Peace at Long Last? Not so fast


Last month, I wrote about an imminent peace deal between Colombia and FARC. It appeared as though fifty years of war would be laid to rest pending referendums on the deal. I was happy. My social media timelines were happy. After five decades of fighting, the world’s longest ongoing conflict was about to end.

Not so fast. Today, my social media timelines look quite different.

In a shock to many (including my parents—who are Salvadoran, but nevertheless have lived through the atrocities of war—and I), Colombians cast their ballots on the referendum and voted “NO”. They rejected the peace deal. Preliminary surveys suggested that “YES” would win by a 2 to 1 margin.

2 to 1.

So, similar to this year’s Brexit vote, it comes as a shock that the peace deal was rejected by such a razor thin margin: 50.25 to 49.75 percent.

The news is only a few hours old as I write this, so details and speculation on what the results mean for the country moving forward will arrive in the coming days. We know a few things, though:

Voter turnout was dismal. Early reports say that less than 40 percent of eligible voters cast a vote in the referendum. A few assumptions can be drawn out from this.

One is that heavy rains off the Colombian coast affected overall voter turnout. But can we blame bad weather for the decision of the 60 percent who didn’t vote?

In my previous post, I suggested that accepting FARC rebels’ reintegration into society could be a hard pill for Colombians to swallow. The sharp divide between the “YES” and the “NO” camps in the referendum highlights the polarization of public opinion towards forgiving and/or forgetting past crimes.

FARC has been accused of financing their operation by kidnappings and drug trafficking—accusations which they deny, but also operations which Colombians were tired of from the Escobar era. It seems as though those who voted “NO” did not see justice in accepting a peace deal that would have left FARC rebels unprosecuted.

In a broader picture, this is a compromise that many Latin Americans who have been affected by violence have had to face: should criminals who have exploited state failures be left unprosecuted in the name of “peace” or “progress”? It’s a loaded question with many arguments in the “pro” and “against” camps. Past truces brokered between gangs and criminals have left sour tastes in many Latin American mouths. It would seem as though Colombia’s case isn’t any different.

And state failure breeds another unfortunate trend: apathy toward government. A history of mistrust has plagued Latin American governments because of corruption and transparency issues trickling through all levels of the state. Unfortunately, it has bred an attitude of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” among citizens. This is just speculation on my part, but given the turbulent political history within the region (one which I have researched), I think it’s a factor worth considering.

FARC issued a press release shortly after the results were announced. The rebel group vows to continue looking for a peaceful end to the conflict.

In spite of the failed peace referendum, both sides seem to have not given up hope. Hours after the results came in, FARC issued a press release reiterating their intentions to continue their pursuit of a peace deal, saying that the only weapons they plan to use in the future are “words to build a better future”. Meanwhile, President Juan Santos announced that the FARC/Colombia ceasefire would remain in effect.

I mentioned in my previous post that sunny ways are still far off in the horizon. Unfortunately, they are further off than I had anticipated, and today’s events have tested the enormous levels of patience, persistence, and compromise required by all parties in the peace process. However, if there’s any silver lining to today’s events, its that both sides continue to show willingness to pursue a peaceful solution to their half-century old conflict.

Colombia Rejoices: Peace at Long Last


Instead of going with my usual essay/blog format, I’ve decided quickly comment on something positive.

Hidden beneath the stories of the 2016 Rio Olympics last month was a story that quietly sneaked into international headlines. You almost had to look with a magnifying glass to see it.

The Colombian War is over. The government and the country’s rebel group, FARC, agreed to a peace treaty, which is waiting to be voted on by FARC members next month.

Colombians and Latin Americans rejoiced. Personally, I was convinced I would father my own children before I ever saw the day.

Like most Latin American countries in the 20th Century, Colombia has witnessed the crippling effects of armed conflicts. Aside from the infamous drug cartels and operations that have been made known to the world through pop-culture, this grittier, decades-long conflict took place over a course of 52 years.

Half a century! Imagine that. Multiple generations of Colombian families have never tasted peace. In that time, Colombia’s military spending increased drastically—according to World Bank data, since 2000, Colombia has devoted at least 3% of its GDP toward military spending. Between 2000 and 2010, the country’s military spending doubled from $5.7 bn to $10.4bn (found on p. 16 of the Financial Times)

The peace process started in June and wrapped up in late August. The deal stipulates that the FARC rebel group will disarm within 6 months following the deal and become a legitimate political party, the same way the FMLN in El Salvador went from being a rebel group to the country’s dominant left-wing party.

Peace is great. But the challenges to reintegrate to society are only beginning for FARC.

It’s been alleged that FARC financed its operations through sketchy deals, ones which included drug trafficking and kidnappings–allegations which FARC denies. As a result, some Colombians don’t look at the ex-rebel group too kindly.

From an outsider’s perspective, it will be a case study on how (or if) Colombians forgive and/or forget the conflict’s past—if it’s anything like the public sentiment towards street gangs in Central America (which usually calls for “exterminating the roaches/rats”), the estimated 15,000-18,000 ex-FARC fighters–some of whom have been FARC fighters for the majority of their lives (these include militia and troops)–could run into some rough terrain. What will state support for their reintegration into society look like?

There’s also the question of what happens to the soldiers on the government’s side: soldiers who were trained to fight may be called upon to adopt a more civic, policing role. How will they deal with this new responsibility?

There are many questions surrounding the future of Colombia, but Colombia laid the first bricks for a road to a brighter tomorrow. Sunny ways are still far off in the horizon, but it has stopped raining bullets. And that’s something the world should rejoice about.

Brexit to Central America: Is the Central American Union Possible?

brexit EU

June 23 2016 will be a day for history books.

In a textbook case of participatory democracy, the UK stunned the world by voting to exit the European Union. What comes next is unknown; it will take time for the dust to settle and for I’s to be crossed and T’s to be dotted (or is it the other way around?), but there has been no shortage of drama since the historic vote.

