Reflections on my return to El Salvador

Are there any lessons or messages for El Salvador in the highly emotional Latin American media coverage of the past week or so?

The uninhibited smiles of joy that greeted the first Latin American Pope on his arrival to Cuba,  particularly poignant following the Pontiffs’ efforts to help rebuild the relationship between the United States and Cuba after more than 50 years of isolation; the equally celebrated arrival of the Pontiff to a highly divided Washington, DC.  Not to be outdone, Colombian President Santos announced from Cuba that a breakthrough had been made in one of the last remaining and arguably most controversial elements of the peace agreements with the FARC, transitional justice.

Then, the Rafto Foundation for Human Rights in Norway announced that this year’s winner is the Honduran jesuit priest, journalist, and human rights defender, Ismael Moreno, or Padre Melo. While none of these events mean that complete peace has been achieved in Colombia or Honduras —and I am sure that we will be back to politics as usual in Washington—they are symbolic steps. However, amongst this euphoria of important milestones we have the glaring headlines from the magazine El Economista that El Salvador is less secure each day and that it will likely end the year as the world’s most violent country.

This is my first visit to El Salvador since the breakdown of the 2012 tregua and my first as a private citizen, as I am no longer a staff member of the OAS.  As one of the original protagonists of the 2012 peace process I know only too well how complicated and polarizing of a subject it has become. And yet all of El Salvador, including its gang members, has been scared by the violence.

Pope Francis reminded us in his recent remarks in Washington “to guard against the simple reductionism which sees only good or evil and that the world demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide us into these two camps”. Similarly during a visit to a prison Pope Francis reminded us that dangerous criminals can be rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society.

I am not suggesting that Pope Francis was thinking of the situation in   El Salvador but I have to wonder, if President Santos can shake the hand of FARC leader Timochenko, a mortal enemy of the state for the past 50 years, can we not start to think of reestablishing dialogue with the gang members here in El Salvador?

As in Colombia, dialogue does not replace the need for rule of law, justice,  or the need to build strong state institutions but it does provide an environment to build a society not that we know now, but one that we can aspire too..

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