In 2000, Miguel Lacayo was the Minister of the Economy of El Salvador by the newly elected President of El Salvador Francisco Flores. Lacayo is a Harvard and Stanford trained economist. He is also a businessman. His business has been the recycling of used automobile batteries and the production of battery water, refined lead, lead cylinders, lead bars, lead, electric batteries, seperators for electric batteries, plates for batteries, battery boxes and lids. The corporation owned by Miguel to carry out this business is called Baterías de El Salvador, or Baterías Récord (Record Batteries). Record traded with the United States, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, the Dutch Antilles, Puerto Rico and Colombia.
In 1998 – 1999 Beterías de El Salvador received a $2 million dollar loan from the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a funding entity of the World Bank. This is the IFC statement of purpose: “Our vision, values, and purpose promote sustainable private sector investment in developing countries, helping to reduce poverty and improve people’s lives.”
As Lacayo was receiving this financing from the World Bank, he was also maneuvering within the Saca government to obtain preferential trade status for his battery recycling project. He managed to achieve an emergency trade status for Record that released all tariffs from the import of the used batteries, and all of the Value Added Taxes (IVA) from his products. The amounts saved were considerable: tens of thousands of dollar in both customs duties and IVA. (Elaine Freedman, in an article in “Envio”, “Batiendo Récords con la Irresponsibilidad Empresarial, Gubermental” (Breaking Records with Business and Governmental Irresponsibility, November, 2007). Lacayo achieved a free trade status for his company, before the free trade treaty was signed. Miguel Lacayo signed the Central America Free Trade Agreement as the signator of El Salvador on May 28, 2004.
The batteries flowed from the Americas to the furnaces of the Record plant in the barrio of Sitio de Niños, San Juan Opico, a small community just west of San Salvador. The lead products flowed out. In 2004 alone, the Lacayo family took in $62 million from this operation. The net worth of Miguel Lacayo became the subject of some concern in El Salvador. A government investigation revealed that Miguel’s net worth rose $3,766,398 during his tenure as Minister of the Economy. He claimed that this could be explained by stocks donated by his father, and no action was taken.
In Sitio de Niños, and San Juan Opico, the wind often blows hard, and hot, and dusty. When people sickened, the community organized and pressured the local government and the national government. With the help of the office of the National Human Rights Ombudsman, the newly formed group Movimiento Sin Plomo (MSP, Movement for no Lead) achieved government help to have lead testing done in the community by the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control (CDC). The tests showed that of 370 workers at the plant, 10% had a maximum, or level IV, level of contamination, 14% had a level a little better , in a level III range, 42% showed the presence of lead poisoning, level II, and only 35% had a level of lead in their blood termed acceptable by CDC standards.
The lead has reached the population. Children, whose ability to thrive, learn and grow is devastated by lead poisoning, have been poisoned in San Juan Opico. In 2007, more than 40 children had to leave the school Centro Escolar Comunidad Rural in Sitio del Niño, San Juan Opico. Their lead levels were over 30 micrograms per deciliter. Anything over 10 is toxic. The school is 400 meters from the Record operation. (9-27-2007, “Large Population, Many Children Suffer Lead Poisoning, El Salvador Shuts Down Major Battery Factory” Goliath: Business on Demand). Dr. Ricardo Navarro has noted, in an article “El Chernobil Salvadoreño” (The Salvadoran Chernobyl) that over 500 people have already had blood tests that show elevated lead levels and that there are 15,000 people at risk, which is the population within 8 kilometers of the plant. (“El Independiente”, March 3, 2008)
In September of 2007, the Salvadoran government, through the Ministry of Public Health and Social Assistance, ordered the plant closed. The factory, in fact, did cease operations shortly thereafter, but the abrupt cessation did not include a proper remediation of the hazardous lead wastes on the site, and today, the lead waste in the slag heaps left behind continues to blow over the landscape through San Juan Opico. This remedy, the closing, may indeed by worse than the cure. The abrupt closing of the plant may make the Salvadoran State liable for damages from Baterías de El Salvador under CAFTA treaty obligations. The plant is closed, but the case is very much open. MSP has also brought a case before the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, asking for international support for remediation and reparation. (“Escoria Estatal”, El Proceso, 2-13-2008).
