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Analysis II
Last Updated: 05/08/2012
Progress Can Prevail in El Salvador
Paula LeRoy

Last month, Paula LeRoy's article "Violence and Poverty Entangled in El Salvador" described the many interlocking challenges to peace and prosperity in the country. This article offers an inspiring range of potential solutions and practical ideas for how those challenges an be overcome.


El Salvador is suffering under extraordinary levels of violence fueled by economic desperation, arms supply, organized crime, gang violence, state sponsored violence, banditry, and domestic violence. The companion paper Violence and Poverty Entangled in El Salvador describes these in detail. This paper sets out to suggest simple outlines of solutions, applaud positive developments, and bring models of success from other international development frontiers.

Remedies often sound naïve, especially without complete details. Obviously each of these solutions is an immense challenge in itself and each remedy will come up against bureaucratic obstacles, competitive undermining by the opposition, resistance from global institutions, and a general fear of doing something different. Given that the strategies engendered in the last two decades have led to poor results, it is time to ask the pundits to be civil and draw upon development best practices.

Prioritize Economic Development and Poverty Alleviation

The first response to this suggestion is usually “there isn’t enough money to do that!” However, in the case of El Salvador, thirty to forty percent of the government budget is spent for security, while little is spent for education. There are also many international organizations willing to help El Salvador now that there is a new administration associated with the FMLN, the main opposition organization during the civil war. Many of the suggestions below are being implemented in other violence-torn areas by NGOs. These NGO’s can be invited into El Salvador with protection mechanisms. It is however best if the aid money is channeled through the government so that the aid priorities are in alignment and the provision of services gives the government legitimacy and establishes precedents for these services to be normalized.

Firstly, El Salvador needs to renegotiate its debt to the US of $11.2 billion, mostly from security arrangements during the war. This debt cripples El Salvador. If the government can not provide sufficient public services, the public will continue to find self-serve methods such as organized crime.

The tax system needs to be overhauled and collection mechanisms strengthened. 50% of the tax revenues are generated from VAT taxes (US Dept of State, 2011) which keeps consumer prices particularly high and proves a disincentive for businesses to become legal. Much of the VAT income is used to pay the debt to the United States.

The new President Mauricio Funes is already turning his attention to economic priorities that have been neglected or non-existent. Decentralizing government to give local communities more jurisdiction over the delegation of resources is a major step. Schools, health services, infrastructure, training programs and land distribution with micro-credit availability are the most obvious needs. Agricultural credit and protection of resources are also necessary.

Employment funded by government and international resources is essential and the benefits to the economy will far surpass the expenditure, austerity measures compel the economy toward downtown. El Salvador has many needs, especially in infrastructure building that likely matches the abilities of the multitude of unemployed of low skilled and high skilled labor. Engineers are definitely needed.

Securing clean water distribution should be a priority. El Salvador has only one functioning water treatment plant, outside of San Salvador. Most waste is not treated and runs into the rivers used for washing and drinking water. Water born diseases are a major cause of under-5 mortality. Chronic kidney disease is also typical, especially in areas of intense flooding.

Solar and micro-hydro projects can provide employment and energy. Planting diverse crops including erosion controlling trees and ethanol producing plants such as jatropa are projects that can be easily implemented. Ensuring a sufficient supply of locally grown food stuffs is not a sexy development solution, but absolutely essential. Sustainable farming and fishery techniques need to be reintroduced along with the seed and materials for their introduction. Local citizens who have guns can be hired to protect the building and agricultural supplies, luring them away from banditry and protecting against banditry. Of course corruption is a significant risk, especially in a country that has little confidence in its police, justice and government officials. It can be done with caution and oversight, and stabilizing salaries.

A fairly high salary must be offered to bring qualified doctors and nurses to areas that need health services. Clinics should provide addiction recovery, psychiatric services and maternal health care. Ideally there would also be safe houses for abused women. Trauma recovery programs could help the estimated thirty percent of Salvadorans suffering from PTSD.

Although official (contested) statistics claim only 4% of the population are disabled, Landmine Survivors Network estimates the total is closer to 10%. Improved means of accessibility through the building of ramps and other handicapped-accessible infrastructure; improved locations with accessible services (such as in schools), and greater employment opportunities would help disabled people become economically viable, valued and integrated into society. Disability awareness programs should be supported financially and politically. (Hotra, 2008)

A Success Story in El Salvador

La Coordinadora- Association Mangle (LC-AM) was founded in 1996 by 13 communities determined to survive the annual flooding. The declared a zone of peace and now 86 communities are working together and have political representation in the general assembly. LC-AMs success are worth listing: Effective disaster response to Hurricane Mitch and 2001 earthquake, construction of 90 homes and a Peace Center, local leadership, democratic organization of the 86 communities, 160 commercial organic farms, 12 shrimp farms, 450 chicken businesses, 1200 trained in green agriculture techniques, maintanence of a local zone of peace, successful mediation between rival youth gangs, election of two municipal governments sensitive to rural needs, micro-credit program and a budding eco-tourism industry. (LC-AM, 2011)

This success can not be emulated easily but shows that local leadership can lead to appropriate and sustainable progress. Outside help and resources were solicited but the bulk of the effort was from within.

