SAN SALVADOR - The global Occupy Movement arrived in El Salvador on Thursday, as about 70 people, roughly half Salvadoran and half U.S. citizens, engaged in a transnational protest in front of the United States Embassy. The movement has designated itself “Los Encachimbados,” which is a colloquial Salvadoran word meaning “indignant.”
The group distributed a press release delineating the local context of damage that they believe to be caused by the current international economic system. They call the attention of both the U.S. and Salvadoran governments to the free trade model, regional militarization strategies, and environmental destruction and climate change—all policies that the Encachimbados see as designed by a transnational elite, and which result in a low quality of life for the majority of the population of the Americas. “People all over the world are tired of these economic and political policies that benefit only 1% of our world. We’re here in front of the U.S. Embassy because no world-wide change can be generated if the U.S. doesn’t change, too,” explains Alfredo Carias, a Salvadoran Encachimbados spokesperson.
The free trade model between Central America and its northern neighbor “is pushing Central American producers out of the market, now that local companies are having to compete directly against U.S. firms without protections, and it has also caused decreased environmental and labor regulations,” says Daniel Burridge, an Encachimbados spokesperson, U.S. citizen and resident of El Salvador. “In the end, the poor and the environment are the ones footing the bill.”
The privileges granted to foreign companies through the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), has recently yielded a torrid legal battle in El Salvador. The Salvadoran government faces two lawsuits for a total of almost $200 million for refusing to grant permissions to companies to carry out open-pit metallic mining in several regions throughout the country. (One of the two cases is still in arbitration; the other is in appeal.)
Surrounding the legal battle is a series of assassinations of four environmental activists, all part of the anti-mining movement. Despite the violence, activists maintain pressure on the Salvadoran government to pass a law banning metallic mineral mining. “I live in a country subject to free trade agreements where mining companies can arrive, rob the few resources that we have, and leave our land contaminated and suffering. I’m here today because I dream of real social change for my country,” explains 19-year-old Salvadoran citizen and Encachimbados participant, “Lorena.”
The militarization strategies embraced by the U.S. and Salvadoran governments, according to the Encachimbados’ press release, “criminalize social protest, subject national security systems to intervention and supervision by the U.S. government and facilitate violent repression of activities that jeopardize the interests of global capital.” Two days prior to the Encachimbados protest, in a move that many qualify as a militaristic violation of the Salvadoran Peace Accords, President Mauricio Funes swore in a new Minister of Security and Justice, the retired army general David Munguía Payés. Evidence published by the El Faro newspaper reveals that the firing of the previous minister and the selection of a retired army general to replace him was a decision made under pressure from the U.S. government. This has led others to criticize the decision as a violation of Salvadoran state sovereignty.
The military has played a large role in the daily lives of Salvadoran citizens since 2009, when President Funes deployed the army to patrol alongside the Civilian National Police force in especially violent zones around the country. Many civil society organizations have decried this decision as unconstitutional, and have noted that it follows the tone set by the U.S.-funded Mérida Initiative, which presses for militarized public security policies for the treatment of common delinquency, gang activity, and drug trafficking. However, troop deployment has not decreased the homicide rate in El Salvador, which has held steady at 12 assassinations daily. “Soldiers have no ability to make arrests or bring charges against anyone; the fact is that they really are for intimidation purposes,” explains Burridge, who also works in social services in a marginalized urban neighborhood known as La Chacra. In fact, within the first 15 months of the new policy, the Human Rights Ombudsman received 158 formal reports of human rights violations against the civilian population by patrolling soldiers.
Though a brutal civil war ended about two decades ago, the legacy of violence and militarism continues to plague El Salvador, and in 2009, it was classified by the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development as the most violent nation in the world. The Encachimbados movement stresses that the militaristic policies fashioned by the transnational elite foment the daily violence that haunts Salvadorans.
“We’re here today in front of the U.S. Embassy because the U.S. is largely responsible for the problems we face here,” explains U.S. citizen and Salvadoran resident, Christine Damon. “For instance, I work in youth security. The U.S War on Drugs and export of small and large arms is directly contributing to the deaths of the twelve mostly-young men who die daily here. Furthermore, the 1% is not interested in changing this reality. It’s convenient for youth to be in poverty, to be excluded, to not be paying attention. I’m here… because I question this reality.” Damon, who holds the hand of her 8-year-old son as she speaks, adds, “I want him to grow up in a safer world. Until there is a more just distribution of resources, that simply will not happen.”
The Encachimbados movement cites its third major concern as environmental destruction and climate change. El Salvador is classified as the most vulnerable country in the world to natural disasters, “but the amount of greenhouse gases that it emits is almost nothing, whereas one-third of greenhouse gases worldwide are emitted by the US,” explains Burridge. While carbon emissions continue to wreak havoc in vulnerable places like Central America, he continues, “the U.S. also continues to block meaningful action to regulate greenhouse gases.” Tropical Depression 12-E recently swept through Central America, dumping record amounts of rain on El Salvador and causing 34 deaths, 50,000 evacuations, and an estimated $840 million of losses in infrastructure and agriculture.
The Encachimbados participants emphasize that they are part of a worldwide transnational social movement, coming together to cast an analytical eye on the status quo for the majority world population and to posit alternatives. “Our capitalist system classifies human beings as a means to profit, and this has us enslaved,” argues Eric Rivera, a 23-year-old Salvadoran journalism student. “Our economic system oppresses us psychologically, spiritually, in our private lives, in our professional lives. We have to propose a new form of life; one that is based on solidarity, mutual support between people, and one which is organized horizontally,” To his left, another voice chimes in: “I want a world that’s not so centered on consumerism. I want our focus to be on recognition of each other as human beings,” muses 20-year-old electrical engineering student Marvin Marmol.
The Encachimbados’ Nov. 24 appearance was the beginning of a growing movement in El Salvador. “We will be permanently mobilized to build a global system that tries to promote the interests of the 99% of humanity and the interests of the Mother Earth,” says Burridge.
Photos by Rachel Heidenry.