One of the reasons Brexit made international headlines is because of the geopolitical weight it carries: the European Union was established to foster political and economic unity across a continent that had been at war with itself for centuries. It facilitated the flow of people in and out of countries, trade regulations, and created a common currency across the continent. UK’s vote to exit has sparked a domino effect among other national pro-exit groups which have called for referendums.

That said, the EU is a sophisticated model that has seen success.

The situation has presented a curious question around my social groups: could the same model be applied to Central America?

I said “no”. Not yet, anyway. A debate ensued.

Mistakes from the Past

Central America had a version of a “European Union” almost 200 years ago, albeit with some differences—rather than uniting nation states the same way the EU does, the Central American version aimed to unite provinces.

In 1823, following their separation from the Spanish Empire, the Central American countries—what are now Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica—as well as what is now the Mexican state Chiapas, formed their own federation, The Federal Republic of Central America. Similarly to the EU, the FRCA was meant to foster regional unity through trade and a common currency; while the provinces opted to leave the Spanish Empire, they retained the use of the Spanish Real (adopting it as the FRCA Real) as the common currency throughout the region (Gudmundson and Lindo-Fuentes, p. 35).

Provinces (and present-day countries) which made up the Federal Republic of Central America

Unfortunately, the FRCA didn’t replicate the successes of the European Union. It failed to generate economic and political unity among the six provinces.

Trade within the Republic was hard to establish—as Gudmundson and Lindo-Fuentes write, “it was said that no Central American producer or merchant was free of debts” (p. 33)—and it couldn’t establish a functioning credit system, either (Costa Rica was the only one of the provinces with some success). Moreover, although the FRCA kept the Real as its currency, the currency was scarce (bartering remained popular throughout the region). It also failed to establish a central bank (p. 35).

The provinces were so far apart on issues that the Republic eventually fell into a civil war.  Thus, the short-lived republic failed; by 1841, the FRCA had dissolved. The provinces separated and became the nation states they are today.

To underscore the failures of the FRCA, what followed after the separation was even more fighting between the countries—for instance, between 1841 and 1890, El Salvador had fought with Guatemala 5 times, Honduras 4 times, and Nicaragua once (White, p. 57, 2009).

In sum, rather than being brought together, the region was torn apart.

What about now?

The 20th Century saw Central American countries at peace with each other, minus a few hiccups here and there (such as The Soccer War of 1969, a brief battle fought between El Salvador and Honduras).

The 20th and 21st Century saw the formation of coalitions, commissions, trade agreements, and other international “buzzword” groups in Central and Latin America to address the region’s social, political, and economic problems. They mimic the many others which exist around the world, such as the EU, the European Parliament, The African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, NATO, etc.

One of the big groups Central America is involved in is the Organization of American States. Others include:

    • The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC);
    • The Central American Integration System (SICA);
    • The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL);
    • The CA-4 Visa, which allows for free, unrestricted movement between Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (similar to the EU’s free-movement model);

And many more. But these agreements and coalitions don’t have anywhere near the reach of the EU’s legislative power.

What is stopping the Union?

Nothing is preventing the creation of a union, but I offer two reasons against a Central American Union.

First, Central American economies aren’t robust enough for a union to function. High crime rates, slow economic growths, and high debt-to-GDP ratios plague the region, which in turn worsen the economic climate (see country analyses in Focus Economics). There is also the issue of government transparency which has plagued the countries in their post-1990s liberalized economies.

Central America is not ready for a EU-modeled union

Moreover, if a union was made, the strongest economies would be tasked with carrying the weight of the weaker ones. This means that Costa Rica and Panama, who are economically (and perhaps in terms of public policy) the top performers of the six countries within the isthmus of Central America, would be carrying the remaining four. This idea isn’t novel; others such as Nathaniel Parish Flannery have explored the implications of creating similar Latin American unions.

Second, and speaking to the first point, we can use history to see how past unions have failed. As I have outlined above, the original Federal Republic of Central America didn’t pan out as republicans had hoped because provinces clashed on political and economic matters. In the present day, the region is filled with a myriad of internal problems within its nation states (political accountability, gang activity, struggling economies). This is not the ideal climate for the creation of a united entity with a shared currency and sets of regulations.


Brexit brings many questions which will be answered in the months—and likely years—to come. It’s new territory for political observers, so whatever is on the other side of the “leave” vote is anyone’s (educated) guess.

If there is anything to learn from Brexit, it’s that these unions/federations don’t always accomplish the goals they set out. Britain chose to leave because 52% of Britons didn’t identify with the rest of Europe. Something similar happened in the Federal Republic of Central America: with no common identity, and no political and economic foundation, unity crumbled.

Creating a “Central American Union” in the present day would see history repeat itself. The countries within the region have enough issues to take care of on their own. Amalgamating them to tackle problems in the name of “development” would only hinder what progress they have made.

Flashback: El Salvador’s Match-Fixing Scandal

The summer of 2016 is shaping up to be a heck of a summer for international sports, and not just because of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The 2016 Copa America, and 2016 Euro Cup are certain to capture the spirits and eyeballs of billions across the world.

Salvadorans will tune into both tournaments, not so much for the love of any particular country (they aren’t in either of them), but for the love of the game of futbol (it’s common to see Salvadorans split between two camps when the El Clasico is played: those who support Barcelona and those who cry “Hala Madrid!).

If allegiance has ever been an issue, it has stood through some tough times: El Salvador has had little to boast about in international games. In the last 30 years, the only award it has under its belt is the record for the largest blowout loss in World Cup history: a 10-1 romping by Hungary in 1982 (it was also the last time they qualified).

As bad as that was, La Selecta (as they are lovingly nicknamed) supporters faced an even bigger test in loyalty during the 2010s: a widespread match-fixing scandal.

