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Obama's Drug War in El Salvador

For author Lovato el Salvador feels like 1980, the year its civil war started, after U.S.-trained death squads murdered Monsenor Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

It all feels intensely familiar, like the days of open conflict between El Salvador’s people and its government. Angry students marching, covering their coffee-colored faces with bandanas or masks as they file through the streets. Giant effigies of U.S. presidents and Uncle Sam next to huge, colorful banners demanding “ Alto al Militarismo! ” Nervous “security” demanding to know, “What press do you work for?” before forcing me to pull out my credentials.

Listening to wiry, tee-shirted student leader “Ana Maria” (a pseudonym) on the smoke-filled, sun-baked streets of San Salvador, I’m whisked back to similar scenes in the Cold War years of the 80’s and 90’s. “We’ve had to organize clandestine meetings because of the intervention of the police on our campus,” she tells me while glancing occasionally to the left and right of the long march. “These last days, police intervention on campus has increased,” she said. 

“There’ve been three or four raids on student organizations in the last week,” added  one of the young leaders who’ve organized in response to the police’s sudden interest in student political activity. “This is a lot more than the normal intimidations—searching us, detaining us and other things that promote paranoia among students. This is the first time the police have intervened in the university in more than three decades.”

Watching this army of cell phone-wielding protesters through the smoke of rickety buses, it feels eerily like 1980, the year El Salvador’s civil war started, after U.S.-trained death squads murdered Monsenor Oscar Arnulfo Romero—the country’s ultimate symbol of peace, and of the consequences of militarization. Then, the militarization of society was driven by political ideologies; today, it is driven by the purported war on drugs. In both cases, the driving force has been Washington, D.C.’s agenda—and its guns. 

Romero’s assassination started El Salvador along the tragic path of war that was the precursor of and foundation for the current spiral of violence. At the time, a well-organized popular movement (one of every three Salvadorans adopted “radicalized” politics during the war, according to the Catholic University) confronted a long line of violent military dictatorships backed by several U.S. administrations, Democrat and Republican alike. After the movement exhausted reform efforts, many saw no choice but to take more radical measures, including the formation of the five politico-military Marxist organizations that came together as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Ana Maria and other Salvadorans’ distrust of the United States is rooted in the 12 years of civil war that followed. It left a toll of 75,000 to 80,000 dead, almost 95 percent of whom the United Nation Truth Commission found were killed by governments backed by successive U.S. presidents—Carter, Bush and Reagan, who was by far the most aggressive in his support. 

Memories of those clashes with the military now animate the March 14 Revolutionary Student Movement, born just a few weeks ago in response to the police raids on the National University campus. Prior to two weeks ago,  police had not set foot on the campus since the war; during the 80’s, the army was charged with invading, spying on and bombing the campus. Ironically, the police force that intervened on the campus this month includes former FMLN combatants, who themselves spent so many years fighting right-wing militarization of society. Now, they act under the orders of leftist President Mauricio Funes, who was preparing to host President Obama as students were marching to protest his visit to El Salvador.

For Ana Maria and many of her generation of radical Salvadorenas, Obama has replaced Ronald Reagan as the new face of danger on the tank and troop-filled streets of San Salvador. The military is the centerpiece of Obama’s El Salvador agenda. His Central American Citizen’s Security Partnership offers $200 million in technical assistance and aid to military-security forces, which he says will “confront the narco-traffickers and gangs that have caused so much violence.” Students believe the initiative is once again militarizing daily life, under cover of drug wars.

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