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Salvadoran Armed Forces Stoking Old Tensions in Chalatenango

Chalatenango residents are being harassed again by Army and Police forces, the collateral damage of President Bukele’s tweets accusing the FMLN party and FMLN mayors of protecting drug traffickers and smugglers. The “new normal” is being disregarded despite the laws and treaties that protect the inhabitants of the border regions formerly in dispute with Honduras. The Catholic Church, the government human rights agency (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos - PDDH), and human rights organizations have all decried the Bukele administration’s purported war on drugs to justify its repression of citizens living in FMLN-led municipalities, which are evoking memories of the political persecution that was abolished in 1992.

Nelson Rauda

 
 

View from Arcatao towards the hamlet of Sazalapa in Honduras. Most of the area inhabitants travel frequently between the two countries to work or shop. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.
 
View from Arcatao towards the hamlet of Sazalapa in Honduras. Most of the area inhabitants travel frequently between the two countries to work or shop. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.

 

The day after President Nayib Bukele sent his security forces in pursuit of drug traffickers in northern Chalatenango, they apprehended Alfredo López, a local farmer and businessman. He was detained on October 21 in the remote border town of Arcatao, a municipality governed by the FMLN, Bukele’s former political party. The president now claims that the FMLN is guilty of protecting drug dealers and smugglers. Alfredo López was apprehended in his own house, about 500 meters from the Sazalapa River on the Honduran border, while he was busy loading a pickup truck with sacks of red beans that he hoped to sell in the city of Chalatenango.

Alfredo López was taken the next day to San Salvador and locked in a Police Antinarcotics Division (División Antinarcóticos - DAN) cell, a jail usually reserved for the infamous figures of contemporary Salvadoran corruption and crime. Previous occupants of this jail include former presidents Francisco Flores and Antonio Saca, and the reputed leader of the Texis Cartel, José Adán Salazar Umaña, better known as Chepe Diablo. But López didn’t really understand why he had been detained and or what he was doing in that special jail. When his fellow prisoners explained, López was furious to learn that he was being used as the scapegoat in yet another Bukele-led attack on the FMLN. Four days after his detention for alleged drug trafficking, the Arcatao justice of the peace set him free due to a lack of evidence. There wasn’t even any evidence that the confiscated beans had been smuggled into the country.

Arcato residents Manuel Avilés and Franklin Amaya participated in a demonstration on October 28 in front of the Ministry of Finance in San Salvador, demanding disbursement of the FODES funds for the municipalities. Photo by Carlos Barrera/ El Faro.
 
Arcato residents Manuel Avilés and Franklin Amaya participated in a demonstration on October 28 in front of the Ministry of Finance in San Salvador, demanding disbursement of the FODES funds for the municipalities. Photo by Carlos Barrera/ El Faro.

Before leaving the DAN jail cell, Alfredo López learned that the Bukele attack on the FMLN municipalities began the day before he was detained, when congresswoman and former FMLN candidate for the vice presidency, Karina Sosa, joined a group of mayors in denouncing the Army’s restrictions on traffic between Honduras and El Salvador. They claimed that eight border municipalities in the department of Chalatenango were affected, an area with 32,000 inhabitants, according to population projections by the government statistics agency (Dirección General de Estadísticas - DIGESTYC). The group stated that the Army’s restrictions have caused “family separations, prevented medical treatment, and have severely affected the economy” in this corner of the country.

In response, President Bukele tweeted, “There are NO border posts there. These are blind spots on the border where drug traffickers and smugglers operate.” Later that day he posted three more tweets on the subject. True to his style, he issued an order on Twitter to Defense Minister Merino Monroy, “Double the military presence in the blind spots of San Fernando, Arcatao, Nueva Trinidad and San Ignacio. It’s obvious that drugs and/or contraband are coming into the country here with the assistance of local authorities.” 

Two of these four municipalities, Arcatao and San Ignacio, were part of the historically disputed border areas called “bolsones” that officially became part of Honduras in 1992 following a ruling by the International Court of Justice. The ruling and corresponding implementation agreements guarantee the inhabitants of these areas unrestricted border crossings. But these indisputable facts are conveniently ignored in the president's tweets.

