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Seven Years with the Right Woman

I’ve been blessed in many ways since I became a short-term missionary in Central America. But the greatest of all has been having Margarita de los Angeles Olmedo Cevallos as my wife. In El Salvador, to be legally married one must have a government official perform the ceremony. We were married by the Governor of the Department of Santa Ana on May 7, 2010. Then to have the marriage consecrated by one’s church, a second ceremony is performed by a licensed clergyman or clergywoman. We were married in Primera Iglesia Bautista Nazarea here in El Refugio on Nov. 14, 2010 by our pastor, Hno. Darío Martínez.

The path from then to now has not always been smooth. There have been disappointments, tragedies, frustrations, and financial worries. But overall, we have moved forward learning how to meld diverse cultures, language barriers, a vast difference in educations and real-world experiences, and a different understanding of the word “parenting”.

I’ve learned to live without many of the standard luxuries that come with being a middle-class American. Margarita has come to enjoy the material benefits that come with being the wife of a middle-class American.

I’ve learned the hard and costly way that the Salvadoran government is little more than a racket and I shouldn’t have expected them to allow me to become a naturalized citizen. This policy deprives me of the rights and responsibilities of that status including the right to own property, work, get a driver’s license, or participate directly or indirectly in the electoral process. Thus I must support my family on my thin Social Security stipend.

We endured together the cold-blooded murder of our son Juan. Another “unsolved” assassination by maras. This was followed by the untimely accidental death of our remaining son Luís’ biological father.

My post-graduate degree, graduate degrees, and a lifetime of studying are barely applicable in a culture that follows practices that are part pre-Columbian, part colonial Catholic, and part modern- superstitious.

Despite the Christian nature verbally espoused by almost all Salvadorans, the high rate of unmarried girls bearing children by multiple fathers hasn’t abated. There is a pattern of treating male children like princes, waiting on them and not teaching them to be responsible adults. This sets young men up for lives  of partial employment or crime. Girls tend to follow the footsteps of their mothers under the belief that babies are a blessing—even if you can’t feed them, clothe them or shelter them. 

Extortion of small business owners and the government itself is accepted by people used to authoritarian dictates from politicians, prelates, and punks. Every phase of life here is controlled by one or another of the three “powers”.

These and other cultural factors play into the frequent frustrations and need to accept my inability to change illogical and unsound aspects of life here.

But Margarita is a treasure amid the various cultural clashes that seem to affect me more than her. If she gets mad at me and gives me the cold treatment, it never lasts more than a day or two. I just wait, though not without some trepidation, until I hear her singing praise songs. When she gives me a good morning or a kiss as she’s leaving, I know things are back to normal. Her normal, not necessarily mine. And that’s OK.

Luís, who will turn 16 in January, learned nothing from the discussions and threats his older brother endured before he “grew up” and became a man. He is finally going into 8th grade after flunking 7th grade twice. He is basically a parasite enjoying the fruits of my labor while his mother pampers him with meals on demand and can’t bring herself about to make him do some work around here that is a strain for me, or carry the groceries that my knees won’t let me tote and from which (among other heavy work) she suffers constant aches and pains.

Adriana, on the other hand, at 13 can prepare meals, care for her dog, run the vacuum cleaner, help her mother with the chickens, and do other age-appropriate tasks. She makes us proud of her grades, her interests in outside activities, her sarcastic but not insulting humor, her ability to correct my Spanish faux pas, and her attempts at understanding the adult world after hours of indoctrination by Disney, soap operas, and horrible TV movies.

So, here we are after seven years. There’ll be no candle light dinner at a restaurant. No romantic dancing. Not even a movie. Life is plain and simple here. We’ve done some hugging and kissing. I don’t know if she’s done any reflection on the past seven years. But she’s still here and that’s a good sign.

That number made me think of the Eddy Arnold song I learned to sing before I had a clue as to what it meant. I’ll share it with you. It’s not Margarita and me.

 

 

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Questions and Answers

(Originally written July 9, 2010. Edited twice before posting July 30, 2016)

 

I received this in an Email 3½ years ago from a life-long friend. I answered it as well as I could from my then two years of living here in El Salvador. I’ve just been going over some documents I’ve been saving, clearing some out, and bringing others up to date for posting on my blog, kountryking’s kastle at https://kountryking.wordpress.com/.  

“Does it ever happen that one of the young men or women from El Salvador has dreams of becoming a Doctor or Lawyer and goes off to college?

What you need there is a union. Do you think the new government will make the labor situation any better? You need someone with money and a big heart to come along and give the folks who are willing to work a share in the profits of a business or hotel. Talk to Oprah!

You are so kind and unselfish to have devoted the rest of your life to helping these children. Even if you save one you save a nation. I am proud to be counted among your friends.”

 

My response: Professional people exist. We have universities and medical schools. They, like churches and seminaries, try to find patrons to establish scholarships to encourage young people to study. Even the government knows we are lacking in quality doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, etc. if we are to build our little country. My friend Adalid got his degree in accounting and works for World Vision, a charitable organization…but not as an accountant.

As I’ve indicated, lawyers that I’ve met don’t know that much about the law. Teachers I work with seem to count on their experience and personal attitude rather than the education theories I studied at Cal. Lutheran U. We don’t produce Nobel Prize candidates in any area due to poverty primarily and secondly because we don’t have the means to provide the learning tools and quality professors to teach. It’s all about dollars that we can beg, “borrow”, and sometimes steal from Americans, Canadians, and Europeans. We are everyone’s poor relatives along with a good chunk of people from other parts of the world besides our own.

I mentioned attitudes among teachers. Our limited knowledge of what’s going on in our professional areas outside Central America keeps us from moving the bar a little higher. We don’t seem to know exactly to what we aspire. There are a ton of people like me in countries like this one who run into a wall with our stories of educational opportunities in vast, beautiful, well-equipped universities, health care in clean medical centers with the best trained doctors and nurses and modern equipment, advanced medicines for most ills, etc.

