To slow immigration from El Salvador, understand its causes

The Baltimore Sun

The issue of immigration shook up the country and bedeviled Congress last year, but rarely do we examine the root causes of immigration.

Consider El Salvador, which sends more people per capita to the United States than any other country. Up to a third of its population lives outside its borders, most in the United States, and its economy is supported by money those immigrants send back to their families. Even now, almost 15 years to the day after the end of the nation's civil war, people are fleeing for their lives - and their livelihoods - because the once-heralded peace accords have failed to bring peace.

The last 15 years have been a shaky peacetime in El Salvador, which is widely ranked as the most violent country in the hemisphere. Salvadoran gangs such as the notorious Mara Salvatrucha are international, terrorizing neighborhoods in the United States as well as El Salvador.

The peace accords that ended the war promised to purge the military of human rights abusers, incorporate former guerrillas into the police, and ensure that other former guerrillas could join the nation's political process and lay down their arms. Their aims were modest. The accords did not address socioeconomic issues that, along with flagrant government repression, formed the foundation of the call to rebellion. They failed to address El Salvador's underlying causes of violence, such as poverty and alienation.

The process started off on a bad foot when the government refused to remove human rights abusers from the military and declared a blanket amnesty, guaranteeing that war criminals would never be brought to justice.

Toward the goal of building democracy, the most important accomplishment of the peace accords was the transformation of a guerrilla organization into a legitimate political party. El Salvador had never been a country where grievances could be resolved at the ballot box, so violence and overthrow had seemed the reasonable recourse for dissenters. This political opening has brought the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) significant political power, though the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) has remained the ruling party.

Human rights reform has been stop and go. The three security forces were disbanded and reconstituted with clear missions: The army existed only to defend national borders, while the police had sole responsibility for internal security. However, more human rights abuse complaints are filed against the police than against any other body, they now share street patrols with military personnel (in direct violation of the peace accords), and the police never developed serious investigative capabilities, leaving them with only one tool: brute repression.

Meanwhile, the president is trying to fight gangs the way his predecessors tried to fight the insurgency: with repression to combat violence, not systemic solutions to combat poverty.

Until the Salvadoran government takes seriously the commitments it made 15 years ago to foster democracy and human rights, El Salvador will continue to send hundreds of its sons and daughters to us every day. It must also address the economic issues that were swept under the rug with the peace accords and are now being swept under the rug as the government struggles to control gang violence.

Most people leave home because they have to. El Salvador must rededicate itself to making sure that its people can be safe and prosperous at home. This should include nonrepressive crimefighting strategies, a criminal justice system with real investigating capabilities, a stronger separation between the police and the military, and a new dedication to finding economic solutions to aid the country's poor. The United States should support these efforts if we really want to slow the tide of immigration.

Tanya Snyder is executive director of Voices on the Border, a nonprofit group that supports economic development and community organization in rural El Salvador. Her e-mail is

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