Drugs, inequality and a US-backed dirty war

Barack Obama visits El Salvador to talk security cooperation while facing the ghosts of past US foreign policies.

Obama’s decision to visit the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero was a popular move with many Salvadorians [Reuters]

US President Barack Obama arrived in El Salvador to talk about drug violence, but he also tried to make peace with history, visiting the tomb of Oscar Romero, a popular Archbishop gunned down by a US-linked death squad in 1980.

Despite cutting his visit short to deal with the situation in Libya, Obama still made time to visit the tomb, showcasing its symbolic importance.

“Obama is sending a message, taking a moderate approach to the region, and getting big points for going to Romero’s grave,” says Carlos Velazquez, a Salvadorian political researcher at York University in Canada. “It is an emotional thing for Salvadorians.”

Twelve years of internal conflict, between leftist rebels from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the right-wing US-supported government, ended with a peace deal in 1992.

But violence continues to grip the country. “El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world,” according to the US State Department, as violence between rival gangs and drug cartels is far worse on a per capita basis than neighboring Mexico, where killings draw more media attention.

Violence and inequality

Today’s violence has similar root causes to the issues which started the political conflict in the 1980s, including judicial impunity, economic inequality and social fragmentation, says Ivan Briscoe, a conflict researcher and Latin America expert at the Clingendael Institute in the Netherlands. 

“In El Salvador, there was an absolutely brutal conflict that has been passed down to gang violence,” he says. “Inequality led to the insurgency, but now this inequality has found expressions in other forms.”  

Archbishop Romero, a theologian who mixed ideas of heaven in the next life and liberation on earth, was highly critical of US military aid. In a letter to then-US president Jimmy Carter, Romero said aid would “sharpen injustice and repression against the people’s organisations” which were struggling for “respect for their basic human rights”. After his murder, least 75,000 people died in El Salvador’s dirty war.

In some respects, times have changed. Obama has shown a willingness to work with some democratically elected leftist leaders in Latin America, analysts say.

Mauricio Funes, El Salvador’s current president, who is supported by the FMLN, told Al Jazeera that he welcomes American security assistance. “I will ask president Obama for more funds to strengthen our police, army, and the judiciary but also to get more involved in fighting our structural problems like poverty and social inequality,” Funes, a former TV host, said.

During his visit, Obama promised $200mn to Central American governments to fight drug cartels, as part of a package to “strengthen courts, civil society groups and institutions that uphold the role of law” while addressing the “social and economic forces that drive young people towards criminality”.

Competing security concerns
But those lofty goals of poverty reduction and institutional empowerment are inhibited by broader US interests, according to one security analyst. “I think the US operates with a double agenda in Central America,” says Ivan Briscoe.

“The US says it is supportive of judicial reforms, strengthening police forces ect. But it is constantly willing to militarise regions, applying states of emergency [where legal regiments are suspended], applying the full force of local power in a very Manichean version of good versus evil,” Briscoe told Al Jazeera.

A more subtle version of that “Manichean struggle” may have been on display during Obama’s visit. Despite the focus on security and the so-called war on drugs, Obama refused to meet with Manuel Melgar, El Salvador’s Justice and Security Minister.

US diplomats accuse Melgar of having “blood on his hands”, linking the security minister to the 1985 killings of four US marines in an upscale restaurant in San Salvador, the capital.

Melgar was once an FMLN guerrilla. Today, US diplomats see him as a hard-liner, closely allied to Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

Obama’s decision to visit Romero’s tomb may be linked to divisions within Latin America’s left, analysts say.

“President Funes looks to Brazil and Chile for his models,” says Briscoe. “His rivals in the same party were front line guerrillas who look to Venezuela. There is a divide.”

To gain support from so-called moderate Latin American leftists, Obama may be trying to distance himself from US-backed violence and destabilisation campaigns during the Cold War.

