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Dispatches from a Small Planet: Election 2004

El Salvador

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In El Salvador, each president since the early 1990s has been from the same political party -- one with close ties to the United States.
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An estimated 75,000 people died in El Salvador's civil war. In landmark international human rights cases, two Salvadoran generals were taken to trial in a U.S. civil court rather than before an international tribunal.
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Should the U.S. pressure El Salvador to investigate the murder of Archbishop Romero?
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Dispatches From a Small Planet: Election 2004

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By the People - Election 2004 PBS

Joe Rubin

FRONTLINE/World reporter Joe Rubin.
By Joe Rubin
October 12, 2004

Passing through customs at El Salvador's international airport and emerging into the humid afternoon air, the first thing in my line of vision is a crowd of about 1,000 who have come by the truckload, children in tow, men wearing cowboy hats, to greet relatives returning home. Most of the returning Salvadorans are U.S. citizens or green card holders. Many were refugees who escaped to the United States in the 1980s during the brutal civil war that killed 75,000 Salvadorans.

Abrazos (hugs) abound. But -- and it may seem harsh to point this out -- I know that not only am I witnessing tearful reunions, I'm also getting a firsthand look at El Salvador's biggest industry: remittances. That's the money that the estimated 2 million Salvadorans living in the United States (out of a population of 6.5 million) send home via Western Union or deliver in person.

The $2.2 billion per year in remittances that Salvadorans "pay back" to relatives at home dwarfs every other industry in El Salvador. Remittances are bigger than coffee, which was king here for more than a century but has fallen on hard times because of stiff competition from mega-producers like Brazil and Vietnam. Remittances are even more important to the economy than the maquiladores, the sewing factories, which surround the capital, San Salvador, and in which hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans work six days a week for 80 cents an hour.

A BMW motorcycle boutique

A BMW motorcycle boutique at the brand new El Paseo Mall in San Salvador. Twelve years after the end of El Salvador's Civil War, the country remains strikingly divided between rich and poor.
The civil war has been over for a dozen years now, and it's a new era. Fighter jets no longer roar through the sky, and the guerrilla warfare that once raged is long gone. Glistening malls are in vogue. Guess, Nine West and BMW motorcycle boutiques make parts of San Salvador seem like Houston.

"We think that all of this money [the remittances] flooding into the country from the States is in a way corrupting," a young architect complains. "It's turning us into a nation of consumers. Studies show that the money that comes in is not invested productively -- it's spent at the shopping malls."

Despite the conspicuous consumption, the old divide between rich and poor is still apparent. Much of San Salvador remains a sprawling slum with open sewers and staggering social problems.

Residents of La Chagra bathe outdoors.

Residents of La Chagra, a poor barrio in San Salvador, bathe outdoors.
The old political divide remains too. The National Republican Alliance (ARENA), a political party founded by the late death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, remains dominant in El Salvador, controlling the presidency for the last 15 years. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the socialist-leaning party that once took up arms to fight for land reform, remains stridently and perpetually in opposition as a major party in Parliament. The FMLN also holds the mayor's office in San Salvador, Santa Ana and other big cities.

The Past Is Present

The war that once raged in El Salvador in the 1980s -- a flashpoint in the Cold War -- is not a topic of debate in the current U.S. presidential race. But the ghosts of the conflict linger.

"You're not always measured by the things that you have a bill named after you for -- sometimes you're measured by stopping really bad things from happening, like when I stood up and helped stop Ronald Reagan's illegal war in Central America," Senator Kerry declared on a recent campaign stop in Wisconsin.

In 1986, John Kerry, then a freshman senator, was a persistent critic of the Reagan-Bush policies in Central America. Drawing parallels to his experience in Vietnam, Kerry called for an end to the contra war in Nicaragua and was a critic of U.S. policy in El Salvador. Kerry gained both admirers and enemies when he chaired the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, which reporters quickly dubbed the "Kerry committee." Kerry's investigation of the then-obscure Colonel Oliver North eventually helped to uncover the Iran Contra scandal. Kerry's supporters admired his maverick spirit and courage; conservatives attacked him for playing into the hands of communists in El Salvador and Nicaragua.

