the end of November Salvadoran newspapers began reporting that 1,119 of the more than 250,000 cables leaked as part of Cablegate mentioned El Salvador. My friends and I were waiting for the first ones to be published so we could see plain and simple what dirty deeds the U.S. Embassy had been up to in El Salvador.

On Tuesday night, we got our wish, but we should have known to be careful what we wish for. What I saw on the TV news and read in the newspapers was not about the dirty deeds of the U.S. Embassy, but rather outright defamation of the government of President Mauricio Funes and the leftist party that brought him to power, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The first five cables that were released by, which apparently also has in its hands the other 1,114 cables mentioning El Salvador, are basically political updates sent to the U.S. by Robert Blau, who was the Charge d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador at the time. In September 2010 President Obama named the new U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte and Blau became the Deputy Chief of Mission, continuing as one of the Ambassador’s close advisors.

His memos contain a barrage of false accusations and distortions about the FMLN and its leaders as well as exaggerated declarations about conflict and tensions between President Funes and the FMLN members that are part of his cabinet. To read more analysis about the actual content of the San Salvador cables and their impact, I suggest you read the communiqué put together by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

Overall, the release of the documents has done nothing more than give more ammunition to the Salvadoran right wing in its ongoing attempt to discredit and undermine the Funes administration and the FMLN. As I said to a friend after reading the initial coverage, “Imperialism sure is astute. It managed to transform a major diplomatic crisis into a political advantage.”

Argentine Marxist Néstor Kohan explains in his book Approaches to Marxism that capitalism is incredibly adaptable. It is constantly entering into crises but these crises in themselves never mark the death of capitalism, it simply adapts and bounces back even more voraciously. The same can be said for U.S. imperialism, currently capitalism’s main tool for global expansion.

[While this falls outside the scope of this article, I would like to point out that Kohan isn’t a fatalist but goes on to explain that organized, mass resistance with an alternative proposal (socialism) is the only thing capable of taking capitalism down.]

Imperialism proved adaptable and the major corporate media sources of the world found a way to avert focus from all the information in the cables that incriminates the U.S. -- both the Obama administration and past administrations -- and channel public attention towards the information that makes the U.S.’s declared and undeclared “enemies” look bad.

To understand how they did this, I will point you to five words that I learned on my first day as a Communications major: “The medium is the message.” What Marshall McLuhan meant when he wrote this phrase that would begin advertising, public relations, and journalism textbooks for decades to come, is that the form in which one presents an idea has more impact than the idea itself. This brings us to how Wikileaks decided to present the more than 250,000 diplomatic leaked cables from around the world.

Wikileaks selected four major international corporate news agencies as the filter for the leaked cables: France’s Le Monde, Spain’s El País, Germany’s Der Spiegel, and Britain’s The Guardian. The Guardian then shared cables with The New York Times, bringing the total number of news agencies to five.

Wikileaks chose not to publish everything on their website so that all the information is transparently available and journalists of all types -- independent, establishment, right leaning, left leaning, etc. -- could then drudge through it, analyze it, and determine what should be reported on.

Instead, five major newspapers are deciding which cables they want us to see and also formulating the first analysis the public receives about what the content of the chosen cables means, perpetuating corporate media’s domination of information.

Let’s return to the San Salvador cables as an example. El País journalist Maite Rico, who wrote the article about the first five released cables, is well known for using her journalistic platform to undermine the Latin American Left. When she’s not omitting information to make Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez look bad, she’s busy fabricating information about the death of Raúl Reyes, a leader of Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC).

Her false reporting on the Colombian military attack on a FARC encampment in which Reyes was killed was later used to sully the names of leftist leaders throughout Latin America as guilty by association with the FARC. She also published a book called Marcos: the great imposter that does nothing more than defame the leader of the Mexican Zapatista movement.

The examples of her hostility towards Latin America’s leftist leaders go on and on. And this is the person apparently deciding which leaked U.S. Embassy cables about El Salvador we get to see. No wonder the first five released cables contain opinions of the U.S. Embassy that could potentially damage President Funes and the FMLN’s credibility.

I would like to see the cables sent by the U.S. Embassy during the 2004 Salvadoran presidential campaign, when overt intervention by the Ambassador and the U.S. State Department helped turn a close race between the FMLN’s Shafick Handal and the far-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate Tony Saca into a decisive victory for the latter. But I have to wait until El País decides they are worthy of reporting.

I would also like to see the cables sent in 2007, when Salvadoran police trained at the U.S.-run International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) violently attacked a peaceful protest against water privatization.

And, of course, it would be informative to read the cables sent during the Salvadoran armed conflict, when the U.S. was “advising” and equipping the repressive Salvadoran military as it carried out civilian massacres. I guess I’ll have to wait for those too. I’m not holding my breath.

As long as Wikileaks is letting mainstream corporate media sources decide which cables we get to see and what we should glean from them, those sources are going to publish information in the interest of maintaining the thing that has served their pocketbooks so well up until now -- the status quo.

As David de Ugarte wrote in his editorial for Sociedad de Las indias Electrónicas, "From a state of panic to Wikileaks and why Assange doesn’t make us freer," “At this moment Assange and WikiLeaks occupy a central role in representing the confluence of interests of media corporations and States. It is true that both groups of power briefly enter in friction... but it is precisely because they converge, not because they diverge.”

It is no surprise that five corporate news agencies would serve imperialist interests. So, why would Assange entrust only them with information that has the potential to undermine those interests? I don’t know. We can all speculate on the answer to that question. I just know that it’s the duty of those of us who support alternative media as a method to emancipate ourselves from corporate control of information to speak up and also examine the cables and analysis coming out with a critical eye.

[Austin native Leah Wilson is a solidarity activist and collaborator with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). She lives in El Salvador.]

The Rag Blog

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27 December 2009

Deadly Environment : Latin American Anti-Mining Activists Murdered

A close up of murdered anti-mining activist Marcelo Rivera's eyes on a mural painted in front of the cultural center that he founded in San Isidro, El Salvador. Photo by Dominque Jarry-Shore / The Dominion.

Grassroots movements met with deadly violence:
Mining faces challenges in Latin America

By Val Liveoak / The Rag Blog / December 27, 2009
See 'Who Killed Marcelo Rivera? Prominent anti-mining activist murdered in El Salvador,' by Dominique Jarry-Shore, and 'Chiapas Anti-Mining Organizer Murdered,' by Kristen Bricker, Below.
There are many grassroots struggles against corporate domination going on in the Empire that we hear little about. I would argue that the military coup in Honduras was triggered in large part by these issues, and I am aware of similar struggles in Mexico, Colombia, and Costa Rica, not to mention West Virginia, Canada and the American West. And now, with the article below, in El Salvador.

