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The metropolitan Washington area is home to one of the largest Salvadoran immigrant communities in the United States. Three decades after a brutal civil war, spiraling gang-related violence is once again fueling an influx of migrants to the U.S. from the Central American nation. Kojo talks with WAMU 88.5 Reporter Armando Trull about his recent reporting trip to El Salvador, and explores the historical roots of today’s unrest.
- Armando Trull Senior News Reporter, WAMU 88.5
- Cynthia Arnson Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, the future of Alexandria City's Public Schools Superintendent Alvin Crawley joins us to talk about the challenges ahead.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut first, Washington and El Salvador, local to local connections, three decades ago, a brutal Civil War engulfed this tiny Central American nation, claiming the lives of more than 75,000 people and setting off a mass exodus of immigrants to the United States, many of whom moved to Washington.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIToday the Salvadorians make up the single largest immigrant community in the region, more than a quarter of a million people. So it was probably inevitable that the surge of gang related violence gripping communities there would have major reverberations here. WAMU's Armando Trull recently traveled to El Salvador trying to examine the roots of the current crisis. He joins us in studio, Armando Trull, good to see you.
MR. ARMANDO TRULLLikewise, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou can listen to Armando's reporting on El Salvador and his series, Voices of El Salvador at WAMU.org. Also joining us in studio is Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Cindy Arnson, thank you for joining us.
MS. CYNTHIA ARNSONThank you.
NNAMDIIf you have comments or questions, give us a call at 800-433-8850, you can send email to email@example.com, you can shoot us a tweet @kojoshow or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org and join the conversation there. Armando, earlier this year, the plight of thousands of unaccompanied minors at the U.S. border thrust this issue into national headlines. You began your reporting on this story from a local perspective but ended up, recently following the story to El Salvador. What did you find?
TRULLI found a lot of violence. I found a country that was overwhelmed by violence, particularly from gangs. Uh, it is a country that, no matter who you speak with, they are fearful. The poorer they are, the more fearful they are because they are actually living in gang controlled neighborhoods. But even people that are wealthy, tell me that they move within security bubbles. A security bubble of their home with electrified fences and high walls, to the secured malls, to the secured schools.
TRULLAnd everyone is trying to get their kids out. If they're rich, they use an F1 Visa, if they're poor, (speaks foreign language) .
NNAMDICindy, by most accounts, the summer wave in border children has largely subsided, especially from the headlines, when it happened. Most of the media were focused on questions of whether our immigration system was pulling people in but you have said, we should be looking at "push factors," what are they?
ARNSONWell, I think, throughout Central America and El Salvador, but also in Honduras and Guatemala, the levels of crime and violence, the high levels of crime and violence, together with poverty, social exclusion, lack of opportunity, have been the central push factors. Those three countries are known as the Northern Triangle are the most violent sub-region in the entire world outside of places that are formally at war.
ARNSONAnd so, people face choices about whether or not to have their children forced into a gang or be killed or attacked as a result of not wanting to join a gang or trying to get out and get to the United States.
NNAMDIArmando, you spoke with Elizabeth Kennedy, a Fulbright Scholar who has interviewed families returning to El Salvador after living, saving up money in the U.S., let's listen.
MS. ELIZABETH KENNEDYSo we did four interviews with families who had lived in the United States for at least seven years. In all cases, at least, one of those members received a removal order and they elected, voluntary, departure. Within six months of their return to El Salvador, they were extorted for large amounts of money and in each case, more than $2,000 a month, which they could not pay. The reason that we met them is because they were trying to flee to the United States for safety but were detained in Mexico and were deported. In one of those cases, so a family of, a father, a mother, and a 15-year-old son, the father was murdered days after his deportation from Mexico.
NNAMDIArmando, is that, in a way, the norm, El Salvador, the smallest, most densely populated country in Latin America? But by most measures, it has one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
TRULLYeah, unfortunately what Elizabeth Kennedy described tends to be the norm now. She also spoke to more than 600 youth who had been deported and they basically said to her, the same. They said, that gangs were a very prevalent portion of their lives and they either had to join the gang or be killed.
TRULLFamilies who were taking care of some of these children that were left behind by parents who came to places like the United States, as those children got older and became adolescents, those children became a danger to themselves, to the family unit, because those grandparents, in most cases, couldn't take care of those children anymore and the children became a magnet for gang violence in one way or the other.
