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The following remarks were prepared for a talk I gave at Busboys & Poets bookstore in Washington, D.C., on Monday evening, June 8, 2009.

June 15, 2009

"Things Are Worse Now Than During the Civil War"

My most recent novel, Blood of Paradise, takes place in El Salvador, and my upcoming book, Do They Know I'm Running?, is about immigration, specifically the attempt by three Salvadoran-American brothers to bring their father home to the US after he is arrested at a workplace raid and then deported to El Salvador.

Both books examine the current state of affairs in Central America, and the US role in them, and that leads me to the theme of this hopefully not too ponderous talk I'm about to give. And that theme can be summed up in a phrase I'm hearing and reading over and over again in my research and discussions with people who live and work in the region:

Things are worse now than during the civil war.

That's an astonishing comment when you consider the poverty, corruption and institutionalized violence that prompted the revolutions that raged throughout the latter half of the 20th century. And what makes it all the more dispiriting is the fact that the violence is worse despite the countries being at peace; the poverty is worse despite twelve years of supposed economic "reforms" meant to encourage trade and investment; and the corruption is worse despite the turn to democracy from military dictatorships. The corruption in particular is corrosive; people have an overwhelming sense that the government—or the people behind the government—not only can't do anything to solve their countries' problems, they don't really care to.

I set Blood of Paradise in El Salvador after visiting the country with a friend from there. I was taken by the incredible decency of the people and the astonishing natural beauty in certain places, in contrast to crushing poverty, an acidic class tension, and a growing crime problem. Interestingly, the class issue infects the crime problem: You have a massive gang problem at the bottom, caused by our deportation of convicted felons since the mid-1990s (we have in essence been exporting our gang problem); and on top a socially and politically well-connected mafia of prominent men, many of them ex-military officers, who enjoy almost total impunity for any civil or criminal wrongdoing.

To show the overlapping nature of these problems—class warfare, overwhelming poverty, crime, corruption—I decided to focus on an issue that touched on all of them: water.

Although the country is in the tropics and thus enjoys generous rainfall, all surface sources of water—every single river and lake—are so polluted they're unfit for drinking. Some of this is related to industrial or agricultural runoff, some of it is due to the fact that the rivers are the sewer systems for the poor. The single most prevalent cause of death among children in El Salvador is diarrhea. This means people rely on wells for drinking water, and due to the heavy usage—El Salvador has the population density of India—these wells often dry up near the end of the dry season (sometimes as early as January; the rains don't typically begin until late March, early April). People then have to depend on water trucks from the government, and these are maddeningly unreliable, especially in rural areas.

There are a number of overlapping government agencies involved in the water issue, the most prominent of which is ANDA, and it is known for its inefficiency and corruption—money disappears on a routine basis. That problem isn't helped by the confusion of other agencies all vying for their own interests. As a result, and in conjunction with the neo-liberal economic strategy favored by Washington and put into effect by ARENA, the ruling right-wing party for the past twenty years, there has been a major push for privatization of the water system. But where it has been tried to date, the only thing that's become more efficient is the issuing of monthly bills. Actual water service remains problematic at best; in some places it's nonexistent.

In particular, I had heard of soft drink companies whose bottling plants were seriously compromising access to public water in certain areas, and who then sold bottled water to the people whose public wells were running dry.

This gave me my idea for my story: Putting these two things together, I decided to write a book about a soft drink company owned by well-connected men who hoped to expand a bottling facility in an area of the country where the aquifers were already stressed. Hoping to play on their connections to the U.S., they sought out foreign investors and attracted the interest of a foreign development bank connected to the intelligence community that was willing to help them as a form of payback for their longstanding assistance in pursuing U.S. interests in the hemisphere. But the bank hires a hydrologist to sign off on the project who quickly sees its dubious viability and refuses to play along. The owners, after trying a few more discreet ways to first change his mind, then discredit him, ultimately decide to have him killed and make it look like a gang-related kidnapping gone bad. And so the hydrologist's bodyguard learns he has to protect his principle, as the man he's been hired to protect is called, from the very men who have hired him.