Mining companies are the epitome of an extractive industry; typically flaunting concerns about health, labor issues, and the environment, they focus on ripping out tons of earth to get ounces of ore, which is almost always exported outside of the region (and in many cases outside the country) in which it is produced.

And the profits also leave the area as fast as possible. In order to increase their profits, companies must pay the lowest possible wages for hard, dangerous and dirty work, and generally use poisonous chemicals on site, mostly failing to keep them from entering local water, and air. Then they leave behind an ugly and ravaged landscape that can never return to a condition that will even minimally support life without costly rehabilitation -- which they never do voluntarily.

The growing world concern with environmental issues has little success when up against these multinational corporations. Not only is it hard to take on the powerful behemoths, but they do their work (their dirty work) in isolated areas, and often control access to their sites, preventing most people from seeing the ugliness, the near enslavement of the miners, and the effects of the poisons -- many slow acting -- that seep into the earth. Think black lung, mercury poisoning, massive fish kills, hundreds of acres of moonscapes where before there were verdant mountains.

And like other industries that would exploit and extract the most from "their" resources, they are always ready to persecute, threaten, or kill opponents, whether they are labor leaders, environmental activists, concerned local residents, or terminally ill employees.

While global warming was on most minds at the climate conference in Copenhagen, Ecuador offered an innovative way to confront both the local negative effects of the petroleum industry -- an archetype of an extractive industry -- and the long term effects to the earth and the atmosphere of the consumption of the product: they offered to leave newly found Amazonian petroleum in the ground in exchange for financial support for other types of investment in their country.

It is a shame that El Salvador's celebrated FMLN President does not have such a -- dare I say it -- revolutionary offer to make. Instead, as we see from the article below, he will need to be pushed to provide even the simplest protection for Salvadorans who are struggling against a goliath of a company.

Please see the two stories about murdered mining activists in El Salvador and in Chiapas, Mexico, below.

[Texan Val Liveoak is a nonviolent activist currently dividing her time between El Salvador and San Antonio. She coordinates Peacebuilding en las Americas, the Latin American Initiative of Friends Peace Teams that also has programs in the African Great Lakes region and in Indonesia.]

Esaparición y asesinato del activista Marcelo Rivera
His relatives, friends, neighbors. His students from the school, attendees of his art workshops, colleagues of the association (ASIC). His comrades from the party, his partners in the anti-mining fight [in El Salvador]. Everyone. Perhaps even his murderers.

Almost always it is the family members and closest friends who say goodbye to a fallen one by crying profusely. It is rare at a funeral to see everyone in attendance crying. The burial of Gustavo Marcelo Rivera Moreno is one of those exceptional cases, hundreds of children, youth and elders, men and women, all crying together...

-- The Media Coop
Who Killed Marcelo Rivera?
Prominent anti-mining activist murdered in El Salvador

By Dominique Jarry-Shore / December 16, 2009

SAN ISIDRO, El Salvador -- Death and violence are an unfortunate part of everyday life in El Salvador. Local and national newspapers, with their graphic photos of bloodied corpses, track the daily tally of homicide and crime in a country that has one of the highest murder rates in the world. But even by those standards Marcelo Rivera’s torture and death were shocking.

During the evening of June 18, 2009, the community leader and anti-mining activist disappeared when he was lured away from a routine trip a few kilometers from his home in San Isidro. Twelve days later, his body was removed from an empty well 27 meters deep. His body had no hair or fingernails, his trachea had been broken and the thumb of his right hand was stuck in his mouth like a baby’s, tied in place with a piece of rope around his naked body. He had been beaten and his face was unrecognizable.

Rivera was a respected member of the community. He founded a cultural center popular with youth in San Isidro, and had been in charge of the finances of the local chapter of the FMLN, the country’s leftist and currently ruling political party. He had also campaigned vigorously against the El Dorado mining project in Cabanas, owned by Canadian company Pacific Rim Mining Corp.

Vancouver-based Pacific Rim is a publicly traded company that has subsidiaries in El Salvador and the U.S. The company is a junior exploration company that specializes in gold exploration. Pacific Rim has invested $80 million into the El Dorado project in about seven years. They claim to have invested several million dollars in social programs in Cabanas.

But the project has generated conflict in a region characterized by poverty and a dependence on remittances from family members in the U.S. Money provided by Pacific Rim for health and education is seen as a way of buying support from the people and tension is high between those for and against the mine.

The environmental effects of the mine, such as the contamination of soil and water sources like aquifers and wells, are a big worry among residents in Cabanas. Some community members have also complained about the displacement of communities to make room for the mine. On a social level, the arrival of Pacific Rim has generated conflict and violence in the area.

Apart from Rivera’s death, there have been two assassination attempts that seem to be related to anti-mining activism: In July, a priest who hosts a local radio show used as a platform for his anti-mining stance was run off the road. A few weeks later, the leader of a local community development association that is against the mine was shot eight times. Both men now have 24-hour police protection.

Rivera’s brother Miguel Rivera said his brother’s murder has caused fear among those opposed to the project. “People we work with who are against the mining project are afraid because someone has died,” he said. “They say, ‘I could be the second one. I could be next.’”

According to lawyer and activist Hector Berrios, Marcelo Rivera had already been the victim of death threats and at least one assassination attempt near his home in January 2009. “The question is,” Berrios said, “who benefited from Marcelo’s death?”

For his part, Pacific Rim CEO Tom Shrake said the company condemns violence and has spoken to employees to see if they know anything about the murder.

“They have assured us that they had absolutely nothing to do with it,” Shrake said in a telephone interview from his hotel in San Salvador.

“As far as they know—and I’ve heard this from the local police as well—his death had nothing to do with his mining activism. Now whether that’s true or not we’ll see. But we have no knowledge of it.”

That police theory -- that Rivera’s death was related to a gang dispute after a night of drinking and not his anti-mining activity -- didn’t make sense to Rivera’s family when they heard it. Rivera was not someone who associated with gang members and he didn’t drink alcohol.

“The police invented a scenario to be able to tell people something, because a lot of people were asking about Marcelo,” Miguel Rivera said. “The police theory was that he was killed the same day he disappeared, or early the next day.” But the doctors who examined Marcelo’s body told Miguel that his brother died about eight days after he disappeared.

That was just one of several inconsistencies in the case. Following a complaint they received from Marcelo’s family, El Salvador’s Public Attorney’s Office for the Defense of Human Rights found there had been negligence on the part of the police.

“We found some failures in terms of the lateness in mobilizing to do inspections in places where the body could be,” Gerardo Alegria, a lawyer for the Public Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, said. “That includes where they found the body. The police had known for a few days already that the body was there.”

Alegria also said the police failed to gather information at the scene that would have helped solve the crime. His office is now keeping an eye on the investigation and Alegria said things have improved. Five adults and one minor have been arrested so far and are awaiting a hearing. But in this part of the world, there is a lot to be said about intellectual versus physical perpetrators of a crime, and questions remain about who was really behind the killing.

