Arriving for the first time to El Salvador is like standing for the first time in front of a Caravaggio painting: the strong lights leave the sight confused before making it lost in the shadows. The sympathy of the people, their confident smiles, the hugs of unknown children, the flowing and respectful speech, give a welcome making everyone feel at home. Suddenly, the country’s tragic and long-suffering past returns with its dark shadows.
The sun and the blue sky, the green and the flowers, the fruits and vegetables along the streets gives one a warm impression of harmony among people and with nature. The heart opens to joy.
When we go for a visit-pilgrimage to the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, saint and martyr of justice, we found the streets of downtown San Salvador, the capital, closed: on this June 1st, the new president, Nayib Bukele, takes possession of the post. The taxi driver goes out, talks with the police officers, the cones closing the road are displaced, the car parked and the street is left open for us the impromptu pedestrians and we arrive quietly at the cathedral.
We leave the city and to Agilares and to La Joya de Celen, one of the hundreds of the country archaeological sites in the midst of the numerous volcanoes. We are welcomed by an exuberant nature, the intense green of fields and hills, the colors of fruit trees and flowers, the reed beds and deep blue sky where white clouds play with mountaintops. Everything invites one to contemplate.
El Salvador is small country of some 21,000 km2 with almost 7 million inhabitants; if it is as happy and peaceful as it seems, why have more than 4 million people emigrated from it?
The streets, even in the center of the city, are "embellished" with garbage: neither dignity not unity shown as sign of a people concerned for the common good. "We are on the Golden Road", the driver reacts when I comment on the well-constructed and well-signposted road on which we are traveling. Splendid acacias, palm trees, avocados convoy it beautifully through the hills and meanders. "Do you know why it's called like that? Because it ‘ate’ not one but three budgets before becoming reality!” The corruption of this country! Neither newspaper nor newscasters talk about it. The corruption is linked to money laundering companies, as in the case of Alba Petróleos, which even created a regional corruption network.
Corruption is also at the origin of the water crisis, whether for drinking or other. For almost three decades, several Salvadoran communities have collectively and efficiently managed the water they consume, but monocultures, deforestation and climate change put their supply at risk. According to official figures, 95.5% of households in the urban area and 76.5% in rural areas have access to piped water. The sugar industry, integrated by sugar mills and controlled by few influential families, is under criticism due to the contamination that takes place, to the indiscriminate use of agrochemicals, to excessive water consumption and harmful practices such as the "burning" of sugarcane leaves before the harvest. Although 70% of the families are connected to the water service provided by the State, however, the water simply does not reach their taps. The efforts of the people to take care of water contrast with the political authorities who want to establish the National Water Authority (ANA) in which the industrial and agricultural sectors would participate. "If we include them, who only see profit, it's like putting the wolf to take care of the sheep", run the comments (See Monocultivos harass community water projects in El Salvador).
When we arrived at "The three crosses", the grave of Father Rutilio Grande killed by the army on March 12, 1977, El Salvador's tragic and long-suffering past returns with its dark shadows. "Principal promoter of social justice and the conversion of Archbishop Romero," recites a plaque in the plaza of his town, El Paisnal. It is like in front of a Caravaggio painting. When you begin to distinguish the details wrapped by the beams of intense light, the shadows invade your sight.
I have kept the newspapers for the whole week and finishing the workshop, I turned its pages, one by one. Domestic politics continues to focus on the horrors of civil war, better called the military repression, of the 1980s. "Assembly ready to approve controversial law of reconciliation" that "The UCA rejects" for despising "victims and their families." The UCA (Central American University), directed by the Jesuits, is where in 1987 six priests, teachers of the same university, were killed along with the daughter and the wife of the dean. The past that seemed forgotten, invades the present. "Will peace be achieved by prosecuting those guilty of crimes committed 30 years ago?"
A former coordinator of Farabundo Martí National Liberation Movement (FMLN), which displaced the military dictatorship with violence, poses this emphatic question. "I do not think so," he replies. The law proposes to impose public utility service instead of jail. However, the "Against impunity Group refuses to exempt from prison the authors of war crimes."