International Sport Institutions

What drives the sense of international unity behind these otherwise *ordinary* sports? The quick answer is international governing bodies—FIFA for Euro and Copa, and the IOC for the Olympics.

Each body has become the de facto ruling bodies for their corresponding international game, which has its pros and cons. While their de facto status has been vital in feeding nationalist sentiments during large-scale international tournaments, it has also made it harder to keep tabs on the legality of their interior financial moves. The more powerful an organization grows, the more likely it is to self-regulate. This can mean that, if needed, it could become difficult to prosecute an organization for even the most obvious of crimes (Forster, 2016).

Even if it’s far away, Salvadorans will be watching Euro 2016

Take FIFA, for instance. Prior to the FBI-led 2015 raids on FIFA executives, it was not uncommon to hear assumptions of secret back-door deals and monetary kickbacks (the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar did more than just raise a few eyebrows). But for the most part, these were only assumptions. It wasn’t until the raids conducted by the FBI in 2015 that the world saw just how deeply entrenched and widespread corruption was across the governing body.

Soccer in El Salvador has some parallels with FIFA’s opearations pre-FBI raids in the sense that both faced transparency issues. Where they differ in recent history is a type of corruption that wasn’t as prominent in the public consciousness during FIFA’s scandal: corruption involving players, specifically, the art of match-fixing.

While there were hints at match fixing during the sweeping FIFA arrests, the indictment centered mostly on the action of FIFA exec heads (the indictment available here). But make no mistake: like the FIFA organization itself, match-fixing has an incredible international reach, with many schemes originating out of Asia (Hill, pp. 23-24, 2011).

La Primera Division

Why would anyone participate in match-fixing? Why betray the loyalty of millions of soccer fans, ones which stuck it out through rough times, such as a record-breaking loss?

The answer boils down to “money”. But to see why money had such a strong pull in the Salvadoran match-fixing, it’s worth exploring the conditions that lead up to the scandal.

Most of the Salvadoran national squad, which represent the country in international tournaments is picked from players who play in the Salvadoran Premier League, La Primera División de Fútbol Profesional. Similar to European countries which have their own professional soccer leagues, soccer players who aim to play with the finest players in El Salvador play in La Primera Division.

The league is classified as a NGO, which gives it the status of a non-profit organization. This means that it doesn’t pay taxes on its revenues.

Rodolfo “El Fito” Zelaya of the league’s “La Alianza F.C.” has been referred to by many as the best player to have worn a Salvadoran shirt. He received a 12-month suspension for match-fixing

Such a classification isn’t rare; actually, until recently, it was something commonly seen in North America—as of May 2016, the NHL remains the only one of the four major professional sport leagues to retain its non-profit status (as stated in its infamous 2013 collective bargaining agreement: see “Preamble”, page 1). The MLB dropped it in 2007 and the NFL dropped it in 2015. The NBA has always paid its share of taxes.

But such a classification in El Salvador is curious. La Prensa Grafica reported that politicians have had roles in club governing bodies, but their financial contributions and money flows have been hard to trace.

Yet even with these contributions, the same article reported that most of the Primera Division‘s teams post financial losses at the end of their seasons. Taxes, they argue, would ultimately cripple the league. But if this is true, it begs the question: with so little money in team coffers, how much money is set aside for player salaries?

It’s hard to say just how much Salvadoran players earn in La Primera Division. The league and its teams are hesitant to release contract figures because, officially, they worry about player safety: a publicly-stated salary could attract potential extortionists. This is a legitimate concern if this is true, but it also shouldn’t be interpreted as players being payed exceptionally well: in a 2015 interview conducted by the online sport publication El Grafico with Alianza (a Primera Division team) president Lisandro Pohl, Pohl stated that “El Fito” Zelaya was the league’s— and therefore, country’s— highest paid player.

Just how much does the “country’s highest paid player” earn?

That’s another figure that’s hard to tell because of limited publicly available information. But one could arrive at an educated guess through some investigating.

    • First, one could look at revenue streams: 2013 total box-office sales for the apertura tournament generated just over $816,000 in revenue (see: Taquila por fecha por equipo > Taquilas Apertura2013 (global)). This revenue stream was then shared between the league’s 10 teams. Broadcast rights generated between $30,000 and $50,000 in revenue for large market teams (which amount to 3 teams). Sponsorship figures added a bit of icing. With such low revenues, it would be tough for any team to pay all their players anything higher than a few thousands of dollars.
    • Second, one could look at El Fito’s pay: according to a statement on an Alianza Facebook fan page, El Fito asked for a $10,000 contract to play in the 2012 season. Based on the reaction generated by the post (which was pure speculation), the assumption can be made that $10,000 is an outlandish amount of money for a Primera Division soccer player.
      • Thus, the assumption can also be made that the average salary for a soccer player in Primera Division is far below $10,000. On top of that, players pay their club a 10% “tax” on their earnings.

Whatever the average salary of a Primera Division may be, one fact is abundantly clear: Salvadoran players aren’t payed anywhere near the salaries of the Messis, Ronaldos, or even the top MLS players of the soccer world.

So, in a country where minimum salaries range from US$98-$200/month (depending on the industry), it comes as no surprise that a professional soccer player would so readily throw a game for financial gain.

Did I say “a” professional soccer player? I meant 22.

Soccer charts
List of Salvadoran players suspended from the national squad for match fixing. Red: lifetime suspension; Blue: 5 year suspension; Green: 18 month suspension; Orange: 12 month suspension; Purple: 6 month suspension. Players who have played outside of La Primera Division are in bold.

The art of Match-Fixing

Sure enough, and consistent with what Declan Hill exposed in his book, it was discovered that behind the match-fixing scandal was a criminal out of Singapore known as “Dan Tan”.

