Diaspora Joins Border Communities in Chalatenango to Denounce Militarization


Voices from El Salvador's social movement, civil society, municipal governments, and religious institutions joined together last week, supported by Salvadorans in the diaspora, to demand an end to the escalating military presence at the El Salvador–Honduras border. The recent increase of troops—supported by the U.S. government including through military and security funding—raises concerns about human rights violations, state violence, and the deepening incursion of the military into everyday life under the Bukele administration.

Police and military forces restrict movement across borders and stigmatize entire communities with long histories of struggle

On October 20, President Bukele ordered a doubling of military and police forces to the border municipalities of San Fernando, Nueva Trinidad, Arcatao, and San Ignacio in the department of Chalatenango, El Salvador, alleging cross-border trafficking of drugs, arms, and human beings. No evidence has been put forward, however, and church leaders from the local diocese speaking on behalf of their communities flatly rejected the claims as unfounded, saying that residents are struggling just to survive: going about their lives, working on local coffee plantations and farms, visiting relatives, going to medical appointments, and attending church services “in search of a more dignified and humane existence.”

Due to repeated displacements of Salvadorans into Honduras from this region—before, during, and after the war—many families remain separated by the "porous border," making travel across it a necessary part of daily life and a right guaranteed by the 2006 Central America-4 Free Mobility Agreement (C-4). Restriction of movement across the border, also a result of President Bukele's willingness to enforce US efforts to expand its southern border into Central American territory via the “Safe Third Country” agreements, is thus a violation of the C-4 and other international agreements.

Municipal residents have also denounced harassment by troops, occupation of schools and homes, and other human rights violations, stating that this type of militarization “recalls the open wounds of painful events in the past." History confirms that these border communities suffered some of the worst terror and violence under former military dictatorships. Social movement leaders likewise condemn the stigmatization of entire communities alongside municipal mayors, who have denounced the militarization as illegal and unconstitutional. If there is evidence of drug trafficking, they say, police should make arrests, but the entire population should not be submitted to indiscriminate deployment of military forces.

The municipalities of Chalatenango are notable for being well-organized, working-class strongholds with deep revolutionary history and noted affinity for the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party. Some party members have charged the administration with targeting these communities for disruption and intimidating residents ahead of  the February 2021 municipal and legislative elections. Former guerilla commander and former Legislative Assembly President Lorena Peña said on a visit to the community of Arcatao over the weekend that municipal workers and residents are not able to perform daily tasks because of the military occupation. Echoing the painful reminder from residents about historic wounds, she warned that "the government is installing police and military little by little everywhere" in an effort to re-accustom the population to a military presence and to silence dissent. "[But] We are not going to allow ourselves to be militarized ever again," she emphasized. "Whether it is by a 'health fence' or 'narco fence' or whatever it is called, because what lies behind all that is [a test] to see how far we will allow ourselves to be militarized." 

The health or sanitary "fences" Peña mentioned are essentially military enclosures or barricades that President Bukele began instailling, ostensibly as a measure of COVID-19 containment, after the Supreme Court of Justice ended the quarantine period in June. The so-called "fences" have been roundly rejected by leaders from human rights, public health, and various social movement sectors as another pretext for military presence in and around various communities. Professionals for the Transformation of El Salvador (PROES), for example, has said the enclosures are ineffective at best as measures of prevention. They indicate that, although epidemiological barriers have been used in the past to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as measles and tetanus, the current iteration lacks the components that make them useful: namely, education and other public health tools. In lieu of those tools, PROES says, the administration employs helicopters, weapons, tanks, and military personnel.

In addition to outcry over the repressive nature of the fences, the administration has come under fire for installing them – some say strategically – around communities such as San Francisco Gotera that house military archives from the El Mozote massacre, making those archives conveniently inaccessible to investigators and human rights attorneys involved in the ongoing trial, in violation of a judge’s order that they be opened.

In Chalatenango, the current "narco fences" were deployed only after mayors asked that the sanitary fences be withdrawn, as they were unjustified by the low number of COVID-19 cases. Among the community's denunciations, therefore, is the fact that one military siege has essentially been replaced with another. 

Increased police and military presence in communities is a plan that predates the COVID-19 crisis

Even before the low-flying inaugural fighter jets ushered Bukele into office, the social movement had warned about the threats of militarization that his autocratic campaign rhetoric, Territorial Control Plan, and early alignment with U.S. policy suggested. But the extent of actual buildup of troops throughout the country just a year and a half into his five-year term seems to exceed even those fears. Over this period, in addition to the sanitary fences and drug war–style siege happening now in Chalatenango, the justifications for large-scale military deployments against the country's own people have ranged from anti-gang intervention, delinquency, locust control, and quarantine enforcement. Bukele has turned to the the military, activists say, to address all types of social issues from safety to farming to public health, and, in the process, is establishing it as a daily presence in the lives of Salvadorans.

Although President Bukele has attempted to justify his actions as necessary in "the year no one predicted,” this turn to repression was laid out a year before in his 2020 budget proposal, which for the first time in many years increased defense spending (an increase that alone outspent the entire budgets of either the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources or the Ministry of Culture) and slashed economic and social services.

Thanks to U.S. support, cooperation, and funding, especially as it regards borders and prohibition of migration, militarization has become a defining feature of the Bukele administration. This took perhaps its starkest and most visible form on “9F” (February 9, 2020), when, on order of the president, troops overtook the inner chamber of the Legislative Assembly in an attempt to coerce approval of loan financing for the president’s Territorial Control Plan, which, ironically, entailed more military and police funding.

The role of international solidarity in denouncing US-backed militarization

The Salvadoran social movement has warned that "territorial control" in its more fascist and sinister sense is what’s at stake in El Salvador under the current administration and underlies what is happening in Chalatenango. CISPES shares that profound concern, especially because the growing repression has the clear backing of the United States. It is particularly alarming that the recent concentration of troops at the El Salvador–Honduras border coincided with a visit from US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) chief Craig Faller, who met with El Salvador’s Defense Minister Rene Merino Monroy to “discuss the role of SOUTHCOM in matters of security” in El Salvador. Historically, SOUTHCOM has brought only terror and violence to El Salvador in service to US geopolitical interests. With Ronald Johnson, former SOUTHCOM chief, now acting as US Ambassador to El Salvador, U.S. military positioning in the country and region is even more entrenched.

The increasingly fascist and militaristic turn of 21st century capitalism is an international threat that requires international social movement struggle, a fight being witnessed around the world. In Los Angeles, Salvadorans in the US diaspora and their allies rallied outside the Salvadoran Consulate on October 29 to demand an end to the harassment and militarization of the border communities in Chalatenango.

“We call for an end to threats and militarization in these municipalities through the Armed Forces and the National Civil Police," protesters said. "These actions are an outrageous violation of the human rights of the population. President Nayib Bukele brought the Army to the streets. But from here, as Salvadorans who love our country very much, we are committed to strengthening and preserving democracy.” 

Call on Members of Congress to cut security aid to El Salvador! Take action at: cispes.org/CutMilitaryAid

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