No sooner said than done. The president’s tweet quickly resulted in even more soldiers deployed to those municipalities. When the country went into lockdown in March, these areas had already received some of the 2,000 soldiers deployed by the Army to border posts and blind spots around the country. Apolonio Tobar, head of the PDDH, reports that Chalatenango’s mayors have denounced the “criminalization of young people,” as well as arbitrary actions by soldiers “looking for tattoos, and checking to see if they wear the baggy shirts or have long hair. They have even forced some young people to cut their hair a certain way.”

The PDDH is now preparing a resolution after conducting an on-site investigation. Cristosal, a human rights organization, launched an online survey from October 21-29 of residents of the municipalities with an increased Army presence. They also conducted 36 interviews and found that half of the interviewees felt that the inability to cross the border was the biggest problem. More than half (58%) disagreed with the restrictions. “The survey results indicate that the restrictions do not benefit the local population nor do they translate into greater protection for them. Rather, it’s perceived as a political strategy of the central government, and the local residents regard the Army presence as an infringement of their rights,” said the Cristosal report.

One day after the president’s tweet, a sergeant and two soldiers arrested Alfredo López in Arcatao.

“I wonder about all the drugs you have around here”

We’re still in a pandemic, but Alfredo López has found a place to stay safe from the virus in this remote refuge. He comes out of his house wearing a face mask that doesn’t fully cover his thick moustache. Since he’s wearing jeans, a red shirt, and is somewhat chubby, he looks a little like a certain Italian plumber in a popular video game. “My situation fit the government’s allegations very well,” says Alfredo from the comfort of his home.  He has been living in the little hamlet of Chavarría (Teosinte canton) for 45 years, the same area where he was wrongfully detained late in the afternoon on October 21.

Alfredo López, 45 years old, at the entrance to his mother's house in the hamlet of Chavarría, Arcatao. López was detained by the police on October 21 on smuggling charges. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.
 
Alfredo López, 45 years old, at the entrance to his mother's house in the hamlet of Chavarría, Arcatao. López was detained by the police on October 21 on smuggling charges. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.

“I was loading my pickup truck with 20 quintals of beans to sell in Chalatenango. They were already parked there and started questioning me. They first asked me for my ID card and the vehicle registration documents,” says Alfredo. “Then a sergeant went inside my mother’s house without permission.”

No law enforcement officer or other authority can enter a Salvadoran citizen’s home without a court order or the citizen’s permission. Alfredo and his 60-year-old mother, Mirtala, never gave anyone permission to enter her home. Mirtala’s house is less than 100 meters from Alfredo’s house in this rural hamlet, a short distance down a dirt road from downtown Arcatao. Alfredo stores his sacks of beans at his mother’s house.

“He was offensive because he never asked for permission to come in,” says Mirtala, with renewed indignation. “He even said, ‘Turn off that light!’ as if he were in charge around here!”

After searching the house, one of the soldiers escalated the tone of the interrogation. “I wonder about all the drugs you have around here,” he said to Alfredo, who then offered to open his sacks of beans. “I’ll empty the sacks right here on the ground, if you want. If you find any drugs, then go ahead and charge me. But if you don’t find anything, then you should be charged,” he said, challenging the soldier. “Later, the same soldier told me that all these houses were used to store smuggled goods. So I said, ‘Why don’t you get a warrant and search all the houses?’”

The sergeant then asked Alfredo where he got the beans. Alfredo is both a farmer and a merchant, and tried to explain his business to the soldier. “I sell compost and insecticides to farmers who sometimes pay me in beans. I told him that I buy from all sorts of people around here, but he asked me to give him full names. How am I supposed to know the last names of so many people?” he said.

The military operation against Alfredo then expanded. As night fell, more authorities arrived to threaten him. “The Deputy Inspector (of the National Civil Police) of Arcatao came down and ordered me to bring all of my product outside.” Alfredo had another 24 quintals of beans in storage, plus the 20 quintals already loaded on the pickup, together worth a little over $2,500 at current prices. “He told me, ‘if you voluntarily bring all of the beans outside, it’ll be less of a problem. But if you don’t, it’ll be a big problem and we’ll get a search warrant to search the whole house.’” The policeman did admit that he couldn’t do what the sergeant did, which was enter the house without a warrant.

Worried that things were getting out of hand and that Mirtala would be taken into custody, Alfredo agreed to bring all the sacks of beans outside. “The customs police later told me that this was strictly forbidden,” he says. He was then taken into custody and spent the night at the El Poy border post, sleeping handcuffed to a bench. The next day, he was booked in Chalatenango and transferred to a DAN holding cell.