So the struggle for helpers like me runs against the lack of money and natural resources with which to do business to obtain it, and an attitude of defeatism and dependency on patrons and patron states.

We do have unions among teachers and other professionals. The FMLN party is socialist and by nature is involved with the needs of the workers. But workers or landless people can only demonstrate futilely when there are few jobs and little money for wages, health insurance, or the perks Americans have come to take for granted…until now. We have children’s marches in the capital for food, for housing, and education.

There is a boy about 10 or 12 who paints up as a clown and rides the bus back and forth between Santa Ana and Chalchuapa. He has a home-made maraca in his hand for rhythm as he chants humorous rhymes, sings songs, and must tell jokes (I don’t understand what he’s saying but I hear people laughing.) then walks down the aisle and back collecting coins. It’s a normal occurrence here. For me it is hard to watch. I can’t see one of my kids ever having to have begged, sung or danced for coins to buy lunch and supper for his family. I watch people on their way to work give him change. I don’t. I learned in my years in Mexico, watching haggard mothers with their children around them in rags and also looking sad and forlorn, the smallest at the breast and the toddler holding the bowl for alms, that these people become dependent on charity rather than seek available training to learn a trade.

Right now, the world is in economic chaos. But in “normal” times, there is work available for more people than are willing to do it. Not everyone or even most, to be sure. But the attitude of dependency is strong and as ingrained in the culture as beans and tortillas.

The bottom line is that there is a different reality here than in the U.S. We live in two different planes that as yet have not intersected. I’m just trying to help them meet in a good place.

 

January 18, 2014

How perceptions can change in just a few years! The U.S. electorate debates immigration reform, welfare and social services reform, minority lag in education and employment, and how to provide all the benefits Americans of my generation were accustomed to as young men and women, established family folks, and retirees while waging wars in heretofore remote lands inhabited by people whose cultures and ways of life we can’t begin to understand.

Since my first response to my friend’s questions, I’ve married a woman who has lived here all her life. She gave birth to four children by four different fathers, a condemnable act in my old world. I watched inexperienced and poorly educated management forced to close the church school in which I volunteered as an English (and more) teacher. My experience and education constantly bucked the local norm of illogic, rationalization, and misinterpretation of God’s influence and participation in daily events.

After the school closed, the focus of our church was an after-school program sponsored by a major Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) designed to provide additional physical, spiritual, and academic benefits. But this is a society where corruption and self-aggrandizement is another norm led to the church losing that ministry. The church itself was corrupted by those same leaders who fired the pastor for preaching against these false prophets and the church split.

In my first experiences here in Central America, I witnessed the poverty, the seeming helplessness and hopelessness of almost all the people in the towns and villages in which I worked. I became attached to people who were hard-workers, faithful church members, dutiful parents, and caring brothers and sisters in Christ. Their vocal prayers were passionate and heartfelt. Their gratitude for petitions answered and patience for those not yet addressed was obvious. The children I taught for three years were like the children I taught in California. They fit the bell-shaped curve in performance and interest in learning. It took a while for me to realize that they were well-schooled in giving me what I wanted in order to endear themselves to me. Not for better grades. Not for future educational considerations. Not even to make mama proud. They all in one way or another wanted to set me up for some kind of financial help.

I had been helping the family of a child I had met in 2003 when she was about 3-years old. Who doesn’t fall in love with a waif who comes to a stranger in church and sits on his lap? When I returned to El Refugio for permanent residence I became, I felt, like a part of their family. My principal, also our pastor, gave her a “scholarship” in our school. But as time moved on I became more aware of the many ways that I was being suckered and lied to. Friends warned me but now I wasn’t sure if these friends weren’t being helpful to their own ends. I broke off with the family and had no contact with them for three years.

Last May, I decided to visit them. Either they would welcome me or let me know I was not welcome. My first visit was a joy. I received hugs and played with the latest additions to the family. On my second visit my motive for coming was questioned. My response relating to an emotional investment I had with the child and the family despite the unhappy separation warranted a visit to see if a friendly relationship could be established. I put it in a way that indicated I was not there to contribute to their economic well-being and so I was literally given the cold shoulder and left without so much as a God bless you.

My observations of much improvement to their living condition told me they were not hurting relative to their neighbors which didn’t surprise me. The mother is quite adept as a con-artist and the children have been taught their roles from babyhood. This is not atypical among the poor in El Salvador.

People don’t attend church for spiritual strength but to go home with collected food for the poor or leftovers from a party or celebration. They “join” a church if there’s a part-time job that will pay a few badly needed dollars a week. If the job goes, they go too.

So, what do children learn? They learn to use their charm, their cuteness, their ability to act like they care to get a dime, a quarter, a dollar, a pair of shoes, new clothes for Christmas, a cell phone, a bicycle, a Happy Meal at McDonald’s, and so on. By the time they reach puberty they’ve learned to steal, lie with a straight face, and create alibis and fairy tales. The girls are capable of seducing young men who may or may not have some capacity to offer them and the child they will inevitably bear them a measure of security albeit temporary. The fellow, socially immature and probably himself the product of the acceptable practice of womanizing, will move on once his pregnant girlfriend loses her appeal. No harm, no foul here.

My wife’s older daughter moved out at sixteen to live with a man eight years her elder. He lives with his mother and sister while his dad is in the U.S. studying for the ministry. They’ve been together almost three years without benefit of matrimony. She is pregnant. He has a job and works rather steadily. They’ve got a place to live and she’s got money for clothes and gifts for her younger siblings. She is a Salvadoran success story.

