Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
September 4, 2000
The roots of crime in El Salvador
The last time I visited El Salvador was 10 years ago. The road between the airport and downtown San Salvador was decorated with banners proclaiming democracy.
But armed soldiers on every street corner, near hotels, restaurants, and riding on every bus, reminded us that this was a country at war. As we met with teachers and union leaders we had to be careful where we met and what we said for fear of being overheard.
Bodies in the street testified to the danger of being considered subversive.
Some 75,000 people had been killed in the previous 10 years, mostly by right-wing death squads. Among the dead were a bishop, scores of priests, nuns and lay workers. Thousands were "disappeared." Others were tortured.
Twenty per cent of El Salvador's five million people had been forced to flee an armed conflict that pitted a U.S. supported business elite against the majority poor.
Some of those who came to Canada as children returned to take part in the struggle as guerillas.
Mario, a classmate of our youngest daughter and best man at our oldest daughter's wedding, had his legs shot off. His brother Eduardo, responding to a distress call to pick him up, was killed outright while waiting in his vehicle.
By the mid-'80s El Salvador was the third largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, after Israel and Egypt, receiving more than a million dollars a day and as much as $430 million in 1985 alone.
America's commitment to bring "democracy" to El Salvador resulted in gross violations of human rights. Herbert Anaya, who headed the non-governmental human rights commission, was shot in 1987. His wife Mirna visited our home to give witness to the ongoing atrocities.
Then, in 1992, a peace accord was signed. The guerillas managed to squeeze out some concessions from the government and emerged as a political party. But those responsible for the death squad atrocities were never brought to trial and the problem between rich and poor was never solved.
The government wants to be seen as a facilitator of the business sector and privatized several of their state-owned companies. Vice president Carlos Quintanilla Schmidt is boasting about new investment opportunities and a 2.2 per cent growth in GDP.
Yet, the largest source of foreign exchange ($1.2 billion) comes from remittances from legal and illegal expatriate Salvadorans.
Some of these unwanted refugees were sent home again after the peace agreement. Many of them, raised in poverty and violence, belonged to rival street gangs in Los Angeles.
Officials estimate that there are 20,000 gang members in San Salvador alone. There is no place for them in the new economy. Crime related terror now claims more victims on average than the 12-year-civil war did.
For years the U.S. provided El Salvador with every kind of imaginable weapons. It is now providing them with hardened criminals. Add to this violent mix thousands of unemployed combatants from either side of the civil war and it is clear that peace has not yet broken out.
"At the bottom, there is a problem of structural poverty," explains Linares, a former FMLN commander and San Salvador's police chief. "The neo-liberal economic model is too exclusive. The same problems that gave rise to war have not been addressed."
For many disillusioned Salvadorans, the question remains: "Did our brothers and sisters die in vain? Has the growth in GDP been worth the human sacrifice?"
Copyright © 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 -- Western Catholic Reporter
Our mission: To serve our readers by bringing the Gospel to bear on current issues in the Church and in secular culture through accurate news coverage and reflective commentary.