The Sazalapa River - the left bank belongs to El Salvador and the right bank to Honduras. Many Hondurans cross here on their way to shop in Arcatao, the closest town to their villages across the border. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.
 
The Sazalapa River - the left bank belongs to El Salvador and the right bank to Honduras. Many Hondurans cross here on their way to shop in Arcatao, the closest town to their villages across the border. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.

As he was placed in the cell, he was told that Gustavo López Davidson (former president of the Arena party accused of an illegal arms deal), former Defense Minister David Munguía Payés (accused of negotiating a truce with gangs), and Susy Rodríguez, wife of Sigfrido Reyes, the former president of the Legislative Assembly accused of corruption, had all slept in this cell. That’s where he learned about the president’s Twitter order. “A prisoner showed me a newspaper and I read about the president’s accusations of the mayors,” said Alfredo. 

The Border People

In September 1992, the International Court of Justice at The Hague resolved a border dispute that dated back to colonial times. The Court decreed that 160 square kilometers claimed by El Salvador belonged to Honduras. The disputed territories called “bolsones” included border areas in the municipalities of Citalá, San Ignacio and Arcatao in Chalatenango. The Court also decided in favor of Honduras regarding some disputed areas in the eastern part of the country. Although they identified as Salvadoran nationals, thousands of rural property owners woke up the next day in a new country. Six years later, the two neighboring countries held a convention on nationality and acquired rights, and committed to “guaranteeing that property owners and inhabitants of these formerly disputed areas could freely cross the new borders to sell and transport their goods within these zones.” The convention also gave them the right to hold dual nationality. Alfredo López buys and sells crops raised in the former “bolsones” of Arcatao.

Alfredo contends that a soldier accused him of being a drug trafficker, but this was not the charge indicated in the legal records. Alfredo was formally charged with smuggling. The prosecutor maintains that “a quantity of beans found in a warehouse on the property and in a truck belonging to the accused was confiscated because the source of these beans could not be determined. That is, the product must have been brought into the country by evading border controls.” The “warehouse” is actually a house surrounded by a stick and wire fence, and the “truck” is actually Alfredo’s Nissan pickup.

Ignoring the irregular circumstances of Alfredo’s arrest, the prosecutor was unable to prove that Alfredo was a smuggler. At the initial hearing, the charge was changed to transporting goods of suspicious origin. In order to get out of jail and return home, Alfredo accepted an accelerated procedure that imposed a two-year prison sentence that was immediately commuted upon payment of a $1,500 fine. “I didn’t understand him much, but they told me that if I paid the fine they would let me go,” said Alfredo. The fine, his lawyer’s fees, and the release of his impounded vehicle cost Alfredo $3,000, plus the 44 quintals of beans that were confiscated.

While Alfredo tells his story, just a few meters away a man crosses the Sazalapa River into Honduras with a box of tomatoes from El Salvador. Transporting goods back and forth across the river is a daily routine for Alfredo and the inhabitants of this border region, a practice that has been regulated and protected since the International Court of Justice’s 1992 ruling that redefined the Honduras-El Salvador border. This reality stands in stark contrast to the president’s Twitter-based campaign persecution, and to the outcome of Alfredo’s legal case.

In reality, the inhabitants of the former “bolsones'' and other border regions have freely crossed borders for the last 30 years without bothering with immigration or customs procedures. People from the Honduras side shop in Salvadoran stores and thousands of Salvadorans have land in Honduras where they raise crops or keep livestock. Some are also migrant workers that pick coffee in Honduras during the harvest season that begins in November. The San Fernando parish priest in El Salvador gets both US quarters and Honduran lempiras in the collection plate. Thousands of Hondurans travel to El Salvador for medical treatment in Chalatenango or Morazán because these cities are closer than San Pedro Sula or Tegucigalpa, where the Honduran government has centralized public health services. 

This back and forth between the two countries was formally recognized in an April 2019 Law on Migration and Foreigners (Ley Especial de Migración y Extranjería) as “travel between neighboring countries.” Representative Karina Sosa voted to approve this law. “Some representatives felt that people should only be allowed to cross borders at official border posts with immigration offices. But this ignores the reality of the situation,” she said.