I also wanted my bodyguard to be an American everyman, a decent guy with no political agenda who thinks he's doing the right thing. I made him the son of a bent cop who joins the Army engineering corps and gets sent to El Salvador where he builds medical clinics and digs wells for poor villagers in the mountains, which the US Southern Command has done through its New Horizons program. I could see him getting bored with the grind of construction work, especially in that heat, and I so I let him get recruited for private security work—which, as you can imagine, is one of the major growth industries in the region. Now he has to learn a lot very fast and it's an open question whether he'll get up to speed in time.

In one of those coincidences you can't make up, while I was writing the book, something happened that eerily echoed the events in the story. Gilberto Soto, a Salvadoran-American union organizer with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, went down to visit his family and to talk to port truck drivers about the possibility of organizing a union. While he was talking on his cell phone outside his mother's house in Usulutan, three men walked up from behind and shot him in the back. He died a short time later.

Many of the owners of the trucking companies that would have been affected by Gilberto's unionizing activities are ex-military officers, but this line of inquiry was never pursued by the Directorate for Organized Crime, which quickly took control of the case. Instead, after American church and union officials visited El Salvador and spent three days urging local authorities to look seriously into the possibility that Soto was killed because of his trade union activities, police pressed and possibly tortured two gang members into confessing that the victim's mother-in-law, who had less than a hundred dollars to her name, hired them to kill Soto out of some vague, illogical family rancor.

I subsequently dedicated Blood of Paradise to Gilberto, and his supervisor at the Teamsters, Ron Carver, was instrumental in my being here tonight. I could say a lot more about the Soto murder and its ultimate resolution, but I'll save that for the question and answer period. For now, I'd like to simply remark that when I learned of this story, and saw its parallels to the one I was writing, I felt an odd frisson, and realized I was on to something.

By the time I finished the book another curious parallel had arisen, courtesy of the Bush Administration. As the Sunni insurgency grew increasingly out of control in 2004-2005, there began to be talk of a Salvador Option for Iraq. Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld had often regarded El Salvador as a model for American success, and they hoped to achieve the same in Iraq. The only problem with their reasoning was it required an almost hallucinatory misreading of both the past and the present.

Despite their claims to the contrary, our efforts in El Salvador were not a glowing success. The civil war ended in a stalemate, not a victory, and what efforts at nation building proved successful were largely the result of the UN, not the US. Specifically, though we did a reasonably good job of training Salvadoran infantrymen, we had little effect on eliminating corruption in the officer corps. And Cheney's claim in particular that El Salvador is a "whale of a lot better" now than it was during the war ignores what's really taken place since the truce was signed.

If anyone would like, we can talk about the Salvador Option more at the end of the talk. There is an interesting piece in the most recent Nation about the Iraqi Special Operations Force, being trained by American Special Forces under the command of General Simeon Trombitas, who was an advisor in El Salvador from 1989-1990. There are fears that, absent US supervision, the ISOF has devolved into a death squad answerable to only Prime Minister Maliki, and is even undermining the government's connections with the Awakening Councils, which were such a key component of the counter-insurgency plan instituted by General Petraeus. But for now I just want to point out that the use by the Bush Administration of the example El Salvador only underscored the continuing relevance of that country with respect to us and our foreign policy.

Now, as I said, my upcoming book has to deal with immigration, and in particular, it's something of a road trip through El Salvador and Guatemala and Mexico, and thus explores the problems facing those countries—problems which, as I pointed out at the beginning of this talk, some people believe are more serious than during the civil wars that racked the region only twenty years ago.

