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PostAn Open Letter to the Peace Corps in El Salvador (Richard Hancock, USA, 03/01/19 3:03 am)
I sent the following message to the El Salvador Peace Corps, of which I was the director in 1962-63:
An article in the March, 2019 National Geographic by Jason Motlagh, "No Way Out," paints a sad picture of El Salvador. "Gang warfare and poverty are decimating El Salvador. Many migrants have fled toward the US, but changes in US policy could send thousands back into chaos." Homicide in San Salvador is almost four times higher than in the country as a whole. El Salvador, with 61 murders per 100,000 people, is the second highest in the world, after Venezuela with 89 murders. By comparison, the US has 5.3 murders, Chile has 3.3, and Canada 1.8. This violence is perpetrated by the MS 13 and 18th St. gangs, which had their beginning among Salvadorans in Los Angeles, California. These members were arrested and deported back to El Salvador by the US Immigration Service. The Salvadoran government estimates that these gangs now number about 60,000 men, who continually extort money in small quantities from their fellow citizens. This is all the result of the 1980-1992 civil war, in which guerrillas rose up against the wealthy elite and the military state. By the time this war ended in a stalemate, 75,000 people were dead. I remember visiting the new US embassy during this period and found it to be housed in a strong fort with high walls and port holes through which assault rifles could be fired.
There are 1,387,000 Salvadoran immigrants in the US, which amounts to 1/5 of the population in El Salvador. In this amount, they are third after Mexicans (no. 1) and Puerto Ricans (no. 2). I remember hearing that the Salvadoran community in San Francisco, CA, constituted the world's second largest community of Salvadorans, next to San Salvador.
I am sure that all Salvador I PCVs remember President Julio Adalberto Rivera, whom we called "Big Julio" because he was a large man, over six feet tall and weighing over 200 pounds, in a nation of small people. He was a benign military dictator in a country where 14 families owned most of the country. As I looked back at El Salvador in 1962-63, I realize that there were signs of an impending tempest. The upper class, 14 families according to a then-current Time article, were supremely indifferent to the plight of the rural peasant. The women of this class could talk knowledgeably about New York, London and Paris, but did not know where the major rural towns in El Salvador were located. On one occasion when Ambassador Murat Williams joined me on a visit to the countryside, I asked him why male leaders of the 14 families did not speak out on current issues; they were educated in the world's best institutions and their opinions on these matters would certainly have mattered. The Ambassador replied, "If one of these men were to speak on these issues today, his peers at the Club Salvadoreño would not speak to him tomorrow." They firmly believed in the Latin American code of "Mind your own business." This, of course, left the chore of speaking out to people who had nothing to lose and thus were free to demagogue to their heart's content.
During 1962-63, the country was at peace, but there were already some inklings of trouble. During the training of PCVs at New Mexico State University, a Salvadorian student who was assisting in training told some of the trainees that they should be "hit and run drivers" if they ever struck a pedestrian. I found that this advice was correct when I read in the newspapers of three instances where the drivers who stopped were killed by machete-wielding peasants. I can't explain this phenomenon; it may be a reaction against modernism or resentment against wealthy people. It happens in other Latin American countries as well, especially in Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua.
The police in El Salvador enjoy absolutely no respect. I remember an occasion when an outlaw successfully made his escape to Guatemala. All of the lower class rejoiced at this event. No one had the least confidence in the government. I remember talking with a group of men who were leaders of the 14 families. They were telling me of one of their members that had a tremendous collection of Indian artifacts that rivaled the collection of the famous museum of Guatemala. They were talking about getting Harvard University to set up a museum to house this collection. I was aware of a new museum being built by the national government, but when I suggested that this museum might be a good place for this collection, the owner replied, "I would rather destroy my collection than to give it to the government."
What can we say about possible solutions to these problems? It is difficult to establish a democracy in a nation where people have no experience in self-government. We can say that at least our government should not make matters worse by such actions as recorded above, of deporting thousands of criminals to establish the current criminal gangs in El Salvador. We should have kept them as prisoners in the US. Moreover, we should not deport the current group of Salvadorans who are seeking access to the US. We should not send them back in chaos as is stated above. There are other small things that we should do. We could send some of our police to help reform the police of El Salvador. We could do the same by sending some of our military officers to try to make the Salvadoran military more effective and thereby help solve the violence in that country. There are other things of this nature that should be done, but there is no fast and easy way to solve these problems.
JE comments: This letter deserves to reach top policy-makers. It's not only a primer of recent Salvadoran history, it succinctly shows how the country arrived at its current chaos. When the US deported so many gangsters, did it expect a different result than what we have now? Even more troubling, did it care?
Richard, if I may ask, did you receive a meaningful response from the El Salvador PC?