Re-militarizing El Salvador

It's midnight on the tarmac at Los Angeles Airport. Four Salvadoran men are being unloaded from an Immigration and Naturalization Service van. The men, who have the tough look of survivors, join the crush of passengers pushing anxiously onto United flight 865 to San Salvador. These four Salvadorans didn't have to wait for their row to be called. They are being deported under the bored, governmental gaze of two armed INS agents.

Twenty years ago the United States shipped billions in war materials to El Salvador, and in return that tiny nation sent its best youths out of harm's way to America. This year those youths, their families, and a flood of newcomers will return more than $1.6 billion in American wages to their homeland -- propping up one of Latin America's poorest countries.

Some of those youths, members of transnational Salvadoran gangs like Salvatrucha, M18, will be deported by the INS when they commit street crimes, only to get caught up in El Salvador's gang scene. They are also caught in the middle of tenuous post-cold war U.S.-Salvadoran relations.

As crime plagues postwar El Salvador, South American drugs have replaced communism as the U.S. government's new bogeyman in Latin America. Seeking a Central American beachhead in the drug war, the United States is planning a new round of military buildup in this war-shattered country. Meanwhile, President Bill Clinton headed to Colombia last month to deliver $1.3 billion in mostly military aid to fight drugs and Colombian insurgents.

Just Watching?

At the height of the Reagan war in El Salvador in the 1980s there were 55 "official" U.S. military advisers in El Salvador, although the number was usually larger, as troops flew in from Honduras, wore civilian clothes at the Sheraton Hotel, or just plain lied about what they were doing in the country.

Fierce opposition among liberal Democrats in Congress and a vocal antiwar movement in the United States kept that number from growing, so instead, the conservative administration relied on training elite battalions of Salvadoran soldiers for the harshest anti-insurgency campaigns.

Today the United States wants to build a new military garrison in El Salvador -- this one larger, more complex, and more out in the open. A complex of hangars at the international airport outside of San Salvador would be taken over by U.S. pilots, support soldiers, and military hardware.

In late June, in yet another ironic twist in the aftermath of U.S. intervention in El Salvador, former FMLN guerrilla commanders faced off with then-U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson in the "Culture of Peace" conference room of the National Assembly building. Patterson told the fledgling democrats, some of whom were commanding guerrilla groups only a decade earlier, that the U.S. needs an antidrug listening post in Central America -- and that El Salvador is the perfect location.

In a hallway outside the closed-door meeting, a U.S. government official who would only speak anonymously explained, "We need to monitor airspace and sea lanes, and our only role under these agreements is to monitor suspected drug flights. There would be no interdiction. There is no offensive strategy."

U.S. officials insist the Americans would fly only two P-3 Orion reconnaissance planes, set up an array of radar, and have only 60 American soldiers and their families based in El Salvador. But the official accord, handed out to reporters and waved in the air by opposition leaders, has no limit on the total number of soldiers, planes, or buildings.

Leaders of the FMLN are wary: why build a new base in El Salvador? Is it a coincidence that this plan has been raised just as the FMLN appears poised to take power in the country? With the United States kicked out of Panama, shunned by Costa Rica and Mexico, and mired in a guerrilla war in Colombia, is El Salvador the new American station house for Central American "police actions"?

This past March, to the surprise of both Salvadorans and Americans, the former guerrilla party FMLN won the most seats in the National Assembly and, more important, won the top administrative posts in most of the nation's major cities. Presidential elections are not until 2004, but current trends indicate that the FMLN will take over in that year.

Eugenio Chicas, an FMLN member of the National Assembly, was a key leader in the war against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government. He was wounded several times, jailed twice, and spent a good part of the '80s in exile. He speaks passionately about what the United States should and should not do after funding a 12-year war that took 70,000 lives.

"We don't like the [air base] proposal," Chicas said. "The problem is that the U.S. has no clear policy for combating drug trafficking. There is no limit on where fighting drug trafficking ends and militarization begins." And, he noted, "there is very little effort to diminish the use of drugs in the U.S., and the base they want to set up in El Salvador appears to be more of a military base than to fight drugs."

He argues that it is former members of the clandestine death squads and security police, who worked closely with U.S. military and intelligence officials in the '80s, who are involved in major organized crime in El Salvador, including drug running. The United States, he says, "should declassify its information about the death squads relating to drug trafficking."

