Mara Salvatrucha, Social War and the Decline of the Revolutionary Movements in Central America
central america / caribbean |
Friday March 04, 2005 21:44 by Ramor Ryan
Reflections on the political situation in Central America brought on by a Dec 2004 bus trip through the region
Once this was a place of great hope. Today it is a region convulsed by massive delinquency and chronic state corruption whose economies are surviving tenuously on remittance money sent by migrants.
Mara Salvatrucha, Social War and the Decline of the
Revolutionary Movements in Central America
Once this was a place of great hope. During the late 1980's, the
Sandinistas were consolidating the revolution in Nicaragua, the FMLN
were on the brink of overthrowing the government in El Salvador and
the radical movements in Guatemala and Honduras were gaining ground.
Today it is a region convulsed by massive delinquency and chronic
state corruption whose economies are surviving tenuously on
remittance money sent by migrants. The defeat of the revolutionary
movements has ushered in an era of social disintegration resulting in
a veritable neo-liberal dystopia.
Chicken Bus Diaries.
People in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua have always had travel
like this. 100 people crush into generic American school buses. The
old school buses earn the chicken moniker because of the propensity
of people to bring their livestock onboard. Sometimes the animals are
tied up in boxes on the roof. In other Latin American countries the
passengers cram on the roof too, but not here in Central America. The
way the drivers swing the buses around the mountain curves would
pitch anything off the roof that was not tied down. But the bus
service is cheap and abundant, catering for the poorest passenger,
and it must be said they are painted in the most exquisite manner -
each bus a blaze of color and a work of art.
I'm on the road on my way from my home in Chiapas, Mexico to
Nicaragua. I have a mere two weeks, but a full port of calls and no
pressing engagements. I will just flow along and in good time arrive
in Nicaragua, returning to the wonderful country for the first time
since the end of the Sandinista revolution. Its a challenging mission
- my 6 month stint in Sandinista Nicaragua in 1990 turned my world
upside-down, resulting in my intermittent but ongoing presence in
Latin America for the ensuing 14 years working in international
Things have changed a lot, and the Central American countries are
no longer spaces of insurrectional revolutionary struggle. Each
country is in political economic and social crisis, wrought by 15
years of a harsh neo-liberalism that has increased the level of
poverty and hopelessness for the majority poor. I'm interested to
discover what has happened to the revolutionary movements - not only
the Sandinistas, but also the URNG in Guatemala, the FMLN in El
Salvador, and the progressive movements in Honduras. Where has that
radical spirit gone, and how is rebellion expressed in the new
situation? In the light of living amongst the Zapatistas in Chiapas -
an inspiring struggle to create an autonomous space where people can
control their own lives, how does the situation in the neighboring
countries fare up?
I left Chiapas, early one morning in December and crossed the
border into Guatemala. The border zone was typically hectic, and all
the traffic was going one way, north, on the long road to the USA. It
was disconcerting to enter a country that everybody else seemed to be
in a hurry to abandon. This river of Central Americans, some with the
most paltry of luggage, migrating with some urgency to the belly of
the beast. Most would not make it; fall victim to robbers, Mexican
migration, tricksters, polleros, and the US border patrol. Some would
perish in the Arizona desert, some would drown crossing the Rio
Grande. Its a grim testimony to the desperate state of the homes they
are departing that they would face such risks for the joy of some
temporary menial job in a hostile, racist environment populated a by
a nation of curiously inward looking and psychologically damaged
people, half of whom actually voted for the dark prince of Empire
himself, Bush Jnr.
Guatemala, Remittance Republic.
I squeezed myself aboard the awaiting Chicken bus leaving the
border zone, quietly satisfied that the corrupt border official had
only charged me a $1 to enter the country. It shouldn't cost
anything, but that's his little bribe. There are 3 people squashed
into the short bench seat designed for little children. My long legs
are pushed up against the back of the next seat painfully. But here
is the first curious thing about Chicken buses. The bodily and
spatial intimacy with strangers is poignant. Its hard to think of any
other situation that could result in an ancient indigenous
grandmother - dressed in a beautiful huipile and her long black hair
held up majestically by a multicolored pompom - sitting on top of me.
