Chronic Corruption Exposed in El Salvador
All of us who have worked in rural El Salvador are aware of the painfully limited reach of the Salvadoran government. A crumbling school, a 45-minute walk to the nearest bus stop, maybe a new health clinic in a bigger community like Palo Grande—and we should keep in mind that these services were even more limited during the Civil War (1980-92)—are some of the few signs of amenities that we often take for granted in the U.S. While there are many reasons for the current situation, government corruption is clearly high on the list. By learning more about corruption’s tangible impact on the lives of our Salvadoran host families and friends, we can better understand their struggle.
Corruption was a central focus of this year’s presidential election as evidence surfaced suggesting ARENA party former-President Paco Flores (1999-2004) pocketed at least $10 million in funds intended for disaster relief and public safety. After current FMLN Pres. Funes first revealed the investigation, Flores fled the country before eventually returning to testify before the National Assembly that he had distributed the funds in “small sacks of cash” to the appropriate recipients. Pundits had a field day, immediately nicknaming him Saquito “Little Sack” Flores.
Flores’s erratic behavior continued. He attempted to sneak across the border to Guatemala the morning he was scheduled to testify before the Assembly again, claiming that it was not the Border Police who had made him turn his car around, but rather a last minute decision that his business in Guatemala could wait for another day. The latest reports suggest he is hiding in Panama. Since Flores had been ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano’s campaign adviser, the scandal undoubtedly had an impact on the Feb. 2 and March 7 presidential elections, which Quijano lost by just over 6,000 votes to the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren.
Throughout the campaign, Elba (who works for IP in ES) kept me up to date by sending me articles, videos, and the cartoon above. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this story had significance beyond the elections, beyond party politics. There is a class of people in El Salvador who have never had to answer for their actions. Through the wielding of political and economic power, El Salvador’s elite have been able to sweep crimes under the rug, or pass amnesty laws to protect themselves when wrongdoing eventually does come to light. Now that the traditional elite no longer hold the reigns of government, we can expect to see more such cases in the news.
A warrant has been issued for Flores’s arrest and his property and bank account frozen. If he is eventually convicted, it will be a major blow against impunity in El Salvador. It may even open the door to repealing the 1993 Amnesty Law, which protects those who committed violent atrocities during the Civil War. While much remains to be seen, the next five years will likely see major changes in how Salvadorans interact with their own history. On June 1st, for example, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, former teacher, guerilla general during the war, congressman, vice-president, and education minister, will be inaugurated as president, an historic first.
How these national events filter down to the communities that welcome International Partners delegations remains to be seen. It’s unlikely that your host mom will draw a direct link between an ex-president’s potential corruption conviction and improved local services. At the same time, there are clear indications that El Salvador is a profoundly different place than when IP sent its first delegation in 2000. By staying connected to these structural changes, we develop context within which to place the individual relationships that are so dear to all of us.