El Grafico uncovered the scandal in 2013. Initially, it reported that seven Salvadoran players agreed to throw a game against the MLS’ DC United in 2010. The plot was hashed out after the members met with three conspirators during a stop in Virginia. At the meeting, the players agreed to lose the game by 2 goals in exchange for $10,000 each. But this was only the tip of El Grafico’s investigation: soon after, it discovered that the team’s match-fixing schemes spilled into its international games. An infectious disease had spread through the team’s locker room. Additional rigged games included:

For many Salvadorans, the news was a national tragedy. Insight Crime reported that to add insult to injury, goalkeeper Miguel Montes, who was the “prime suspect in coordinating, recruiting and paying players on behalf of the match fixers” was allowed to flee to the US without any trouble.

That said, a curious aspect of match-fixing which news articles seldom explore is worth, well, exploring. When analyzing the underground element of match fixing, there seems to be less attention put on the “extortion” angle that exists in these schemes.

Asian match-fixers use similar tactics that Salvadoran gangs use to obtain what they want: violence. Hill (2011) speaks at numerous instances of how gangs use the threat of violence on either the soccer figure himself, or family members of players, to get the soccer figure to accept bribes (pp. 34-35). It will likely never be known if this was the case for El Salvador’s national squad; if it was, it would serve again as a reminder of the weakness of the government: organized criminal activity would be allowed to thrive in the country with little state intervention (it already does, with or without soccer).

What have we learned

Perhaps we should all heed the advice of our schoolyard teachers: it’s just a game, so don’t take it too seriously. There’s no question that sports provide an escape for everyday problems.

Unfortunately, criminals find ways to exploit soccer for their own gain. But who were the criminals in El Salvador’s case? Were they the players involved in the
match-fixing, looking to make a quick buck? Were they the plot’s masterminds in Singapore? Were they both?

Or is match-fixing just too easy? This case, as well as many other match-fixing rings, reminds us that the illusion of professional sports as being inherently free of crime is just that: an illusion—at its most extreme, the 2015 FIFA arrests remind us money can turn human beings into case studies on ethics.

The Black Sox scandal is an early example of match-fixing

Which leads me with one final thought: match-fixing and sport corruption is not endemic to the world’s less-developed regions. One could look at the cases in developed countries to argue this point, such as the drug scandals in the Olympics, steroid regimes in the MLB during the 1990s, doping in Le Tour de France, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, NBA match-fixing…the list is endless.

What was different about El Salvador was soccer’s importance to its people. Many look to the game as an escape from the political and economic issues within the country. Imagine coming home, turning on the TV, and learning that the one thing you thought would never be corruptible was draped in money.

Match-fixing or no match-fixing, many around the world will have their eyes glued to TVs from June to July for Copa America and the Euro Cup. La Selecta, along with its millions of fans, will be watching the tournaments for the love of the game.

Marching for Gang Talk

Soldiers Gang

March 2016 marked the four-year anniversary of a watershed approach to Central American gang violence: a government-backed truce. The Salvadoran government had the (mis)fortune of being its pioneers.

Four years later, the general consensus is that the truce’s negatives vastly outweighed its positives. It failed.

Many argue that in spite of lowering the murder rate in the truce’s *peak* months, it only helped gangs reinforce their grips on territories across the country. Extortion remained rampant and the murder rate eventually returned to pre-truce levels. El Salvador is now the most murderous country in the world. Indeed, the truce leaves behind a legacy of destruction, marginalization, and social regression.

Fortunately, coinciding with the truce’s 3 year anniversary, the month of March saw anti-gang discourse creep back into national politics–and quickly. News reports have churned out so frequently I’ve had to stop, re-research, and re-edit this post multiple times to cover the developments (it is March 28 and I’m reworking this, yet again). I’ve highlighted 5 developments that have transpired over the month.

Fighting the Ides of March

1) San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele called out President Sanchez Ceren on Social Media for his administration’s lack of initiative toward gang violence.

Nayib Bukele has become a sort of celebrity mayor across Central America. He has prioritized San Salvador’s infrastructure, having earlier rolled out a plan to “light up” the city by installing street lights throughout the nation’s capital. He is also quite active on his social media accounts. Like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he is a hit with the country’s youth.

What is significant of Bukele’s rant is the acknowledgement of multiple failed approaches to gangs, both by the country’s Conservative Party (ARENA) and his own FMLN party. He implored the country’s President to get a move-on with initiatives to tackle the issue and argued that there is no need to continue imposing new taxes on Salvadorans (such as the telecom tax) to fund any anti-gang initiatives. He stated that there are plenty of financial resources already available.

2) President Ceren promised to introduce legislation in Congress.

Shortly after Bukele’s Facebook rant, President Sanchez Ceren announced (also here) that he would introduce anti-gang legislation to Congress. This would mean plans for the immediate reduction of the prison population and an increase in military personnel patrolling the streets, creating “military safe zones” (I’ll further discuss this below). Initiatives would be implemented using $42 million generated by the country’s telecom tax. The plan is scheduled to be rolled out this week.

3) It was discovered that gang truce was in the works before the conclusion of the 2014 Federal Election.

The online news source El Faro reported that, before the conclusion of the 2014 federal election, a gang truce was in the process of being brokered between ARENA and the representatives from MS13 and Barrio 18. It published a 26 minute video in which ARENA Vice President Ernesto Muyshondt and Ilopango mayor Salvador Ruano spoke to gang members about reintroducing a second go at truce talks (the transcript available here). This was significant as ARENA and many parts of El Salvador’s population were vocal in their opposition to the original gang truce.

4) Guns that were submitted at the outset of the Gang truce were functional, contrary to earlier reports.

When the 2013 truce was established, it stipulated that gang members forfeit part of their weapon stock to authorities in a sign of willingness to hold their end of the truce. In total, gangs forfeited 498 guns on three separate occasions (the first of which was overseen by Jose Insulza, secretary of the Organization of American States), which included heavy duty weapons such as AK-47s, M16s, and FALs.