President Bush and President Saca

President Bush and El Salvador's ARENA led government are close allies. President Saca's July visit to the White House marked the sixth time that Bush has met with El Salvador's president. El Salvador is the only other country in the Americas still contributing troops to the coalition in Iraq. (photo: AP/Wide World Photos)
President George W. Bush recruited many Reagan/Bush-era veterans of the Central American wars to serve on his foreign policy team. Despite objections from Democrats in Congress, Bush's déjá vu appointments have included Eliot Abrams (who pled guilty to two counts of lying to Congress during the Iran Contra hearings), Richard Armitage, John Poindexter, Roger Noriega and Otto Reich. Most recently, John Negroponte was appointed ambassador to Iraq. Negroponte was ambassador to Honduras under George H.W. Bush and was criticized by human rights organizations for not doing enough to stem death squad activity there.

The relationship between today's President Bush and El Salvador's conservative ARENA party government is one of mutual gratitude. Consider it payback.

El Salvador's president, Elias Antonio "Tony" Saca, sent 381 soldiers to Iraq in response to an appeal from the Bush administration, despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war with most Salvadorans. A poll this year by the University of Central America shows that 72 percent of Salvadorans oppose their government's decision to send troops to Iraq. But President Saca has stood firm, even after Nicaragua and Honduras withdrew their troops from Iraq last spring. Saca frequently mentions how indebted El Salvador is to the United States for the support received from Reagan and Bush during the civil war, "El Salvador's time of need."

"El Salvador suffered a prolonged internal conflict, and thanks to the support of the international community, it achieved a lasting peace,'' President Saca told the United Nations recently, explaining his decision to send troops to Iraq. ''We believe it is time for us to put our experience to the service of other peoples."

Bush visited El Salvador in 2002 and heaped praise on El Salvador's then-president Francisco Flores. More recently, President Bush met personally with President Saca and his wife at the White House. At the massive U.S. embassy in El Salvador (the biggest in Latin America), a U.S. official declared, "The U.S. is grateful to El Salvador for its long-term support."

An Election Marked by Fear

El Salvador held presidential elections in March 2004, and like the one we gringos are sweating through now, in many ways it was about fear. But not fear of terrorism. Here in the land of beautiful volcanoes and frequent earthquakes, it was about fear of losing remittances -- that other form of payback -- and fear of jeopardizing the all-important relationship with the United States.

Orlando Turcios, a local representativefor the FMLN

Orlando Turcios, a local representative for the FMLN, says he is tired of ARENA "playing games with the issue of remittances."
The left-wing FMLN candidate was an aging and fiery former commandante from the civil war, Schafik Handal. The right-wing ARENA party ran the 38-year-old Saca, a former sportscaster and media magnate who owns a string of radio stations and a television station. Oddly enough, both Handal and Saca are part of El Salvador's sizable Palestinian population, and they both trace their roots to Bethlehem in the West Bank.

The election was tense because the FMLN had a chance of winning. In elections two years earlier, the FMLN had made big gains in mayoral races and nearly won a majority in the national Parliament. As the campaign heated up, the ARENA turned to a fear campaign about what might happen if the FMLN actually took over.

A typical pro-Saca television spot that aired repeatedly in the closing days of the campaign showed a middle-class Salvadoran couple receiving a phone call from their son in Los Angeles.

"Mom, I wanted to let you know that I'm scared," the young man says.

"Why?" his mother asks.

"Because if Schafik becomes president of El Salvador, I may be deported," her son answers, "and you won't be able to receive the remittances that I'm sending you."

The Bush administration was also nervous that the FMLN might win because Handal opposes the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and was threatening to withdraw El Salvador's troops from Iraq.

Addressing the press in El Salvador a month before the elections, Roger Noriega, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, attacked the FMLN, saying, "We know the history of this political movement, and for this reason, it is fair that the Salvadoran people consider what type of relations a new government could have with us."

Noriega's comments drew the ire of 28 Democrats in the U.S. Congress, and they wrote a sharp letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell accusing the Bush administration of violating the principal of sovereignty. But just days before El Salvador's election, another Bush administration official, Special White House Assistant Otto Reich, went a step further. In a telephone interview on March 13, 2004, with the Salvadoran press gathered at ARENA headquarters, Reich declared, "We are concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory would have on the commercial, economic and migration-related relations that the United States has with El Salvador."

Reich went on to say that the United States would reevaluate its relationship with "an El Salvador led by a person who is an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez."

"These comments were front page news -- I think they had a huge impact on the elections," Gustavo Milan, an urban planner, told me. "It reminded me of the '80s, when Reagan's men were coming down here."