NNAMDIGuess you need to reiterate the point you were making earlier because members of the middle class said, they felt relatively isolated from the violence or at least they did until relatively recently.
TRULLWell, yes, because they live within safety bubbles. But it's -- if you have to create this, this armor of protection around yourself, are you really -- is that -- how real is that safety? When you have to base -- for example, some of the wealthy people that I spoke with, told me that, they elected to have battered looking cars and vehicles so when they drove through the city, they wouldn't attract attention. Now, if that is living in safety, than, you know, we obviously have a different of opinion.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Armando Trull, he is senior news reporter at WAMU 88.5. He recently traveled to El Salvador to examine the roots of the current crisis there. You can listen to more of Armando's reporting on El Salvador and his series Voices of El Salvador, at wamu.org. You can join this conversation by calling 800-433-8850. What do you think can be done to help stem the violence in El Salvador, 800-433-8850? You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDICindy, the scale of destruction rot by the decade long Civil War was staggering. It's estimated that 75,000 people died, more than half a million people internally displaced by that fighting. But it's been two decades since the fighting formally ceased. However, many people believe that the scale of violence that we are seeing in El Salvador now is directly linked to the failures of the peace process. How are the two linked? Remind us of why this war took place and how it came to a close?
ARNSONWell, it came to a close through a negotiated settlement in 1992, that was done under the auspice of the United Nations. And there were some very key features of that peace process and they involved dismantling the internal security forces, the national police, the National Guard, the treasury police that had been responsible for so much repression and so much death squad activity. It also got the armed forces, the Army out of the business of internal policing.
ARNSONBut what happened in the years after the war is that there were not sufficient programs to absorb former combatants, the economy was not growing and there were a lot of arms circulating and the processes of reform of the security forces did not take place as planned. And many people have learned from El Salvador, that you can't simply demobilize an entire internal security force without having something to replace it. And there just wasn't a quick enough standing up of the new National Civilian Police that had been envisioned in the peace accords.
NNAMDIArmando, today, many people look back at the post-war period and point to some really bad decisions, as Cindy was pointing out, that have laid the groundwork for the violence we see today. The one that most directly involves the U.S. is our earlier policy of deportation. Many of the gangs or (speaks foreign language) that are currently terrorizing communities in El Salvador actually have their origins in U.S. prisons?
TRULLThat's right. In fact, I had an opportunity to interview a young man, his name is -- well, let me step back, I had an opportunity to interview a middle-aged man, his name is Luis Romero. He had been taken off the streets as a child soldier, when he was 14, his parents tried to send him to the United States, to Los Angeles to get him away from that violence, perversely, when he got to Los Angeles, he joined a gang, the MS13 gang and would eventually become a deportee, back to El Salvador after the war.
TRULLHe was among the first wave of gang members who were deported to El Salvador, that deportation wave, again, gang members continues, we spoke to Jose, lived in the Metro-D.C. area and his stories, quite a story.
NNAMDIWell, he had spent time in prison, Jose did also before being deported. What was his take on the situation on the ground there, before we hear from Jose, himself?
TRULLHe basically said, you cannot stop gangs, they are like a virus.
NNAMDIJose talks about how difficult it is to go straight or be on the straight and narrow, after being in a gang. Take a listen.
JOSEI applied for many jobs, I mean, I know English and can write it and speak it. So I went to call centers here, I couldn't get the job because I don't have a high school diploma and 'cause of my tattoos, they says, it's too dangerous for me to work there or they can't hire me 'cause of my tattoos, like gang related and they don't hire that type of people. So I have gone there, passed all the tests, yet they won't hire me. We got to go back to what you know, robbing people, kill -- taxing people, collecting money, committing crimes, you gotta survive one way or another.
NNAMDITaxing people, he's the IRS? What does that phrase mean?
NNAMDIWell, if you live in a neighborhood that is controlled by a gang, they will come to you, knock on your door and say, "Mr. Kojo, you're tax for us to protect you, from ourselves, is..."
NNAMDIBasic protection racket.