The department of Chalatenango has only one border post at El Poy in Citalá. But inhabitants of places 80-95 kilometers away like Arcatao, San Fernando, or Nueva Trinidad have crossed into Honduras for years without going through immigration. “They would just show their ID cards to the soldiers, who would let them go back and forth,” said Sosa.

Article 103 of the 2019 law established that the Directorate General for Immigration would give a special identification card to “Central Americans and other foreign residents who live along the Salvadoran border and frequently enter and leave the country, that allows them to stay in El Salvador for no more than three days and prohibits them from working in the country.” But these special identification cards were never issued.

In March, the COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s lives. The Salvadoran government closed its borders on March 11 as a preventive measure, and deployed 2,000 soldiers to border posts. The borders were reopened on September 19, but since the municipalities in Chalatenango don’t have any immigration offices, the general reopening was not implemented. The “new reality” has not yet arrived in these towns that are still mired in all the old problems of their old reality.

It’s October 28 and the sun is setting. María Rosa Portillo, Fidencio Cartagena and their nine-year-old son, Josué, fill up half a dozen plastic bags with water at the Sazalapa River. They are Salvadoran citizens, but live on the Honduran side. María says her mother, Teodora Martínez, a 64-year-old woman with knee problems and a cane to help her walk, has been unable to make two appointments for surgery because the Salvadoran military won’t let her cross. “She has a hernia, but these people don’t understand the problem. They say that she has to get out and walk to the other side of the river. Another car will come and pick her up on the Salvadoran side,” says Maria.

Fidencio Cartagena María Portillo, and Josué Cartagena are a Salvadoran family living in the hamlet of Sazalapa in Honduras. Maria complains that the Salvadoran Army has prevented her mother from entering El Salvador at this border crossing so she can get medical treatment. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.
 
Fidencio Cartagena María Portillo, and Josué Cartagena are a Salvadoran family living in the hamlet of Sazalapa in Honduras. Maria complains that the Salvadoran Army has prevented her mother from entering El Salvador at this border crossing so she can get medical treatment. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.

“I'm hoping that someday they’ll understand people’s needs and relax these restrictions a bit,” she says.

Maria’s spouse, Fidencio Cartagena, tried to compromise with the soldiers stationed in a house on the Salvadoran side of this river crossing. The soldier instead asked him, “When the border was redrawn, didn’t they ask if you wanted to stay in Honduras or in El Salvador?” But no one ever asked Fidencio that question. “How are we going to move off our little piece of land, away from our homes and livestock? They told us that people living in the “bolsones” were going to be protected and fully supported, but that was a lie. The border people don’t have anyone’s support,” he says.

Memories of Another Political Persecution

A month after Representative Sosa spoke out and Alfredo López was arrested for smuggling, President Bukele again tweeted about the Chalatenango mayors. “The day the FMLN asked us to do away with the restrictions, we actually strengthened them,” Bukele tweeted on November 21. But the FMLN mayors never actually asked for the restrictions to be rescinded. They wanted the government to “protect human rights” and asked for a statement explaining “the reasons for restricting freedom of transit for Salvadorans.” Curiously, the president’s tweet included photos of a man who was arrested in Santa Ana with 50 kilos of marijuana. Santa Ana is about 100 kilometers from the towns governed by the protesting mayors. Clearly, the president wanted to keep the issue alive. But why?

“I think that the problem is that the protesting mayors belong to the FMLN,” says Monsignor Oswaldo Escobar, the Bishop of Chalatenango. The Catholic Church has been actively defending the people of the former “bolsones” and other Chalatenango border areas that are being vilified as smugglers and drug traffickers, evoking a bygone era when the Catholic Church defended people from another authoritarian government.

On October 25, five days after Sosa’s protests and the president’s tweets, the FMLN organized a demonstration in Arcatao. Lorena Peña, a former president of the Legislative Assembly, complained that the police blocked a caravan of FMLN supporters on the road into Arcatao under the pretext of searching for weapons. Miguel Vasquez, Arcatao’s Jesuit parish priest, hosted a rally after mass that Sunday, and criticized Bukele’s measures in a speech to the group. “His administration includes long-time politicians and he’s promoting new candidates for public office. We have a list of all of their corrupt behavior. I hope Bukele tells them that drug trafficking is against the law, because some of his own people are involved in that,” said Vasquez, who received a standing ovation. The next day, the diocese of Chalatenango stated its position at a press conference.