To give a brief summary of what some of those problems are:
  • The success in closing down air and water supply routes for cocaine and heroin from Colombia to the US has increased the role of overland routes that necessarily move through Central America and Mexico, and this has increased the power and influence of the Mexican cartels and organized crime throughout the region.
  • The Mexican cartels have further increased their influence through the trafficking of locally produced methamphetamine and marijuana.
  • These problems are fueled by the insatiable appetite for drugs in the US.
  • Mexico is in the grip of a serious increase in violence linked to internecine wars between entrenched drug cartels—in particular, between the Sinaloa Federation and the Gulf Cartel. This violence has been exacerbated by the crackdown on the cartels by President Cardena since his election in 2006. Over 10,000 people have been murdered since the onset of the crackdown.
  • In response to the Cardenas crackdown, the Mexican cartels have increased their presence in neighboring Guatemala, known for its weak law enforcement and culture of corruption.
  • Guatemalan military-grade weapons, including land mines, rocket launchers and grenades, have been confiscated in drug seizures.
  • A group of Kaibiles, Guatemalan special forces officers, are known to have helped train a group of Mexican special forces defectors known as Los Zetas, who once acted as enforcers for the Gulf Cartel, but now are believed to have organized their own drug running operation.
  • In addition to the growing power of the cartels (and organized crime throughout the region), there has been a massive increase in street gang influence throughout the Americas since 1996, when the US made deportation of all felons mandatory—we in essence began exporting crime.
  • Although the gangs at first were limited to street level crime—drug dealing, car theft, extortion, prostitution—they were ultimately recruited by organized crime for work as mules and assassins, and their sophistication, international reach, and political sophistication has increased to where they can be legitimately described as "organized crime," though in many places inside the US, MS-13 cliques still act largely as street gangs, with no centralized hierarchy or command structure. Where such a hierarchy and command structure exists, it's largely the effect of imprisoning many leading gang members in the same prisons, which have become not just colleges of crime but the locuses of centralized command.
  • The pincer effect of gangs from below and organized crime from above has worsened several long-standing problems:
    • corrupt judiciaries and impunity for socially or politically connected persons connected to criminal groups;
    • domestic drug use; and
    • violence—Guatemala and El Salvador in particular have among the highest homicide rates per capita in the world, and despite draconian get-tough measures by the governments there, this rate of violence has not abated; rather, it has increased.
  • The violence in particular is destabilizing.
    • Guatemala, with a mere 13 million people, had more murders last year (5400) than Mexico with 100 million people and its recent upsurge in cartel-related violence. It's on a pace to exceed that rate this year, with an average of 17 murders a day.
    • El Salvador has an even worse murder rate, especially among the young.
    • A Brazilian study last year revealed that from 2002-2005, El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela and Guatemala were the four worst places in the world for youth violence, and are also the four most dangerous places to live. El Salvador's murder rate for young people (15-24) is 92 per 100,000; Guatemala's is 55.4. In contrast, the US rate is 12.9; in Canada, 2.5.
  • The rise in crime is not limited to narcotics and drug-related violence; there is also a recent surge in major heists—in Mexico, trains and truck convoys are now being targeted, with theft of sheet metal, dry goods, food, etc., evidencing sophisticated and well-connected crime groups—as well as human trafficking (sometimes for sexual purposes), sexual tourism, and extortion of small businesses.
  • There is a general sense among the populations of these countries that crime is out of control and the government cannot or will not do anything about it—or worse, is partially in league with those responsible.
  • In parts of Central America, you see a return of death squads, and also an upsurge of vigilantism on the part of ordinary citizens, especially in rural communities, who simply believe the police and government can't protect them.
  • Related to this is a decrease in the general belief on the part of local populations that democracy can solve their nations' problems.
    • There were rumors in El Salvador that, if Mauricio Funes, the leftist FMLN candidate for president, did not win, despite enjoying a double digit lead in the polls for over a year, more radical elements on the left, believing that the right had cheated its way into retaining power, would abandon the democratic process and seek a revolutionary change.
    • At the same time, Guatemala's leftist president, Alvaro Colom, is currently facing charges he was involved in the murder of a lawyer who intended to expose his and his wife's involvement in money laundering through a rural development bank. Colom, who has been commended in other quarters for aggressive anti-drug action, has vehemently denied the money-laundering and murder charges and has asked the UN to investigate the charges; the UN is currently assisting the Guatemalan judiciary and prosecutor's office professionalize and turn away from the overwhelming climate of corruption and impunity that characterize them. (Note: a collection of trade unions issued a press release stating their fear that democracy was under siege; business groups, opposed to Colom's economic policies, are trying to use the murder scandal to force him from power. The unions said they feared a coup was imminent. This was last Friday.)
  • This culture of corruption and impunity is exemplified by three highly publicized events.
    • The first, in Guatemala, involved the murder of three diplomats and their driver. It was quickly determined that the killings were masterminded by the head of Guatemala's organized crime unit, and the crime appeared drug-related. Within days, the suspects were moved to a prison at the request of their own lawyers, supposedly for the suspects' safety, shortly after which they were murdered in their cells.
    • The second event occurred in El Salvador, when Adolfo Térrez, a former head of ARENA, the right-wing party that ruled El Salvador for over twenty years, was caught on tape with a fugitive narco-trafficker and money launderer, Roberto Silva, saying that for $500,000 he could have Silva's charges thrown out; the judge and prosecutors were already on board. Last week, Torrez was found dead in his home; whether he was murdered or took his own life has yet to be officially determined.
    • Last, back to Guatemala, in March 2009 the wife of Sergio Morales, the national Human Rights Ombudsman, was kidnapped and tortured, four days after her husband released his first report on the review of nearly 80 million documents from the country's brutal counterinsurgency campaign during its civil war, in which nearly 200,000 civilians died. (Another human rights champion, Bishop Juan Gerardi, was murdered in 1998 mere days after issuing a report on human rights abuses by the military during the war.)
  • Added to these problems are increases in poverty, especially among rural populations, who have been hit the hardest by free trade agreements with the US. Whole farming communities throughout the region are emigrating because they cannot compete with the price of US-imported food, especially corn. As ne Salvadoran farmer said, he pays $37 for the fertilizer it costs him to produce $25 worth of corn. Add to this rising gas prices, lower US grain corn production (thus increasing prices), increased world demand because of more meat consumption in India and China, as well as the usual profiteering, and you have severe pressures on poor communities to obtain basic food staples.
  • The insecurity, corruption and violence all contribute to the increasing number of immigrants we see coming from the region. As the most recent immigration "debate" revealed, this issue has now joined guns, gays and god as one of the most polarizing facing the nation.
  • Another collateral problem concerns terrorism. Although most fears concerning terrorists crossing the Mexican border, with or without the help of the cartels or the maras, is largely overblown (if not delusional), there are indications that the cartels have traded cocaine and methamphetamine to Middle Eastern crime syndicates and terrorist groups in exchange for weapons. The markup for a kilo of cocaine in the Middle East is astronomical. The high end wholesale price of a Mexican kilo of cocaine is $30,000, but in Israel and Saudi Arabia, that price goes up to anywhere between $100-150,000.