I can feel her breath on my cheek. On the other side, a tubby drunk
is asleep, his head resting on my shoulder, and his hand, comically
enough, gripping his balls. It's about as uncomfortable as can be
imagined, but such is public transport in Guatemala, and barring
owning your own car, there is no other way to traverse the country.
And it's a democratic space. All but the rich are onboard -
indigenous families, students, workers, farmers, middle class
housewives, even some men who, from their conversation appear to be
government officials. Amongst the 20 or so unfortunates squashed
against each other in the aisle, a soldier, a security guard
(carrying his shotgun) and a stallholder, her basket balanced on her
head. We bounced along the rough but paved mountain road through a
lush and steep valley for a couple of hours towards Huehuetenango.
There we all piled off the bus and onto an awaiting one to Xela, a
further two grinding hours away. This time I have the window seat and
two young girls pushed in beside me on the bockity seat. These buses
are hardest of all for young women, because they get endlessly groped
and prodded by licentious males.
Conversely, the enforced intimacy leads to many accidental
conversations. Being a foreigner allows me the privilege of being a
curiosity for the locals, and conversation inevitably flows,
beginning with the ubiquitous - Where do you come from? and leading
to sometimes wonderful and often turgidly dull chats with strangers
in the cramped space.
Conversation began with a chatty 50 year old man who was heading
off to seek work in the gold mines hear Huehuetenango. I didn't know
there were gold mines in Guatemala. It turned out he had lived in
Miami for 20 years but had returned to Guatemala without misgivings.
" Why don't you go back to the US?" I asked.
"There's no money here in Guatemala, but life is shit
in the USA. I am happy to be near my family and friends, even if I'm
The young Mayan lad sitting on the other side joined in the
conversation. He was about 17 years old, and while sympathetic to the
older mans position, he obviously couldn't wait to get on the road to
"Have you no land here?" I asked
"No land, no work, and all my friends have gone to
work up North."
"What do they say?"
He is headed towards North Carolina, yet explains that a pollero
will take him over the frontier at Tijuana. I pull out a map and show
him that it would be better to cross the Texan border. I put the map
away when I realize he can't read, not words, or maps. It's going to
be a long haul for him. We pulled into Xela terminal, and the mish
mash to exit the bus began in earnest.
It was here that the news came through that a chicken bus had
ploughed off the road outside Xela, and the terminal workers were
talking of about 20 dead. The listener's register quiet but not
extraordinary shock, and proceed to pile onto the incoming chicken
buses. I decide to change my plans and go the other direction,
towards Guatemala City. It strikes me as a bad omen to follow the
same route as the fated bus to Retalhuleu - like walking a minefield
full of craters.
These same mountains that we traversed once offered refuge for the
URNG guerrilla army in their heroic but doomed attempt to overthrow
the state. The vicious counter-insurgency war characterized by
endless atrocities committed by the administration against the
indigenous people (claiming some 100,000 lives) has quietened now,
since the signing of the 1994 peace accords. The guerrilla
coordination URNG has not fared well in electoral politics, holding
down a paltry 5% of the vote - but then again most of their
constituency, the rural indigenous, remain disenfranchised. Maybe its
the high indices of illiteracy or the fear of registering that causes
the high rate of abstention, but it is calculated that a full 50% of
the adult population, predominantly rural indigenous, don't vote.
Estela Maldonado, one of few URNG parliamentarians, is interviewed
in today's national tabloid Siglo Nuevo. She paints a bleak picture.
Few of the reforms promised during the 1994 peace accords have been
implemented. There has been little improvement in education,
particularity for indigenous communities, the health service has seen
scant investment, land has not been redistributed to ex-combatants
and no justice has been seen for the victims of state violence during
the war. Basically, laments the ex-guerrilla, 10 years on, nothing
has been changed; the peace dividend for the majority poor has been
Not much has changed in appearance in the years since I first
visited this part of the country - the houses are wretched, and there
are no signs, despite the end of the war, of development or economic
prosperity. Each of the small towns we pass through has a prominent
Western Union franchise though, the remittance office. The level of
migration is such that the government is unable to keep track of it,
although they welcome the millions and millions of dollars flowing in
from mostly clandestine labor abroad. But its clear that the
Guatemalan statistics are approaching those of El Salvador, where 50%
of the GNP is garnered from remittances, money sent back from the US,
Mexico and Europe.