The diocese stated in the press conference that it was speaking “on behalf of these border communities so that the Armed Forces will treat them with dignity and humanity, because they need to travel freely as they did before the pandemic in order to earn a living.” The Church vouched for these border communities by stating “They are not drug traffickers... If the government has conducted a sincere investigation and finds that someone is involved in such activities, then it has the right to prosecute that individual. But it should not stigmatize an entire population.”

A sign points to the entrance to a heliport, six kilometers from the municipality of Dulce Nombre de María, down the tough stretch of road to San Fernando. Photo by El Faro: Carlos Barrera.
 
A sign points to the entrance to a heliport, six kilometers from the municipality of Dulce Nombre de María, down the tough stretch of road to San Fernando. Photo by El Faro: Carlos Barrera.

Some of Bukele’s actions and their repercussions are reminiscent of another era in Salvadoran history. Security forces quick to persecute peasants and merchants, police harassment of political opponents, Catholic priests condemning corruption, and parish priests denouncing the government were common sights in the 1970s and 1980s, when the Church, led by priests like Rutilio Grande and Oscar Romero, decried the human rights violations of the military regime. The events in Arcatao add another piece to a sinister mosaic that includes the military takeover of the Legislative Assembly last February, a president that disregards decisions issued by the Constitutional Court, an army that ignores court orders, a police force that flouts the Attorney General, a police director that defies the Legislative Assembly, and a series of systematic attacks on journalists and human rights defenders. More recently, the police detained members of electoral institutions linked to the Arena party that were preparing for the 2021 election. Without presenting any evidence, Bukele and his political party accused them of alleged fraud. El Salvador today is looking more and more like the country we thought had been transcended by the signing of the 1992 peace accords.

Bishop Oswaldo Escobar is a Carmelite priest who has presided over the diocese of Chalatenango since 2016. He is tall and pale, with a round face and gentle mannerisms. He doesn’t look like he would be a political opponent of the president, but he and other priests were treated as such after they took a stand against the president’s tweet ordering military action. “The main point has always been to allow residents of these border communities to move about freely. The president made a very radical decision without consulting anybody,” said Escobar in an interview with El Faro.

Miguel Vasquez, the Arcatao parish priest, was one of the initiators of the diocese’s statement, but also issued his own. “The president makes these irresponsible statements out of the blue. Strangely enough, he focused on the FMLN-governed municipalities,” said his statement.

But the cross-border travel problem already existed before it became a point of contention in the upcoming elections. On August 7, Carlos Álvarez, the mayor of San Fernando, sent a letter to Colonel César Wilfredo Villalta Ángel, the commander of Military Detachment 1. “We ask for your support in authorizing us to cross the border frequently... as required by our work in farming and raising livestock,” says the letter. Unlike Arcatao, San Fernando has been watched carefully by the authorities for years because it is considered to be a drug trafficking hotspot.

The Two San Fernandos

There are two San Fernandos. One can be reached by a road that leads out of the small town of Dulce Nombre de María. It’s not for novice drivers - a rough, dirt road pockmarked by tiny patches of cement and gravel that, like all roads in Chalatenango, winds dizzyingly around the mountainous terrain. It’s so narrow that it doesn’t seem like two vehicles could pass each other, and some have steep ravines on both sides. The metal guardrails don’t offer much safety. The road between Dulce Nombre de María and San Fernando is only 30 kilometers long - about the same distance between San Salvador and La Libertad. But while it’s only a 30-minute drive from the capital to the beach, it takes three times as long to get to San Fernando due to the bad road.

The last time a multidimensional measurement of socioeconomic indicators by municipality was conducted in 2007, San Fernando was ranked 250 out of 262 municipalities on the Human Development Index. In other words, it’s one of El Salvador’s 15 worst municipalities to live in. In addition, it’s one of the country’s 10 municipalities with the most severe poverty. San Fernando has two tiny neighborhoods - the old one and the new one - where a scant 15% of its population of 3,000 lives. The rest of the municipality is rural - hills and mountains intersected by ravines and separated from Honduras by the Sumpul River.