Governance of Inclusion and Cooperation

Neither economic measures nor governance changes will be successful without an attitudinal adjustment toward peace building. The oppositional nature of the political arena is still very strong that posits rich against poor, landed against non-landed, “productive” versus “non-productive” ‘elements” of society and those who seek military solutions and those who seek economic solutions. The ARENA and Christian Democrats in the current legislature have blocked as many FMLN initiatives as possible including a full package of financial, tax collection, civil service capacity building and judicial reforms created in partnership with the World Bank (Worldbank, 2011). To march ahead with the new priorities, the FMLN will need a greater majority in the elected office, or the opposition will need to recognize how the development initiatives benefit them as well. In the last election, the FMLN party lost some ground, so their majority is weaker, which leaves the urgent option of greater cooperation between parties. Every effort should be made to NOT bypass democracy by initiating legislation through executive action, despite its expediency.

The challenge here is to reassert institutional political power by increasing legitimacy, increasing equitable and satisfying levels of distribution of public goods. To increase access to justice for all sectors, increase economic opportunities, and increase equitable and reliable security to all citizens should be the frontline effort. Alexandra Dobra explains why most peace building from above does not work because it is put in place structurally but not attitudinally, similarly to the situation in El Salvador, and how peace building from within also needs to take into account global constructs and pressures such as globalization and organized crime. (Dobra, 2012)

None of the political and economic programs will be successful without an improved security situation. Diligent efforts must be made to weed out corruption from the military, police and government. To do this is risky while the balance of officials tips toward the corrupt. Colombia especially struggles with political assassinations by organized crime affiliates. However, once the prerogative is set in motion, the tables will turn slowly. Meanwhile, security guards must be vetted and employed. Salaries must be high enough to make government jobs salient, and dismissal from them a publicized shaming, and steep drop in income. Thus, if officials are dismissed from positions in such a way, disincentives toward corruption strengthen. Government jobs must become an end in themselves based on meritocracy, rather than a position of power from which one can elicit bribes. Some countries have had success having candidates for government jobs apply on line. This creates more transparency as to who is applying and who is being employed and visible record of merit based qualities.

Increased political participation by women will help align budgetary priorities with the needs of women and children. A strategy piloted in a region of India is to reserve a select percentage of parliamentary seats for women. In India 15% of the districts needed to elect a female representative for two years, and in the next two years a different 15% of the districts had this mandate. Even when the reserved period was over, more women ran for office than before and many were re-elected. This type of female participation in governance will no doubt be helpful, especially in an economy where 40% of the businesses are owned by women.

Education is a Global Solution

In some rural areas, parents have gained the support of the government to run and finance their children’s schools, similarly to the charter school movement in the United States. These have shown promising success.

In areas where parents are not available to dedicate time and resources to schools, fosterages can be made available to poor urban families, to allow their children to escape the city areas in which they are recruited into gangs at increasingly younger ages. Excellent models exist, such as the Parwaishga in Afghanistan. These are boarding schools for orphans and needy children that provide education, safety, peace building training, and ‘a childhood.’ (afceco.org) Particularly because the high truancy rate of notoriously inadequate Salvadoran schools, these fosterages will be welcome alternatives for the families and children in poor districts.

Teacher recruitment and training will provide jobs and fill a void in the Salvadoran social network. Agricultural training as well as basic academic skills have been neglected. There are many models of technology oriented schools and schools that train for future global and local needs. There is a growing trend in Central America to send promising students to attend foreign high schools and universities abroad, in exchange for working in their own country upon return.

The culture of violence against women is well documented, and requires also education programs. To decrease domestic violence is a formidable task that involves trauma recovery, economic opportunities for women, maternal health care, laws and training of police responders, grassroots movements such as dialog groups, and greater involvement of women in government. Thirty percent of the combatants in the Civil War were women, yet women were not consulted to help envision a post-war society during the Peace Accords. Year long programs such as those provided by Women for Women International would help remedy the trauma, discrimination, domestic abuse, and lack of livelihood faced by many women. They work with socially excluded women in eight countries where war and conflict have devastated lives and communities. Women learn job skills and receive business training so they can earn a living. They come to understand their rights and how to fight for those rights in their homes, their communities and their nations and become leaders. (womenforwomen.org)

Support Community Building

Programs similar to that of San Mart'n, a city on the outskirts of San Salvador could reduce violence among youth. “San Mart'n has historically been one of the most violent municipalities in the country, but has enjoyed substantial success in lowering its crime statistics and providing opportunity for youth during the past three years. The manner in which the local government in San Mart'n discusses and treats youth issues is drastically different from that of the national government, and directly affects how local youth view their own opportunities and participation in society. A key aspect of the program, known as Plan 'San Mart'n Seguro', or 'A Safe San Mart'n', is a soccer league for youth ages six to eighteen. Building this sense of comradeship and community is essential for combating embedded distrust and insecurity, which are products not only of gang violence, but also years of civil armed conflict and government repression. Instead of reinforcing individualism and suspicion, the soccer league serves to create connections and personal relationships between people, and to slowly break down the barriers that isolate them.” (Hoisington, 2009)