TRULL"...whatever." It's a protection racket. But it's gone beyond that. They will charge tolls for vehicles to go into neighborhoods, they will expropriate homes, they'll go into your home and kick you out and say, "We're going to take over your home." Sometimes, those homes are used for something that's called a casa loco, a crazy house. They'll take victims there, they'll torture them, they'll kill them and then they will dismember them because they don't want bodies to show up because they cut a deal with the government saying, "We're not gonna kill anybody." So, the bodies don't show up, the death toll is artificially lowered but you have a much higher rate of disappearances.
NNAMDIJose can't be employed even though he speaks English well, he's marked with gang tattoos, you can't have those tattoos removed.
NNAMDIWhat would be the consequences if he tried?
TRULLHe'd be killed. He said, "If I take these tattoos off, it would be my death sentence."
NNAMDICindy, in the aftermath of the Civil War, there were hopes that there would be accountability for the huge scale of human rights violations in massacres. But most people responsible for the violence were never forced to account for their actions, never faced punishment. How does that storyline connect to what's going on now?
ARNSONWell, it connects because there's an essential lack of rule of law. A lack of accountability, a lack of a justice system that can effectively prosecute people, convict them of crimes that they did commit, let people who did not commit crimes, you know, be released from prison.
ARNSONDuring the early and mid 2000s, there were these policies adopted by the government, supported by the population that were so terrorized by gangs, called mano dura, iron fist or strong hand, that essentially criminalized being a young person, let alone, with a tattoo, prison overcrowding became a huge problem and prisons, themselves, became a vehicle for reproducing gang culture, for inducting people that had not been involved in gangs into gang activity.
ARNSONSo there was an amnesty that was passed, at the end of the Civil War, that said that, people who had committed human rights atrocities would not be tried for their crimes and it was just one piece of a series of failings, if you will, that allowed the -- or that prevented the rule of law from really being implanted where it truly had never existed.
NNAMDISent entirely the wrong message.
ARNSONAbsolutely. It sent people that -- it sent the message that people who had committed crimes, would not be held accountable. And...
TRULLAnd, in other countries, where similar processes have happened, I'm sorry to interrupt, Cindy, you have had truth commissions where people have been official found guilty but then they've been pardoned. In other words, for the good of the country, people were pardoned but only after they were publically shamed and noted as criminals. That hasn't happened in El Salvador and to that extent, up until just a year ago, you had military members that had participated in massacres and were called Human Rights Abusers, considered heroes. Heroes of a country.
ARNSONThere actually was a truth commission in El Salvador in the first years after the civil war ended under the auspices of the United Nations. And they did heroic work, really, in identifying the structures within the armed forces and the security forces that had been responsible for violence and death squads and investigating some of the really high-profile killings, like…
ARNSON…El Mozote, the murder of Archbishop Romero, of the four U.S. churchwomen and of any number of other people. And they also result -- I mean, one of the end results of that was that the U.S. government, under the Clinton years, declassified huge amounts of information, of documents that the United States had on the kinds of violence that were being perpetrated during the war. And it's an incredible documentary record.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned Archbishop Romero because on yesterday "Morning's Edition," Armando, you -- yesterday's "Morning Edition," you took listeners back to what was perhaps the lowest point in a conflict with a lot of low points, on the 24th of March, 1980. That was the day when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while giving Mass. A murder that shocked the entire world. Why is that story relevant for understanding what's happening now?
TRULLWell, it is relevant because he had been a very conservative priest, a very conservative cleric. But when he began to see the abuses, the disappearances and the murders, he began to speak out about it. And during every homily that he gave, he would ask, "Where are they? Donde estan?" of all of the people disappeared. He became the voice of all of those people. He sealed his fate when he directly appealed to the soldiers and he said to the soldiers in the barrack, "Stop killing your own people. You do not have to obey a law that goes against the law of God that says 'Thou shalt not kill'."
TRULLAnd the minute that he directly challenged the military, that's what sealed his death. And, in a way, that was kind of like the explosion that set off the war because he was so beloved. And there are still people who consider that his murder was correct. I mean that's the problem of not having a full inquiry and a full accounting. People still think Romero should have been killed.
NNAMDIWell, one of the people you spoke with in El Salvador was a doctor named Juan Romagoza. What was he doing back in 1981? How did he get caught up in the conflict?
TRULLHe was a young intern. And like many medical professionals or young medical professionals, he saw a country that was destroyed by war. He saw people in the countryside who had no access to medical care. The policy of the Salvadorian military, trained by U.S. government military officers, was a scorched-earth policy, where they would deny the gorillas any type of territory. So they would go into villages and basically massacre them, destroy them.