The everyday breaking-news revive the violent chronicles of 30 years ago. A teacher is murdered along with his brother: "The young people were taken from their home early on Tuesday, May 21, 2019 by men dressed as policemen." The young man used to traveling along dusty tracks to carry his work to the various rural centers with enthusiasm and affection.
Two days after my arrival, on the morning of Saturday, May 18, Father Cecilio Pérez Cruz, of the Sonsonate Diocese, was murdered. "He did not pay the MS-13 ransom", one of the gangs, says a piece of paper left at the crime scene. The police have already dismissed this version as an attempt to divert attention. The real cause would be his commitment to the poor, his repeated denunciations against injustice, the last against the trees being cut down. His death brings to mind the Father Walter Osmir murder of a little over a year ago, that never has been solved.
Corruption goes in good company with violence. The newspaper of May 23 tells in capital letters, "198 are the homicides perpetrated so far in this month of May", with each day average of nine, all attributed to maras, a local name given to youth gangs. Headlines such as "Alleged gang member and his wife are killed with bullets"; "They kill a young man 100 meters from Police Headquarters"; "Four farmers killed in Colón and Coatepeque"; "María Olimpia Escobar stabbed by a gang member while jogging."
What is the origin of this vortex of violence that every day takes victims in the country and beyond its borders? The Note of the Day, in the El Diario Hoy (May 21, 2019) right-wing newspapers, tells its answer. It is the "vacuum of authority generated during and after the war of the 1980s with the dissolution of the National Guard in 1993, due to pressure and desire of revenge" of the FMLN. In addition, to "the laws in the extreme guarantees that came later." George Orwell is mentioned: "A people that chooses corruption, impostors, thieves and traitors, is not a victim but an accomplice."
The gangs, in fact, owe their beginnings to a criminal group of Salvadoran emigrants to the United States. Imitating the street violence known there, they operated in such a savage manner that the US government preferred to return them to their country rather than keep them in the prisons there. However, "The gangs, which until then were on the fringes of gang culture, suddenly in these youth groups, gained strength by copying structures like those of the former guerrillas." Civil war and military repression are over: there are the maras that terrorize inhabitants and civil and political leaders now. Its breeding ground is the neglected children and youth. The dropout begins in elementary school and increases after the age of 10 years. Family violence, which according to a study 70% of child aggressors are friends or relatives, and sexual violence, where 13 out of 100 children have suffered it leaving 9% of girls, pregnant, negatively affects youth.
It is to add the illusion emigration creates, because it is the main source of income. The emigrants send remittances that added up to $1,776.1 million dollars in the 2019 first 4 months. A growth of 661.1 million with respect to the previous year, and this is a trend. "Last year, family remittances closed with a total of $5,468.7 million dollars, 8.4% more than in 2017." Of it, 94.9% comes from the United States, followed by Canada, Italy, Spain and Panama. These revenues are not a true solution. Their hope produces vagabondage and inertia that harm the youth and favors a community that becomes lazy to solve problems.
The same newspaper talks about a teenager Ariana Funes Díaz. Her mother had immigrated to the United States when Ariana was two years old. At 11, "she took her to the US because of the gangs’ danger", seeking for her child a safe country with greater opportunities. Ariana was murdered in Riverdale - Maryland - recently on her 14th birthday. Crime authors? Three young Salvadorans of the Mara Salvatrucha.
We visited the Museum of Martyrs at the UCA. The young student guiding us spent lot of time explaining the details of a somewhat dark painting. It represents the clergy, military, society conflicting attitudes at the time of the St. Oscar Romero’s martyrdom. Romero was killed by a bullet fired from the door of the Hospitalito chapel, where he did his priestly ministry before being appointed bishop, and where he lived until his last day, on March 24, 1980.
In the painting, the body of Romero lies cold and inanimate but for a detail: the left hand rises, detached from the body with the index finger in an accusing gesture. "It seems the painter wanted Romero to remind the Church never to stop denouncing the injustices." Maybe it is some far-fetched interpretation, but certainly prophetic for the present day Church of El Salvador; a new regime takes over and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) finally decides to face the real challenges, "create a social welfare program, redouble the fight against corruption, and improve public safety" in the country. In this June 1st, with the mandate of the new president, will the lights begin to drive away the shadows?