As I said: Things are worse now than during the war. And I haven't even touched on environmental degradation and the possible effects of global warming.

But given all of the above, it's not difficult to understand why so many people are immigrating to the US.

And this leads to two policy considerations I'd like to address in closing.

The first is this: Given the encroachment of narco-traffickers and organized crime in the region, and destabilizing effect it has on governments, there is a lot of discussion of "full-spectrum" policing, i.e., integration of police and military functions within the law enforcement forces. This has a long history in Central America, and it's not pretty. When the UN brokered the peace talks that ended the Salvadoran civil War, one of the key provisions insisted on by the FMLN was demilitarization of the police forces. This was accomplished through the creation of a new national police force, the PNC, but once again former military officers have risen to the top, as I mentioned above, and their links to organized crime are well-known. Also, given low wages, a number of other officers have also been susceptible to corruption, and public faith and confidence in the PNC, once high, have now withered considerably.

Also, the conjunction of police and military functions permits a rhetoric of fighting crime under the aegis of defending the nation against existential threat. Ordinary criminals are identified as enemies of the state and terrorists and dealt with accordingly. At the same time, protestors and even street merchants are designated as terrorists and prosecuted as such. This is happening with increasing regularity in El Salvador. The rhetoric can work the other way as well—if you want to deflate the target's profile, you refer to him as a criminal; if you want to inflate the threat he presents, you refer to him as a terrorist.

One of the key goals in our foreign policy should be to fight corruption among judges, prosecutors, and police officers. James Derham, the former ambassador to Guatemala, said that this is by far a more central component to the crime problem than gangs. Two of the tools we have for combating judicial, prosecutorial and police corruption are the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), and the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas (SOA). Both of these entities are scorned by the left, the latter on the grounds the SOA was allegedly instrumental in training some of the most notorious human rights abusers in the region, and the former on the grounds it is merely a stealth SOA. The fear is that these institutions will teach torture and other objectionable practices to the police and soldiers they instruct. Given the nature of the threats facing Central America, I think this kind of polarization is a luxury we can't afford.

