“I Don’t Trust Politicians”
(This is the second part of three penned in 1997 about El Salvador)
While many workers and poor people have high expectations of the FMLN, others distrust political parties in general, believing them to be corrupt by nature. One could hardly expect otherwise given the history of El Salvador. As I was told by a small shopkeeper, “It doesn’t matter what anyone has or has not done. I don’t trust politicians. They only think about themselves.”
Marvin Galeas, who is from the middle class yet joined the FMLN when they were battling the dictatorship, complains that some of his former comrades in the FMLN — especially those who have become members of the legislature — are now “fat and big-bellied.” He says some have sold out, which he explains “is natural” and has “happened in other movements” once individuals get a taste of power and influence. But during the war he said fighters in the FMLN “were very heroic,” and that “many brave men and women gave their lives for their country.”
Mr. Galeas said that before La Repression, “I used to be a coward” and “never would have dreamed” about going to war. “I used to like to drink my rum, listen to the Beatles, and dance,” he said, as did many middle class youths from his generation. Yet Mr. Galeas joined the FMLN in 1981, and stayed with the guerrillas until 1990.
When he first left the city to join the Frente, Mr. Galeas weighed 180 pounds. But the life of a guerilla is a difficult one that requires not just conviction but great personal stamina. Galea developed both, losing sixty pounds shortly after joining the FMLN. And he did not lose the weight dieting.
A Terrible Day During The War
Mr. Galeas experienced many terrible moments while a member of el frente. There was a time in 1985 when Radio Venceremos and the high command were in a little town in Morazan called Arambala, Mr. Galeas recalled: The guerrillas “had just completed a military operation against the enemy.” The Salvadorean Army had retreated, Mr. Galeas said “and we were just resting. At around eight in the morning, helicopters of the enemy appeared in the sky. They would always show up…but what we didn’t know was that this was a new kind of helicopter — something they called the `little bee.’ It’s the kind that the U.S. used in Viet Nam.” Mr. Galeas explained that this type of helicopter is extremely mobile and equipped with a mini-machine gun that is capable of shooting thousands of bullets per minute . “It appeared all of a sudden and started shooting at us,” he said. “The ‘little bee’ took off and two other helicopters appeared. These had cannons and fired rockets at the guerrillas,” unleashing a hellish storm on the guerrillas who were pinned down with nowhere to go. Adding to tumult, airplanes called “dragonflies” appeared suddenly in the sky and started to drop five-hundred pound bombs. “Then more helicopters appeared, ten, sixteen, twenty, thirty and more. It was terrible. Practically the entire Salvadorean Air Force was above us. The attack started at eight in the morning and ended at four in the afternoon when it started to rain.”
The tactics that were used that day, and would be employed by the army during the duration of the war were, according to Mr. Galeas, “the same tactics used by the North Americans in the war in Viet Nam.” Fortunately for the FMLN, “Our machine gunners did not allow the helicopters carrying troops to land that day.” They fought bravely against enormous odds. As a consequence, soldiers were not able to gain a foothold. Given the fact that Radio Venceremos was located close to the guerilla high command, it was fortunate for the FMLN that blistering attack failed.
Mr. Galeas continued: “We had from the radio (Venceremos) three dead that day, including the chief of security, and Santiago, one of our most famous radio announcers. I was in the middle of everything and nothing happened to me — not even a scratch. I don’t know why.”
“The Most Wonderful Day of My Life”
But there were also wonderful moments for Mr. Galeas during the war. To witness what he called “the heroic actions of what was then the brave FMLN, the FMLN of the war,” was something he will never forget. When asked the happiest moment he had experienced during the conflict, Mr. Galeas did not hesitate to answer: It was the night of December 31, 1992. He was in Mexico at the time, no longer a member of el frente, but a member of the Commission for Negotiations, whose goal was to end the war. “We were talking about the negotiations, which were near conclusion. A few minutes before midnight, it still wasn’t too clear what was going to happen.” Mr. Galeas and the others on the commission then heard the news: a Peace Agreement had been signed. “It was the happiest day of my life …I had a daughter that was twenty-five days old that I had never seen, my wife having already returned to San Salvador. I would have died to go there! I was so happy to know I would get to see her and that I would never have to hold a weapon in my arms again.”
Has The FMLN Changed Since the End of the War?