Her older brother is almost 21. He still lives with us and works sporadically. There is little work here in El Refugio. He doesn’t wish to seek employment in one of our larger cities. His mother doesn’t encourage him but will transmit my displeasure at having a fifth-wheel adult under my roof and free-loading. Her culture sees his situation as normal. I see it as parasitism. If nobody has work for him he hangs out with his friends and only shows up at meal time when his mother phones him. This is the local norm.

He’s always got a story about leaning computation or getting an electrician’s license. It’s been more than two years since he graduated “high school” and nothing has changed for him. There is no point in young people dreaming about becoming a doctor or lawyer or of going off to college unless he’s got parents who as professionals and responsible parents are prepared financially to help him or her. My friend Adalid, mentioned above, is the rare exception to the fate of the young men I’ve watched grow up and wither once their public school careers have ended. A few other young people have been attending college for years and have little recourse to employment once they receive their diploma.

An interesting aside: We have the El Salvador version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” on TV. The top prize is a mere $200,000. Most contestants are either studying in college or have a profession. They usually have no problem reaching the $200 fifth question level. But between questions six and ten, they miss on questions that most American 8th graders wouldn’t have to ponder. I’ve seen a school principal bomb out on a simple question of geography. Spanish is not my first language and I know little about soccer and Salvadoran history but I often answer the questions that the audience can’t agree on.

So the question about education and advancing the country in the world market is answered by a simple, nobody seems to give a damn. Unions can stop work, block highways, carry signs, and make demands. Nobody bothers them. They get on TV. The public gets annoyed for their being inconvenienced. Nothing changes. At least not significantly!

I think the administration that has been in power for almost five years has striven to improve the welfare of working people. Even I’ve benefitted from its programs and I’m not yet a citizen. We have a long way to go and I hope the poorly educated masses are not taken in by the bold and impossible promises by the more charismatic opposition candidate.

On outside investment: I’ve learned first-hand that investment in El Salvador comes at a price. There are many hands to grease and even then there’s no guarantee you’ll be successful in your endeavor. Should you be fortunate enough to establish your business you then have to face extortion from one of our infamous gangs. Our infrastructure is still mostly in the 19th or early 20th century. If something goes wrong in your enterprise, do not expect much more than sympathy and “that’s the way it goes” from anyone.

 

July 30, 2016

Margarita and I are living in our third rented home. I have been waiting for well over two years for my Naturalized Citizen documents. This is in violation of my constitutional rights and keeps me from enjoying what they consider privileges of citizenship. Oh, my medical care is free and I can’t complain about the service. But I can’t vote, own property, buy a vehicle in my name or get a license to drive.

Of the four children we had when we married six years ago, our oldest son, Juan, was murdered in cold blood on his job by the gangs. María and Milton are married and have given us an adorable granddaughter. Luís is now 14 and paralyzed with fear after his brother’s murder. Adriana is 12. She gets good grades in school and studies ballet on Saturdays. We have a good landlord and enough property on the lot to keep 30 chickens for meat and eggs. We have a year-‘round garden that keeps us in tomatoes, cucumbers, green beans, frijoles, chili peppers, peppermint, radishes and herbs. We also have potted plants and flowers. It’s an ideal life for a retired gentleman and his industrious country-girl wife.

My aged legs and a hernia have kept me from my erstwhile routine of distance bicycling and working out in the park three or four days a week for over a year. That leaves a lot of time to be bored and angry for not having my citizenship, missing out on a nice payday at the now cancelled “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”, and not having at least a motorcycle so I can enjoy this beautiful country. Since I can’t legally work at a legitimate job like teaching, I can’t really do most of the things I used to do during my first three years here. I fear succumbing to physical and mental atrophy from a lack of using my muscles or my brain.

The current presidential campaign in the U.S. has been very emotional for me. Although I’ve lived in El Salvador now for over eight consecutive years, I’ve been part of this country since 2003. But I am an American and a concerned voter. But I can’t share the essence of my feelings with my dear wife because she has a 3rd grade Salvadoran education and knows nothing of U.S. history or our political process. It’s different here. We use U.S. currency but people don’t know who George Washington is let alone Sacajawea and her story. How can I explain our fear of a Trump victory when Central Americans have been living with their own Trumps since the Spaniards arrived in 1522? My excitement over a woman being nominated for the presidency doesn’t resonate in a region which is used to female heads of state. She related to my cheers and tears while I watched the Democratic National Convention like I would if she were to be filled in on the latest adventures of Disney Channel’s “Soy Luna”.

My life is not what I anticipated it would be in so many ways. But I’m here for the duration. At eighty and with strange things happening to my athletic body and my MENSA qualified brain, I don’t know if my maternal longevity genes will sustain my life to where I can see my daughter achieve her dreams…and mine for her.

My little part of El Salvador has seen economic improvement during my residency here. The “poor” aren’t quite as poor. Everyone has a cell phone. TV dish antennas soar over shabby hovels. The women are exceedingly fat, a condition which begins at childhood and which expands with each addition to the family. Men find work enough to sustain their families. Lots of new businesses have popped up and even modernized along our stretch of highway and in our “downtown” center. The mayor provides fiestas and expositions to keep us amused and well fed when they occur. He’s improving our streets as funds become available…although they deteriorate at the same rate as always. New colonies are being carved out of the hillsides and uncultivated land. Our teenage girls are flooding the local clinic for prenatal and postnatal care. Babies having babies. El Refugio isn’t under the same threats as other municipalities from gang violence. But we do hear from time to time of a murder in the more rural areas. Established neighborhood homes are continually being improved. Partially built homes are finally being finished as money comes in from the U.S. from family members working there. Vacant lots heretofore used for cultivating corn and beans are now seeing new construction started. Our police now have a new four-door pickup truck with seats in the bed for extra passengers. Our town has met the national standard for literacy among adults. So we’re not doing too badly for an under developed little nation.

