America’s Grisly History Haunts Obama’s El Salvador Visit

Many Salvadorans remain uneasy about a U.S. government that, for years, backed a murderous dictatorship.

By Roberto Lovato Mar 25, 2011

President Obama concluded on Wednesday a five-day tour of Latin America, where he had hoped to make news talking about everything from trade to immigration, but where he instead  parried questions about U.S. military actions in Libya. The president’s trip climaxed with two days in El Salvador–where one in three people were once part of the rebel fight against a U.S.-backed, rightwing government during the country’s 12-year civil war. Colorlines contributor Roberto Lovato followed the president on his trip. "Nearly 20 years after the end of that war," Lovato wrote from San Salvador, "one would be hard pressed to find someone in this country of 6.5 million whose conversation did not eventually turn to a story about a friend, family member or acquaintance who was among the 75,000 who lost their lives in the conflict. To date, few have been brought to justice for these deaths." Below, Lovato narrates images from Obama’s days wading through this difficult history. –Editors

Obama, Welcome. Obama, Leave: Taken in front of the storied and beautiful San Salvador Cathedral, where President Obama visited the tomb of Monsr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero earlier this week, this picture reflects the broad spectrum of opinion about–and organizing around–his visit. Calm, coiffured images of the visit in the international media contrasted strikingly against the view on the Salvadoran street in one of the most densely-populated, highly organized, left-leaning countries in the hemisphere. (Photo: Ivan Hernandez/En Pie de Foto)

Stolen Headlines: President Obama’s itinerary was cut short (he had to move up his visit to Romero’s tomb and didn’t get to visit ancient ruins in San Andres) due to developments in Libya, which dominated the two questions allotted to the U.S. journalists accompanying him. As a result, El Salvador hardly got the coverage in U.S. and global media that many here had anticipated. Salvadoran and Latin American journalists were also allotted two questions, but just before Tuesday’s 3 p.m. press conference began, they were told by Salvadoran authorities that "the U.S. Secret Service had already chosen the questioners." (Photo: Roberto Lovato)

No Tough Questions, Please: The Latin American and Salvadoran journalists spent almost an hour crafting their 2 questions, only to be told they could not ask them. After hearing what they considered the "chiste" (joke) questions from the two right-leaning media organizations chosen to speak, some journalists laughed audibly while others, like the Honduran journalist pictured here, rose to voice frustration. Groups of journalists had agreed to question Obama and Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes about the efficacy of drug wars and the issue of "impunidad" (impunity) for war crimes, among other issues. (Photo: Roberto Lovato)

Haunted by Old Sins: Many Salvadorans were happy to hear that President Obama visited the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated by paramilitary death squad operatives 31 years ago this week. At the same time, most Salvadorans polled on-air by radio and television stations here believe that Obama’s primary motive for visiting the tomb was mere protocolo–or, more of a formal gesture than a real show of remorse on behalf of a U.S. government that equipped and trained the military that killed Romero and 80,000 other Salvadorans. (Photo: Rodrigo Sura/En Pie de Foto)

Money for War: Obama’s visit sparked renewed debate in El Salvador about the role of the military in Salvadoran society. Though the military consistently ranks among the most trusted institutions in the country, the deployment of the military to fight U.S.-backed drug war stirs memories of the military dictatorship that dominated institutional and private life here for decades. Obama’s major announcement during the trip–a $200 million dollar aid package with a heavy focus on training and equipping military and other security forces–inspires profound fears and other powerful emotions. (Photo: Rodrigo Sura/En Pie de Foto)

Obama y la Muerte: Obama’s visit drew an especially strong reaction from students like those that organized several protests this week. That Obama’s visit coincided with the invasion of Libya–and with what student protesters consider the illegal evacuation by armed police of poor students that had taken over parts of the National University–did nothing to dispel fears that Obama is just another imperial U.S. president out to dominate the world. (Photo: Rodrigo Sura/En Pie de Foto)

Naming All the Criminals: Among those that are skeptical of Obama and the U.S. motives is Luis Romero, who migrated from El Salvador just after the assassination of Monsr. Romero. He returned just after the peace accords were signed. Luis Romero, a former violent gang member who now works to broker peace among rival gangs, is among the many here who believe that the military-centered approach to combating gangs and narcotraffickers will only lead to even greater violence and death if the leaders do not also prioritize the equal distribution of justice. "Mara and 18th Street members, they read the papers like everybody else. They know that El Salvador has a history of the rich and powerful getting away with murder–lots of it. And they know that nobody is calling them [the rich and powerful] criminals or putting them in jail. Those white collar criminals are the real gangsters, but nobody’s declaring war on them." (Photo: Roberto Lovato)

This report was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.