Meanwhile El Dorado has been at a standstill. The company stopped investing serious money into the mine about two years ago, when Tony Saca, president of El Salvador at the time, made public statements indicating Pacific Rim’s permits would not be honoured.

Pacific Rim has since filed for arbitration under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), although Shrake said he is confident a settlement will be reached.

As for local opposition to the project, Shrake said that is something that was expected all along. “There’s just a huge international industry that opposes any extractive industry anywhere in the world at this point. So if you don’t expect opposition to any extractive project, you’re living in a closet,” he said.

“You will have people who are emotional about it and are in your face about it but you have to act like Mahatma Ghandi. You cannot react in any way, shape or form.”

Gold mining, a practice that relies on cyanide or mercury for extraction, has long come under fire from environmentalists because of its potential for contamination. Pacific Rim markets itself as an environmentally responsible company that has “raised the bar for environmental protection.”

According to Shrake, the El Dorado design will use two impermeable liners to prevent tailings from coming in contact with the ground. They’ll also use a process called INCO to destroy the cyanide used and they’ll build their own water reservoir instead of using groundwater, purifying the water before it goes back into the water system.

Environmentalist Luis Gonzalez works with the Salvadoran Ecological Unit (UNES) in San Salvador. “It’s a concept, but on an industrial level, green mining doesn’t exist,” he said. “By definition what you’re doing is extracting a non-renewable resource.”

Gonzalez said the INCO process recycles only part of the cyanide and the rest goes into the ground. “Exploration is like exploitation on a smaller scale,” he said, noting people in Cabanas reported their wells and watering holes dried up after exploration activity by Pacific Rim.

Shrake said that was one incident involving some shoddy work on the part of a contractor and that it won’t happen again.

“Once we realized what had happened, within a day we set up a series of tanks so that they’d have water while we corrected the problem... We went back to the drill holes and cemented them from bottom to top and plugged up this disruption to the fracture system and the water’s flowing again, and has been flowing since we made the correction.”

While the future of El Dorado remains unclear, Miguel Rivera has gone ahead and set up the Marcelo Rivera Justice and Freedom Committee. He is holding out hope that his brother’s murderer will be brought to justice.

“He was my brother. Ever since we were little we spent a lot of time together and shared ideas. When we started finding out more about the impacts of mining we started spreading information to people. Marcelo was the person who had a relationship with the community.”

[Dominique Jarry-Shore is a freelance journalist based in Chiapas, Mexico. She traveled to El Salvador with the help of a grant from the International Development Research Center in Ottawa.]

Source / The Dominion

Anti- mining activist was shot to death Dec. 27. Mariano Abarca. Photo from narocsphere.
And in Mexico:
Chiapas anti-mining organizer murdered
Mariano Abarca led a growing movement to kick Canadian mining companies out of Mexican communities
By Kristin Bricker / December 1, 2009

CHIAPAS, Mexico -- Mariano Abarca Roblero, one of Mexico’s most prominent anti-mining organizers, was shot to death on the evening of November 27, 2009, in front of his house in Chicomuselo, Chiapas. He left behind a wife and four children. Another man was wounded in the shooting.

The incident came just days after Abarca filed charges against two Blackfire employees, Ciro Roblero Perez and Luis Antonio Flores Villatoro, for threatening to shoot him if he didn’t stop organizing against Canadian mining company Blackfire’s barium mine in Chicomuselo.

According to a formal complaint filed by a government employee who works in the Chicomuselo municipal building, Roblero Perez arrived at the municipal building to say that he had gone to look for Abarca to “fuck him up in a hail of bullets.” He also reportedly said that Abarca and other people were on a list of people Blackfire management wants to hurt. Blackfire public relations manager Luis Antonio Flores Villatoro was mentioned in the government employee’s complaint as one of the people responsible for the list.

Ejido authorities from the Nueva Morelia ejido in Chicomuselo county took the complaint seriously and helped Abarca launch an investigation. The day before the murder, Roblero Perez and Flores Villatoro were summoned to testify regarding the alleged death threats, but they failed to appear.

[An ejido is commonly-held land traditionally managed by assembly.]

A history of harassment

Even though local authorities acted to try to protect Abarca, the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining (REMA) blames the Chiapas state government for failing to protect the mining leader. On the contrary, the state government seems to have been complicit in Blackfire’s legal harassment of Abarca.

On August 17, 2009, unidentified armed men in unmarked cars kidnapped Abarca as he was leaving an elementary school in Chicomuselo. He had visited the school to request permission on behalf of his organization, REMA, to use the building for an anti-mining meeting scheduled for August 29-30.

The kidnappers turned out to be police. They had arrested Abarca on charges filed by Blackfire regarding a June-July 2009 highway blockade REMA set up to prevent the passage of Blackfire trucks. REMA was protesting the company’s failure to comply with promises it allegedly made regarding community development projects and environmental stewardship. According to community leaders, Blackfire’s open-pit barium mine uses too much of the area’s scarce water resources. They are concerned that the pollution could effect their crop cultivation in the near future.

Acting on Blackfire’s formal complaint, the state government charged Abarca with attacks against public roadways, criminal association, organized crime, and offenses against the peace. Theoretically, organized crime charges are reserved for drug, arms, and human traffickers, and other members of Mexico’s expansive mafia network. However, the Chiapas government has been known to accuse activists and community organizers of organized crime in order to take advantage of restricted due process rights for people accused of organized crime.

That is what happened in Abarca’s case. The organized crime charge allowed the Chiapas government to imprison him under the highly controversial and internationally criticized legal instrument of “arraigo” or pre-charge detention. Under arraigo, the government can arrest a suspect and isolate him or her for months while it pressures and sometimes tortures the person into confessing.

The state government detained Abarca for eight days before it ceded to international public pressure to release him. Abarca was released and the charges were dropped due to lack of evidence. His lawyer, Miguel Angel de los Santos, criticized the Chiapas government for ceding to the mining company’s pressure to arrest Abarca. “There was no legal justification for his arrest and detention. Preliminary investigation began on June 12th, two days after the blockade, and was only just beginning to come together. The investigation had not advanced,” he told Proceso in August following Abarca’s release.

Structural adjustment strikes again

Social discontent regarding mines in Mexico has been steadily building over the past 10 years, beginning when the effects of a World Bank-mandated mining sector deregulation scheme were first felt. A confidential World Bank document entitled “Implementation Completion Report: Mexico Mining Sector Restructuring Project,” which Narco News makes available to the public, outlines exactly how a nine-year loan project drastically transformed Mexico’s mining sector.

