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I'm taking a week off from my historical ruminations regarding El Salvador to discuss something a bit more timely. The historical reports will resume next week (unless life intervenes).

A Telling Silence
March 19, 2007

During President Bush's just concluded five-country Latin American tour, it wasn't his words so much as his silence that resonated, especially on two crucial matters: organized crime and labor rights violations, afflictions that particularly characterize our two closest allies in the region, El Salvador and Colombia.

Government and media reports over the past few years have increasingly decried the growth of Central American criminal gangs (maras), which engage in robbery, protection rackets, car theft, drug dealing, and other crimes. El Salvador has a murder rate of fifty-five per one hundred thousand persons, most of that attributable to the maras, making it one of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Too often unreported is the shadowy nexus of ex-military officers who form a homegrown mafia engaged in the far more lucrative rackets of international narcotics, human trafficking, and child prostitution. And unlike the outcast maras, this mafia is virtually immune from prosecution due to its social and political ties to members of the ruling elite.

This mafia is the legacy of our regional Cold War policies. It is sometimes said that the only loser in the Salvadoran peace accords was the military, which lost the generous American funding that was a spigot for graft, saw its ranks decimated by the newfound peace, and was forced to surrender control of internal security when the national police forces were consolidated and demilitarized. The military's acquiescence, however, didn't come without its price. Not only have former officers formed their own syndicates, they've infiltrated and even control the organized crime units responsible for investigating the enterprises their former cohorts dominate.

A particularly garish incident demonstrating the level of corruption at issue occurred only two weeks before President Bush's trip. Three Salvadoran Congressmen were abducted, tortured, and murdered in Guatemala by members of that country's organized crime squad. Before the suspects could talk, they were slaughtered in their prison cells by uniformed men who swept through the prison with no resistance from guards. Gang members incarcerated in the same prison staged a riot, to tell the media they were not responsible for the killings, which played perfectly into the official story—that it was the rioting mareros, not more bent cops, who'd killed the four suspects.

Meanwhile, Guatemalan officials suggested that the Salvadoran congressmen were themselves linked to organized crime, a charge vehemently denied by the Salvadoran government, even though one of the three slain congressmen was Eduardo D'Aubuisson (son of El Salvador's most infamous death squad leader), who sometimes used the colorful sobriquet Veneno (Poison), and was long rumored to be connected to drug traffickers.

On the labor rights issue, Gilberto Soto, an American Teamster of Salvadoran decent, was murdered in November, 2004, while visiting his former country with the hope of speaking to port truck drivers about possible unionization. Many of the potentially affected truck companies are run by ex-military officers. Police never pursued this, however. The notoriously corrupt Directorate for Organized Crime (DECO) quickly commandeered the investigation, and then tortured two gang members into confessing that the victim's impoverished mother-in-law had funded the hit, supposedly for a life insurance payoff that could never benefit the alleged conspirators—two of whom were subsequently acquitted, with a third convicted for supplying the murder weapon, despite a lack of any chain of evidence linking the gun to anyone charged with the crime.

As for Colombia, over four thousand union leaders and organizers have been murdered there over the past twenty years—more than 460 in the past three years alone—and recent disclosures have revealed that the rightwing paramilitary death squads largely responsible were linked not only to drug traffickers, but to the highest echelons of President Alvaro Uribe's cabinet.

But none of this was mentioned during President Bush's trip. Instead, he implored the people throughout that region to understand that "the United States cares deeply about the human condition." If only his silence didn't belie such words.

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