Archbishop says clandestine graves in El Salvador is ‘worrying’

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ROSARIO, Argentina – On February 10, the Salvador’s National Civil Police (NCP) revealed that 65 cases of missing persons have been reported so far in 2022. In addition, four bodies were recovered from a clandestine grave last week in Las Huertas.

Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador expressed the concern of the Catholic Church in the country over the issue.

“This discovery of clandestine graves touches us all, it worries us greatly and it has to do with the disappeared,” he said Sunday. “[We have to] be vigilant, the authorities have a great challenge to be able to control the situation, but also the civil society that can be in contact with the authorities to report [missing people] and so things can be overcome through a better coordination of actions.”

Observers have said there is little hope in the government of Nayib Bukele in addressing these crimes, at least their root causes. Last December, the United States Treasury Department reported sanctions against three government officials for forging a pact with the country’s most infamous gangs – known locally as maras – to reduce the homicide rate. 

The criminals allegedly offered political support to the ruling Nuevas Ideas party and in exchange Bukele would have given them financial incentives and provide cell phones and prostitutes to imprisoned gang leaders.

In his statement, Escobar Alas also shared the solidarity of the Catholic Church with the families of the victims of the missing, who carry the hope of finding their relatives alive, but often end up finding them in clandestine graves. Three such sites were found in recent weeks, with dozens of bodies.

“The fact that there are missing persons is worrying and when we see that a mass grave appears with several bodies, then the concern is even greater,” the archbishop said.

El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele speaks at a news conference in San Salvador Feb. 28, 2021. (Credit: Jose Cabezas/Reuters via CNS.)

Escobar Alas made a call to the families to approach the authorities to denounce these cases, and called on the Salvadoran government to investigate and solve them with the greatest transparency.

The archbishop’s remarks came during a conversation with local reporters on Sunday, but the press conference is available online, through the archdiocesan social media platforms. 

Although he acknowledged that the number of homicides has decreased due to the efforts of the NCP, he reiterated that “the fact that there have been disappearances is worrying.”

The authorities reported last week that 26 bodies were recovered from just one grave. Only three of the bodies have been identified. The clandestine grave was found in Nuevo Cuscatlán, south of San Salvador, considered one of the safest places in the country.

In 2014 El Salvador had the dubious distinction of having the world’s highest murder rate – 68.6 homicides per 100,000 people, mostly fueled by conflict among the country’s main rival gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha and the Barrio 18, as well as battles between the gangs and El Salvador’s police and military. Though some claim the number of murders are down, statistics show this isn’t the case: Last year, even despite the pandemic-induced intermittent lockdowns, there was a murder rate of 83 per 100,000 inhabitants. This homicide rate exceeds those of some war zones.

An estimated 65,000 of El Salvador’s 6 million residents are thought to be members of a gang.

Escobar Alas said the situation that is being experienced with respect to these acts of violence “should not be justified or tolerated,” and society as a whole should work to overcome it.

The prelate also spoke about the pension reform announced by the Salvadoran government several months ago. The bottom line: it should be seeking to benefit only the workers.

“The system has to be for the benefit of the workers, therefore it would not be pertinent to reform the pension law,” he said, advocating instead for a new system, or a complete overhaul of the current one, so that the resources of the pension funds “really benefit the workers.”

Up until now, Escobar Alas argued, “what we have seen is that third parties benefit, that the beneficiaries are to a great extent companies of the administration, the police, and to a great extent the governments in office, which have made discretional use of these funds.”

He also called on traders and producers not to take advantage of the high fuel prices to disproportionately increase the prices of basic products.

Escobar Alas said that as a measure, the government should “control that the basic food basket does not skyrocket. An increase is fair, but it should not be disproportionate”.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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