The project, first proposed by the Word Bank in 1989 and quickly adopted by the Mexican government, aimed to deregulate the mining industry in Mexico. The Bank proposed the project because, as its Implementation Completion Report (ICR) explains,
Past lending of the Bank for mining in Mexico was oriented towards specific investment projects, with direct lines of credit to the sector... The lessons learned from those operations were that the continued development of the mining sector required increased access to land rights, reduced ownership limitations, revision of the tax legislation, a restructuring of existing institutional setups, as well as policies that stimulate private investment in mining by both domestic and foreign firms. The Bank Mining Sector Review identified an inadequate regulatory and institutional framework as the major constraint to increase private investment and further growth of the sector.
One of the Bank’s main goals for the project was to open up Mexico’s previously protected national mining industry to foreign companies; the Bank listed “open the sector to foreigners” as its first “strategy to restructure the sector.” It hoped to do so by privatizing state-owned mining companies, slashing taxes, awarding mineral and land rights to private companies, and facilitating foreign companies’ ownership of Mexican land in order to “contribute to the increased exploration and exploitation of the vast mining potential of the country, to take advantage of Mexico’s strategic location near the United States and Canada.”

The Bank proposed a set of changes to Mexican law in its Mining Sector Report, and the Mexican government -- at that point still under one-party rule -- rushed to implement them under a plan called the National Mining Modernization Program. In just four years (1990-1994), the legal framework for mining in Mexico underwent a radical change. Before the ink on the new laws was dry, the Bank began to dole out money to private mining companies to “help finance the surge in demand for investment funding that was expected to result from the improved policy and institutional setting for mining operations.”

The Bank was thrilled with the results of the National Mining Modernization Program and its subsequent loans. According to the Bank, over the course of the project, which ended in 1998, over 8.7 million hectares of land were released and 17,220 new mining concessions were granted.

As a result of the legal changes mandated by the loan, the time required for processing mining concessions went down from five years to five months, and the Mexican government’s backlog of about 14,000 concession requests that were pending since 1989 disappeared virtually overnight.

The Bank was so pleased with the results of the Mining Sector Restructuring Project that it wrote, “Future Bank participation in the sector does not seem justified anymore, in view that mining exploration/exploitation is now open to domestic and foreign investors.”

The Bank’s structural adjustment of Mexico’s mining sector has played a key role in the battle for “land and territory” (as the Zapatistas refer to it) in the country. Private ownership, increased economic pressure on small and subsistence farmers, and top-down “development” projects are acutely felt in mineral-rich communities.

According to Gustavo Castro Soto of the Chiapas-based non-profit Otros Mundos, “Beginning in 2000, almost 10% of the national territory has been ceded to transnational companies through mining concessions.” REMA notes that in Chiapas, 15.21% of the state’s total territory has been ceded through mining concessions. Many of those concessions don’t expire until the year 2050. If the social unrest that frequently follows mining concessions is any indicator, Mexicans are not willingly handing over their land to foreign mining companies.

Mining industry under fire

Mariono Abarca’s murder comes at a time that the mining industry in Mexico is feeling the heat from Mexico’s social movements. Inspired by the national movement of communities affected by hydroelectric dam projects, mining-affected communities are joining forces in a unified front against destructive mining practices.

In 2008, representatives from Chicomuselo travelled to the state of Jalisco to found REMA during the First Encounter of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining. Representatives from mining-affected communities in eleven states and the Federal District participated in the historic event: Chihuahua, Sonora, Nayarit, Jalisco, Oaxaca, Chiapas, Guerrero, Mexico City, México State, San Luis Potosí, Coahuila, and Veracruz.

REMA agreed at that meeting to raise consciousness about the social and environmental effects of mining. It also pledged that member organizations would support each other in their struggles against destructive mines in their communities.

One of the most high-profile joint actions that REMA carried out was a protest encampment in front of the Canadian Embassy in Mexico City this past July. Abarca and representatives from other communities affected by Canadian mining companies participated in the encampment, which demanded the withdrawal of Metallic Resources/NewGold, a Canadian company, from Cerro de San Pedro, San Luis Potosi. At the protest, Abarca spoke about Canadian mining companies’ contamination of traditional water sources.

Following the protest, mining-affected communities won a temporary victory: just last month, a federal judge ordered that the Cerro de San Pedro mine be closed because the mining company had failed to comply with environmental stipulations. The closure comes after 10 years of struggle waged by a broad coalition of San Luis Potosi civil society organizations, which include organizations linked to Mexico’s center-left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) and groups affiliated with the Zapatistas' Other Campaign. They opposed the gold mining project because, in addition to environmental concerns, the Cerro de San Pedro is an official historic monument. NewGold has promised to appeal the ruling.

In Chiapas, Abarca led a previously mentioned highway blockade that prevented Blackfire trucks from entering and leaving the Chicomuselo mine this past June and July. The community was protesting the company’s excessive use of scarce water supplies, its failure to follow through on commitments it reportedly made to the community, and its back-door maneuverings that allowed it to purchase 13.5 hectares of ejido land without the required approval of the ejido assembly. Blackfire claims it lost $120,000 pesos ($9,334 dollars) as a direct result of the blockade.

This past August, REMA held its Second Encounter of the Mexican Network of People Affected by Mining in Chiapas. Guatemalan communities who are resisting mining projects traveled to Chiapas to participate and share their experienes. Abarca helped organize the Encounter, and as previously mentioned, it was during the Encounter’s organizing process that state police kidnapped Abarca and charged him with organized crime at Blackfire’s request.

A communique signed by 25 Mexican organizations from six states and Mexico City holds Blackfire’s owners responsible for Abarca’s shooting and any resulting violence in the region. They called for a protest encampment outside of the Canadian Embassy and the Ministry of Economy headquarters in Mexico City on December 3 in solidarity with the people of Chicomuselo.

Source / NarcoSphere
The Rag Blog

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21 November 2009

Val Liveoak : Remembering the 'Tope' in El Salvador

Mural at the University of Central America in San Salvador depicts martyred Jesuit priests and suggests complicity of the nation’s business and political leadership.
Slain Jesuit priests honored in El Salvador

In El Salvador, six Jesuit priests are being honored twenty years after their murders by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military. On Monday [November 16, 2009], the priests were bestowed the nation’s highest civilian award, marking the first time the Salvadoran government has honored the priests since their deaths. In a ceremony attended by the priests’ families, Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes said his country is “pulling] back a heavy veil of darkness and lies to let in the light of justice and truth.” -- Democracy Now (see story below)
Twenty years later:
Remembering the 'Tope'
A time of fear in El Salvador

By Val Liveoak / The Rag Blog / November 21, 2009

I lived in El Salvador from August 1986 to September 1990. I worked on a Catholic parish team in a small town in the eastern part of the country, training village health promoters.

Our town in northern Usulatán was very isolated, literally the end of the road, with nothing beyond it but mountains and the unpatrolled border with Honduras. But in November 1989 we joined the whole country in the time of fear and danger called the “Tope” -- the “final offensive” of the FMLN, the rebel guerrillas.