The government seems to be finally putting the gang leaders where they belong. The Attorney General seems to be fighting corruption in both national and municipal governments. The gangs seem to be on the defensive or running to other countries. I say “seem to be” because we don’t get all the news from our media. We’ve had reporters and journalists forced to resign because they asked the “wrong” questions of the “right” people.

So as long as I can, my mission will be to provide for my family and share my small bounty with others. I will do my best to teach my precious daughter how to change her life view from that of her predecessors to one more in line with contemporary thinking in the modern world. I know I can’t answer all the questions, not my own, not my wife’s and not my daughter’s. But I’m going to do my best to try.

 

 

 

But they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid: for the mouth of the LORD of hosts hath spoken it. (Micah 4:4)

Since our church school closed at the end of 2010, I haven’t held any kind of job. I wasn’t paid for teaching and that was fine. When I returned to El Refugio in 2008 I was blissfully single and not thinking about a wife and certainly not a family. My pittance of a Social Security retirement stipend went into the bank and my expenses were so miniscule that I was saving money almost every month. Whether I was renting a room or a small house I had all the comforts I needed. I bought a TV, a refrigerator, a small propane gas stove, and a microwave. I had my computer, TV, and land line phone for less than $60 a month and that was $20 or $30 more than my rent. I could always find a woman or teenager who would hand-wash my clothes for $5. Food was cheap. The microbus ride to Chalchuapa to shop in the not-so-super-but-adequate market was a quarter each way. I had no car. Didn’t need gasoline, car insurance, or repairs and service. I enjoyed helping individuals and families who were in need and supporting my church with service beyond teaching English and rational thought to kindergarten through sixth grade kids and teaching theory to the docents. In my off hours from our half-day school I visited the sparse service and event attenders, the sick, and the dying. I attended their funerals once they passed. In the early morning I could still jog five kilometers before showering and making my breakfast. In the evenings I would visit with church members or make new friends in the community. I was very active and adapted easily to life in rural El Salvador.

During those years I spent some time learning the courtship procedure according to the culture. I passed more than a few evening at the homes of available women, mostly mothers, but not seriously thinking of starting a relationship in my seventies. I was Hermano (brother) Roger (joyfully mispronounced as “Royer”) and content to sleep alone at night. I was not in a position to be Roger Brown the Kountry King and womanizer par excellence. There was much I had to absorb by osmosis because few would lay out the rules or explain why so many females had children starting in their mid-teens and those children had multiple fathers. It was not for me to judge but certainly went against everything I’d been taught from childhood about family structure.

I was rather astonished at being, how shall I put it, accepted as a perspective beau at my age. The lesson was that although I was old but healthy I was a gringo. Gringo in these parts means “a guy who has more money than 99.9% of the men here in town”. I was keen enough not to let myself get involved with any woman whose concentration was on what my wallet could provide rather than my company and simple conversation. 

As a teacher, I visited my students’ homes as a means of communicating who I was and what I wanted to do for their kids. I also got to know who was really into education and their children’s futures. Most of the homes were without an adult male. There were usually multiple children. Siblings, cousins, and sibling/cousins where a fellow had children by two sisters. All new to me. The mothers did what they could for money. Some cut, carried and sold firewood. Some washed clothes for women who had jobs outside the home. Some sold whatever in the markets of nearby towns. Some worked in the fields sowing, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables, coffee or sugar cane in their season. Others had “husbands” who were in and out of the family’s life and often shared with other “wives”.

Mothers and/or older siblings always accompany their children to school and pick them up afterwards. I rarely saw a father. I engaged the moms in whatever conversation my Spanish permitted to get to know them as people. I did the same when I taught special education and bilingual fourth grade classes in the U.S. I believe in the child-parent-teacher circular relationship in which we are all participants in the child’s development. But I soon found myself singling out women who from appearances and small talk were amiable and made me feel comfortable. I watched them relate to their children and how their children related to me during class hours and outside of class. I learned to see how subtly a woman or even a young child could con me into a dime for a snack (which might be breakfast for the child) or a dollar to take a child to the local clinic before it was all free. Mothers know that kids are cute and a hug will melt a gringo’s heart. This gringo had spent enough time in Mexico and Central America to know how that worked.

But at one house about a mile and a quarter from the church and school, down the highway and up a steep hillside dirt road, lived a woman who impressed me before I had the presence of mind to approach her. Every morning she brought a young boy and a tiny preschool girl to school. Every Noon she was their to take them home. Every afternoon she brought them back for our afternoon program for integral child development. And later she’d be back to pick them up.

She dressed as all the country women dressed. She wore no makeup. Her hair was obviously long and rolled into the traditional bun. Her arms and legs were well muscled and her shoulders were strong. She walked so gracefully, not like a runway model, but like a proud, positive woman. She had a beautiful smile that never seemed to leave her face. I knew nothing about her and it would have been unthinkable to expect someone else to answer my questions about who she was and what was her social status.

I noted she was always the first to volunteer for fiestas, meetings, and whatever the church, school, and afternoon program needed done. In a while I decided to visit her home and bring some toys for her kids. That was always my custom. She had a daughter in the public school and a son about to enter the high school. He was the “man of the house”. They all belonged to a little Pentecostal church nearby while our church was Baptist. At the house I’d be offered water. There was no refrigerator for milk or soda. There was no snack bowl. We talked and the kids played with the toys I’d bring. She knew all about me and the women I’d been seeing. She even knew I was engaged to one (who later broke up with me).

The two younger kids and I played while Margarita and I talked. She had some kind of knowing smile on her face that made me wonder what was up. When I needed someone to wash my clothes I asked her if she was interested. I pointed out that she wouldn’t have to walk all the way home and back on wash days. Before long she was visiting me and I was visiting her.

