In El Salvador, on the last leg of his Latin American tour, President Barack Obama paid a highly symbolic visit to the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero, shot through the heart as he raised the Eucharist chalice during a mass, in March 1980. His assassination was ordered by Salvadoran military officer Roberto D’Aubuisson, a School of the America’s graduate.
As El Faro—an important online source of independent Central American news—put it, Obama’s homage to Romero is a “truly extraordinary” gesture, since D’Aubuisson not only ran private-sector financed death squads but was a founder of ARENA, an ultraconservative political party that until 2009 had governed the country for two decades and enjoyed excellent relations with Washington.
Today, El Salvador is led by President Mauricio Funes, head of a center-left coalition government that includes the FMLN, the insurgent group turned political party Ronald Reagan wasted billions of dollars and over 70,000 lives trying to defeat in the 1980s. By lighting a candle for Romero, Obama, it might be said, was tacitly doing in El Salvador what he wouldn’t—or couldn’t—do in Chile: apologize for US actions that resulted in horrific human tragedy.
Obama in San Salvador focused on trade and immigration and celebrated Central America’s transition away from the civil wars of the 1980s and early 1990s. But hope, in reality, is in short supply; it would be difficult to exaggerate the crisis that today engulfs Central America, one that might very well turn out to be as bad as the 1980s.
Squeezed by Plan Colombia to the south and Mexico’s disastrous War on Drugs to the north, Central American violence has skyrocketed. Whole regions in Honduras and Guatemala are either overrun by narcos, or militarized by security forces, themselves deeply involved in criminal activity, including drugs, illegal logging, car theft and kidnapping. The explosion of biofuels production and the intensification of mining (particularly gold mining) has created an ecological disaster and generated widespread social dislocation. Protesting peasants, especially in Honduras and Guatemala, have been checked by a revived planter-death squad alliance, though now “death squads” generally go under the euphemism “private security.” An increasing number activists are turning up dead. In February, the bullet-ridden bodies of four Q’eqchi’ Mayan community leaders—Catalina Muca Maas, Alberto Coc Cal, Amilcar Choc and Sebastian Xuc Coc—were found in a river.
Just last week, as the Canadian human rights group Rights Action reported, over the course of three days—March 15–17—hundreds of police officers, soldiers and private security forces entered fourteen Mayan communities in the municipality of Panzós shooting live ammo and firing tear gas in an effort to displace peasants to make way for African palm and sugar plantations. Peasants futilely begged soldiers to allow them to harvest some of their crops. At least one person was killed, many wounded, others arrested, and thousands are now living in makeshift shelters on the side of the road. The plantations are capitalized by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, as part of the larger multilateral lending that supports the production of biofuels, to be sold in the United States. This social catastrophe is just one of the more recent expressions of the counter-insurgent neoliberal “security corridor,” running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico, I’ve written about here.