Most of the fighting was in the larger cities, with street fighting especially in San Salvador’s poor neighborhoods. The guerrillas expected that the population would rise up in support of their offensive, and that they would thus win the long civil war against the government. As it turned out, that didn’t happen in numbers sufficient to turn the tide, and the war continued for another two years.

We had little news, and being far from most of the action, were spared the worst of the struggle. We’d get some radio news, from the FMLN’s clandestine station, and occasionally from Voice of America or BBC. We knew about the simultaneous U.S. attack on Panama City as the army went in to arrest the then president, Manuel Noriega. But all the highways were shut down by a paro, a traffic blockade enforced by the guerrillas on a national level. And phone and electric lines were cut, too. There was no way to know what was happening to our friends in other places, nor to let them know how we were doing.

The offensive went on for many days. We could hear sporadic artillery in the next town over, but our town remained quiet, although government soldiers from a large garrison in town were out patrolling. We probably continued our visits to outlying villages 2-3 times a week since we went on foot anyway. But mainly we hunkered down and waited it out.

On the morning of Nov. 16, the news came that the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter had been found shot execution style at their house at University of Central America, the UCA. We struggled with fear since we also lived in a parish house, beside the church. Would more priests, nuns and lay workers be targeted? Would there be men who would come in the night for us?

During that time we had a young Salvadoran man from the capital working with us. He had been an active member of popular organizations in his poor neighborhood. He became filled with fear for his safety when the radio announced the death of a near relative in the fighting. He quickly decided to flee the country, and began the perilous trip by land to exile in the U.S. The last we heard, he was living as an undocumented worker in Los Angeles.

After over two weeks of fighting, things finally calmed down and the guerrillas went back to the hills. After the traffic blockade was lifted, we went into the capital to see how others in our program were doing, to call home and let people know we were ok.

Our friends had had to flee the house where our volunteers stayed since it was in the crossfire when people in the house next door began firing at soldiers in the streets. To find safety, they went to the Hilton where the international press stayed, and we shared the room there with four or five other volunteers for a few days. (The Hilton may not have been all that safe—one journalist found rifle shells pressed under his door, a not so subtle threat.)

On the TV there we watched CNN tell the story of our colleague who had been arrested by the Salvadoran police and charged with having weapons buried in her yard, which she denied. Senator Christopher Dodd and other from the U.S. intervened, and after more than a week, she was released from jail and deported. But as an aside to that story, then Undersecretary of State Elliot Abrams said, “Well, we know that some of the U.S. citizens who claim to be missionaries support the guerrillas.” I’ll never forget my outrage -- I shouted at the TV, ”Why not just paint targets on our backs!”

After the fighting, the destruction and the killing, things settled back into an uneasy calm in the city. Soldiers and police patrolled the streets, arms at the ready. Cleanup began, and the last of the burials took place. Death threats and oppression of the opposition continued. There were sporadic battles in the rural area. In our town, the soldiers patrolled and noisily trained in the early mornings right outside the church. Everyone kept their heads down a little lower. The memorial chapel for the Jesuits was built and regular services were held there. Life, such as it is during a war, went on.

[Texan Val Liveoak is a nonviolent activist, currently living in El Salvador and San Antonio. She coordinates Peacebuilding en las Americas, the Latin American Initiative of Friends Peace Teams that also has programs in the African Great Lakes region and in Indonesia.]

Demonstrators in San Salvador in 2008 hold banners depicting six Jesuit priests massacred in 1989 in El Salvador. Photo by Edgar Romero / AP.
In Landmark Ceremony,
El Salvador Honors Slain Jesuit Priests

November 18, 2009

In El Salvador, six Jesuit priests are being honored twenty years after their murders by the US-backed Salvadoran military. On Monday, the priests were bestowed the nation’s highest civilian award, marking the first time the Salvadoran government has honored the priests since their deaths. In a ceremony attended by the priests’ families, Salvadorian President Mauricio Funes said his country is “pulling] back a heavy veil of darkness and lies to let in the light of justice and truth.” El Salvador’s defense minister also announced the military is ready to ask for forgiveness and open its archives to a long-sought investigation. The Jesuits had been outspoken advocates for the poor and critics of human rights abuses committed by the ARENA government. They were killed on November 16, 1989, when a military unit entered the Central American University campus and shot them to death. The priests’ housekeeper and her daughter were also killed in the attack. The current head of the university, Priest Jose Maria Tojeira, welcomed the posthumous recognition.

Priest Jose Maria Tojeira:
Many people from all parties—of course, ARENA, as well—said the priests were great men who helped to end war before, because their martyrdom pushed to accelerate peace talks. But never in twenty years has there been an official word of recognition for these people’s dignity. This is the first time, and I think it’s a very important symbol that should be opened to all victims from El Salvador.
The order to kill the priests is widely believed to have come from senior ARENA party and military leaders, but no high-ranking official has ever been charged

Source / Democracy Now
The Rag Blog

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25 May 2009

El Salvador : President-Elect Funes Inherits Major Problems

Poverty in El Salvador. Photo from

Millennium Development Objectives:
President Saca leaves President-elect Fumes with some serious obstacles in the areas of poverty, health, education and equality
By Val Liveoak / The Rag Blog / May 26, 2009

[As President-elect Mauricio Funes prepares to take the reins in El Salvador, The Rag Blog’s Val Liveoak helps us understand the tough job he faces. This article is translated and adapted from reports on]

El Salvador is only close to achieving two of 12 Millennium Development Objectives that were projected for 2015, a 98 page document released May 21 disclosed.

Concerning the goal of reducing of poverty, outgoing President Elías Antonio Saca’s administration inherited in 2004 a lowering of the percentage of people in absolute poverty to below 14.1%. However he admitted in a press conference on May 28, that it is a “national disgrace” that over 800,000 Salvadorans remain in absolute poverty.

The document showed that the current administration failed to improve on most of the indices of poverty in the country, and on those that were improved on, the improvement was the result of previous administrations. Even members of President Saca’s own ARENA (considered to be the right-wing party) criticized President Saca as having failed to maintain the social image and policies of the ARENA party.

Although there has been a decrease in the percentage of the population earning less than $1 a day, general poverty increased from 30.7% in2006 to 34.6% in 2007, and in rural areas from 35.8% to 43.8% -- and sources expect that the effects of the world-wide economic crisis may raise the figures as much as 7% when reports for 2008 are in.

When President Mauricia Funes is inaugurated on June 1, he will receive a record high deficit of over a billion dollars, as well as a 48% decrease in taxes and fees collected, a decrease of 14% in the money sent from Salvadorans abroad to their families, and so little advances in the areas which impact the Millennium Objectives, that reaching them by 2015 seems farther away than ever.