One day we were talking on the sofa and I teasingly asked her what she would do if a man asked her to marry him. She said she’d take good care of him. I had to think of what that might mean. Words in one culture don’t necessarily mean the same in another I’d learned. I hadn’t really thought about all the ramifications of marrying a woman with four kids. By then she’d told me about their four fathers and why they weren’t with her. She was honest and I appreciated that. She had told me about her conversion from her father’s Catholicism to becoming an evangelical. 

I went to her church several times. There were rarely ten people including the pastor. Margarita always wore long skirts and a white kerchief on her head. I always felt welcome but it was very conservative for a liberal Baptist. Sometimes we’d go to my service in the morning and hers in the afternoon.

In all this time she never asked me for anything. That made a big impression on me. I never once thought that maybe she was just smarter than some of the other women and felt it was wiser to live as they had been living believing that would draw me closer to her and we’d eventually be married and she’d have all of me…and mine.

Women in Central America had approached me on my mission trips to ask me to take their child back to the U.S. when I left or to send clothing or cash when I got home. They were adept at using their kids to butter me up, show me affection, call me papi or tío. Never with Margarita. In fact it bothered me that four-year old Adrianita never seemed comfortable when I’d pick her up. She didn’t cling like other kids. She’d just look towards her mother as if to say, “Uh, how long do I have to do this?” Neither of us pushed her towards accepting me as other than her teacher.

We were married in a civil ceremony according to Salvadoran law in May of 2010. We had a church ceremony six months later. It took us a while to find a house big enough to accommodate six but we finally found one. We stayed there a while until the landlord wanted to sell the house. So we moved to another house but we weren’t really happy there. My dog Duke went to live with my brother-in-law and allegedly ran away. Older son Juan was made to find a job and support himself while daughter Maria moved in with her boyfriend and his family. She’s married now and we have a granddaughter almost a year old. Juan was murdered by gangs while on his job with the town. We’ve now found a perfect house for us with a big yard and both kids have their own room. Luís is now 14 and will enter 9th grade in January. He keeps to himself for the most part but recently has been invited to quinceañera parties and has even participated in some fútbol games. He really loves the sport. Adriana has been and is my princess. She’s taken dancing and ballet lessons and at 12 loves clothes and music videos. I enjoy spoiling her. She’s got a little fluffy dog named Buffy (pronounced “Boofy”) with whom she plays a lot and cares for. I’m trying to get her interested in a free English language program I downloaded for her yesterday.

Margarita works too hard. She takes care of me in ways I never imagined a woman could or would. I love her more each day God gives me. She’s up before I can even wake myself and is still going strong when I’m yawning and craving the solace of our bed and her liniment massages of my aching legs.

I don’t ride my bike as much as I used to before my hernia surgery. I just don’t have the energy nor desire to ride and work out. I spend my time between my laptop, our vegetable and flower gardens, our chickens, and playing with Adriana’s puppy. More often I find myself sitting on a plastic chair in the shade of the güisquil ramada talking to our two miniature chickens or Buffy while peering through the bushes at people passing by on the street. It is so peaceful. Everything growing is green except for the red, pink, purple, orange, and yellow flowers. The tomatoes are red. The sky is light blue. Despite my increasingly expensive battle with a government that doesn’t want educated foreigners as citizens, I am somewhat at peace. Micah was right. I may not have a grape-vine or a fig tree but I have what flourishes here in El Salvador. His prophecy works for me.

 

 

I’m Feeling Like a New Father These Days

10-01-02-buffy

At 80 I’ve been feeling like a new father now that Adriana has a puppy. Buffy is a smart little dog. She understands a sharp NO when she pulls the screen filter I put in the shower drain so I wouldn’t lose my ring now that my weight is down. Likewise when she stops licking my hand and starts nipping at it in puppy play and I say NO, she stops. I’ve been trying to teach Margarita and Adriana to mimic me rather than talk in a sweet high voice like you talk to a baby. Buffy’s been responding to “Good girl!” when she goes outside to do her business. But she’s been seen digging near and under the back gate. Nobody bothered to give her the NO. Rather they just filled in the excavation with the soft dirt or put a large rock in it which then hindered the legal opening of the gate. They think differently here.

I’m not ready to leave Buffy alone in the house. I remember the damage Duke the Wonder Dog did in our first house when left alone. Buffy is much smaller than Duke and she’s more tranquil. She loves to run and chase her ball. She’s content to chew on her rubber duck and a stuffed doll that Adriana gave her. But I’ll feel better once I’m sure she can handle being alone in the house in the morning when the kids are in school and Margarita is visiting her mother or off praying somewhere.

Therefore my biking schedule is in tatters. It’s been shady, cool and relatively comfortable to ride at 7:00 or 8:00 until 11:00 or so when the sun was low. But now the sun is to the south and it gets hotter more quickly. By the time I get home from a later-than-normal start I am exhausted. Now the dry season begins. That means fewer or no clouds to block the sun. No dark rain clouds at all to let the breeze hide the temperature. So if I can’t get out early, I tend not to go out at all. I don’t think I burn quite as many calories pulling weeds or cutting branches from the bushes. I do get to walk Buffy as a break from the computer.

I confess that I enjoy being home with Buffy. We play together little bits at a time. I relish her affection and marvel at her exploits as she investigates her new home and outdoor environment. If I watch TV from my recliner, she’ll try to climb up with her little tail wagging. I have to pick her up. She’ll get on my chest and lick my chin. Then she’ll do an about-face and make herself comfortable between my legs. Sometimes I have to wake her up after a movie is over so I can get up. 