At the time of the weapon forfeiture, it was reported that virtually “none of the guns surrendered were functional”, meaning that gangs used the opportunity to dispose of their garbage/dummy firearms. This angered many Salvadorans, including the Attorney General at the time, Luis Martinez—who according to El Faro, was opposed to the truce from its outset.

Gangs agreed to hand over guns as part of their government-backed truce

Two years later, El Faro reported this was not the case. Contrary to Martinez’s claim, the paper reported that in reality, 80% of the guns surrendered were in working order (387 of the 482). While it doesn’t show that 100% of guns were in working order, the report highlighted two points: first, Martinez’s statement is indicative of how much of a political football the truce had become. Second, the report emphasized the need for better political reporting by media outlets. Acting as the fourth estate, journalist must keep tabs on their politicians, especially in a region marred by corruption.

5) A Youtube video was uploaded on March 26 in which the heads of MS 13 and two Barrio 18 factions announced that they would order their gangs to halt violent activity for  72 hours.

The gangs did this in anticipation of the government’s plan to make military safe zones. The gangs argue that “there is no need to implement measures that will violate everyone’s constitutional rights as well as the laws established by the constitution”. Given the failed truce and the sky-high homicide rate, it comes as no surprise that this was a hard statement for the Salvadorans to swallow, as shown by some of the comments left on the video’s YouTube page.

Gang youtube comments
YouTube users approached the gangs’ announcement with skepticism, calling for “death to gangs” and general feelings of distrust

The government echoed these sentiments, rejecting the gang’s statement.

Looking Ahead

It has been a fruitful month for Salvadoran gang discourse.

However, before going any further, one theme that has been underscored in my posts concerning gang activity should be made clear: there is no easy solution to the violence plaguing Central America. It’s important to remember that El Salvador’s socio-economic state is the result of over a century of repressive politics. Gang violence is just one of the fruits created by this seed; as Iaon Grillo writes, violence is an issue that runs throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It isn’t something localized in El Salvador. Results require patience, which may take generations.

With that said, I want to go back to two interesting revelations explored above in respect to gang activity: increase military activity and prison reform. These are good strategies in combatting gang activity in neighbourhoods as the state needs to demonstrate that it, not gangs, enforce the law. However, by themselves, they can only provide temporary solutions. This is because they fail to address the nation’s social needs.

Increased military activity will drive out gangs from neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods will be secure, and this is good. Unfortunately, it also means that

Brazil tried fighting the Red Commando (pictured above) through increased military activity. It failed.

gang activity will be drawn out and will turn to other neighbourhoods to continue their illicit activities. This is what happened in Brazil when it tried fighting the Red Commando (Grillo, p. 103).

As a result, the sort of “hard hand” approach used by ARENA in the 2000s inevitably creeps back into the country’s strategy–what happens when all gang activity is localized in one area? Justice can take either two forms: first, firefights may ensue, resulting in the death of gang members. Second, soldiers could arrest gang members and bring them to jail, which would in turn increase the prison population. Either way, whether clean or ugly, both provide only Band-Aid solutions.

Second, the country’s plan to release 900 prisoners is also flawed, although it’s not a plan which has never been attempted: Ecuador tried this in 2014 by releasing 500 drug mules from its prisons.  Such a strategy can actually be quite useful given that El Salvador faces an overcrowding crisis in its prisons. If approved, the plan would initially release 900 low-risk prisoners. It would be in place for one year.

However, this approach is problematic because its benefits are counteracted by increased militarization. Because of the “hard hand” approach which is inherent in the military plan, liberated prisoners can be easily replaced by new criminals. Coupled with a sky-high murder rate (which as I write this, is 23 murders per day, according to El Faro), the policy creates a “1-step forward, 2-step backward” approach to fighting gangs. With increased militarization, what is bound to happen is an increase to the prison population yet again.

If hindsight is 20/20, El Salvador should heed the warnings of the 2000s hard-hand approach. The country’s Directorate General of Prisons reports that in 2016, there are over 33,000 inmates in El Salvador’s prisons—prisons that have been designed to hold only 13,000 inmates. Of those 33,000 inmates, 9,000 are gang members. The prison population rate has grown astronomically in the last 16 years, from 7,754 inmates in 2000 to 28,334.

Total Prison Population
With data from Institute for Criminal Policy Research (2016) and the Directorate General of Prisons, retrieved from Insight Crime

Thus (emphasizing yet again…), militarization alone cannot be the sole solution to solving gang activity. Militarization ignores the socio-economic problems that force youth into crime (whether it is gang-affiliated or not): for instance, the need for revamped infrastructure, education, and the need for a proper police force (this is crucial to enforcing the law),

Ioan Grillo writes that gangs feed “on broken families, poverty, and hopelessness,” so naturally, “it makes sense to scattered children in soulless slums [to] feel loyalty to no government or country, but will pledge their lives [to gang life]” (p. 232). Unless the state offers them a legitimate alternative, criminal activity will without a doubt continue. Indeed, many of new gang recruits are young men: this video was recently taken of a gangster being forced to roll around in dirt while being told to repeat phrases denouncing gangs:

Will April Showers Bring May Flowers?

With gang activity proliferating across the country, it’s hard to be optimistic that new initiatives will produce results.

As I’m about to publish this, I have stumbled upon a new report outlining the failures of “Plan El Salvador Seguro” for Ciudad Delgado, which was supposed to be an example of the government’s success in successful pacification.

However, the month of March was the noisiest in terms of legitimate political anti-gang discourse in a long while. Military activity alone will not provide a long term solution to gang activity in El Salvador, but it may be a start.

“Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!”

Build a wall. Make them pay for it.

Immigration reform is a hot topic in this year’s US presidential election. Donald Trump raised eyebrows with his plan to build a wall across the US-Mexican border and deport all illegal immigrants living in the US, should he win the presidency.