Education and Equality

As far as the Objective’s goals for universal primary education, there have been increases in the number of children entering primary schools, but the goal of 100% of students who enter first grade completing fifth grade, classified as “probable” in 2004, is downgraded to “difficult to achieve” in the 2009 report. Under the objective of promoting equality among the sexes and women’s autonomy, the goals of equal numbers of boys and girls receiving primary education has been over 100% completed (because there are more girls in the population than boys), but the goal of raising the proportion of women working in non-agricultural sectors to 50% has gone from “very likely” in 2004 to “difficult to achieve” in 2009.


In regard to infant and child mortality, El Salvador is on track to reach its 2015 goals of 17 per 1,000 deaths of children five and under, and 14 per 1,000 of infant mortality, and is also succeeding in vaccinating all children against measles. But the predicted rise in general poverty will likely decelerate the rates of improvement in these areas, and currently the health sector is in crisis -- so that even in cities where improvement in mortality indices was most demonstrated, care has decreased in both quality and quantity. As always, medical services are less available in the rural area. Due to different ways of reporting statistics, maternal mortality cannot be compared in the 2004-2009 period.

In the area of reducing infectious diseases including malaria and AIDS, even the hope of gaining a wide understanding of AIDS risks among ages 15-24 by 2015 is categorized as “difficult to achieve,” while reducing the numbers of cases of AIDs appears impossible.

As far as potable drinking water and sanitation services, the goals are of 80.5% and 89% coverage in 2015, and progress toward these goals is adequate, but the availability of potable water varies with the season, and during dry seasons, water is scarce and expensive. Some of the public water systems have been turned over to private companies, under the neo-conservative policies of past ARENA administrations. While in some cases this has led to an increase in investments in infrastructure in urbanized markets, the cost of water has risen significantly wherever water is supplied by for-profit companies.

The public water program, ANDA, has received large government subsidies, but still operates at a loss, leading its director to call for more public education about conservation. In some slum neighborhoods, water for a household’s drinking, cooking and bathing can cost as much as $1 a day -- when clothing has to be washed, costs are much higher, or residents walk to a (probably polluted) river or stream to wash.

Additionally the goal of reducing hunger by 50% was also classified as “difficult to achieve.”

Concerns that social spending may fail to sustain the gains toward these objectives were voiced by economist Juan Héctor Vidal: “El Salvador has the lowest rate of social spending in Latin America. Even not taking this into account, the spending is poorly administered, and [these factors] may reverse some of the gains we have achieved.”

[Texan Val Liveoak is a nonviolent activist, currently living in El Salvador and San Antonio. She coordinates Peacebuilding en las Americas, the Latin American Initiative of Friends Peace Teams that also has programs in the African Great Lakes region and in Indonesia.]

The Rag Blog

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13 May 2009

Alice Embree on El Salvador : Reflections on a People’s Victory, Part 3: Face of Victory

'Venceremos!' he shouted, and asked that we put his picture on the internet. Photo by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog.

The face of victory
It was in the small, dusty town of Rosario de Mora that I witnessed the historic election in El Salvador.
By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / May 13, 2009

[This is the third in a four-part series on El Salvador by The Rag Blog's Alice Embree, who was part of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), an international team observing the March 15, 2009, Salvadoran elections. For a live report, join the author and others at Monkey Wrench Books in Austin on Wednesday, May 13, at 7 p.m. For the previous articles in this series, go here.]

It was in the small, dusty town of Rosario de Mora that I witnessed the historic election in El Salvador. Our seventy-member CISPES delegation was trained as election observers by an organization called FUNDASPAD. In the air-conditioned splendor of the San Salvador Radisson, we presented our passports, were photographed and given credential badges. FUNDASPAD issued each of us a vest, cap, and canvas tote bag with the election code and observer rules. We were among 4,000 international observers that included delegations from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU). Although the election was largely invisible to U.S. media, the rest of the world knew history was in the making.

Decked out in our tan attire designating us as “Observacion Internacional de Eleccion 2009,” we were divided into teams. My four-person team was assigned to Rosario de Mora. Rosario had one election center in a school with sixteen voting tables. We would each have four tables to watch. Annie from Portland was designated our leader because of her Spanish skill and previous observer experience. We paid a visit to the town the day before the election and introduced ourselves to both FMLN and ARENA representatives. Then we were allowed to see the school. Annie expressed concern about an elevated ramp entrance close to a voting booth location because someone could look down to see people as they voted. The next day the arrangement of tables was slightly altered in response to the concern.

On election day, March 15, we left San Salvador at 3 a.m., dropping one team in nearby San Tomas, and proceeding down the winding, bumpy rural road to Rosario. We introduced ourselves to the police stationed at the polls and were allowed to stash our water bottles in their classroom headquarters. At 4:30 a.m. we entered the election site. Across the street, there was already a buzz of activity at the FMLN headquarters and by 5:00 all of the designated FMLN election workers were lined up in table order ready to enter.

In the U.S. we are accustomed to machines and a few, often older, election workers overseeing several booths. It was humbling to observe the low-tech system and the degree of citizen involvement. They had cardboard ballot booths and ballot boxes. There was nothing flashy about the material, but the election workers in Rosario were dedicated. It was as though everyone knew they were involved in an historic decision.

In the January municipal and legislative referendum, more parties had been represented, but the presidential election had only two candidates. Each voting table had four election workers seated -- a president, secretary and two “vocals” to check the registry list. They alternated roles; an FMLN president at odd-numbered tables, ARENA president at even-numbered tables. Each table could have four vigilantes or election observers. Those seated at the table didn’t wear party designations, but the vigilantes had on their party colors – red FMLN vests and red, white and blue ARENA vests.

At 5:00, the election workers entered. It was dark and poorly lighted. Boxes were distributed to each table. With flashlights, the election workers checked that the material was all present -- ballots, markers, ink to mark fingers, a cardboard booth and blue cardboard ballot box to assemble, the “pardon,” or registry list for each table.

At 7:00 the voters began to arrive. It got packed after church with families and children in their Sunday best. Vote buying had been reported in previous elections at a site several blocks from the polls. We had been told to be vigilant about people trying to photograph their ballots -- an indication that they were getting paid and needed proof.

People walked or came in the backs of pick up trucks to vote. The elderly often stood baffled by the canvas curtains on the cardboard booth, trying to figure out if they should put their head through or over the curtains. This was a new feature recommended by the OAS to ensure privacy. These were my images: dedicated election workers, people who couldn’t read or write placing their inked finger near their registry picture, a blind man escorted by his grandchild. With our slick election machines, we are distanced from that simple act of placing a mark on a ballot.

The transparency of the count at each table was also impressive. The ballots were removed from the box by the table president, shown to everyone at the table and placed with an FMLN representative or with an ARENA representative. Sometimes the mark was unclear, an “X” in the middle that didn’t touch either party insignia or touched both. Votes could be nullified if they weren’t clear. Everyone would enter the debate, occasionally heated, until it was resolved.

