Hope for El Salvador: But Not From the United States

The party of the wildly popular President Nayib Bukele got a boost from Bukele’s hardline stance on gangs and political corruption, and his conversion of prisons to schools.

Jasmin, 11, left, and Karin, 12, are growing up in a country whose major threats of violence come no longer from their own government, but from criminal gangs. They live in a village that was destroyed by the Salvadoran army’s scorched-earth campaigns of the 1980s, then repopulated after the 1992 peace accords — one of 87 such villages on the slopes of Guazapa Volcano. (Courthouse News photo)

(CN) — When El Salvador’s newly elected National Assembly takes office on Saturday, it will constitute a remarkable transition, in a single generation, from one of the most murderous, corrupt governments in Central America to a functioning democracy. Yet you wouldn’t know it by listening to the highest levels of the U.S. government, and the lax reporting from our most trustworthy news outlets, including The New York Times and Washington Post.

Nayib Bukele won a fair presidential election in February 2019, under the banner of his newly formed Nuevas Ideas party. He took office on June 1, 2019, without a single member in the unicameral Salvadoran congress, dominated then, and until now, by the right-wing ARENA and nominally left-wing FMLN parties.

Then in February this year, Nuevas Ideas candidates won 56 of the 84 seats in the National Assembly, to ARENA’s 14 and the FMLN’s 4. It was a national repudiation of the two parties that have dominated El Salvador for a generation since the end of the civil war: parties that have stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from the nation they purported to lead.

Since taking office, and despite fierce opposition from FMLN and ARENA, Bukele has carried out nationwide sweeps of the gangs with whom FMLN and ARENA shared the loot: MS-13 and Barrio 18.

Not surprisingly, FMLN, ARENA and the gangs have tried to thwart Bukele again and again, with no response from the United States, nor much reporting from the U.S. press, which repeatedly describes Bukele as “authoritarian,” “socialist” and worse.

Let’s look at what Bukele has done, without a single member in the National Assembly.

He exposed the FMLN’s and ARENA’s looting of the country’s treasury and is trying to recoup some of the hundreds of millions of dollars his predecessors have taken with them and hidden offshore.

He imprisoned gang leaders and their enforcers and confiscated their cellphones in prisons from which they continued to direct murders and extortions.

He restricted visits to imprisoned gang leaders to thwart the introduction of drugs and the gangsters’ ability to issue orders to the streets.

He ordered everyone inside the prisons to work — even the capos — and sent trustees to work outside the walls, repairing streets and bridges, and assigned worthy trustees to educate people about the perils of joining a gang.

He closed prisons throughout the country and is converting them to schools and cultural centers. The former prison in Chalatenango (a province and its capital city northeast of San Salvador — a major conflict zone during the civil war) is being converted to a branch campus of the national university system.

Bukele is closing prisons in Metapán (a province and its capital city in northwest Salvador, on the Guatemalan border), Usulután (a southeast province and its capital city) and Sonsonate (a southwest province and its capital city) and converting them to schools.

Ninety-five prisoners on work detail this week removed tons of garbage from the once-again picturesque Waterfall of Malacapiután in Ahuachapán Province in western El Salvador, according to the daily Diario El Salvador.

And in February, Bukele’s government began distributing laptop computers to all students in public schools, beginning with high schools. The students can keep their computers, according elsalvadorinfo.net. The project is funded with $450 million in tax revenue. (El Salvador’s national currency is the U.S. dollar, a step taken in 2001 to fight inflation of its former currency, the colón.)

For these initiatives and more, Bukele is tremendously popular today, especially among the poor. For more than a year, polls have shown him to be the most popular president in Latin America by a long shot, with more than 75% approval in El Salvador.

Gains From Top to Bottom

In addition to the national races in February, Salvadoran voters selected members of 262 municipal councils (including mayors, who have great power in El Salvador). Nuevas Ideas gained control of 149 of what we would call city councils — 57% of the local races, including the capital, San Salvador, and all but one of its suburbs.

Miriam, a goatherder in Cuscatlán Province, gathers cooking fuel. She was the recipient of a small house, five goats and a gas stove, thanks to the work of a church in Indiana. She still cooks with wood because thick Salvadoran tortillas taste better smoked. (Courthouse News photo)

And no wonder. City streets today are filled with garbage, as FMLN and ARENA mayors flee the country with their loot. Roberto D’Aubuisson Jr., son of the notorious death squad leader, lost his bid for re-election as mayor of Santa Tecla, a 140,000-population suburb of San Salvador, and fled the country with millions of dollars unaccounted for, according to Salvadoran media. Other corrupt mayors are joining him in exodus.