Not surprisingly, many public figures criticized the plan, the latest being Pope Francis.

For the sake of this post, let’s assume that Donald Trump will deliver on his promise.

The immigration discussion is an important but complicated one. Before making any quick policy decisions, there are two points on the subject that are worth exploring: first, while Trump offers a quick solution to the issue, the current state of the issue is not one that appeared overnight. This is important because, second, illegal immigration has had deep social and economic effects in US daily living.

Braceros to Now

Understanding illegal Latin American immigration requires going back to World War 2. Latin American labour has been a staple to the US workforce for decades.

In 1942, the US established The Bracero Program, a program which granted temporary work permits to Mexicans wanting to help America’s war efforts. The program, much like the work permits being offered to Mexicans, was meant to be temporary. As it turned out, Bracero was so efficient that Congress extended and expanded it into the 1950s.

By the 1960s, however, there were concerns that it had become an “exploitative labour regime on a par with Southern sharecropping”. So, in 1964, rather than amending the program to give Mexicans better working conditions, congress gave it the axe. By 1968, there were no Mexicans in the US under the program (Massey and Pren, p. 3). But this didn’t stop Mexicans (and Latin Americans) from continuing their job-hunting the US.

During the Bracero program, Mexicans would come in and out of the US in cycles, making immigration largely invisible for the common American—about half a million Mexicans would enter the US every year. The elimination of the program didn’t reduce the desire of Mexicans to come into the US, nor did it quell the number of Mexicans entering the country— it only made their entry illegal. While permits were granted to fill quotas, an overwhelming amount of Mexicans entered the country without one (pp. 4-5). Suddenly, the US had an immigration problem on its hands, as shown by the graph below.

Taken from Massey and Pren’s “Unintended Consequences of US Immigration Policy: Explaining the Post-1965 Surge from Latin America

The Cold War added fuel to this problem. Latin Americans journeyed to the US in droves, and because a significant number of them came from countries in civil war—which were primarily fought between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing governments— the  threat of a “communist invasion” was enough for the US to heighten border security spending across the US-Mexican border (the border had been patrolled since 1924, but never with this sense of urgency) (Hanson, p. 9).

This persisted throughout the 1970s and 80s. Eventually, “communism” morphed into “terrorism” in the 1990s following the 1993 World Trade Centre attack and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Congress responded in 1996 by passing two laws: the Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Illegal Immigration

The Clinton Administration passed two laws in the 1990s which affected some immigrants

Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (the latter of which also had repercussions for gang activity, which I wrote about here) (p. 15). These laws preceded further border patrol spending as well as the deportation of illegal immigrants. Added to these would later be The USA PATRIOT ACT, which peaked deportations in 2009 at 400,000 illegal immigrants (p. 16).

The 2010s brought new sets of concerns: Central American families (specifically from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) were sending unaccompanied child migrants  to the US in efforts to escape gang-violence, which renewed debates around US immigration policies. It was also around this time that President Obama announced his plan for immigration reform which would have granted 4 million illegal immigrants a legal status in the US. Whether or not the plan will stick will be decided by the US Supreme Court sometime this year.

Fast-forward to 2016, presidential candidates have put immigration into their agendas. It isn’t only Donald Trump making bold announcements, either. Hilary Clinton has reached out to Hispanic voters through a “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuelacampaign (which some Hispanics didn’t like. You can see here) as well as releasing this ad in which she promises to address immigration reform:

What this (brief) history shows is that the current state of illegal immigration was not shaped overnight. Going back to World War 2, immigration reform and policies have tangled, political roots that have influenced border policies and have influenced America’s makeup. Indeed, the issue has been around for enough time that it has left an impact on the way America functions.

The Messy Truth

Shortly after Trump announced his brash proposal, Kelly Osbourne, son of rock star Ozzy Osbourne and star to MTV’s The Osbournes, fired back at Trump while guest hosting The View. She made a comment regarding immigration that may have been as equally as brash as Trump’s statement:

Stained in the mess of “cleaning toilets” (as harsh and a bit too off-the-cuff as the comment was), Osbourne identified  an important aspect of Latin American illegal immigration: there are labour intensive jobs, such as landscaping, vegetable picking, construction work, and nannying, which are attractive to both illegal immigrants and their employers. This is a fact that is too important to ignore: according to the Pew research centre, illegal immigrants make up 5.1% of America’s labour force (see point 4).

How is it that so many illegals can find employment in the midst of such strong anti-illegal immigrant sentiments?

The majority of immigrants who cross the border between the US and Mexico tend to come from countries where under-education is common. This contrasts their American counterparts who, by living in the US, come from a country where “low schooling levels are increasingly hard to find” among workers. Indeed, “between 1960 and 2000, the share of working-age native-born U.S. residents with less than twelve years of schooling fell from 50 percent to 12 percent”. In comparison, in the year 2000, three-quarters of working-age Mexicans (it’s estimated that 49% of illegal US immigrants were Mexican in 2014, according to Pew research Centre) had less than twelve years of schooling under their belts (Hanson, 14). The gap in education is hard to ignore.

This affects illegal immigrants in two ways. First, being under-educated reduces the chance of coming into the US legally (as the US wants to attract skilled workers). Second, because they are forced to come in illegally, immigrants become prime candidates for low-paying but high-demand jobs (“cleaning toilets”). This, in turn, establishes a power balance between the employer and employee: because the immigrant is illegal, the employer has no obligation to write a formal contract of employment and can thus employ the immigrant “under the table”. Moreover, s/he can contract the immigrant for less money because the immigrant has no legal status.

The immigrant, while  having his/her hands tied behind his/her back, is able to move about freely between jobs because there is no official employment contract. Furthermore, the immigrant is not obligated to pay taxes, allowing him/her to put more money in his/her pocket. Simply put, “illegal immigration…accomplishes what legal immigration does not: it moves large numbers of low skilled workers from a low-productivity to a high-productivity environment” (p. 15).