During the war, many people who did not join the guerrilla fighters supported the FMLN, though they had to do so in a clandestine way. Mr. Galeas said the degree of support, including that received internationally, was “absolutely incredible,” and ranged from “the Norwegian Bishops to the daughter of Jimmy Carter in the United States.” Now many of those who were in the leadership of the FMLN have become legislators and politicians. He believes el frente has lost some of the support it once enjoyed since it became a political party “and some of the leaders are corrupt and their life styles are not what we thought…” But, according to Mr. Galeas, the FMLN nevertheless still enjoys the backing of many Salvadoreans “not only because of what they once stood for, but because the governing party is so horribly corrupt. When the FMLN wins, ARENA loses. For a lot of people, even some businessmen, what the FMLN represents is not what they can do, but what can be stopped.”
At one time, Mr. Galeas said, “el frente offered a vision of a paradise on earth.” Now, he says, “nobody thinks that is possible (since) the program they (the FMLN) advocated ended with the fall of the socialist countries.” When asked if his former comrades have a new vision, Mr. Galeas said “no, in my opinion, they have no program at all.” But as far as Mr. Galeas is concerned, that doesn’t really matter. The former guerilla broadcaster believes that what the people want “is to have a cleaner government, one that is more efficient. What people want is to put an end to the robberies, to end corruption, to establish a more tranquil environment where there are opportunities to find work with better pay. If that happens, they will be happy.”
What Do People Expect from the FMLN?
Though Mr. Galeas’ credentials as a revolutionary are well earned, conversations with workers reveal different expectations. Many I met believe that the FMLN is still a revolutionary organization and expect broad social change if and when they control the legislature and the presidency. This is a belief shared by many wealthy Salvadoreans as well. It is a difficult path walked by the FMLN, which was from its origins a united front that included many social groups and political tendencies, including liberal reformers, social democrats, priests, and communists.
Despite the reforms that have taken place — which are extensive — the military is still strong, although it, too, has been reformed and stripped of much of the power it once enjoyed. During the war, the military controlled virtually all fourteen of the “constitutional functions” of the state, including all those related to commerce, police, and the judiciary. Now, according to Mr. Galeas, they are only responsible for “state security and the defense of national sovereignty.” Though that may be true, while traveling from city to city, it is a common sight to see groups of heavily armed soldiers in battle fatigues, occasionally backed up with tanks and other military vehicles, nestled in enclaves just off the highway. I asked a man who we hired to drive us around the countryside why there were soldiers so heavily armed on the highways when there is a national police force now. He explained with a nervous laugh that “perhaps they are looking for drug dealers.”
Regardless of the reasons for their presence on the highways, the military is still a force to be reckoned with and the FMLN — or any political party for that matter — must surely take them into consideration when making policy.
During the municipal election campaign, Mr. Joaquin Villalobos, one of the leading members of the FMLN high command during the war and a man many argue was the most competent military leader of the guerrillas, accused the FMLN of having weapons hidden in the hills despite the fact that they had promised in the Peace Agreement to fully disarm. The FMLN firmly denied the charge, and many branded Villalobos a traitor and a sellout for making such claims and opposing the Frente during the political campaign. (Mr. Villalobos, a close personal friend of Mr. Galeas, was studying at Oxford University when this piece was penned.)
Regardless of whether the allegations about hidden arms caches are true or not, one gets a sense that there is still the danger of another military coup. After all, this is El Salvador, a nation that was ruled by an oligarchy and the military they controlled since the 1930’s. Yet for many people, including workers, businessmen, and individuals like Mr. Galea, such a danger is a remote one given the new constitution and the reforms it brought about.
Gangs and Narco Traffickers
There are other dangers that face the nation as well, one of the most ominous being narco-trafficking and the influence of groups and organizations related to such activity. Newspapers and individuals have reported many instances where large containers of drugs were delivered from offshore and even dropped by airplanes. Some of these shipments have been recovered by authorities, though most have probably gone undetected. Buses in route between towns are sometimes searched as the National Police and special drug enforcement details attempt to intercept such traffic.
One day in Santa Ana, while walking downtown, we passed a man outfitted entirely in black, moving with menace down the street, clutching a large assault rifle. Citizens were in the midst of celebrating the festival of Santa Ana, a yearly event with parades, dances, and religious rites meant to honor the Mother of the Virgin Mary. People on the street did not seem to be alarmed by the sight of this man, who looked much like a member of a North American SWAT team. I asked a family member who lives in Santa Ana what that man was doing and why he was so heavily armed. He said he was a special agent of a drug enforcement detail and was “probably watching for drug traffickers,” though he appeared to me to be looking for someone to shoot.
The dangers posed by drug cartels, combined with the threats to domestic peace posed by gangs and other criminal groups, are serious problems that practically all sectors of Salvadorean society want solved. The threats are not confined to the criminal activity itself: extreme measures implemented to combat such crimes likewise threaten the new constitution and the political reforms it guarantees.
