The banner outside of the Ombudsman office, which includes Professor Mauricio's Stop Impunity Project.
Last week, I participated in a seminar on the human rights (HR) situation in El Salvador that took place at the Escuela Para la Defensa de Los Derechos Humanos, a school within the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (the highest HR authority within the Salvadoran government). The seminar was roughly 8 to noon every day, and each day focused on a specific HR situation (e.g. Rights of women/girls, rights of indigenous peoples, security/violence as a threat to HRs, education rights, and the environment). Several days we heard from Ombudsman within the various thematic departments, but we also heard lectures from attorneys who fight for Human Rights on behalf of NGOs and a Professor who works with Salvadoran indigenous populations. The class was composed of myself, several other students from the US, about a dozen students from the University of El Salvador, several local activists and a few lawyers. It was a great experience both in terms of knowledge and perspective gained and in terms of making connections within the HR world here and in Central America in general.
However, I was a bit dissapointed when the week ended, and I came to the conclusion that here in El Salvador, as with many other HR regimes around the world, there continues to be a huge (and possibly increasing) gap between acknowledging the HR situation and making formal recomendations, and actual implementation of necessary changes. When the Ombudsman, Dr. Menéndez Leal, personally asked me for a comment on how the seminar went and how it could be improved in the future, I told him that what I felt was missing was a more in-depth discussion of how the Ombudsman´s office (and the Salvadoran state in general) was actually able to fight against HR abuses. I hesitate to say this, but I must admit that I am still slightly unsure of how victims of major abuses can use the Ombudsman´s office (or the Salvadoran legal system at all) to find any form of real reparations or even public vindication of the abuse(s) they suffered.
I was hoping we could walk through at least a case or two and see what steps the office took, where they ran into resistance, and where they were successful. Without that I am unable to conceptualize what is working and what isn´t working, and how (if at all) I or anyone else can help make the system better. Dr. Menéndez Leal quickly admitted to the foot-dragging within the government (even the current leftist FMLN governrment) and reminded me that out of all the victims that come to their office to report HR abuses, the vast majority (in fact almost all) bring current reports against state agencies (e.g. the National Civil Police or the Attorney General´s office). But later that night, over beers and more papusas, he reminded me that not that long ago (20 years) even the idea of a HR Ombudsman in El Salvador seemed impossible, and he explained that for all the legal authority they technically have the situation is, as it always seems to be, completely political. After nearly every conversation with officials here, I have heard the same response: those with power, from both the conservative and “liberal” factions, are either explicitly or implicitly opposed to working together towards major political and legal reforms. Each time I hear this I am reminded of the ridiculous particianship within the US Congress right now, and I realize how similar we are to many other seeminly different peoples around the world.
Will Johnson at the Izalco Volcano.
On Saturday, I drove west from San Salvador to the famous “Ruta de las Flores”, visited the Izalco volcano, the Tazumal Mayan Pyramid, and went to Professor Mauricio´s hometown of Ahuachapan. On Sunday I went to visit a University student who lives in Puerta la Libertad, and she took me and a few friends to a beach (Palmarcito) where she recently competed in a surf competition. It was small and not touristy, the kind of beach I could have never found on my own, and I enjoyed a lot. That is until we missed a bus back to San Salvador and ended up catching one of the last busses on a Sunday night, which was very crowded. For anyone who hasn´t been in Central America, imagine your old elementary school bus (quite literally), painted with crazy colors and Jesus pictures, with a mix of rap and reggaeton music blasting, every possible seat taken and (according to my count) 32 people standing in the aisle, smashed together and going 60 MPH through windy highways for about an hour. But, even though it was uncomfortable, part of me enjoys those experiences because they are the ones I’ll never forget.
The last week with Professor Mauricio:
This coming Friday ends my time with Professor Mauricio. This morning we met with a famous Salvadoran author (Manlio Argueta) who is also the director of the national library, and each afternoon this week we will meeting with a local attorney to discuss her experiences trying to fight for human rights. She works for several NGOs, and is especially involved with the Madelein Lagadec Center for the Promotion of Human Rights in their work discovering and exhuming mass graves not included in the 1993 UN Truth Commission. I have met her before, but only socially, and I am looking forward to possibly learning more about what it really means to fight for HRs in this country from within the legal system. We also have a scheduled meeting the the Vice President of El Salvador on Friday morning, Salvador Sánchez Ceren. I’m keeping my fingers crossed though, because I realize how low we are on his list of priorities and know that it could be cancelled at any time.