And this is a theme that remains constant throughout the journey -
the historical Banana Republics have being superseded by the rise of
the Remittance Republics.
Entering Guatemala City is quite disturbing. As cities go, it
rates up there amongst the top of the list of disaster zones. The
infrastructure of the city has not dealt with the massive influx of
migrants from the countryside over the last 25 years - a result of
the widespread dispossession of land from the rural indigenous,
creating a social and ecological catastrophe. The main economic
activity of city-dwellers seems to be hawking goods on the sidewalk,
lowly paid service industry type jobs, or slaving away in suburban
I'm sure the city has its own special spirit and attractions that
make it bearable to live in but after several visits, I've never
found any indication of what it could be. There is a special darkness
to the streets of Guatemala City. Few shinny lights or spectacle of
the kind that you come to expect illuminating urban metropolises. A
typical street seems to be a depressing row of windowless caves with
the merchandise falling out into the rubbish-strewn street. The
pungent smell of petrol fumes and cooking food from sidewalk stalls
mingle frenetically with the claustrophobic heat of the sun. Amongst
the mad bustle, concerned citizens will actually pull aside a
foreigner and warn them not to continue along the street, as its "too
It's getting late in the afternoon, and despite the notorious
danger of traveling after sunset (the threat of bandits on the
highways), I catch the last bus to Puerto Barrios, the Caribbean port
5 hours away.
The sunset is gorgeous and the temperature rises as we cross the
Montagua valley, a remarkably fertile region that produces much of
Guatemala's cash crops, and, closer to the Caribbean, hosts the
countries important banana plantations. The scenery becomes more
lushly tropical and the extravagant ecology is filled with an
astonishing pastiche of fertile green colors.
From urban jungle to real jungle, here is the complete antithesis
of Guatemala City - a beautiful rugged sweltering forest of fantastic
regeneration. But I have to temper my visual delight. This is not
global commons, a rich natural resource shared for the good of all;
it is company land, once owned by the United Fruit Company, now in
the hands of Del Monte. All the people are crushed into the
inhospitable city because there is no room, economically speaking,
here in this relatively de-populated region. The history of Guatemala
is predicated in peoples' dispossession to make way for Bananas,
Coffee plantations and agribusiness.
I peruse the day's newspapers, and its suitably distressing. The
tabloid El Diario is all bikinis and gore. Across the page from a
swimsuit-ed beauty queen there is a picture of three young women
lying murdered in an alley in a poor district of the city. One of the
corpses sports a Miami tank top, with an image of a bikini clad
shadow blazoned across her chest.
It's the juxtaposition of too many women's chests, living, dead
and illusionary, that is a further cause for my revulsion. The triple
murder of the young girls is no cause for revulsion for the tabloid.
They are just 3 more victims of the veritable femicide occurring in
Guatemala. Almost 500 women have been murdered in 2004 - 1500 since
2001. A gangland killing concludes the report, because one of the
corpses has a few tattoos &endash; an apparent sign of guilt. The
14-year-old, one Claudia Rodriguez Mendez, lays awkwardly, her torso
twisted, and her jeans have been pulled down.
The other papers are filled with other despairing reports. El
Nuevo Siglo, a more social news spread, had a vox pop of various
citizens asking if they think 2005 holds more promise for the nation
than 2004. The 5 candidates interviewed - regular street people,
respond in a manner that ranged from profoundly hopeless to
apocalyptically bad. The only light note came from some bloke, a
self-described bible vendor, who predicted the arrival of "The
Saviour" next Christmas.
In Prensa Libre, there was a full-paged glossy advertisement for
trucks. Each truck was pictured with a flashy price tag in a star as
if it was a great giveaway bargain. The perverse thing about it was
that they were all totaled vehicles, fresh from terrible accidents.
Ravaged wrecks ready for the scrape yard, like the pickup with its
front cabin completely flattened. Damaged Vehicle sale! ran the
headline, excitedly. It struck me as some kind of dismal metaphor for
all that I was witnessing around me.
