Fighting Extortion in El Salvador
Campaign uses Mexican TV personality to empower Salvadorans
Don Ramón of the classic Mexican comedy El Chavo del Ocho hid from his landlord when it was time for the rent, and courageous Salvadorans are following his lead by refusing to pay their “rent” to extortionists to safeguard their shops from gangs.
The mustached face of the unlikely hero has popped up in a campaign across the capital of San Salvador in recent months with the tagline “Yo no me dejo rentear” (“I am not paying the rent.”) Don Ramón’s comedic rent-dodging tactics in the ’70s series are contrary to the public nature of the Salvadoran movement, whose followers openly refuse to pay the “rent,” as extortion payments are called.
“We cannot wait for the State to resolve that which we do not have the tools to confront and stop,” reads the group’s manifesto, posted on its interactive website, www.soydonramon.com. “Our fear, our silence and our passivity are accomplices to the crimes committed by the delinquents.”
The Don Ramón Citizen’s Movement, whose leaders remain largely anonymous, has gone beyond banners on bridges, billboards and murals on buildings. In past months, it has included rallies, promotional T-shirt sales and a site on Facebook, where more than 10,000 social networking members can post comments.
“We have to unite to counteract, to fight, to wage war. I am not saying to take up arms. I hope that [the rest of the population] will join us,” movement organizer Ernesto López said in a recent Associated Press interview.
MAKING SECURITY A PRIORITY
National Civilian Police records, as reported in several media outlets, indicate that there are on average 12 slayings a day in El Salvador, amounting to more than 4,000 homicides last year. With this year’s numbers on pace to surpass the 2009 murder rate, President Mauricio Funes is eager to implement a campaign promise to make security his administration’s chief priority.
“When we inherited this government a year ago [in June 2009], we had a high murder rate in the country — the highest in Latin America, kidnappings and extortion,” Funes told the media in May. “To respond to citizen claims, we will keep Soldiers on the streets, patrolling together with the police to maintain the operation … for another year.”
In all, through the first quarter of 2010, police registered more than 1,200 extortion cases thought to be the work of rival gangs Mara Salvatrucha and La 18, though real numbers may be much higher. “We have to organize ourselves to struggle against this,” López said in a news conference. “Just as [the extortionists] organize, we are organizing ourselves.”
Catalino Miranda, president of the Salvadoran Federation of Transport Workers and Companies, told the Associated Press that the transport sector has been the biggest victim with an estimated $18 million in losses. Extortion and killings of bus drivers and fee collectors have become so widespread that the national police force has held strategy sessions with public transportation operators, according to the national police website.
SIGNS OF PROGR ESS
Stanley Rodríguez of the metropolitan council of Santa Tecla, another city terrorized by the gangs, explained to the BBC that the purpose of the Don Ramón movement is to build awareness of extortion and generate a demand for action. Rodríguez said the system of extortion began five or six years ago, and it widened to include kidnappings, homicides, robberies and organized crime.
“We want to retake civility, for society to speak out against the problem and gain awareness of it,” he said. “And we want those who make political decisions to form prevention programs, campaigns, laws.”
In the first four months of 2010, extortionists killed 44 motorists, bus drivers and business owners and set 10 businesses on fire. During the same period in 2009, more than three times as many victims and cases of vandalism were recorded, according to media reports. Patrols by Soldiers and police officers have contributed to the reduction in violence.