TRULLYou know, the old Vietnam we're going to destroy the village in order to save it kind of mentality. And so he was out there providing medical care to people. They found him at the steps of a church, along with another medical team.
NNAMDII'll let him tell what happened after that. Here now is Dr. Juan Romagoza.
DR. JUAN ROMAGOZA(Through interpreter) We are machine-gunned on the steps of the church and the survivors captured. I was tortured in so many ways, electrocuted. They hung me for almost eight days. They broke my fingers and shot me in my left arm so I could no longer be a surgeon.
NNAMDIBut he did survive. And like so many other Salvadorans fleeing the war, came here to Washington. What then?
TRULLWell, first, one quick note. They turned him over to his family inside a coffin. Inside a coffin.
NNAMDIAlive in a coffin?
TRULLAlive, inside a coffin. That message prompted him to leave. He came to Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., in the '90s was a sanctuary city. Religious organizations here in the Washington, D.C., area opened their doors to undocumented Salvadorans. He came here. He came here. He established La Clinica Del Pueblo, the first medical facility for Salvadoran immigrants. It is still operating today.
NNAMDIAnd so that's one of the reasons you sought him out in El Salvador.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Speaking of doctors in El Salvador, here is Terry, in Washington, D.C. Terry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TERRYYeah, thank you, Kojo, for your show. And thank you, Armando, for your reporting on this. You know, I spend a fair amount time in El Salvador teaching doctors. And it's interesting, these young doctors, they want to stay, they want to provide service, but under deports of captives and extortion, etcetera, many of them really want to flee.
TERRYAnd when they want to flee and come to the United States, they find themselves in a situation where they are given less preference than physicians from other countries with which we have less diplomatic status, such as Cuba. And this is just an absolute shame. And my…
NNAMDISo you're saying doctors trying to flee El Salvador have a more difficult time getting into the United States than doctors from -- than doctors fleeing other countries, such as Cuba?
TERRYThat is absolutely correct. And it's not…
NNAMDIOkay. Allow me…
TERRY…necessarily because of medical reasons. It's because of Visa reasons.
NNAMDIIt's of political reasons?
ARNSONCuba has always had a preferential immigration policy to the United States. If people get here, they're essentially allowed to stay. That is absolutely not the case for Central American refugees. Some small number of them have been granted during the war years and in the subsequent decades, temporary protected status or about 600,000 or 700,000 people, Salvadorans, with temporary protected status in this country, which essentially doesn't legalize them, but it means that they are not subject to deportation.
ARNSONIt is very difficult to have a legal path to citizenship for -- not just Central Americans, but Latin Americans and people all over the world. This is one of the…
NNAMDIWe're running out of time very quickly. But I do have to talk about money because, Armando, the Salvadoran community in this country has a huge impact on the economy in Central America. In fact, the money they send back to family accounts for almost a fifth of that country's GDP. When you were there you encountered an economy that seemed profoundly tied to the U.S. They use U.S. dollars, right?
TRULLExactly. And the cost of living is inflated because of this. You have people who make an average of $200 a month. It costs $600 a month for a family to live. Which means every person in that family who can work has to work in order for that family not to starve. But then you have Wendy's, McDonalds, Papa Johns, you have all of these American chains, and a Happy Meal there is an unhappy proposition for those people because it costs the same as this country. So it is very expensive for them to live.
ARNSONRemittances from the United States, from poor Salvadorans, people who are really working in menial jobs in this country, account for about 17 percent of the gross domestic product in El Salvador. That's a huge amount. And what it has done is provided a subsidy. It has provided a safety net in the absence of a safety net provided by the government. It has also fostered consumption - a certain level of consumption -- but it has not yet been effective in resulting productive investment. And I think that's the next stage that remittances from the United States really have to go, as they have in Mexico in many instances.
NNAMDIProductive investments. Cynthia Arnson is director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Thank you so much for joining us.
NNAMDIArmando Trull is senior reporter with WAMU 88.5 News. He recently traveled to El Salvador to examine the roots of the current crisis. You can listen to more of his reporting on El Salvador and his series, "Voices of El Salvador," at wamu.org. Armando, always a pleasure.
TRULLThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we'll be talking with the superintendent of schools in Alexandria. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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