The other San Fernando has an undesirable element that very few people dare to talk about. That undesirable element sometimes turns simple curiosities into suspicions. Along the rocky road through San Fernando is a property with a sign announcing a heliport. In reality, the property lies within Dulce Nombre de María, the neighboring municipality. The public property register has no information about the “'heliport” because it’s in an area with no formal cadastre that defines the dimensions and location of land parcels described in legal documentation. The Dulce Nombre de María mayor’s office responded to El Faro’s inquiries about the heliport, indicating that the property owner is Ángel Abrego and that the heliport is really only a lookout point. “Who knows why they put a heliport in that place. No plane or helicopter has ever landed there - it’s just sitting there,” said the municipal secretary.

The other San Fernando, the one with the heliport, has been described as “El Caminito” in intelligence reports for more than 10 years. “San Fernando is where the Salvadoran cocaine route begins, cocaine from South America that’s on its way to the United States,” reported El Faro in 2011, when the Texis Cartel was first unmasked.

It wasn’t news to anyone when the president said that drugs were passing through these places. The three intelligence reports that first identified the Texis Cartel also tagged San Fernando as the place where José Adán Salazar Umaña’s (Chepe Diablo) territory begins. Chepe Diablo is the top drug lord in northwestern El Salvador, and is even recognized as such by the United States. The inhabitants of the other San Fernando knew all this long before the president said anything.

“It makes us feel bad when the president says this is a drug trafficking area, although there may be some truth there,” admits Carlos Hernandez. He’s a 50-year-old, easy-going man who has been an evangelical pastor since he was 19. “Does anyone here do that [traffic drugs]? Who knows? We know almost everyone here, but not that way.”

“Sometimes you hear cars or pickup trucks rumbling past at midnight or 1 a.m. Who knows what they’re doing while we’re sleeping?” says Ana Ortega, president of the Adesco (Asociaciones de Desarrollo Comunal - ADESCO) community development organization in San Juan de la Cruz, a canton in San Fernando. “Maybe that kind of thing has been going on for centuries. But no, people here are mostly farmers and earn a living from that. If people around here were involved in [drug trafficking], they’d be rich, but that’s not the case.” 

Carlos Álvarez is the mayor of this municipality with two faces. He broke Arena’s grip on this municipality that it had controlled since 1994. His 2015 victory came 15 years after the Texis Cartel first surfaced, a victory that resulted from a unique alliance of the FMLN with GANA, the conservative party that Bukele rode to power in 2019. They reformed the alliance for the 2018 elections. Now, in the same way that GANA has forgotten its alliance with the FMLN during the latter party’s 10 years of presidential administrations, Bukele is also ignoring San Fernando’s alliance between the FMLN and GANA, the only party rivaling Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party in alliances for the 2021 elections.

A Salvadoran soldier guards the border with Honduras in the municipality of San Fernando, Chalatenango. No one of either nationality can cross the border there. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.
 
A Salvadoran soldier guards the border with Honduras in the municipality of San Fernando, Chalatenango. No one of either nationality can cross the border there. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.

Like everyone else in San Fernando, Alvarez is cautious when talking about drug trafficking. “It’s true that these areas have been identified with that, but none of the recent drug seizures have actually happened here,” he says. The government has seized more than two tons of drugs this year, most of it during two operations on October 12. Both seizures happened far away from Chalatenango - one was on the El Amatillo border (La Unión) and the other in Zacatecoluca (La Paz).

Alvarez is more diplomatic than some of his fellow mayors. The mayor of Arcatao, José Avelar, was less tactful when talking to us in his office about drug trafficking in Chalatenango. “Everyone here knows that the PCN (Partido de Concertación Nacional) candidate, Reynaldo Cardoza, has been a drug trafficker for a long time,” says Avelar. Cardoza has a police record for human trafficking and has been identified in police reports as being associated with the Texis Cartel. El Faro contacted Cardoza for a statement but his media team in the Legislative Assembly told us that Cardoza would not respond to El Faro.

Bukele’s campaign against drug trafficking allegedly conducted with FMLN “protection” is curiously inconsistent. The Texis Cartel’s area of operation, including San Fernando, is represented by elected officials from various parties, but the president has only accused FMLN mayors with no criminal records. He has conveniently omitted mention of other politicians who currently work in his administration and who have been linked to leaders of the Texis Cartel.