Military responses

Despite Obama’s attempts to reach out to some Latin American leftists, Ivan Briscoe, the security analyst, believes elements within the US military’s Southern Command are advocating a “hard-line military response” to security problems in the region, even though this strategy has failed in the past. 

Guatemala, another impoverished Central American country, recently followed this “hard-line” approach when authorities declared a state of emergency to battle drug gangs.

Maximo Ba Tiul, a professor at the Universidad Rafael Landivar in Guatemala, watched as the Guatemalan government imposed a two-month-long state of siege, which prohibited public gatherings, allowed for warrantless searches and suspended other constitutional protections in Alta Verapaz state where he lives.

Many Salvadorians are still critical of Obama, despite the president’s visit to Oscar Romero’s tomb [Reuters]

“This state of emergency was decreed through legislation written during the era of military dictatorships,” said Tiul, during an interview at his home in January. The siege, which ended in mid-February, netted at least 20 arrests, hardly a major victory against a drug trade worth tens of billions of dollars.

Professor Tiul, who lived through Guatemala’s dirty war, doesn’t believe that suspending constitutional protections is the way to enhance the institutional reforms Obama advocated during his El Salvador visit.

“The [Guatemalan] government has creates a situation of marginilisation. This has permitted narco traffickers to assume roles that should be dealt with by the state,” Tiul said, referring to the schools, social events and health clinics that cartels finance in some rural areas. 

The lack of public services pushes many young people into the arms of cartels, analysts say. Other central Americans simply move to the US.

Obama recognised this dichotomy. “I thought that President Funes gave a very eloquent response to one of my questions during our bilateral meeting, He said: ‘I don’t want a young man in El Salvador or a young woman in El Salvador to feel that the only two paths to moving up the income ladder is either to travel north or to join a criminal enterprise,'” Obama said.

With a total population of about 6 million, more than 2.5 million El Salvadorians live in the US. Las Maras, El Salvador’s fearsome, heavily tattooed street gangs, first formed in Los Angles, drawing their ranks from expatriate Salvadorians in the city’s prisons.

The gangs were then exported back to El Salvador through migrant networks. More than 500 Salvadorians leave the country every day, says Velazquez, and the country uses the US dollar instead of a national currency.

Oligarchic power

Structural problems in Central America, leaving average people with few viable options, can be traced to the mentality of local elites, says Carlos Velazquez, the El Salvadorian political researcher.

“Elites are oligarchic in their mentality. They want the state to benefit their interests only. They despise the idea of social justice, the idea of paying taxes,” says Velazquez, who left El Salvador as a teenager to get a better education.

In Brazil and Chile, countries with strong economic growth, elites have a different mentality, says Ivan Briscoe.

“In Brazil, the upper classes realize that to reach the next stage of development, a country needs to create a mass internal market. That requires a level of egalitarianism, to create consumers, to create equality of opportunity,” he says. “In Central America, the geopolitics meant that extremely conservative, unenlightened, elites, were in charge of the situation.”

Income taxation, to redistribute wealth from rich to poor, is often seen as a fairly simple way to combat inequality and entrenched elites. The US favors a higher tax rate in El Salvador, as it would result in better public institutions and thus fewer migrants sneaking into the US, Velazquez says.

But President Funes has his hands tied.

If he confronts the oligarchy, he risks being associated with Hugo Chavez’s socialist policies, Velazquez says. But if Funes doesn’t confront elites, important reforms to the country’s political economy will remain stalled.

A sniper killed Archbishop Oscar Romero because he promoted social justice and reform; he criticised the status quo. Carlos Velasquez thinks El Salvador’s current security and economic stability depends on someone else taking up that mantra. “The oligarchy has to be confronted there is no other way.”

Despite the difficulties, Ivan Briscoe sees hope in the democratistion and economic development happening in South America. “Structures can be changed,” he says. “There is evidence of that in Latin America.”

Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies

More from Features
Most Read