There have been instances in El Salvador where death squads have taken credit for “solving” some of these problems by executing gang members. As in most countries where crime is a serious social issue, such executions — while rare — are supported by many Salvadoreans. This poses a dilemma for both the National Police, the FMLN and other political parties: Who will be the toughest on crime? There is the danger that if gang activity is not controlled, right wing elements — including some of the most notorious criminals in the world — will take advantage of the situation and offer their own resolution, meaning, of course, the imposition of martial law and other fascist solutions.
The danger posed by gangs and other criminal groups is apparent in the capital. Driving down The Avenue of the Constitution, North America’s latest “contribution” to El Salvador is evident: There one encounters McDonalds, Wendys, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, and Shell Oil Stations — operations that U.S. corporations claim provide economic opportunity and jobs. Though the very presence of such firms in a Third World country suggests malfeasance to some, there are more obvious signs of criminal activity: Each of these new North American businesses is guarded by men with pump-action shotguns, belts of cartridges strapped to their hips.
Shopping at a Supermarket
There are few supermarkets in El Salvador since there are small neighborhood stores on practically every corner in the barrios. (Many individuals sell groceries from their homes.) The supermarkets that do exist are modeled after their North American counterparts and cater almost exclusively to professionals and the wealthy.
We visited one such store in Santa Ana. As expected, the supermarket was guarded by a man with an assault weapon. Before entering, bags were searched and potential shoppers were required to walk through a metal detector. Those who possessed weapons were told they must check them in at the counter before shopping.
Curious, we looked around and were stunned by some of the prices: A bottle of Wish Bone Blue Cheese Salad Dressing sold for 100 Colones, or roughly $11.50. Though not everything was so outrageously priced, for most Salvadoreans (and many North Americans, for that matter) shopping there would be the equivalent of buying oranges at Macys.
As we waited at a checkout stand with a box of cereal, a man who had surrendered his weapon earlier, approached a clerk and handed him a tag. The clerk unlocked a cabinet where dozens of handguns lay on shelves, double-checked the tag and handed the man his weapon. It was a process not unlike that one experiences when checking in a bag of books at the counter of a bookstore. The shopper nonchalantly stuffed the handgun in his trousers, secured by a belt, then went on his way, a bag of groceries swinging at his side.
Despite the rise of crime in El Salvador, the atmosphere of fear that is so common in most cities in the United States does not — for the most part — exist there. We spent eight of our nine days in the working class barrios of Santa Ana and San Salvador. There, everyone knew each other. People kept an eye on their neighbor’s children, and during the day, left their doors open. If a neighbor was in need, everyone pitched in to help. As is the custom in most of Latin America, neighbors and friends would frequently drop by to visit. In the evenings, people gather outside in the streets and on the sidewalks and talk about the weather, their families, and politics. Only when night falls does everyone go inside and lock their doors, which are often made of metal and bolted firmly into walls. It is as though they are securing themselves against demons who rule the streets at night. Though this precaution developed during the war, when National Guard troops ruled the streets at night, often shooting anyone caught there, the growing threat of gangs has compelled many people to maintain their nightly vigilance.
The Milk Man
In Santa Ana, we stayed in a barrio on the outskirts of town near the countryside. Every morning an elderly man delivered fresh milk from cows he raised on a small ranch nearby — a luxury rare in the city. The old man rode a bicycle and had a canvas bag strapped to his back where he carried bottles of milk. At his side was a machete, firmly fixed in a leather holster. He delivered the milk in coke bottles he had cleaned and left several at the house where we stayed. Women who lived in the neighborhood would drift in, leave coins and empty bottles behind for the milk man, then take the fresh milk home to their children.
“Privileged” Workers in El Salvador
In the cities there are barrios where people enjoy luxuries not available to most workers. These are neighborhoods populated by individuals who worked in the United States and saved money before returning to El Salvador, or by those who have relatives still in the U.S. who send money home every month. These relatively “privileged” workers have television sets, stoves, and refrigerators, and many even own their own homes. Yet such houses are quite humble by North American standards.
Ceilings of such dwellings reveal open rafters and corrugated metal roofs. There are usually only three or four rooms, including the kitchen. Situated in the middle of the house, a half door providing some privacy, there is a toilet in a room the size of a small closet. One must have few inhibitions in order to use the toilet in such homes since it is generally located next to the kitchen or the bedroom. Most toilets have no seats, a situation requiring men to show special diligence. Showers are often rigged by running a hose from the faucet in the kitchen to the room with the toilet. When the shower is used, it drenches everything, including the toilet, since there is no curtain or tiled area cordoning it off from the rest of the room. There is no hot water, and items such as shampoo are true extravagances even for those with relatives in the United States. Though most working families have electricity, when there are electrical storms — which are frequent during the winter months — it is common to experience power outages.