There are three members of the board of directors of Record on trial in El Salvador before a San Juan Opico Judge, for the the aggravated damage to the health of the residents around their plant. They have left the country, and are, to date, beyond the reach of justice, although their arrests have been ordered by the Judge. They are Ronald Antonio Lacayo Arguello, Jose Ofilio Guardián Lacayo and Sandra Cecilia Lacayo Escapini. They have purged many of their assets here in El Salvador, and could well be the recipients of damages from the State, as noted above. Furthermore, the Salvadoran government, the Salvadoran population, will have to pay for the social and health cost damages caused by this irresponsible, criminal enterprise.
The story of Record Battery and its contamination of El Salvador is a story of Free Trade. This company was granted license to accept the waste of other, more industrialized nations and convert it to economic value. In the United States, it is very difficult to site a battery recycling facility. It is very expensive to operate, under the regulations of OSHA, the EPA, the various State agencies and citizens’ groups that would be monitoring the operation of a plant, if you could get it approved. In El Salvador, the Lacayo family, with its political and social connections, had no problems finding a place to start a lead recycling operation, and no problems operating one. They are also able to walk away with their accumulated profits, winners in the game of global networking. They are winners because they have walked away with their money, with their lives, and without consequence.
The losers are clear. The residents of San Juan Opico, members of Movement for no Lead, show up at the trial of the Record Battery directors, looking for justice, reparations, remediation, healthcare, and getting nothing. The Flores administration, the Saca administration, the political, judicial, and police structure of El Salvador are not in the business of meeting social needs.
El Salvador is in the initial stages of the 2009 municipal, legislative and presidential elections. The major media outlets of the nation are lining up for the right wing candidate, security force magnate and ex-Director of the National Police Rodrigo Avila. When he accepted the nomination of the ARENA Party, he said, “the legacy of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson and those that followed him in defense of liberty inspires me”.
Rodrigo is the owner of SERSAPRO, the largest private security firm in El Salvador, a country where armed guards abound, and homicides run at epidemic levels. He became a millionaire providing guards to businesses, and by providing cash transfer services to the big banks. SERSAPRO obtained a contract to service passports and visas handed out by the US embassy. While running his private security empire, he was also the Director of the National Police. This is not a conflict of interest in El Salvador. It does make Avila a very powerful man, with control over both public and private security forces throughout El Salvador. ARENA has won every presidential election since 1989. As the ARENA candidate, Avila believes he will be the next in line to rule.
His immediate imprecation to the ghost of the death squad founder and intellectual author of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Roberto D’Aubuisson is a chilling reminder that the structure of power in El Salvador will not give up their privilege, their position in the seats of government easily.
Yesterday, in the lead daily of El Salvador, “El Diario de Hoy”, the lead editorial announced, “Any candidate of the right is one thousand times preferable to the best that the violent left can offer, who will not hesitate to plunge our country into war. In the present situation, the right is not only our guarantee to protect real liberties of life in democracy, but also to save employment.”
“El Salvador is not provided with natural resources with which to overcome the economic collapse that a red victory would trigger. The total illiquidity of the financial system, the cessation or reduction of economic activity, a dramatic drop in employment, the paralysis of investments, are the immediate effect that would arise. How families are going to be able to feed themselves is not stated; the communist “change” will be the change for the worst, the change to not eat, to lose what little you have, to remain at the mercy of the extortions of the violent and of the communist of the barrio or the town. We have to take extreme care not to place our nation in hands stained with blood, in failed individuals that never generated employment and that have looted the municipalities that they control.” (El Diario de Hoy, 3-24-2008)
Napoleon Viera Altimirano began publishing El Diario de Hoy in 1936. It has always been fervently anti-communist, always warning of the red menace. El Diario de Hoy (referred to affectionately by this writer as “El Diablo de Hoy”) is a propaganda arm of the rightwing oligarchy, and of ARENA since its inception. It continues to be published by the Altimirano family. The words in the editorial of March 24 are threats, because the writer and his-her readers know that the oligarchy can bring down hell on the Salvadoran people, with their control of commodities, of the police, of security, of the banks. The Altimirano’s support the lineage of D’Aubuisson to Sol to Cristiani to Flores to Saca to Avila. The details of hazardous waste disasters and private security conflicts of interest are meaningless when “employment” is at stake, in this busted country of unemployment, inflated prices for basic goods, mass migration and unchecked crime.