Are they fleeing to the United States? That’s an interesting question. Hard to investigate, too, although Salvadoran media have reported that Ernesto Muyshondt, the recently departed ARENA mayor of San Salvador, has fled to the United States, leaving tens of millions in unpaid municipal debts and hundreds of city workers who have not been paid for months.

Muyshondt was caught on video in 2014 offering bribes to gang leaders before that year’s presidential elections, according to Salvadoran news reports. He lost his re-election bid in San Salvador this year to the Nuevas Ideas candidate, Mario Durán, who takes office on Saturday.

As members of the departing National Assembly cleared out their offices this week, TV stations showed them sacking their offices of furniture, computers, lamps, TVs and artwork, refrigerators and bookshelves.

“We watched it all on TV,” a resident of El Salvador told Courthouse News. “The rats took everything.”

Expelled from the FMLN

A brief history: Bukele was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 for exposing its corruption, including that of former FMLN President Mauricio Funes, who was convicted of illegal enrichment (taking bribes), then fled to Nicaragua, where he was granted political asylum by its equally corrupt President Daniel Ortega, who also granted Funes citizenship, to protect him from extradition.

Funes’s predecessor, President Antonio Saca, a former sportscaster, is serving a 10-year sentence in El Salvador for unjust enrichment (taking and paying bribes), in collaboration with ARENA.

Bukele funded his 2019 presidential campaign with money he’d earned as head of El Salvador’s Yamaha dealerships.

Think of it: A socialist capitalist.

What slurs must we think up next?

Bukele is trying to reform his country in the interests of the poor: to break its government from its assigned role as a client of the United States, whose “aid” to El Salvador, for more than 40 years, has been guns, more guns, and military “advice.”

Meanwhile today, China is investing tens of millions of dollars in building a deep-water port in La Union Province, on El Salvador’s Pacific Coast, through which it can import and export raw and manufactured goods to itself, and the rest of the world.

True it is that China is doing this to enrich itself, because Salvadoran sweat laborers earn less per hour than line workers earn in China. China’s initiative, should it succeed, will create thousands of jobs in El Salvador, which surely would reduce emigration to the United States. And let’s hear it for the day that Salvadorans can earn as much money at home as they would in China.

What is the United States doing to counter this, except trying to slap President Bukele into line, as we have done to all of his predecessors, and funding their slaughters?

Lake Suchitlán, seen from the ferry dock in Suchitoto, Cuscatlán Province, El Salvador. On the opposite shore is San Francisco Lempa, Chalatenango Province. The fare is $1, and $5 for cars. Tourists rent boats to bird-watch on the uninhabited islands, which host thousands of migratory birds in the winter. (Courthouse News photo)

We are locking up the brave men and women who dared to look for work here, and couldn’t bear to leave their children behind.

President Joe Biden, who knows a hot potato when he sees one, has delegated to Vice President Kamala Harris the job of dealing with our southern border. But our border problems — if problems they are — do not originate on our southern border. They originate in what demographers call the “sending” countries: our so-called allies.

Honduras, which has become a narco-state, thanks in part to the uninformed and destructive policies of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who supported its military coup of 2009, after which drug smuggling and gang warfare proliferated;

and Guatemala, which is and has been a bloodthirsty and racist military dictatorship since time immemorial.

Meanwhile on the Border

What’s happening on our southern border today?

Border Patrol arrests of Hondurans increased from 47,900 in fiscal year 2017 to 254,561 in FY 2019, according to Customs and Border Protection statistics: a 531% increase.

Arrests of Guatemalans increased from 66,807 in FY 2017 to 266,129 in FY 20: up by 398%.

Arrests of Salvadorans dropped from 50,011 in FY 2017 to 31,363 in FY 2018, then rose to 90,085 in FY 2019, as people fled a series of hurricanes.

In the first half of this fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021) the Border Patrol arrested 98,554 Hondurans, 97,730 Guatemalans, and 28,895 Salvadorans, according to CBP statistics — a significant drop from the year before Bukele took office. (In those six months, the Border Patrol arrested 261,114 Mexicans.)

Vice President Harris is being poorly advised, by, among others, President Biden. To treat the many problems the American hemisphere faces as though they originate on the U.S. border with Mexico is like treating a case of pneumonia with cough drops, to soothe the throat.

President Biden and Vice President Harris need to address the problem at its root: hunger.


(Robert Kahn’s history of U.S. immigration prisons, Other People’s Blood: U.S. Immigration Prisons in the Reagan Decade, was published by Westview Press/HarperCollins in 1996.)

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