I think the best part of being at home is when Adriana comes home from school. Buffy is so happy and so is my daughter. She picks her pup up and caresses her like a baby. She’ll have such a smile on her face that I want to cry. I am sure that Buffy has strengthened the bond between us and I am happy.

img_2728

The Hammock

My memory not being what it used to be isn’t much help in telling me when I got my hammock. I spent a lot of time in Mexico in the eighties and it was either a gift or something I picked up from a hammock maker. It’s made of cloth not much wider than a sneaker’s shoe lace with knots at the joints to keep it sturdy. There are alternating ribbons of green and white. I’m sure I chose those colors to honor the Boston Celtics. They wouldn’t have had scarlet and black for Rutgers. That would have been my first choice. Besides, hammocks are for the yard in the summer shade over green grass and under ovine white clouds. I estimate the hammock to be about thirty years old. In California I had no place to use it so it was packed away as part of my retirement trousseau if I should live so long.

When I was ready to leave that hellish state to hopefully live out my life in El Salvador I optimistically included the hammock among the few precious items I just couldn’t bear to leave behind. For the first fifteen months here I either stayed with friends or rented a room. When I finally found a small cottage for rent I knew the time had come for me to initiate my keepsake. There was an iron grille over a back window and a shade tree a convenient distance away. It was the dry season, the perfect time to think about afternoon siestas after my classes.

I had to wash the hammock after years of storage and dust collecting. It glistened in the tropic sunlight and I felt a rush as I hung it. It was just the right height. I sat upon the welcoming web and gently pushed off to make sure it would hold my weight and not dump me on the ground. It was good. I brought my legs on board and adjusted my body so that my head was higher than my feet. Perfect. It wasn’t long before the breeze was my source of motion and I was lulled to sleep.

There were many afternoons like this. I would have visitors and invite them to enjoy my wonderful hammock. One child especially loved to have me push her while she smiled and laughed as if it were a ride at Disneyland. Until…

One afternoon she was rocking herself on the hammock when suddenly she hit the ground. The window grille was cemented to the brick wall of the house. They don’t use a very strong ratio of cement, sand, and water to their cement here to save money. The cement gave way and the corner of the grille came loose along with the cement that surrounded the mounting and down came the child and the hammock. She was scared but not hurt. I was thankful for that but sad at losing the use of the hammock. Tying it to the other side of the grille would undoubtedly result in the same end. What to do?

Having a rented house with occasional visits from the aging landlord to check his property, I contacted a friend who among his other professions was a mason. He came at his earliest convenience and repaired the damage to the house. But I was afraid to hang the hammock again.

So the hammock went back into storage. By 2010 Margarita and I married and rented a larger house with a covered patio…but no place to hang a hammock. In 2013 we had to move again and our new location also had no place to hang it. We found a better place in 2015 with a large yard but we used most of that for a vegetable garden and chicken pens. Margarita decided to grow a local gourd and built a ramada out of long bamboo poles. That created a decent shaded area and uprights from which I could hang the hammock.

Finally, after having my hernia surgery I can be truly a retired gentleman farmer. I have brass hooks on sturdy plates which I’ve screwed into the bamboo. I had to reinstall them a few times to get the hammock at the right height. It was ready for testing. Oh, oh! My creaky old knees wouldn’t let me slowly squat to put my weight on it. I asked Margarita to test it. Lo and behold it stretched to within a couple of inches of the cement septic tank cover.

So this morning I found the right height and reinstalled the hammock hopefully for the last time. I didn’t sit on it but pressed it down with my hands putting all my weight on it. It was just right. But one of the ribbons had broken. I imagine being cloth it aged and weakened. I tied a knot and pressed it again. It seems just fine. I had to move a hanging plant to allow it to move to and fro as a good hammock should. Now I need to go outside and offer it my body.

We went outside to take photographs of the hammock and me in it. The first part went just fine. Adriana and Margarita held the hammock open and I took the picture.

03-28 01 Adriana holding the hammock.

Adriana holding the hammock open for its photo.

 

Then I got myself on to the hammock for Adriana to take my picture. I reviewed with her how to do it and she positioned herself for the magic moment. But the ribbons started to rip one by one and suddenly I was on the ground with Margarita behind me her arms under my armpits.

03-28 02 Roger as the hammock ribbons broke and  I hit the ground.

Roger the moment the hammock hit the ground.

 

 I told Adriana to take the photo. I had a big smile on my face…so I thought. What I didn’t know was that she took the perfect picture. She wasn’t sure she was pushing the right button and there was no picture on the screen. While she was blah-blahing to her mother the camera shut off and I had to show her again how to turn it on. She kept talking and by the time she was ready the camera was off. She didn’t know she had taken a third photo.

03-28 03 Margarita giving me moral support.

Margarita giving me moral support when I needed physical support to get up.

 

By now I’m confused and telling her to push the correct button. But it got to be to much of stupidity and I decided to hell with it. I got up and threw the hammock in the garbage. So much for the thirty-year wait.

There are plenty of locals who walk the streets selling hammocks. With a little luck I’ll find one I like someday and try it again. Meanwhile, I’ll just have to sit in the shade on a plastic lawn chair.

 

2015 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A San Francisco cable car holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 790 times in 2015. If it were a cable car, it would take about 13 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Diagnosing El Salvador’s Snowden Syndrome

In the U.S we’ve heard a lot about whistle blowers and how they’re being dealt with. Heroes or traitors? Here is El Salvador’s version of the Edward Snowden affair.

Diagnosing El Salvador’s Snowden Syndrome

This is a story about El Salvador‘s Edward Snowdens, a group of police officers under investigation for leaking confidential documents, even as authorities refuse to investigate the head of the country’s powerful Texis Cartel.

Recently, journalists from two Salvadoran media outlets had access to a judicial proceeding for which the Attorney General had requested absolute confidentiality. The two outlets — El Diario de Hoy and Diario 1 — published details about the leaked case: criminal accusations against four police officers, former agents of the Police Intelligence Center (CIP) that Attorney General Luis Martinez accused of “disclosure of facts, actions, or secret documents by an official employee.”