WHINSEC currently teaches a human rights course to its students that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have commended (though they also want greater transparency and an investigation into past practices at the school). And ILEA is teaching largely routine police work, not abusive tactics. Remember that it was the FBI that objected to the "enhanced interrogation techniques" green-lighted by the Bush White House and largely administered by the CIA. Again, referring to conversations with former ambassador Derham, the problem with ILEA isn't that it's teaching improper tactics, it's that training a mere handful of police officers how to do their job correctly and honestly isn't going to do much when they have to report to corrupt supervisors and serve prosecutors and judges who are also corrupt.

In general, in my review of the left's objections to both ILEA and WHINSEC, I see a lot of driving by the rear-view mirror and condemnation by association. For example, because a graduate of SOA is connected to death squads, it's assumed his SOA instructors taught him such methods. This is illogical and ahistorical; anyone who thinks US military instructors were necessary to teach, for example, Salvadoran officers how to commit atrocities, doesn't know his Salvadoran history—specifically, La Matanza, when during the 1930s anywhere from 10,000-50,000 civilians were murdered by the military in suppression of the Marti peasant uprising, an event Salvadoran military officers themselves identified as the precedent in their use of death squads and other extreme measures against anyone suspected of insurgent sympathies, including priests, nurses, teachers, and unionists. Also, Guatemala, unlike El Salvador, refused US military aid in its civil war because of human rights restrictions imposed by Congress. It's difficult to blame the US military, then, on the wholesale butchery the Guatemalan armed forces employed during the war. (It's likely the CIA was involved, but the CIA's practices should not be conflated with those of the military.)

Furthermore, with respect to WHINSEC, since 1990 it has been teaching greater respect for civilian control of the military, and trying to counter the tradition among Latin American militaries of a "Messianic role" vis-à-vis civil society, i.e., it is the military's role to maintain order, even to save society from itself if democratic "experiments" get out of hand. It should be noted that since 1990, despite the election of left-leaning leaders across the subcontinent, not one military coup has displaced any of these regimes, a state of affairs unthinkable before 1990.

That said, the involvement of US Special Forces, under the command of a former advisor to the Salvadoran military (Gen. Simeon Trombitas) in training the Iraqi Special Operations Force, which has come been accused of death squad activity, political hits and terrorizing whole communities, as well as the involvement of other former US-El Salvador advisors such as James Steele in the training of Iraqi commando units under the Ministry of Interior who were also charged with human rights abuses, raises alarms that cannot be shoved under the rug. There is a troubling history of special forces and commando units trained by the US that, once US control is eased, devolve into little more than mafias. That's the problem with the Kaibilies and Los Zetas, and the last thing needed is that problem compounded. It would be a chilling irony to find that we soon find an "Iraqi Option" being played out in Central America as "full-spectrum policing" becomes operational, only to discover we have in fact, in an effort to destroy the current wave of organized crime in the region, trained the next one.

There will, however, be no reform of Mexico's and Central America's militaries and police forces without ILEA and WHINSEC. The left should stop trying to shut them down and instead start finding a way to play a role in ensuring they emphasize transparency, human and civil rights, and sound procedure. For example, Benjamin Cuellar, a long-standing civil rights figure in El Salvador, has agreed to monitor the civil rights courses for ILEA. He's been heavily criticized for this by a number of prominent leftist and human rights advocates, who feel he will simply help train more subtle abusers. One of these opponents is Beatrice de Carillo, El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman, a woman I very much respect and admire. But on this point I agree with Cuellar: "You can't change anything from the outside."

With respect to immigration, the debate has to take note of what is happening in these countries to force people to "vote with their feet," and in particular address the corrosive effect the narcotics trade has had in these countries. And the narcotics trade would lack much of its power without the huge demand in the United States. There can be no serious discussion of immigration without addressing the issue of America's overwhelming gluttony for cocaine, marijuana, heroin and methamphetamine. The problems are inextricably intertwined. I realize that seems to turn an intractable problem into an unsolvable one, but I don't think any problem can be solved assuming false or incomplete facts. (Hal Brands of the Strategic Studies Institute at the Army War College recently wrote an extensive monograph arguing the same point: counter-narcotics policy will fail without a holistic approach that includes economic development, anti-corruption measures, institution building, reduction of demand in the US and the restriction of arms trafficking from the US into Mexico.) We also need to rethink our policy of deporting felons to countries whose legal systems are already stressed to the breaking point, and insisting on free trade agreements that favor American exporters but only increase the flood of immigrants across our borders.

Thank you.

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