President Obama pushed for immigration reform in 2014
President Obama pushed for immigration reform in 2014

So what happens when you build a wall and kick part of your work-force out? Do you create jobs for US citizens? Yes and no.

“People in Alabama are not going to do this”

Take, for example, the case of Alabama’s 2011 anti-immigration bill, HB 56, officially known as the “Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act”. In short, HB 56 was a bill which aimed to rid the state of illegal immigrants by way of self-deportation—instead of actively searching for and deporting illegal immigrants, the bill made life harder for illegals by essentially cutting off their social services (such as police service and transportation).

HB56 was in a way a “test-run” for self-deportations: if it could work in Alabama, chances are, it could work in other states.

veggie picking
Labour-intensive jobs are attractive to both employers and illegal immigrants, for different reasons.

The bill worked. Maybe a little too well: many illegal immigrants (and even some legal immigrants who refused to leave their illegal relatives behind) left Alabama, and in doing so, left vacant agriculture jobs for legal citizens to take up.

However, the hole left by illegal workers would be felt in the following months. The Associated Press reported that after illegals left the state, landowners struggled to find legal workers to replace the illegal immigrants. Legal citizens were reported to either quit early because they couldn’t handle the working conditions, or left because they simply could not perform as well as their illegal counterparts (the lacked the skills to meet quotas).

The law also had economic effects: The Washington Post reported that a Wayne’s Farms in Albertville, Alabama had to spend “more than $5 million dollars to train new workers and compensate for lost production”. A 2012 University of Alabama study also concluded that the law had the potential to shrink Alabama’s GDP by roughly 6%.

The Alabama case reinforces the significance of illegal immigrants in America. It took an anti-immigration bill for their contributions to be truly noticed.

Tear down the wall

If Donald trump is elected, and if he went through with his immigration plan (assuming he would be okay with the financial burden of building a wall, should Mexico not want to pay for it. Which a real possibility…), he would be, in a way, repeating history. The Guardian argued that what Trump is proposing is very similar to World War 2 Japanese internment camps, arguing that

if history is a guide, [Trump’ s plan] would consume significant budgetary and law enforcement resources, could precipitate a national social crisis, and might expose the country to reparations claims for decades to come.

While this post’s underlying argument is that the deportation of all illegal immigrants is unwise, at the same time, it does not advocate for complete disregard of the country’s borders—every country should have the right to choosewho and who it doesn’t it let in. After all, legitimate concerns, such as criminal activity (ie. drug cartels, gang activity), strengthening of the workforce, and terrorism do exist (it should be noted that there isn’t any evidence to suggest that terrorists have entered the US through the Mexican border).

Would Donald Trump build a wall?
Would Donald Trump build a wall?

Therefore, because of their socio-economic significance, and because haphazardly opening the borders would be unwise, legitimate discussions are needed to establish good immigration policies. Unfortunately, we often want quick solutions to complex problems, so we resort to labels or terms to oversimplify the debate (“illegal immigrants are taking our jobs!” “we need low-skilled workers; let more illegal immigrants come in!”). Indeed, there is a lot more to the debate that this blog post could not cover.

But that doesn’t mean a solution to the issue should not be pursued. If Donald Trump gets elected and goes through with this plan, America should borrow from a previous president and shout “Mr. Trump, tear down this wall!”

Thugs, Telecoms, and Taxes (Part 2)

sanchez ceren 2
President Sanchez Ceren’s administration introduced a telecommunication tax last year. The aim of the tax is to fund security initiatives. Will it work?

Edit: After I published this post, La Prensa Grafica reported on February 5 that the telecom tax has so far raised $2.5 million for the country’s security projects. However, as of January 20, no funds had been allocated to any projects. Earlier in the week, President Sanchez Ceren stated that funds would be used for bonuses for soldiers, police officers, and prison staff.

Late last year, El Salvador took an unusual step in its fight against street-crime by introducing a telecommunication tax to fund security initiatives. Controversy surrounded the tax as critics claimed it was hastily implemented and without stakeholder consultation. I wrote about it in more detail here.

Because we are at the end of the tax’s second month, I thought it would be a good opportunity for some checking-in and evaluation. What has transpired since early December?

I hesitated when I first conceived this post because of how recent these events are. However, I’ve decided that the issue is worth examining so long as I approach it with caution; I’m careful to not conclude whether this initiative is an all-out success or a complete failure.  While it might be early into the security plan, this will give us a sense of what to expect for the future.

The Results So Far

It’s hard to evaluate an initiative which has only existed for two months, but it’s important to watch this program with a finely-tuned lens because of the socio-economic ramifications it carries. After all, this security plan is one which reaches deep into the pockets of the country’s poorest population (it’s supposed to contribute $6 million to security operations). Are Salvadorians getting a good bang for their buck?

As of the date of this blog post, the answer seems to be: no.

Homicide numbers in El Salvador did not decrease in the month of January. In fact, the country’s homicide count throughout the first 17 days of this January was higher than the number of homicides throughout all 31 days of January in both 2014 and 2015. Moreover, El Diario de Hoy reported that more small businesses are subject to gang extortions today than they were at the start of President Sanchez Ceren’s term in office.

Homicides for the month of Jan
Source: Created with data from El Diario de Hoy. The 2016 figure only accounts for January 1-January 17.

If the statistics aren’t indicative enough of the country’s security struggles, then the recent actions by the country’s police officers are. In late January, police officers across the country staged a protest in San Salvador, marching from Plaza El Salvador del Mundo to the President’s house. Their demands included better pay, better working conditions, and for the government to follow through on promises made with the new telecom tax. They argued that they weren’t compensated enough given the high-risk nature of their jobs–chasing gang members not only puts officers in danger, but their families too.