On March 25, David Morales, an attorney working with the Tutela Legal of the Archdiocese of El Salvador, was interviewed on Mayavision Radio, 106.9 El Salvador on your radio dial. He spoke of the need for justice in the case of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. He named actors in the crime, and cited links to the government and business elites of the ARENA Party to this crime against humanity. He has brought the Romero case before the Interamerican Court of Human Rights, which has called for El Salvador’s government to end the amnesty for the crimes against humanity of this case and the cases of tens of thousands of other victims of death squads and security forces that occurred during the US-financed dirty war that lasted till 1992. The structures of these death squads still exist in El Salvador, and they are supported by the same people that bring the environmental disaster caused by Record Battery, and allow the owners to flee with millions to their havens in Miami.
The candidate who opposes Rodrigo Avila and the murderous ARENA Party in 2009 is Mauricio Funes, a popular television journalist who has the best chance yet of achieving a victory in a presidential race for the Frente Faribundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). He has not been an ideologue and has won the right to represent the party, to carry the hopes for change in the country. For this, he is attacked by such as El Diario de Hoy in the editorial of March 24, “For the present campaign the reds, again, hide themselves behind promises, a pretense of moderation and an offer of “change”. Their platform turns out to be the easiest thing in the world for any politician, to promise all, and to smear the opposition and the democratic system. And now, they have placed at their head an “independent journalist”, that for twenty years pretended to have a some distance from the reds, the skin of megalomania with which he covers himself in 2009.” (El Diario de Hoy, March 24, 2008)
Shortly after Mauricio accepted the nomination to run for President, his son was murdered in Paris by someone identified only as a Moroccan, who ran from the scene. The crime is unsolved. In January, 2008, the FMLN Mayor of Alegría, Usulután,Wilber Moisés Funes (not related to Mauricio) and Zulma Jaqueline Rivera, one of his administration, were assassinated as they investigated the acts of the prior ARENA admiinistration, which had handed over a local lake to private interests. The crime is unsolved. Salvador Sanchez, a journalist who was investigating crime was murdered in September of 2007, and the FMLN supporters Manzaneres Monjares, were murdered in 2006. The Monjares were an elderly couple who lived in Suchitoto and were tortured and murdered in their home. The crimes are unsolved.
There is violence in the air. Democratic alternatives have been foreclosed. Amnesty has been granted to those who commit crimes against humanity. I have heard people in civil society predicting armed struggle if Funes loses. This is an impulse born of frustration, of living in a violent society with no public security. In recent polls, security is the number one concern of the population. Extortion rackets and common crimes besiege communities, and I have heard testimonies that tell of attacks and persecution by bands of assassins linked to the police. Crime is organized and is linked to police and security structures. In such an environment, fear is rampant, and “security” is big business, as Rodrigo Avila knows. It is no wonder that some will speak of armed struggle as a form of self defense against an organized assault on a civilian population, which is then taxed for the damages. El Diario de Hoy has raised the specter of extreme violence and dislocation if ARENA should lose, and of course, there will be some in the opposition who will meet on this low ground.
The movie “No Place for Old Men” is opening this week in El Salvador, bringing its grim message of inexorable human brutality in this epoch. The spanish language title is “Sin Lugar por Debiles”. This could be accurately translated as “No Place for the Weak”. With security strongman Avila running for President and major media outlets threatening the population with disaster if he doesn’t win, and the Lacayo family gloating over their winnings in the rigged global card game “Free Trade”, El Salvador may indeed be “No Place for the Weak” today, and in 2009.
The United States government of Bush has embraced El Salvador under the ARENA governments of Flores and Saca as a democracy. Bush has recently met with Saca, and the US has already tilted toward ARENA once again in the 2009 elections. See this article for details: “US Begins Interference in 2009 Salvadoran Elections”, Lehigh Valley Independent Press, 2-14-2008.
Since 1980, the United States has supported mass murder and economic subjugation in El Salvador. In return, it gets its batteries recycled, a steady stream of human rights refugees, absolute obedience from a slavish Salvadoran government that opposes Chávez and supports the US war in Iraq, and a police and military training site that is morphing into a School of Assassins. Recently, the solidarity organization CISPES has been attacked by the Justice Department for links to the Funes campaign. This is not a crime, can not be a crime. There can be no democracy without a change in government, and Funes represents a change that would be a chance for social justice and real democracy. Avila represents a murderous regime that has brought death squads, pollution and a policy of forced migration. Which side are you on? This is no time or place for the weak, the uncertain.