My hopes weren't high as we pulled into the dark port town of
Puerto Barrios. I love ports, the special energy of maritime zones in
a constant flux of arrival and departure, and the standard geography
of the local space catering for the movement of goods and services -
freight trains, cranes and mad bars. But I had been warned beforehand
of the special delinquency and degeneracy associated with Puerto
Barrios, a town convulsed by gangs and drugs. The infamous Mara
Salvatrucha and associated street gangs had made their presence felt
on the rough streets. The Traveler's Guide recommends that it be
avoided, and feels that it is " particularly dangerous". My kinda
I booked myself into the ubiquitous shabby $5 dollar Atlantico
hotel by the market. (Its wise to take certain precautions in this
class of hotel. My wisdom leads me to hide my money and passport by
taping them to obscure parts of whatever furniture resides in the
dank room). After 12 hours on chicken buses I needed a drink, and
Guatemala's national beer, Gallo ("Cock") is a lovely brew. I set off
somewhat ambivalently down the main street, stepping in and out of
muddy puddles, and most of the establishments seem to be populated by
dodgy young Mafioso types and women of the night. Paty's however had
children running around, suggesting a safer environment. A charming
black woman with a Caribbean accent served me beer and we chat
lightly. What ship did you come in on? she asked and I respond that I
came on the MV Chicken bus. She didn't laugh, and gave me some nuts.
I enjoyed my Gallo at the bar, and fell into conversation with the
bartender's friend. She was called Isabel and hailed from Nicaragua.
Turned out that I had visited her hometown, the Pacific coast port
Corinto, many years ago (when Isabel was about 10 years old) as I was
discovering the beauty of Sandinista Nicaragua. She knew the people I
had visited - a Liverpudlian socialist named Tommy who, she informed
me, had since settled there and had a kid with some local woman. I
cherish this kind of random connection on the road, whereupon one
inevitably makes links across disparate territory. Why was she in
Puerto Barrios? She responded vaguely - working. I noticed her
various messy tattoos and mentioned the 3 girls murdered in today's
papers. She was not perturbed. Life is short and violent here, was
all she said.
Isabel suggested we go to another bar. I followed her down the
block to a rough dive. She disappeared to a back room with a none too
salubrious man and came back in chirpier mood, eyes aflame. I
wondered if she was going to try to hustle me. Instead she seemed
more content to talk, and the topic of conversation turned to the
ravages of life in the port, the omnipresence of the Mara Salvatrucha
and the heavy police response to delinquency. I liked Isabel, she was
warm and engaging and although she spoke a kind of rough Nicaraguan
Spanish, she was graceful enough to temper her accent so that I would
understand her better.
Her mother was a Sandinista but she herself was not interested in
politics. Now it's all corrupt, dirty, fucked-up, she said. She went
on to describe her life, a sad story of a poverty stricken childhood,
a violent husband and her migratory flight to Guatemala, selling
pirate CDs in the plaza in Xela and falling in with the gangs. She
had a couple of kids, but they were in Corinto with her mother. She
wasn't a Marero, a Mara Salvatrucha, she assured me, although her
boyfriend was. Many of her homies were in prison, she said,
resignedly, and some were dead. She asked me for 10 Quetzals, $1, and
returned to the back room. I looked around the bar, and all the
clientele - young gangsters who wouldn't look out of place in East
New York, appeared to be in an advanced state of alteration. Isabel
reemerged a few minutes later, fried, off her head.
"Give me some of that," I said, somewhat innocently thinking it
"What ever you're taking...."
"No," she said, "it's bad, you don't want that."
"What is it?" I asked.
"Its bad," she said, and proceeded to slump against
People came and went, whispering in Isabel's ear. They ignored me.
In they went to the back room and out they came, furtively. Clearly
I've fallen in with a bad crowd, so I should be on my way.
"I'm off," I said.
"Where are you going?"
I explained I had to make my way over the border early next day to
the Honduran Port of Puerto Cortes. She gave me the name of a few
friends of hers there, and I left her in her crack-induced stupor.
Social War in Honduras
The road across the border to Honduras is unfinished, and the
Chicken bus trundled through muddy lanes and splashed across streams.
