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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.

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Especially disturbing to Perla, a Salvadoran-American with family on both sides of the U.S.-Salvadoran divide, is that “nobody is talking about the failure of those plans (Mexico, Colombia)—how we’ve seen an astronomical rise in the numbers of killings and human rights abuses in Mexico and ongoing counterinsurgency and human rights abuses committed under cover of fighting the drug war in Colombia.”

“In El Salvador, the U.S. is talking about policies of growth and security, promoting ‘citizen security,’ ” said Perla. “But when you look close, you see an expansion of many of the same policies of the Bush administration, only now you will have Plan Centroamerica to connect and integrate Plan Mexico to the north and Plan Colombia to the south.” 

For their part, the Salvadoran government and the FMLN are caught between the rock of desire to build stronger relations with El Salvador’s most important source of aid and foreign revenue—namely, Washington, D.C.—and the hard place of the highly-organized discontent that brought them to power in the first place. Notably, El Salvador’s government, elected in 2009, has brought the leftist wave surging through the Americas closest to the U.S. border. Yet, critics are calling the FMLN’s coziness with Obama and their zealous pursuit of the U.S.-led drug war misguided and dangerous. And among the many concerns about that war is it is based on insufficient or shoddy information.

Consider, for example, the response of Rodrigo Barahona, El Salvador’s attorney general, when asked how many of the 4,005 homicides committed in 2010 involved the gangs and narcotraffickers seen daily in television newscasts: “We don’t have a study of that.”

It’s not because he hasn’t tried to conduct such a study. But Barahona’s efforts to build up information and crime fighting systems are made extremely difficult by layers of corruption and impunity (“El Salvador has a culture of disrespect for the law”, he says) left behind by generations of military dictatorships and right wing governments. So there’s no information about things like the number of registered versus unregistered guns, for instance, or the links of extremely rich criminals to poor criminals. There’s certainly no exploration of poverty’s role in creating violence and insecurity. The lack of information allows media sensationalism, half truths and political expediency to become the foundation for policies that can mean either more life or more death.

For his part, Luis Romero of Homies Unidos, which organizes for peace among and between gangs in El Salvador, notes that the lack of information guiding the U.S. and Salvadoran governments’ militarized response to gangs mirrors the U.S.’s own spectacle-driven war on drugs—a war that, he feels, ends up painting an entire generation of young people and immigrants as criminals. 

Romero is a “non-violent gang member” and CNN Hero who started doing anti-violence work in his homeland after the Salvadoran war ended, when deportations from the U.S. exported gang culture here and throughout the Central American basin. He was among the gang members deported from Los Angeles. In a classic kalo dialect that originated among Chicano prison gangs, Romero breaks down what he sees as the information gaps that inform bad policy. 

“There are about 26,000 people locked up in the Carcel de Adultos [adult prison],” he says, adding, “6,000 to 7,000 of those people are pandilleros [gang members]. Who are those other 19,000 people? They’re probably not the hard core narcos that the this ‘drug war’ is going to take on.” 

Romero and others interviewed point out that El Salvador’s “culture of violence” also includes many red-blooded, God-loving owners of registered guns—guns made possible by U.S. gun industry players like AMK Trading, which one source told me has “a major investment in keeping El Salvador’s gun control and registration laws very weak.” 

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