Since each party was represented equally, there had been concern over resolving disputes. But, disputes were always resolved after vigorous debate. Rosario de Mora wasn’t expected to go to the FMLN. Out of the nearly 5,000 votes cast, 53% went to ARENA. But four tables went to the FMLN. As the counts were finalized for those four tables, a huge cheer would go up at the table and be picked up by FMLN workers at all the other tables.

After the counts were completed, the election workers at each table entered them on to the “Actas,” the official results. Unused ballots were stamped to invalidate them. We observed the faxing of the sixteen “Actas,” checking the totals we had written down at each table against the pages faxed to make sure there were no substitutions. The election workers began to clean up the schoolyard.

It was a long day. We called in to FESPAD at designated times with our status reports, responding to a series of questions on timeliness, training, credentials, lines, observer and police presence and approximate vote totals. We checked totals each hour to make sure ballot numbers matched registry tallies. We offered occasional “observations” when we saw minor infractions. The EU sent two observers who stayed for two hours. The OAS had an observer there most of the day. Our team stayed from 4:30 a.m. until the results were faxed and we left when the ballots were taken from the schoolyard to be escorted by police to San Salvador.

At about 7:00 p.m., two hours after the polls closed, we were getting our backpacks and water bottles ready to leave. By then, election news was filtering in to the FMLN party headquarters across the street. They knew where they were winning and how large the turnout was.

An FMLN “vigilante,” or observer, in his red FMLN vest told us that the FMLN had won. “Venceremos!” he shouted, literally jumping with excitement. That day we were neutral election observers. All I could do was take his picture and he wanted me to put it on the Internet. For me, his exuberant joy is the face of victory.

Also see Alice Embree on El Salvador : Reflections on a People's Victory, Part 1 by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / May 11, 2009

And Alice Embree on El Salvador : Reflections on a People's Victory, Part 2: Organizing by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / May 12, 2009

The Rag Blog

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12 May 2009

Alice Embree on El Salvador : Reflections on a People's Victory, Part 2: Organizing

SETA organizer from El Salvador talks with SEIU organizer from the U.S. SETA is the Salvadoran water workers union leading the fight against privatization. Photo by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog.
Our delegation heard from CONPHAS representatives, students, human rights organizations, legal rights advocates and publishers of popular education materials. These representatives were eloquent in their understanding of the neo-liberal policies of globalization.
By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / May 12, 2009

[This is the second in a four-part series on El Salvador by The Rag Blog's Alice Embree, who was part of Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), an international team observing the March 15, 2009, Salvadoran elections. For a live report, join the author and others at Monkey Wrench Books in Austin on Wednesday, May 13, at 7 p.m. For the first article in this series, go here.]

Our CISPES delegation received a crash course in El Salvadoran history and then was introduced to the ingredients of popular victory. As we traveled via bus to meet with university students, this song blared through the speakers:
No, no, no basta rezar
Hacen falta muchas cosas
Para consequir la paz.

No, no, no, praying’s not enough
There’s a lot of work to be done
To gain peace.
The upbeat song by the Venezuelan group Los Guaraguao was popular on the FMLN radio. It was an appropriate theme song for the tireless organizing that had been undertaken. The FMLN battled through the eighties in a civil war with many victories and defeats. They took much of the capital, San Salvador, in a 1989 military offensive. Under a U.N.-brokered peace accord, they put down their weapons. Many of the progressive peace accord provisions were not implemented or enforced under ARENA rule. The deck was clearly stacked against the FMLN. Election financing, the press and the electoral apparatus of voter registration were in the hands of ARENA and their wealthy allies. And a system of fraud had been perfected and utilized repeatedly. It included vote-buying and busing foreigners from adjacent countries to the polls with false registration cards.

The FMLN didn’t rest or just pray. They organized ceaselessly and they maintained a unified front –- a feat virtually unheard of on the left, or for that matter, in any kind of politics. They gained delegates in the legislative assembly and won municipal elections, but ARENA held on to executive power.

Key to the March 15 electoral success was a coalition of social and popular movement groups called Concertacion Para un Pais Sin Hambre y Seguro (CONPHAS). The coalition included organizations from the informal sector, market vendors, organized labor, and environmental activists fighting river pollution from foreign-owned mines. The concept is similar to a U.S. Jobs With Justice coalition. Under the umbrella of Jobs With Justice, unions, advocates and political groups with distinct agendas come together and agree to mutual support. CONPHAS is like Jobs With Justice on steroids –- a coordinated effort with a sophisticated political analysis, a diverse organizing strategy and a clear goal of changing government. The social movements and the Frente Sindical Salvadoreno (FSS), or Salvadoran Union Front, working together through CONPHAS, were important FMLN allies.

Our delegation heard from CONPHAS representatives, students, human rights organizations, legal rights advocates and publishers of popular education materials. These representatives were eloquent in their understanding of the neo-liberal policies of globalization. Equipo Maiz, a publishing house specializing in popular education, is a case in point. Their work is based on the education model of the Brazilian Paulo Freire. Pamphlets are illustrated with cartoon images but cover subjects like CAFTA, globalization, neo-liberalism, and community planning. While the subject matters are complex, the presentation is intentionally accessible and non-academic. Equipo Maiz does more than publish. Since 1983, they have convened workshops and theater productions throughout the country to further popular education.

At the Fundacion de Estudios Para la Aplicacion del Derecho (FESPAD), economist Raul Moreno addressed our delegation. Insightful and funny, Moreno speaks about the new face of exploitation -- neo-liberalism. He dissects the elements and explains how the pieces work together. First, neo-liberalism relies on the use of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), or Tratado del Libre Comercio (TLC) in Spanish, to create a legal framework that subjugates a country’s sovereignty. With this legal framework in place, there comes a push for privatization for public services such as water and health and for development through mega-projects –- super-highways for data and goods –- that serve the interests of transnational corporations. A third part of the strategy has been to ramp up the repressive apparatus of the state. Legislation modeled on the Patriot Act has been passed under the guise of fighting terrorism and then used against activists protesting water privatization.

Both Moreno and the water-workers union (SETA) spelled out the way the privatization agenda has been furthered. It should be familiar to anyone with experience in public sector organizing. First, public sector funding is cut so services are compromised. Then an agenda of “decentralization” is pushed. The privatization battles are waged community-by-community, making national opposition more difficult. (Does this sound like education vouchers and charter schools?) International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans are conditioned on privatization and pursuit of mega-projects, with the puppet strings attached to corporate interests. It was chilling to hear the process described so vividly in El Salvador. It was like looking into the mirror image of a globalization strategy that pushes privatization of public services in the United States and ships off U.S. jobs and industrial capacity to unregulated maquilas all over the world.

