This coming March 11th I will be thinking of and praying for two nations that are dear to my heart. This day will mark the one-year anniversary of the great earthquake and tsunami in northeast Japan and the national elections will take place in El Salvador. I have El Salvador on my mind and heart right now because I’ve been reading several books about the brutal 12-year civil war that took place from 1980-1992. In the process of reading about the war,  I am also indirectly learning about guerrilla warfare in Latin America, U.S. foreign policy during the Reagan administration, women’s rights in Latin America, several genocides that took place, and other related themes.

Despite being a tiny country the size of Massachusetts, there are lots of movies and documentaries about El Salvador as well as numerous books, non-fiction and fiction. However, the more I read, the more frustration I feel with myself that I didn’t pursue this depth of information about El Salvador when I was younger. I wish I had spent extended time there beyond my ten-week stint at Shalom Children’s Home in summer 2004. However, I should be thankful I have traveled to ES twice and speak Spanish which will open the door to return in the future for (hopefully) many more visits.

Well, I do not expect any readers of this blog to know much of anything about El Salvador. In my experience, Americans may have heard of it and Japanese usually don’t know a thing about it. It really is a fascinating land, and I’m saying that objectively, not just because I was born there. The people are friendly and possess an amazing strength and dignity, in part because they have suffered so immensely. It is a beautiful country with gorgeous parks, lovely sunsets, and stunning beaches, plus the national food is muy rico (yummy)! Pupusas are thick, corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, pork, or refried beans served with curtido (pickled cabbage  with vinegar and chiles).

Well, as I mentioned, the civil war lasted from 1980 until 1992. Images like these filled the TV screens of Americans as the tiny country was ripped apart.

Peasants fleeing bombings

Child guerrilla soldier

On one side were the guerrillas, who were mostly peasant campesinos fighting with limited resources, and on the other the U.S. government-funded National Salvadoran Army. I am amazed that the peasant army was able to keep up the battle for 12 years against such a well-equipped, well-funded army. It’s even harder for me to believe that the U.S. pumped over $1.5 million dollars per day into El Salvador, thus prolonging the bloody war and indirectly causing the deaths of tens of thousands.

Here’s a good summary of the war that I found on www.destinyschildren.org: “In the 1980s El Salvador was an obsession of United States foreign policy. As a brutal civil war raged on the ground, Washington’s cold war concerns ensured…continued U.S. support for the Salvadoran government and military against the guerrilla forces…Determined to avoid a Salvadoran version of the Sandinista triumph in Nicaragua, the US government denied and colluded in covering up some of the worst human rights abuses in Latin American history.”

By far, the saddest book I have been reading is about a massacre that took place in El Mozote. Members of an elite, American military-trained Salvadoran army unit slaughtered an entire village of 700+ peasants, including children and the elderly. Even after this atrocity, the U.S. government denied the massacre and continued pumping millions to fund an army that was clearly guilty of human rights violations.

I was moved to learn that on January 16th, the official ceremony to celebrate 20-year anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords (thus ending the civil war) was held in El Mozote and the president of El Salvador apologized on behalf of the Salvadoran state for the El Mozote massacre.

“For this massacre, for the abhorrent violations of human rights and the abuses perpetrated in the name of the Salvadoran state, I ask forgiveness of the families of the victims.” Breaking at times into tears, Mr. Funes said, “In three days and three nights, the biggest massacre of civilians was committed in contemporary Latin American history.”

So, where does El Salvador stand today? Here are some things that stand out to me. For one thing, two million Salvadorans live outside of El Salvador. Bear in mind, the population of El Salvador is only six million. This mass exodus abroad has created a huge population of mostly illegal Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. (I have met a handful of Salvadoran immigrants in NJ/ Philly who are legal and illegal residents.) Salvadorans send a lot of money back home to their relatives. In 2006, Salvadoran immigrants sent $2.5 billion, or roughly 17% of GDP back to El Salvador. One sad thing you might have heard about in the news are the maras, or gangs. Gang violence among Salvadoran immigrants is notorious, particularly with a criminal gang that originated in L.A. called Mara Salvatrucho or MS-13. Many gang members have been deported back to El Salvador, thus creating overcrowded jails which are full of vicious, violent criminals.

The distinctive tatoos of MS-13

I don’t have much of a conclusion to this little post about El Salvador. Yes, definitely visit Latin America if you can. The people are incredible, beautiful, and generous. I’m glad I’m from such an interesting part of the world. I’m thankful to have the time to explore my heritage and learn what I can about the people of my birth country before we move to Japan. One day I’d like to find my birth mother in San Salvador. Wow, what a story that would be!

Yesterday, I found a really cool blog about El Salvador, and the author posted a ballot of the upcoming elections:

Nine parties?! Wow – that’s a pretty complicated ballot! I liked the name of one party, “Partido de la Esperanza,” or the Hope Party.