That is not likely given governmental and press reports that the Reagan administration worked closely with drug runners among the Contras in Nicaragua; that Salvadoran death squads were under the control of U.S.-trained military officers; and that the U.S. government knew far more about disappeared Salvadorans than it ever publicly admitted.

Ironically, the U.S. ambassador invites the former guerrillas to give their support to fighting drugs so that American streets won't be flooded with crack cocaine. The former guerrillas respond by asking the United States to stem El Salvador's crack cocaine epidemic by ending deportations of gang members back to the streets of San Salvador.

Yet neither side talks about what is just under the surface: 8,000 Salvadorans disappeared during the war, and the U.S. government knew it was happening and supported those who were involved. It is below the surface because that is how most Salvadorans and all Americans want it. The Salvadorans want peace after 70 years of massacres and repression. And Americans have forgotten about El Salvador.

FMLN assembly member Jose Manuel Melgar summed it up to me a few moments before blistering ambassador Patterson, who has since been named U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, with a lecture about the sovereignty of his tiny country.

The 1992 peace agreement between the repressive military regime and the overmatched guerrilla army has worked in El Salvador because "both parties wanted it to work," Melgar explained to me. "And they both wanted it to work because they realized there were no winners or losers." More important, said Melgar, there is no interest in returning to war because "it is not guaranteed that either side could win."

The Other Guns

Throughout postwar El Salvador crime is rampant. The newspapers of San Salvador are filled with lurid stories of police being arrested throughout the country for running kidnapping, truck hijacking, and robbery rings.

You only have to enter a neighborhood sandwich shop in San Salvador to get the hint: An armed guard with a pistol-grip shotgun stands at the door. In the doorway of almost every store with a cash drawer stand these private, shotgun-toting guards. It's as though all the kids in government fatigues who toted guns in 1981 grew up and traded in their American M-16s for shotguns and sharply pressed powder blue and black security guard uniforms.

The central reason for today's crime wave and gang buildup is the country's stubborn, deep poverty. La Chacra, a poor and marginalized suburb of San Salvador, is a prime example. La Chacra residents have found that they are often passed over for jobs because the town has such a bad reputation.

La Chacra grew dramatically during the war, as peasants were forced from the countryside into the cities by the government's "dry up the sea" anti-insurgency programs. Walk down the narrow streets and you see graffiti right out of East Los Angeles. The L.A. gangs are here, and many of their members are deportees from southern California.

Mary Frances Ross, an American pharmacist who volunteers at a neighborhood health clinic, hears the gunshots at night and the occasional explosion. "They throw grenades at each other ... they come into our clinic for post-trauma care. But one of our biggest problems is drug addiction."

Ross attributes many of the problems of her poor neighborhood to the globalization of the economy. As El Salvador's economy is more closely tied to the world economy, prices for its exports decline, while prices of formerly subsidized basics are allowed to rise. Men leave for higher-paying wages to the north, and the criminals among them are deported back to the south.

According to the Salvadoran Central Bank, Salvadorans in the United States will this year send back $1.6 billion, up from $1 billion last year. In an economy that only exports $6 billion in goods -- mostly coffee, sugar, and assembled maquila clothes and electronics -- the Salvadoran workforce in the United States is a huge economic crutch.

The economic conditions in la Chacra explain why crime is rampant in El Salvador. Most people in this community are only marginally employed. If they are the luckiest of the lucky, they get a job in one of the maquilas making clothes for American boutiques, earning about $110 a month. Most who work here are street vendors in the capital, making even less. The rent on a house in the neighborhood is about $70 a month, and electricity and basic food prices are being raised as part of the rightist government's "neo-liberal" economic policies.

One la Chacra family is preparing to send off its main breadwinner to the United States. He will pay a coyote, or smuggler, $3,000 for a journey that will take him across Guatemala, the vast and inhospitable Mexican peninsula, and then the fatal deserts of the Southwest U.S.

If he makes it to Pasadena, or South San Francisco, or even as far away as Chicago, he will join a growing population of Salvadorans who will prop up what would otherwise be a bankrupt nation. And if he gets snared by American authorities, he will return on one of those midnight flights out of LAX.

George Thurlow is the publisher of the Santa Barbara Independent. Research assistance was provided by the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad in San Salvador. Interview translations were provided by Kendra Casey.

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