15-10-29-ElSalvador-Chepe-Snowden  Chepe Diablo

This is a story of how the Attorney General chose to prosecute police who investigated members of the Texis Cartel, a Salvadoran drug trafficking organization, before prosecuting the head of this criminal group, businessman Jose Adan Salazar Umaña, alias “Chepe Diablo.” For the policemen, the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has asked for prison sentences. For Chepe Diablo — who the Obama administration designated an international drug kingpin in 2014 — freedom and exoneration. Something similar happened with Edward Snowden, the former employee of the US National Security Agency who leaked information about that agency’s abuses. In that case, Washington initially decided to pursue him before those officials that were responsible for, among other things, spying on their fellow citizens.

This story was translated, edited for clarity, and reprinted with permission from Revista Factum. See the original Spanish version here.

Last August, El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office rejected the idea of prosecuting Chepe Diablo for money laundering. After performing an analysis of the available information in reference to the document 22-UIF-2015, the resolution was issued ordering the file to be closed…reads a letter signed on August 24 by Tovias Armando Menjivar, head of the FGR’s Financial Investigation Unit.

Tovias and the FGR made the decision after asking Salvadoran financial institutions about Salazar Umaña, Wilfredo Guerra Umaña, and the business Gumarsal, who have all been linked to the Texis Cartel by journalistic investigations.

Eleven months before Tovias Menjivar signed the letter of exoneration, one of his subordinates, Mario Antonio Huezo Cortez, signed an order to open investigations into Salazar Umaña in order “to determine the existence of the crime of money laundering,” according to a document dated September 23, 2014 and annexed to the file 47-2014-1/EGU, which was opened by the Tenth Court of Instruction of San Salvador.

In that memo, prosecutor Huezo Cortez states the case of Salazar Umaña has “facts that infer the occurrence of activities related to money laundering.”

Moreover, in annexes to criminal proceeding 47-2014-1/EGU, in September 2014 prosecutors assure that, “thanks to the audits conducted, it was identified they moved via bank accounts or accounting records large amounts of money whose origins were unjustified. That is, we have capital from unknown sources… The explanations provided by the audited persons are illogical, for the unreasonable or unlawful purposes of the operations of those mentioned, which were distorted by tax authorities.” (In addition to Guerra Umaña and Gumarsal, the other person audited is the mayor of the municipality of Metapan, Juan Samayoa.)

Curiously, Huezo Cortez and the other prosecutors concluded there was sufficient merit to discuss money laundering charges “after reviewing” the financial accounts of Salazar Umaña. However, the conclusion reached by Tovias Menjivar, head of the UIF, after reviewing the same accounts a year later is that there are no signs of money laundering.

In July 2014, the US newspaper El Nuevo Herald published an investigation that cited “high level sources” from the Superintendent of the Salvadoran Financial System. It asserted Salazar Umaña had infiltrated this state institution to conceal his financial transactions through credit unions.

On September 17, 2015, six days before Huezo Cortez asked to definitively dismiss the money laundering case against “Chepe Diablo,” his boss, Attorney General Luis Martinez, replied evasively to questions from Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica about the Salazar Umaña case. Martinez hinted that it was an open case against Salazar Umaña for money laundering. Yet the UIF’s chief called for the dismissal of the investigation a few days after the attorney general’s conversation with the newspaper.

Factum magazine asked the attorney general’s press office for an interview with Tovias Menjivar to explain the decision. (See tweet below) There was no response.

 

This chronicle of double standards, misleading statements, and truncated investigations is, however, only part of this story. The Texis Cartel, Chepe Diablo, Attorney General Martinez and his prosecutors are also protagonists in another chapter. That chapter has to do with the police who opened the criminal prosecution against the drug trafficking organization.

The Investigation Begins

(The following paragraphs are adapted from a story written by the author in November 2012 about the first capture of Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, a member of the Texis Cartel, in February 2011.)

“Take care of the boy and sell everything we have,” the man said to his spouse via cell phone. It was the voice of a “scared” and “resigned” man, an agent assigned to the Police Intelligence Center told me on February 17, 2011. It was after 3:30pm on that day when Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez, alias “El Burro,” grabbed the phone to alert his wife that he was under arrest, and that the police were taking digital fingerprints to confirm he was the same person wanted by the FBI for various crimes related to the theft of vehicles and their illegal sale in California and Texas.

The operation had begun in one of Herrera Hernandez’s houses in western El Salvador with a monitoring unit that had located the green Toyota pick-up truck with plates P235-804, property of El Burro, parked in front of a building with a white façade, red doors, and exposed brick. Four police intelligence agents were waiting around 50 meters from the building.

The operation lasted nearly the entire morning. The CIP agents detained El Burro in a side street near Zapotitan. They told him they had to bring him to the PNC laboratory to confirm his fingerprints.

Herrera Hernandez had been a fugitive from US law enforcement since June 19, 2003, when prosecutors in Texas accused him of heading a criminal group that moved stolen cars between Texas and California. In 2005, El Burro was convicted in absentia on eight charges of interstate automobile theft. According to one of the witnesses in this trial (criminal proceeding 4:03-cr-00230-1), Herrera was “the leader of the organization.” It was because of this arrest warrant issued by the court for the southern district of Texas on July 14, 2003 that the CIP detained El Burro in Zapotitan.

Just before 3:00pm on February 17, 2011, the CIP police received from US police a document with the fingerprints of the man the Texas court wanted. The prints were the same. But, in the end, the arrest warrant, according to US agents, was not legally valid. El Burro was free.

The brief capture was registered in at least two of the proceedings police intelligence have for Roberto Herrera Hernandez since 2008, when the director of the National Civil Police (PNC) was Commissioner Jose Luis Tobar Prieto.