But Reich's and Noriega's public attacks on the FMLN were probably unnecessary. Most El Salvadorans say that the FMLN blew the election by running Handal -- an unpopular Marxist ideologue -- rather than a fresher face.

"Listening to the sides fight it out is like listening to two dinosaurs," a middle-class professional told me. But ARENA still has an advantage in stressing its close ties with Washington, and Saca also won votes with his tough on crime stance. El Salvador has a terrible problem with gangs.ŻAs one security guard told me, ®Tony Saca is an honest and firm man. The gangs don`t understand a soft approach."

Saca easily beat out Handal, winning 58 percent of the vote.

The Romero Assassination

Downtown San Salvador is a grim place filled with desperate people and smoggy air. As I make my way to the national cathedral, a drunken man clumsily goes for my wallet in my front pocket. As I nudge him away, a policeman looks on with only mild interest. I head for basement of the massive cathedral, where the tomb of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero lies.

Romero was originally considered a conservative Vatican appointment, but by 1980 he had become outraged by the spiraling violence directed against reformers, radicals and the poor. He used his immensely influential sermons to try to avert the coming civil war.

The tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero

Though his assassination remains unpunished in El Salvador, a steady flow of visitors pay respects at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the basement of an El Salvador cathedral.
"The peasants you kill are your own brothers and sisters," Romero admonished the military in a sermon broadcast on radio just days before he was killed. "When you hear the voice of the man commanding you to kill, remember instead the voice of God. Thou shalt not kill."

Romero was assassinated in the middle of conducting a mass. At his funeral, in front of the cathedral where his body now lies, army snipers opened fire on a weeping crowd of 100,00, killing 40. Within weeks, all-out war was on. By the end of the decade, 75,000 were dead, 600,000 had been displaced inside the country, and more than a million had gone into exile.

In the basement of the cathedral, a steady stream of visitors make pilgrimages to the coffin every day from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., crossing themselves and usually spending a few contemplative moments. Although it would seem a sad place, surprisingly, I noticed a resilient somewhat joyful expression on many of the visitors. I asked one man, who had made a pilgrimage from neighboring Guatemala, why the coffin says in bold letters simply "87 years. " Romero was killed at the age of 64, and I found the discrepancy confusing. "That's how old he is today," the man told me. "But he's dead," I responded. "Not to us," he said.

A statue of Roberto D'Aubuisson

Inside the ARENA headquarters stands a statue of Roberto D'Aubuisson, the man a United Nations Truth Commission and declassified U.S. documents say was the founder of El Salvador's death squads and mastermind behind the Romero assassination.
Perhaps the same can be said when it comes to the relationship between ARENA supporters and D'Aubuisson, who died from cancer in 1992. A few miles away from the cathedral, inside the ARENA party headquarters in an upscale neighborhood, there is a life-sized statue of D'Aubuisson surrounded by ARENA flags. The inscription underneath the statue of the party's founder calls D'Aubisson "El Salvador's greatest patriot."

After peace accords were signed by the FMLN and the ARENA in 1992, the United Nations set up a truth commission to get to the bottom of war crimes in El Salvador. The commission found that 90 percent of the atrocities were committed by the government and government-sponsored death squads. The report did not shy away from FMLN crimes either, condemning the FMLN's practice of assassinating mayors loyal to the military.

The truth commission findings state unequivocally that "Former Major Roberto D'Aubuisson gave the order to assassinate the archbishop [Romero] and gave precise instructions to members of his security service, acting as a 'death squad,' to organize and supervise the assassination." Declassified U.S. documents corroborate this account.

Prosecuting War Crimes

Although the U.N. truth commission admonished El Salvador to set up its own legal process to deal with war crimes, the ARENA government instead pushed through Parliament an almost blanket amnesty. "Simply put, no matter how many people you have killed, no matter how grotesquely it was done, you can't be prosecuted for war crimes in El Salvador," international human rights attorney Almudena Bernabau told me.

Seventy-eight-year-old Josefina Arango                       de Rodriguez

Seventy-eight-year-old Josefina Arango de Rodriguez, whose husband and three sons were all killed in a massacre by government troops in 1981. Like all crimes from the civil war, the perpetrators of the Aceituno massacre have all been granted amnesty.
Bernabau is a lawyer at the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) in San Francisco, California. She spends several tense weeks a year in El Salvador researching allegations of war crimes.