The same week that the president attacked Alvarez, Avelar and the other FMLN mayors, Juan Umaña, an ex-mayor (PCN) of Metapán linked to the Texis Cartel, was released on bail. He has been charged with laundering more than $100 million. In 2015, Francisco Merino Reyes, President Bukele's current head of protocol, was a candidate to represent El Salvador in the Central American Parliament. During his campaign, Merino Reyes and his father, Francisco Merino, a PCN representative from Santa Ana, appeared publicly with Umaña. That same year, Reynaldo Cardoza campaigned in a helicopter emblazoned with his own name. Cardoza told El Faro that Merino Reyes had provided him with that helicopter. Bukele has not commented on the irregular contracts that his Minister of Tourism granted to hotels belonging to Chepe Diablo for pandemic-related activities, and for which the MInister now faces trial.

 

The Crossing Spot at Las Pilas

On the morning of October 31, a dozen men are busy transporting boxes of tomatoes from Honduras to El Salvador across a hanging bridge over the Sumpul River. A few meters away, a Salvadoran soldier quietly observes them from his post. In a militarized Chalatenango with closed borders, workers openly load trucks in the towns where the president suspects drug traffickers and smugglers are being protected by the FMLM. Las Pilas, near the town of San Ignacio, is an exception.

“We don’t have a legal agreement with the authorities, but we do have a verbal one,” says Israel Cardoza, one of the leaders of a rural collective in Las Pilas who claims to have negotiated permission from the authorities to bring their crops into the country. “All the land you see on this side of the border is ours - it belongs to Salvadorans,” he says. San Ignacio is another former “bolson” - these lands that are now part of Honduras belonged to El Salvador until 1992.

Rafael Gutiérrez crosses the bridge over the Sumpul River in Las Pilas, Chalatenango. This border crossing between the two countries has no restrictions for local farm workers . Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.
 
Rafael Gutiérrez crosses the bridge over the Sumpul River in Las Pilas, Chalatenango. This border crossing between the two countries has no restrictions for local farm workers . Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.

Las Pilas sits about 2,000 meters above sea level and enjoys an enviable climate. The temperature this morning was a refreshing 62 degrees. It’s a good climate for growing flowers and vegetables such as cabbage, bell peppers, carrots, kale, and cilantro. Large businesses like Walmart and Pollo Campero buy from suppliers in Las Pilas. 

Cardoza says that there was no border control at all before 2008 - they traveled freely between the two countries. When the Salvadoran government instituted border controls in 2008, the directors of Cardoza’s collective began negotiations. They were instructed by a colonel to report the number of boxes of vegetables on each truck to the police and soldiers. “We’ve been doing the same thing for 12 years without any problem. The Finance Office at the El Poy border post (the only one in Chalatenango) knows this, and knows that these are our crops even though they’re farmed on land that is now part of Honduras,” says Cardoza.

According to Cardoza, their agreements with local authorities in both Honduras and El Salvador allowed them to return to work in August. “We’re begging the proper authorities to let our pickup trucks travel back and forth across the border,” says Cardoza.

The border is open in the area known as El Billar near the hamlet of Río Abajo in Las Pilas, Chalatenango. Salvadoran workers are still able to transport vegetables across the border to sell in various markets around El Salvador. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.
 
The border is open in the area known as El Billar near the hamlet of Río Abajo in Las Pilas, Chalatenango. Salvadoran workers are still able to transport vegetables across the border to sell in various markets around El Salvador. Photo by Carlos Barrera / El Faro.

But the official responses and silences stand in sharp contrast with reality. Officials from the Ministries of Agriculture, Foreign Affairs and Immigration denied the existence of any verbal agreement to El Faro. The Army did not answer our inquiry. Meanwhile, workers continue to cross the hanging bridge at Las Pilas with boxes full of tomatoes on their backs. A soldier watches with disinterest from his post, while one of his buddies passes the time playing a slot machine in a pool hall a few meters away.

*Translated by John Turnure.


Apoya el periodismo incómodo

Si te parece valioso el trabajo de El Faro, apóyanos para seguir. Únete a nuestra comunidad de lectores y lectoras que con su membresía mensual o anual garantizan nuestra sostenibilidad y hacen posible que nuestro equipo de periodistas llegue adonde otros no llegan y cuente lo que otros no cuentan o tratan de ocultar.
Te necesitamos para seguir incomodando al poder.
¿Aún no te convences? Conoce más sobre cómo se financia El Faro y quiénes son sus propietarios acá.

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