Texis Cartel and Persecution (Against the Police)

On May 16, 2011, digital newspaper El Faro published a thorough investigation that cites three intelligence reports from high-level officials from the PNC and the administration of former President Mauricio Funes revealing the existence of the Texis Cartel, of which Roberto Antonio Herrera Hernandez and Jose Adan Salazar Umaña were alleged members.

While inaugurating a journalist forum organized by El Faro, Funes confirmed his administration investigated this drug trafficking structure in the northwest of the country, and that these and other drug traffickers had infiltrated the Salvadoran government.

In a report published in 2012, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said two important drug trafficking structures exist in El Salvador: the Texis Cartel in the northwest, and Los Perrones in the east. The report says both structures have state protection, echoing what Funes had said.

Various police chiefs, judges, congressmen, and lawyers are named in El Faro’s report. This includes Police Commissioners Douglas Omar Garcia Funes and Victor Rodriguez Peraza, and Congressman Reynaldo Cardoza (who was investigated for money laundering after a publication on the excessive growth of his assets). Other journalistic investigations have added more names, like Commissioner Hector Raymundo Mendoza Cordero and Congressman Cordero Rivera Wilver Monge, also arrested and currently on trial for laundering drug money.

Attorney General Luis Martinez ordered the arrest of Roberto Herrera for trafficking vehicles between El Salvador and Guatemala. But he never went after Chepe Diablo, the man that assistant prosecutors say they had sufficient evidence for money laundering. He is also the man the UN described as the leader of the Texis Cartel, and who the White House designated an international drug kingpin.

SEE ALSO: Texis Cartel News and Profile

Instead, Luis Martinez went after some of the officers involved in the 2011 operation, when the Salvadoran police first captured El Burro and began untangling the web of the Texis Cartel’s operations. These police officers were not accused of corruption, but leaking classified information.

On October 15, prior to the preliminary hearing against the police officers scheduled for the end of the month, El Diario de Hoy entitled an article: “Four Officers Tried for Manipulating Information,” even though the charge is for leaking documents.

Based on the testimonies of unidentified agents, the article states that the CIP wrote up a document that mentions Burro Herrera, Misael Cisneros (alias “Medio Million,” also linked to the Texis Cartel), and unidentified police chiefs.

The article — which has several sections citing the court documents that were supposed to be sealed — concludes: “Public security authorities have taken no punitive action against any of the four accused officers, although the prosecution has presented a range of evidence implicating them, sources consulted by El Diario de Hoy explained.”

That is to say, El Diario de Hoy wrote an article about police officers accused of leaking information — not manipulating, this crime does not exist — to an “electronic news outlet” that was not identified by name. And to create this article the newspaper relies on a document a judge had ordered sealed, implying it was leaked to journalists, and also quotes unidentified police sources. Similar articles appeared in La Pagina and Diario 1. But these publications said little to nothing about the legal accusations against the Texis Cartel.

The electronic media outlet that published the first and most comprehensive investigation into the Texis Cartel is El Faro. Revista Factum contacted Oscar Martinez, editor of El Faro’s Sala Negra section, when the text was published to discuss their research.

The article by El Diario de Hoy mentions El Faro without naming it, and by doing so questions the investigation into the Texis Cartel. I’m not interested in learning about your sources, just to hear your comments on the investigative process…

The investigation was a four-month process that involved three full-time reporters. This is not the first time a subject has given rise to a discussion about whether or not it was merely a leak by people within police intelligence. I think that interested parties often assess the text without reading it thoroughly. This text is based on three different reports, and I must say that not all come from the police. The first is from the year 2000, and the reports were produced during three different administrations and under five different police chiefs.

Apart from that there are active sources, including one linked to the police, that talk about how they protected shipments on orders from people whose names they do give. The investigation into the Texis Cartel was not just based on reports, although these were a cornerstone of the investigation. Following up, because several materials were published after, there are several actors speaking “on the record” regarding the publication, as former Interior Minister Rene Figueroa eventually did. It is an investigation that strongly demonstrates something that later convictions confirmed: the state has believed, for over 15 years, that a group exists which dominates the route called El Caminito to conduct various crimes, mostly related to drug trafficking and money laundering. They — and three administrations — have believed this, but have been unable to arrest those who are considered to be the leaders of this criminal group.

I’ll add something else. Journalists constantly receive leaks. Our job is to sort through them and try to determine what is true and what isn’t. That is what we did with the Texis Cartel.

What do you think of the case against the CIP policemen? To pursue investigators and not Chepe Diablo?

Regarding the proceedings against the police, which I’ve kept tabs on via the media, it seems to me some people within the police and Attorney General’s Office have an interest in conducting a witch hunt for those responsible for the leaks. To me this makes little sense. And I get the impression they did not put the same zeal into pursuing those the state has believed for over a decade are directing a criminal group that has managed to infiltrate the police at a very high level. As well as [infiltration in] the political realm, mainly in the western part of the country but also on a national level.

And what of news reports on the subject?

I do not quite understand what the indictment is, because the articles are very simple and do not explain what is happening. I understand that total discretion regarding the process is intended to impede the press from fully documenting what is happening in this case against the policemen, who they believe leaked some information. I suppose they refer to our investigation into the Texis Cartel, but I infer this because the articles do not say.

***

In July of last year, an official from the US Department of Justice that has closely followed the investigations into the Texis Cartel said: “There is still a lot of money he [Salazar Umaña] cannot justify. That is the most important [aspect of] this investigation.” Attorney General Luis Martinez does not think the same. For the attorney general, it is more important to investigate those who investigated the Texis Cartel: a kind of tropical Edward Snowden syndrome.

**Hector Silva Avalos is a Research Fellow at American University’s Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and the editor of Revista Factum, an online media outlet that focuses on El Salvador.