Our delegation met with representatives from many different sectors. What emerged from these exchanges were the points of unity motivating the FMLN and the social movements that supported them. They shared frustrations, a sophisticated analysis and a common agenda. And they were tireless organizers. The breadth and depth of their organization was stunning. It was as though an ocean swell had gathered strength to become a massive wave.

Please see Alice Embree on El Salvador : Reflections on a People's Victory, Part 1 by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / May 11, 2009

Also see: The Rag Blog

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11 May 2009

Alice Embree on El Salvador : Reflections on a People's Victory, Part 1

Supporters show their colors during campaign rally before elections in El Salvador. Photo by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog.
The left victory of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador is part of a wave of change transforming Latin America in recent years.
By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / May 11, 2009

[This is the first in a four-part series on El Salvador by The Rag Blog's Alice Embree, who was part of an international team observing the March 15, 2009, Salvadoran elections. For a live report, join the author and others at Monkey Wrench Books in Austin on Wednesday, May 13, at 7 p.m.]

I arrived in El Salvador on March 7, the day of the final FMLN campaign mobilization before the election a week later. As we made our way down to the rally, we were soon immersed in a sea of red shirts, hats and banners spread across the broad avenue for a stretch of ten blocks.

Polls had shown the FMLN presidential slate in the lead against the ruling ARENA party. Mauricio Funes, the presidential candidate, had been a popular journalist. Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the vice-presidential candidate was a revolutionary hero who served as an FMLN comandante under the name Leonel Gonzalez.

The campaign slogan posted on billboards assured “Un Cambio Seguro.” The slogan conveyed the sense of both a sure and safe change. The FMLN slate had wide cross-generational appeal. ARENA had proven over its two decades in power to be the party dedicated to the consolidation of wealth, with no solutions for the vast majority. Still, experience with previous election fraud was cause for vigilance. Ultimately, it was the vigilance and the breadth and depth of mass organizing that translated those red banners into a victory on March 15, 2009.

The left victory in El Salvador is part of a wave of change transforming Latin America in recent years. President Mauricio Funes will be sworn in on June 1 with lots of leftist company from Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva in Brazil, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and, of course, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Many of these presidents have won by healthy margins for second terms. And Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner of Argentina, Michele Bachelet in Chile and others, while more centrist, also represent historic change in South America.

I was part of a delegation to El Salvador sponsored by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). Our seventy-person delegation was one of the largest that CISPES had ever sponsored during its three decades of solidarity work. I had been involved in Chilean solidarity work in the 70s and participated in CISPES demonstrations in the 80s. But, this was my first trip to Central America and the delegation was a crash course in El Salvadoran history.

El Salvador is a small country of about seven million, bordered by Guatemala and Honduras and the Pacific Ocean to the south. It inspired the slogan, “El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam” in the 80s as the U.S. poured in billions of dollars of aid and training to put down an armed insurgency. El Salvador was a Reagan experiment in “low-intensity conflict,” a rehearsal for neo-cons. But, the low intensity referred to U.S. boots on the ground. Low intensity meant no U.S. draft and an emphasis on outsourcing the conflict through counter-insurgency training and the supply of arms.

For anyone mobilizing against the extreme right-wing government in El Salvador, the intensity was anything but low as peasants were massacred with U.S. munitions and aircraft. A memorial wall has an entire panel devoted to the sites of massacres and many more panels bear the names of 30 thousand dead and disappeared. Those names represent something less than half of those that died in the conflict.

This March presidential election, after other parties dropped out, now offered two radically different choices. On the left, there was the FMLN. The party’s full name is Frente Faribundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, created as a united front in 1980 and named after Faribundo Marti, a leader of an indigenous peasant uprising in 1932. On the right, was ARENA, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, or nationalist Republican Alliance, founded by the architect of Archbishop Romero’s 1980 assassination. [See Alice Embree's Rag Blog article, Remembering Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.]ARENA had held the presidency since 1989, deferring to the Bush free trade agenda and promoting an agenda of corporate globalization and privatization of public services.

The choices were clear-cut. ARENA brought supporters in rented buses to a soccer stadium event. The FMLN supporters came in the back of pick-up trucks with red banners to a street rally. ARENA intended to continue a path paved by the Central American Free Trade Agreement into corporate globalization. It didn’t take a political science degree to see which party represented working class aspirations.

Also see The Rag Blog

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24 March 2009

Alice Embree : Remembering Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero

Mural at the National University of El Salvador depicting the late Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, assassinated in March 24, 1980. Photo by Alice Embree / The Rag Blog.

Liberation theologian and advocate for the poor, El Salvador's Romero was assassinated 30 years ago today.

By Alice Embree / The Rag Blog / March 24, 2009

[This article is part of a series on El Salvador being written by Alice Embree. Embree was an official observer during the recent presidential elections there and sent dispatches to The Rag Blog using the byline "Al."]

Twenty-nine years ago today, on March 24, 1980, Archibishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated in El Salvador. He was celebrating mass in a small chapel. As he raised the communion chalice a bullet tore through his heart.

Romero was an advocate for the poor, a defender of human rights and a proponent of liberation theology. His funeral on March 30th drew mourners from around the world. A crowd estimated at 250,000 packed the plaza in front of the Cathedral. During the funeral, the military fired shots into the crowd from the buildings above, killing more than thirty mourners.

Major Roberto D’Aubisson was identified as the man who ordered Romero’s assassination. D’Aubisson organized El Salvador’s infamous death squads, targeting political activists and carrying out civilian massacres. D’Aubisson also founded the Nationalist Republican Alliance Party, ARENA.

A memorial wall in San Salvador bears the names of nearly 30,000 of the dead and disappeared –- names gathered as part of a Truth Commission at the end of El Salvador’s civil war. Romero’s name is there as are those of the four U.S. churchwomen raped and murdered in December 1980. An entire panel lists the places where civilian massacres took place.

1980 was a turning point for El Salvador. Romero’s assassination brought the small Central American country to the attention of the world. It was also the year that the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) was founded. The five largest guerrilla movements in El Salvador united to form the FMLN as a single political-military force in October of 1980. With the signing of the U.N. Peace Accords in 1992, the FMLN was legalized as a political party.

October 1980 also saw the founding of the Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador (CISPES) in the United States. For nearly three decades CISPES has promoted solidarity with El Salvador and mounted opposition to the U.S. military aid and training, propping up El Salvador’s death squad government. During the 1980s, El Salvador became a Reagan experiment in “low-intensity conflict.”

The ARENA party has held the presidency of El Salvador since 1989, presiding over the signing of CAFTA and economic policies that concentrated wealth and privatized public services. On March 15th the FMLN won the national election. Mauricio Funes was elected president and Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former guerrilla combatant, was elected vice-president. In his acceptance speech, Funes dedicated his victory to the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

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