In Libertad, formerly a tourist hub on the coast, Tres Americas, a US funded NGO that raises funds through selling organic coffee produced in the region, has a surfing program to get youth surfing and into school instead of hanging out in gangs. (tresamericas.org)

Bring Perpetrators to Justice

Fear remains amongst the people as perpetrators remain at large in society. The belief that the government won’t act needs to be assuaged. A recent victory may be in store for victims if the Salvadoran judicial system does its due diligence and runs the trial professionally. A US court ruling paves the way for former Salvadoran Defense Minister General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova to be deported from the US, on the basis of his involvement in cases of rape, torture and extrajudicial killings in El Salvador in the 1980s. (Amnesty International, 2012) This could be the beginning of true justice or a missed opportunity.

Solve the Security Crisis

All of the above remedies are almost impossible without an improved security situation. In brief, the arms supply must be diminished through strict licensing, stricter gun laws, tighter border controls, sentencing of violators, decreased arms purchases by the government, and a new round of disarmament incentives. The newly paved American highway has provided an easy route for all types of trafficking making the use of fast boats and overland transport less necessary. Checkpoints need to be installed and supervised without corruption. Rigorous salaries and stiff competition for the jobs will make guards less likely to be bought out.

Organized crime is very difficult to diminish, but some suggestions are to tighten money laundering controls and change El Salvadoran currency back to colones instead of dollars. With a dollar currency, El Salvador is the most useful country for money laundering. Prosecution of government leaders who partake in organized crime must continue even if it is the lower level perpetrators. The prosecutions serve as deterrents and builds confidence in the government. Increased protection of judges who prosecute high level criminals is essential. Witness protection needs to be improved and the justices need to come to an agreement about the legitimacy of anonymous witnesses so that court cases are not overturned of those who should be incarcerated.

In some countries, soap operas have been generated that emphasize ethical workers. Showcasing the positive aspects of Salvadoran society both in the news and telenovelas will help change perceptions after a steady diet of shows and news reports infested with violence. They are in constant supply on the main TV station owned by ex-president Saca. Channel 12 needs support to bring more innovative programming.

The prison structures need revamping, not just a facelift. Presently, separate prisons house each of the rival gangs which enables incarcerated gang members to use the prison as their organizing headquarters. There doesn’t appear to be work programs in the prisons, meanwhile, the prisoners receive three meals a day which most Salvadorans do not; this creates animosity with Salvadorans and increases the social divide, making it more difficult for ex-gang members to be accepted into regular society. Greater efforts at rehabilitation, job training, parenting skills, and relocation must be made.

A switch in emphasis from attempting to suppress all gang members to a more inclusive approach may be successful. Having tried a “mano duro” (strong hand) approach for a decade without success, the government of El Salvador seems to be trying a new strategy of negotiations. “If the allegations are true, it would suggest that El Salvador’s government has attempted a major shift in its anti-crime strategy, opting to negotiate with the “maras” instead of confronting them head on. This could be a positive sign for the future of citizen security in the country, as the iron fist strategy failed to rein in violence, and instead contributed to the expansion of the gangs.” (Ramsey, 2012)

Unfortunately, the US deportation program puts a huge burden on the security situation in El Salvador. The US has agreed to extend working visas for Salvadorans with expired visas, but not for criminals. In essence, the US is keeping the law abiding Salvadorans and exporting the troublemakers. Although this doesn’t solve the gang problem, it helps maintain a steady level of remittances upon which the Salvadoran economy is highly dependent. For the United States to decisively tackle its own gang problems, high demand for illegal drugs, sex trafficking, gun running and prostitution issues with interventions rather than incarceration would help all of the countries in the region.

Within El Salvador, counterinsurgency tactics can be useful. The most loosely affiliated with the gangs can be most easily swayed to join the mainstream if economic and socially credible alternatives are available. Geographic areas of least violence should be secured first, thus providing secure areas and corralling the violent into smaller and smaller areas, within which suppression mechanisms are often the useful option. State sponsored violence can be curtailed with judicial reform and tighter controls over state owned weapons. The United States should consider a ban on arms sales to El Salvador. Banditry can be decreased with the development of economic opportunities, less corrupt policing, community policing, and land reform.

While the security crisis is attended to, economic development must take center stage; there must be alternatives for those that perpetrate violence as well as for those who are victims of it. The elected government after the 1992 Peace Accords did not create a new and vibrant El Salvador with increased equity, better education, diverse economic opportunities, collaborative governance, and arms control. The results are clear and can be an example to other post-conflict societies that may try to dodge responsibilities to the entire population in favor of continuing to benefit the elites. That strategy can plunge a country into continued violence. However, it is not too late for El Salvador. A new government, new priorities and new commitments from the international community may bring to fruition what has been envisioned by some for decades.

Paula LeRoy is a graduate of Monterey Institute of International Studies specializing in Central America and Fragile States. She hosts a radio show called Policy Pace found at http://blogs.miis.edu/radio.


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