Using an obscure U.S. law, the Alien Tort Claims Act of 1789, Bernabau has successfully prosecuted, in a U.S. civil court, two cases against Salvadorans for crimes against humanity in El Salvador and is pursuing a third. The act allows lawsuits against people who committed murder and war crimes in other countries provided those countries have sufficient contact with the United States. Early in 2004, the Bush administration challenged the constitutionality of the act before the Supreme Court. Its petition was turned down 6-3.

In a landmark case regarding the assassination of Archbishop Romero, which Bernabau and the CJA filed in Fresno, California, a federal judge ruled in September 2004 against Alvaro Saravia -- D'Aubuisson's former security chief -- and ordered him to pay $10 million to Archbishop Romero's family. Saravia had been living in Modesto, though he went into hiding shortly before the trial.

In his ruling, Judge Oliver Wagner said that "the evidence clearly established Saravia's responsibility for helping to organize the murder." He added that the crime "constitutes a crime against humanity" because it was part of a widespread and systematic attack against a civilian population.

Shortly after the trial, I spoke to Bernabau via telephone at her office in San Francisco. "The awkward truth is that ARENA [El Salvador's ruling party] was founded by death squad members, by the killers of Romero," she told me. "You have very powerful people who were guilty of huge crimes still walking the streets. ... We believe some are still in government.

"What ARENA would like to say is that this was a war and that both sides were shooting at each other and that for the sake of moving forward, we should forget about what has happened. But this was a dirty war where the most vulnerable were targeted. You could have been on your way to a movie theater, and then never be heard from again. For real democratization and reconciliation to take place, there needs to be some kind of accountability for what happened. This isn't a quest for morbid justice. It's a question of giving the victim's families the ability to sleep at night. They need this. I know -- I've spoken to hundreds of them."

For some reason I couldn't get my mind off the statue of D'Aubuisson at the ARENA headquarters. I asked Bernabau what she thought it would take to have the truth about the Romero killing be addressed inside El Salvador. She said, "I think that would have to come from pressure by the United States. I don't want to say that ARENA will do whatever the White House says, but let's just say it would help."

An Altar Boy As President

After the verdict in Fresno, President Saca revealed a startling fact, that he was an altar boy for Romero when Romero was a bishop. Offering a sliver of hope for some kind of hearing in El Salvador on the case, Saca said he thought a trial could happen in El Salvador, but that now isn't the time.

It's easy to demonize a political party with a violent past such as the ARENA has. But President Saca was just a high school freshman when Romero was assassinated. And the ARENA has done an effective job of rebuilding the country after a devastating earthquake in 2001 that left hundreds of thousands homeless. The party has also presided over steady economic growth, even if most of the money comes from remittances.

I decided I should interview Saca. Maybe the former altar boy was the best hope for some kind of symbolic change in El Salvador. It didn't take long for me to get what seemed like a green light. One of the president's press secretaries, Pedro Sanchez, told me over the phone that my interview would take place the following Monday afternoon. "You'll love President Saca," Sanchez said, "he is very open, a great man."

Remembering a Massacre

That weekend I decided to head for a town near the Honduran border. I'd heard about an unusual event, the first commemoration of a massacre that had occurred 23 years ago.

El Aceituno isn't really even a town. It's essentially a gathering of shacks with no discernable center. Lucky for me they had a sign advertising the memorial service.

Rudy Betriz and his son

In Aceituno, Rudy Betriz brought his seven-year-old son to see the graves of his cousins. Betriz said he believes he survived the 1981 massacre in his village because he left early for school that day.
Down the road from Aceituno, in the town of El Triumfo, I found the organizer of the commemoration, Orlando Turcios. Turcios is the local representative of the FMLN and runs an agricultural supply store. In his office, piled high with agricultural feed, I asked him, why after all these years organize a commemoration? "Well, that could have been me [who was killed]," he said. "It's amazing it wasn't me."

It turned out that back in 1981, Turcios got tipped that he was on a death squad list and went into hiding in the capital. When he heard about the massacres, he defied reason and returned to the area briefly. "It was such a lonely feeling. No one wanted to talk about it. There was so much fear they would be next. I can't really convey what this kind of loneliness is like."

All 21 victims in the Aceituno massacre were from one extended family. I asked Turcios why they were targeted. He explained that the family had a son who had joined the FMLN guerillas. He said the local commanders wanted to send a message about what a deadly choice that was.

