Last week, the 26th of March, the streets of El Salvador were filled with thousands of people, dressed in white. Half a million Salvadorans, according to the Government, took to the streets in favour of “Life, Peace and Justice” in a manifestation against the ever increasing violence which, after the “truce” collapsed, again has placed El Salvador in the lead of the most violent countries in the world.
In fact, the month of March was the most violent in El Salvador in 10 years, in all this century, with 16 homicides a day. This very same day, 15 people met a violent death, among them eight gang-members who were killed by the police. I have my hypothesis as to the reasons for these homicides and others – more on this later on.
Regarding the collapse of the “truce”: it is a development which started in May 2013, when the government sacked key-persons in the government, persons who someway or other were promoting the peace process. At the same time the former President Funes hindered the peace-mediators from doing their work and imprisoned gang-leaders to communicate among each other. Slow but sure homicides started to increase, to culminate last month.
Back to the streets: The scenery by the statue of San Salvador in the centre of the capital was quite overwhelming: Thousands of school-children, elderly, rich, poor, representatives of the government and its institutions, the churches, private businesses, ex-combatants, even dogs, all dressed in white t-shirts filled the roundabout in the middle of the city, and many of the adjacent streets.
Helicopters and drones were whirring above as the words of the President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén rumbled from the tribune and the enormous screens.
He announced a new law on anti-extortion as an accomplishment of the government to combat violence.
Extortion is an evil crime and keeps half of El Salvador, at least, terrified. Not only terrified. People leave their homes, businesses, even the country because of blackmail. Even in the exterior, they don’t feel safe. The gangs, apparently to some degree transnational, have long arms.
Up to date, though, I have seen no exact numbers or data on either the victims, or the sums of money collected. Or anything else precise related to this crime. Which is understandable. Neither victims nor victimizers have big interest in providing information.
The information that is circulating is that the extortions is done by gang-leaders from the prisons using cellular phones, and the dirty work in the streets accomplished by the lower cast.
Supposedly, extortion diminished somewhat during the “truce”; it could be correct, but it remains the main means of income of the gangs in El Salvador, as opposed to kidnappings, narcotics-businesses, trafficking and other crimes, prevailing in other countries.
I could have some sympathy for this dirty method of means of income if only it was done in a “Robin Hood”- kind of a way. But no. To a great degree it seems as if the poor take – from the poor.
The gangs have circulated statement after statement since the “truce”. Most messages make sense in many ways, but when it comes to extortion, they are vague: “So long as the State does not provide us with other means of income, we continue”, I believe they say in some of their statements.
It makes some sense. But why take from the poor? As far as I know, a big part of the money is collected among local transportistas – owners and workers of local buses and bus-lines: Some of them with high incomes, without doubt, but many of them fighting for their existence as well.
And a detail: My husband met an owner of one of the local bus-lines. He, as most other transportistas, was subject to extortion. But he stated:
– I prefer to give the money to the gangs, not to the police which is more expensive and violent anyway.
Who knows. We are in a grey-zone.
Back to the march:
“We should all be active agents and protagonists of peace, life and hope, in our families, workplaces, communities, to build a secure El Salvador”, President Sánchez Cerén manifested.
Then, Mr. President, I ask you: why did you move the most prominent leaders of the gangs back to the top-secured prison Zacatecoluca in January-February? The very reason why the so called truce became reality was precisely because these big bosses were moved outside, to prisons with more flexible possibilities of communication with the streets. To give orders about stopping the killing, among others.
Mr. President: You knew exactly what you were doing when you sent the gang-bosses back to in- communication. We would see more dead. Which is exactly what happened.
The day you moved the prisoners back, was for me the deathblow of the truce. The movement of the prisoners out, was the beginning. The movement back was the end. Many have announced the “death” of the “truce”, at many points. The only ones to proclaim it alive are some of the gang-members and the former peace-mediators. At this point I think that even the hard-core beleivers have given up.
Are you, Mr. President, then, proud of half a million people on the streets? At the same time as lots of people are killed?
The march was result of a proposal – part of a security plan – made in January by the new Security Committee, established in September 2014. The Government is heading the committee of which churches, the private sector and national as well as international organizations are part.
The President took this of the committees 120 proposals very literally and the streets were filled with people this Thursday in a, I would believe, never before seen manifestation for peace – correct me if I am wrong!
The exclusive and the excluded
But: Five days earlier, the 21st of March, there was a much more modest march for peace, in Apopa, one of the violent suburbs of San Salvador. It had been convoked by Ipaz (Iniciativa Pastoral por la Vida y la Paz), a conglomeration of churches, headed by the Lutheran Church, together with gang-members.
About a thousand persons defied the hot sun at noon and took to the streets in the busy and noisy suburb. And they were seemingly mainly, besides the church, gang-members from the different barrios, their friends and family-members.
There were no helicopters, no drones here, not many media present.
The gang-members and their extended families of the barrios of Apopa defied not only the sun, they also defied he authorities in their manifestation – not all gangs made it to the march; they were stopped by the police, said some sources – saying: “We want to be part of the solution”, “We want reinsertion, not repression”, “Stop police abuse”.
The centre of the message of Ipaz was: The cultural and the structural violence is the root of everything.
The cultural violence consists of values which compass most spheres of life: economic, political, gender-relations etc. and later on are converted into laws, they explained in their statement.
Structural violence is present in physical and organizational structures and are an obstacle for human rights to be fulfilled. Marginalization, exclusion and poverty are among the expressions of structural violence – and also therefore so difficult to combat.
My words: Marches don’t make a big difference. They are symbolic. At the most you can see them as some kind of a cultural expression and cohesion – but there are many ways of reaching: “Life, Peace and Justice”.
“Cohesion” can also be questioned: The gang-members, the “root” of the reasons for violence according to the majority of the population, were not invited to the President’s march: The Security Committee does not allow “dialogue with criminals”. So between whom are we talking about cohesion?
I found the march of Apopa, which, according to the plans also is going to be reproduced in other violent communities, much more encouraging than that of the President.
And today Paolo Lüers, the celebrated columnist, in his weekly letter addressed these words to the Catholic Church and the former peace-mediator during the “truce”, bishop Fabio Colindres:
“Ask Fabio Colindres to retake the initiative and the mediation. The country needs it. Even the government, although it doesn’t want to acknowledge it, needs it. It’s not about truces, or pacts, or negotiations with criminals. It is about rebuilding a dialogue that will set us back on the path of peace. As we go now, we are heading towards war”.
Read the whole letter here.
We had two marches, with different actors and different messages. I would call the march of Apopa the one of the excluded, the President´s march that of the excluding.
Which does not exclude a number of actors and messages in between.