We passed through endless banana plantations and I remember hanging
out with the banana workers in this region about 12 years ago. They
were trying to organize a union and the local bosses responded by
firing anyone who joined the nascent union and employing a security
firm including ex-British army soldiers. These mercenaries patrolled
the workers villages in pickup trucks armed with shotguns and
electric cattle prods, which they deployed on the workers, not the
livestock. An Irish multinational company Fyffes imported the bananas
to Europe and although they weren't responsible for the regime on the
ground - that was in the hands of local entrepreneurs - they were
reaping the eventual profits. I planned to go to the Fyffes office in
nearby Puerto Cortes, the main Honduran Caribbean port, and see how
things had developed.
Puerto Cortes is unrecognizable from 12 years previous. Apart from
the ubiquitous tropical port hustle, major US franchises dominate the
town &endash; McDonalds, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and of course
Western Union. The streets are full of big SUVs and suburban
vehicles, many sporting intimidating black tinted windscreens.
Clearly there has been a big injection of fast money &endash; from
reading the local papers, drugs money I conclude, but still most of
the people lived in squalor. Beyond the spruced up town center, the
streets are motley, the pavements in disrepair and the drainage is a
disaster. This is usually a good indication of how equally the wealth
I booked into a shabby $5 hotel, the Colon, and set off towards
the docks, seeking out the Banana company headquarters. I'm
disappointed to discover that Fyffes shut down 5 years ago. The
operation has been taken over by Del Monte. The operative in the
office tells me that he used to work for Fyffes. He lamented their
departure and intimated that things had been better under Irish
"Mister David, a great man," he reminisced. I have met Mr. David
McCann, one of the sons of the Irish Banana dynasty, across a table
in the companies headquarters in Dublin, as we, a workers solidarity
group accompanied a woman representative of the banana workers,
argued the case for legalizing the union. The Fyffes men promised
they would take the idea onboard, and talk to local bosses. Years
later, under Del Monte, things don't seem to have changed.
"Is there a Union?" I asked the man in the Del Monte office.
"No," he said. "The workers are happy."
"Can I go visit the plantations?"
"Hmmm, can I go talk to the workers in their village?"
"Well, you can try, but there is a company guard, and
they probably wont let you enter. You need a special pass."
"Can you give me one?"
I went to a workers compound, a small settlement on the edge of
town, where the tiny block houses were all cramped on top of each
other like a miniature suburbia. It was enclosed by a metal fence and
the sole entrance and exit was guarded by a private security firm.
Sure enough, they refused to let me in.
You need a pass, they told me.
"Where can I get a pass?"
"At the office in Puerto Cortes."
There was a street festival in the port that evening and I
reckoned I could ask around and find some Banana workers there. But
the street festival was so fucking brilliant that I got caught up in
the revelries instead. Thousands of townspeople were out &endash;
everybody from families with their children and old folks to ultra
hip teenagers. A half a dozen hot local outfits performed - salsa,
reggae, hip hop &endash; everyone danced outrageously all night, the
numerous street marquee bars were jammed, and the warm Caribbean
night was filled with an ecstatic spirit of celebration.
The cutting edge of the night's performers was the Punta reggae
artists from Livingstone and the Garifuna coast. They have taken
reggae music from its Caribbean roots and mixed it with American
hip-hop. The result is an explosive blast of rhythmic gangster rap
that is both viscerally erotic and explicitly socially conscious in
content. It's the soundtrack to the crack- cocaine Mara Salvatrucha
generation, beats from the street - angry, violent, sexual and
lyrically moving. It's also the worst of American hip-hop - gun
totting, misogynist, amoral and sectarian.
Late at night, when the families had retired to their homes, and
only the youth and drunks remained out in force, I met Kenia and El
Sordo, friends of Isabel. Kenia was a black woman from Livingstone,
and El Sordo a mestizo from the nearby industrial city of San Pedro
Sula. They were glad to hear that their homie Isabel was keeping out
of trouble....or at least alive or not in prison. They were in their
mid twenties, clad in gangster gear, and obviously maras.. El Sordo
had 18 tattooed on his cheek, referring to Mara 18, one faction of
the gang underworld.
"Everybody here is a Marero," said Kenia.
She herself had a mangled tattoo on her arm. A few months ago she
had painfully and fruitlessly poured battery acid over it and
completely botched the job. " I could get arrested for that tattoo,"
she said. "They hunt us down."
