Dispatch From El Salvador: Obama’s Drug War Feels Eerily Familiar

Salvadorans watch uneasily as a new leftist government militarizes daily life in the same way the old right-wing one did--only now, they hunt narcos instead of communists.

By Roberto Lovato Mar 31, 2011

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.

"The police invaded our organization because they said they were searching for drugs," said Ana Maria. "They came in with the excuse that we had heavy quantities of Diazepam [sleeping medicine] to enter university, to justify their attempts to create chaos among student groups. Ridiculo!" 

In tones reminiscent of the feral voices of youth harassed by security forces in places as distinct as the Banlieues of Clichy-sous-Bois near Paris, the vecindades of Tepito in Mexico City or the Jordan Downs Housing projects in Los Angeles, Ana Maria recounted how the "repression" extends beyond the political realm of the university to the more personal space of her neighborhood in the very densely populated Salvadoran suburb of Mejicanos. "You get up, leave your house and there’s an [armed police officer] outside your building. You go to the bus stop and there’s another one. My [8-year-old] little sister goes to her school and there’s a soldier with an M-16 there at 8 a.m. and when she leaves. Wherever you are, they will ask you ‘Why do you cut your hair this way? Why you wear jeans a certain way?’ or ‘Do you use drugs?’ "

And with the political astuteness characteristic of a Salvadoran revolutionary movement and culture that the U.S. State Department has called one of the "most formidable" in the hemisphere, Ana Maria flips from the personal back to the geopolitical street. "Obama is visiting El Salvador so that the U.S. can continue trying  to control the Latin American region," she says. "Those bases in Colombia, the reinforcement of the anti-narcotics division here, are there to put down our social movements. They are all part of maintaining a military position here–and we will continue to oppose it!" 

It’s not just El Salvador. What Ana Maria describes there is part of an accelerating re-militarization of the Americas under the Obama administration. There’s Plan Mexico, Plan Colombia and now the Central American regional plan Obama highlighted during his El Salvador visit. Ana Maria’s concerns reflect the belief of many that the biggest difference between the Cold War era and the Obama era is one of targets. Rather than hunting communist sympathizers and radical nuns, today’s security forces are obsessed with finding the mostly youthful alleged enemies of the drug wars–Salvadoran gangs, narcotraficantes and, in the words of Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, "narcoinsurgents." 

On the other side of San Salvador, in a heavily air-conditioned meeting hall of the Central American Parliament, Stanford-educated international relations expert Hector Perla responds to a recurring question from the crowd of academics, legislators, journalists and policymakers gathered to discuss U.S.-Salvadoran relations in the Obama era: "Are you saying that President Obama is no different from other U.S. Presidents?"

 "What makes Obama different is the Obama doctrine," says Perla, an organizer of the conference who is a colleague of mine and an assistant Professor of Latino and Latin America Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. "The Obama doctrine," he explains, "uses the rhetoric of respect for human rights, the rhetoric of  peace, poverty alleviation and social justice on the one hand, while promoting militarization with the other hand. You can see it clearly in [Obama’s] visit to the tomb of Monsenor Romero, a man recognized for his calls for peace. Obama visited the tomb as he was ordering the bombing and killing in Libya." 

Nowhere are the contours of the Obama doctrine clearer, said Perla, than in the recent announcement of his $200 million anti-narco-trafficking initiative for Central America. Obama says it is the foundation for a "new joint security strategy" set to begin this spring. Perla noted that, in talking about the program, Obama emphasized its aim to "strengthen courts, civil society groups and institutions that uphold the rule of law"–but he left out mention of the funds to train and equip El Salvador’s police and military forces.

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." 

Not even the imagery of Salvadoran gangs in U.S. and Salvadoran minds is grounded in reality. Romero and the Homies have spent time analyzing media images deployed by politicians and security agencies throughout the region. Romero’s colleague, Jose Luis Rodriguez pointed out how, for example, images of tattooed Mara Salvatrucha members are transmitted worldwide as one of the primary depictions of El Salvador on news reports and in Google searches. They "are old and they don’t represent the new pandilleros who don’t even sport tattoos, baggy clothes like the OG’s did," he says. "Real life is different from television." 

The Homies would prefer that Presidents Funes and Obama invest more in peace and less on guns in a country in which homicides among a population of 6.5 million will, at current rates, soon catch up to current and rapidly growing number of homicides in Mexico, which has more than 111 million residents. 

Standing beneath a yellow and black poster that resembles an emergency sign and says "Cuidado: Machisimo Mata!" (Careful: Machismo Kills), Roxana Marroquin’s shy smile and gentle eyes mask the fact that she’s from "the place that has historically known as the cradle of the human rights struggle"–my mom’s home state of San Vicente. Like Romero, 35-year-old Marroquin, a member of the Concertacion Feminista Prudencia Ayala (the Prudencia Ayala Feminist Consensus) believes that El Salvador will not move forward against the violence that plagues it until it takes a sincere and clear look backwards. 

"Obama’s visit to the tomb of Monsenor Romero is super complicated because of what the U.S. has traditionally signified for us: a state that financed the Salvadoran military to block a revolutionary process," says Marroquin, who lost more than a dozen family members, including her father, during the war.

"The visit to Mosnenor’s tomb is not an act of reparation. It’s an act of protocol and leaves me even more indignant, especially when he comes here with more money for guns for the military. How are we to trust that this anti-narcoticos plan will do anything but increase violence?" she asks.

Marroquin sees a direct line running from the impunity that started the war, expanded exponentially during the war (only a few of those responsible for the deaths of the 75,00 to 80,000 deaths have been brought to justice) and continues unabated after the war. She points, for instance, to the murders of at least one woman per day, crimes that have given El Salvador one of the highest rates of femicide in the hemisphere.  

"Impunity in this country is rooted and well encrusted in the state," she says. "The impunity of the war mixes in with historical fact that women have not been legal subjects or citizens in this country and we can’t access justice, which makes it easier to beat or kill us without consequence. You can hit me, you can ask for forgiveness, but if that forgiveness is not lived and not felt, is not accompanied by concrete actions to really repair it, you will hit me again." 

And like the young Ana Maria, Marroquin also believes the solution to the violence impunity breeds lies in political, even revolutionary action–just the sort that the growing militarism appears ready to quash. "Citizenship is constructed daily by our work," she says. "It is constructed by making our demands and by the possibility to obligate an institution or an individual to respect our rights whether that person is a violent husband or the head of the the military–or the head of a country, like Barack Obama."

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