By the obscene standards of El Salvador's brutal civil war, Aceituno was a tiny massacre. Nothing compared with what happened at El Mozote, where an estimated 800 people, virtually the entire population, were killed in a single day by U.S.-funded government soldiers. But the incident at Aceituno was vicious -- a 4-year-old girl was killed as she slept, entire households were wiped out in seconds. After the massacre almost the entire town fled.

"ARENA's attitude is let's forget about the past and let's begin again," Turcios told me. "There is a whole generation that is growing up and doesn't know what really happened here. Time is on ARENA's side. But we can't let that happen -- that's why I thought a commemoration was important."

On the streets of El Triumfo, I questioned a resident about the massacre of Aceituno. He asked that I not give his name. "Of course we know who did this. It was the third brigade from Santa Ana. Everyone knows that. And we know who the intellectual killers were, the ones who gave the orders."

One of the few survivors who stayed in Aceituno is 78-year-old Josefina Arango de Rodriguez. Her husband, three sons, son in-law and granddaughter were all killed that day. Their graves lie just a few yards below her shack. Whatever pain she carries from that day she keeps private. I visited her home on a couple of occasions, and each time she greeted me with amusement. The second time I came, she was wearing my blue-tinted sunglasses, which I had left behind. (I've lost a lot of sunglasses that way.) She smiled and said she knew I would be back.

When I asked her whether she wanted some sort of trial, she said, "What good will that do? The dead are buried three meters deep. The only justice now is in God's hands."

About a hundred people came to the commemoration in Aceituno. I spoke with a woman whose 20-year-old husband was killed in front of her and her three small children. I asked her if she wanted any redress from the government. "That would be too dangerous," she said. "Then they might come after my sons."

Super Strong Hand

Back in the capital I watched the nightly news. There was the usual litany of crime stories, including distressingly long shots of murder victims, giving the evening news a Blade Runner-like quality. El Salvador has Latin America's highest murder rate, fueled in part by thousands of gang members deported from Los Angeles.

But the bulk of the news was dedicated to Super Mano Duro (Super Strong Hand), a program developed by President Saca that has the military and police sweeping the sprawling slums of San Salvador and arresting gang members for "illicit association."

The Super Mano Duro raids go on despite there being nowhere to put prisoners. Last month a prison riot took place on the outskirts of San Salvador at the notoriously overcrowded La Esperanza prison. The riot began when members of the Mara 18 street gang clashed with other inmates.

I watched an extensive interview with Saca out in the field with police and the military. Though civil libertarians criticize the crackdown, Super Mano Duro is a popular program of the ARENA government -- no one poses a sharp question to the president.

The three highest-rated television stations are owned by an ardent ARENA supporter, and the coverage shows it. The two major newspapers and the vast majority of radio stations are also sympathetic to the ARENA. President Saca himself owns several radio stations, and he recently purchased a television station. So much friendly media is probably why Saca didn't even bother to debate his FMLN opponent in the last election.

It's in God's Hands

Government troops

Government troops join police to sweep the streets of young men suspected of "illegal association." The "Super Mano Duro" anti-crime sweeps are leading to overflow in El Salvador's already overcrowded prisons.
For several days now I had been pursuing my request for an interview with President Saca. But after submitting my questions in advance, as his press secretary had requested, I ran into a stone wall. Repeated phone calls got me nowhere. Finally I gave up. I had a flight to catch.

My cab driver, Raul, was a big friendly man driving a 1973 Toyota Corolla. We chatted during the half-hour ride to the airport. He told me he has three kids and can't afford school uniforms or the monthly fees (which are supposed to be voluntary, but everyone knows they aren't these days) on the $40 he is pulling in each week. But he has a plan. He is going to go to the United States for three years to earn money that he can wire to his family. The going rate for the trip is $6,000, which pays for a coyote (smuggler). But he has no relatives in the States who are willing to wire him the money. So he is trying to put together $300 to pay for a bus to the border. He told me that he'll try to make it through the desert himself. "Then it's in God's hands," he said.

Joe Rubin is a video journalist whose reports have appeared on ABC's Nightline and on FRONTLINE/World, including "Living With Terror," about suicide bombers in Sri Lanka, and "Coffee Country," about fair-trade coffee growers in Guatemala and Mexico.

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This page was slightly updated on the day of launch, October 12, 2004.