Indeed, the number of officers who have quit the country’s police force has steadily grown in the last couple of years: from 180 in 2013 to 358 in 2015.

Resigned officers
Source: Created with data from La Prensa Grafica

The situation has also had ramifications on international aid: the US Peace Corps, which have served in El Salvador since 1962 (US Peace Corps, Paragraph 1) announced on January 16 that it was suspending all operations in El Salvador “due to the ongoing security environment”.

So, as it appears, things are not looking bright for President Ceren’s new security initiative. In the government’s defence, it has stated that while it’s true that homicide levels remained high throughout the month of January, it’s due in large part to gangs undertaking internal “purging” processes of their members. The message is clear: better a gang member’s life be taken than an innocent Salvadorian’s.

Ethical questions aside, the argument is hard to corroborate. There are two reasons for this.

Getting Things Straight

First, the definition of “gang member” is unclear, and this makes it difficult to discern between who is a “gang member” and who is just “gang affiliated”. Suppose that the majority of these cases are comprised of gang members. Were homicide victims actual members of gangs, or were they regular citizens coerced into working for gangs? This is significant because it leaves vulnerable groups—women, small business owners, children and teenagers—at risk of being identified as “gang members”. Similar to how drug cartels use “plata or plomo” tactics to meet their goals (as I have written about in a previous blog post), gangs use passive-aggressive tactics in their efforts to maintain strangleholds on neighbourhoods.

Douglas Melendez
El Salvador has a new Attorney General, Douglas Melendez

This relates to the second reason. As El Salvador’s new Attorney General Douglas Melendez stated in an interview with El Faro, “there’s no clear way” to determine what percentage of deaths are comprised of gang members. That’s because there isn’t any sort of “gang member registry” that exists in El Salvador. This also makes it hard to enforce Anti-Gang or Anti-terrorism laws on gangsters who are captured alive.

Moreover, even if one did exist, the question which begs to be asked is that, with the ever growing numbers of gang members in the country, would the government be willing to maintain such a registry? El Diario de Hoy reported on January 14 that the ARENA party (the country’s dominant right-wing political party) would propose legislation to create a sort of registry. However, with political jabs constantly being thrown from the ruling FMLN and ARENA, it’s hard to determine whether such a proposition would be made out of a true desire to lower crime rates or as a way to rack up political support. It’s hard to tell; it appears as though there is little transparency when it comes to Salvadorian politics.

And other countries recognize this.

In what might be a first for Salvadorian politics, Attorney General Melendez told reporters in mid-January that he was worried about criminal penetration in his office. This is not only alarming because of what it means for criminal influence within the government, but it also undermines the goals sought by El Salvador’s new telecommunication tax (which, as we have established thus far, is not meeting its objectives).

Police officers protest earlier in January. Source: El Diario de Hoy

It’s with this spirit that the United Nations and El Salvador have launched a 3-year anti-corruption program in the country. The program is backed by the US which, through USAID, already has another $25 million anti-corruption program operating in El Salvador (see: Insight Crime Analysis). US involvement has been historically significant for El Salvador, both politically and economically. Simply put, if El Salvador wants to attract US investors into the country, it must address its security issues.

The new three-year program’s price tag was left undisclosed, but what is certain is that, according to Reuters, it “lacks the broad investigative powers of the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala”, an initiative that was “instrumental” in linking Guatemalan President Otto Perez to corruption charges. This forced Perez out of his presidency in 2015.  The hope is that the USAID and UN projects will help weed out the corruption that exists in government offices by training Salvadorian officials to spot corruption.

For this program to work, though, a great amount of cooperation and transparency is needed on El Salvador’s part. This is especially important because the new anti-corruption program lacks any serious investigative powers. Like other initiatives, only time will tell if the goals set out with this one are met and whether transparency is attained.

A Work in Progress

While it is early to evaluate the effectiveness of the government’s telecom tax law, an analysis of the tax’s first two months have shown that it has produced no results. Homicide numbers in January were higher than in the Januaries of two previous years. While it’s too early to judge the efficacy of the country’s latest security initiative, new concerns by the new attorney general regarding criminal penetration in government are worrisome for the country’s future. For the time being, El Salvador will rely on foreign aid to clean the dirt from its government.

small businesses
Small businesses are constantly extorted by El Salvador’s gangs. Source: El Diario de Hoy

What this early analysis has reinforced is that change in El Salvador will not come overnight. It has also shown the shortcomings of a telecom tax as a band-aid solution. Simply throwing money at crime prevention won’t make crime go away. Clearly, if there is any true desire for this tax to be effective (some have argued that not only is it completely unnecessary, it’s also unconstitutional), what is needed is change at a higher, institutional level.

On an editorial note: a few days ago, I was listening to an interview on a Salvadorian radio station (Cadena Mi Gente) where a police-protester, who was at the protest mentioned at the beginning of this post, claimed that a security official had orders to fire on protesters if “things got out of hand”. The official decided to turn a blind eye and let the protesters go about with their demonstration.

“Imagine if he had fired, though,” the interviewing officer said. “They have guns. We have guns. It would’ve been an all-out war in the street.”

I tend to steer clear from radio political commentaries, especially ones from El Salvador, as I find that opinions are too often based on anecdotal evidence or an over-reliance of political ideology. However, whether this man’s testimony was real or not, this interview raised an important question: how much violence will be needed to create peace?

Attorney General Melendez stated that “everything indicates” that Salvadorian police officers actively commit extrajudicial killings. Based on the social media comments on gang-related news articles that I have seen in the last four years, a significant portion of the population has no problem with these acts, so long as they result in a dead gang member. The question of ethics around homicide rates is yet again raised.

El Salvador has long yearned for peace. The war of the 1980s left the country striving for economic and social progress. It is still possible for it to reach these goals, but if the first two months of the tax are indicative of long-term progress, the country is taking two steps backward for every step that it’s taking forward.