Apparently El Sordo doesn't come out in daytime for fear of being
arrested for gang membership. Some 1300 youth have been locked up in
the San Pedro Sula region this year for "illicit association", an
undefined crime that carries an automatic 8-year sentence. It's an
undisguised state war against poor youth. Inspired by Giulianis
zero-tolerance policy in New York, the government embarked on a mano
dura (iron fist) strategy in dealing with delinquency. The
accumulation of that policy lead to the murder of 108 Maras in
prison, as the authorities locked the exits and set fire to the
over-populated prison wards.
This is the new war in Central America - the social war against
youth delinquency. The same tools used against the guerrillas in the
80s are employed against the youth gangs today.
Mara Salvatrucha began life in the 90s on the streets of Los
Angeles amongst the Salvadoran refugee community as a self-defense
outfit. Police reports claim young exiled members of the Salvadoran
guerrilla FMLN were instrumental in training and organizing the
street gang in its initial years. The Maras came to El Salvador when,
from 1998 onwards, in excess of 12,000 gang members were deported
from California. The unholy mix of hardened street gangsters who had
earned their kudos on the mean streets of Los Angeles with the social
disaster of a war-traumatized, poverty ridden quagmire like El
Salvador produced the ruthless gang sub-culture nurtured around
well-armed, rap-obsessed, deracinated males (and to a lesser extent,
females). It spread like weed, clandestine and autonomous throughout
the other Central American Republics, offering not only an identity
and meaning for abjectly alienated youth, but also a source of income
through organized crime in the form of drug dealing, extortion and
The papers quote numbers like 100,000-plus gang members in
Honduras. The media present them as some kind of appallingly strung
out, violent Frankenstein beast mired in an underworld of
ultra-delinquency and hardcore crime - and the facts on the ground go
some way to support that analysis. There are an average of 10
homicides daily in Honduras. The crime level is extraordinary. But
the other side of the equation is that they are also a product of an
incredibly violent society where police and military atrocities are
common place and state sponsored death squads formed in the 1980s to
eliminate the guerrilla, roam the streets with impunity gunning down
Maras and street kids. The Mara phenomenon is like a pre-apocalyptic
manifestation of neo-liberal social and economic catastrophe.
The bigger picture is framed by this part of Honduras being
pulverized by the global drugs industry. The Atlantic coast of
Honduras is a significant corridor in the transportation of hard
drugs from Colombia to the USA. Millions of dollars worth of
contraband flow through this region every month, and the devastating
spin-off is a flood of cheap gear and a flourishing clandestine
economy overseen by narcotraficantes, warlords and their private
armies. The trickle down effect of this rancid form of pirate
neoliberal economy is turf war on the barrio level.
Kenia and El Sordo, strung out Maras -- "Would you like some
rock?" they proffer -- don't seem to me the personification of evil,
but more like people caught in an unremittingly hopeless position.
Theirs is an all-consuming kind of economic and social dispossession
&endash; they have lost even the possibility of imagining a normal
life. They are children of the barrio born into an unforgiving,
despairing scenario, where the choices for those who don't want to
work in maquiladoras or sell shit in the market, are to emigrate, or
hustle a living on the margins. But when you deal with this kind of
social malaise by declaring all out war, as the Honduras state has
done, you create a dangerously volatile situation. Things spin out of
control. It came as no surprise then, the monstrous attack carried
out by some mad maras in San Pedro Sula a week later. A chicken bus
trundling through a poor neighborhood was held up and gangsters
opened up with machine gun fire, randomly killing 28 passengers.
I spent most of long bus journey out of Puerto Cortes, crossing
Honduras to Nicaragua, perusing the newspapers. The Honduran press is
a good read, with a lot of critical analysis of President Maduros
mano dura policy, and his lick-spittle bowing to the US (dispatching
troops to Iraq without having the cash to maintain them). La Prensa
has a 3 page interview with "the guerrilla of congress", Doris
Gutierrez, one of only 4 left wing Democratic Union deputies. She
pointed out that the government's mano dura policy against crime only
captures the "chicken thieves" while the massive corruption of
government and big business continues unhindered. This outspoken
activist, who rose from the ranks of the decimated social movements
of the 80s, faces constant death threats. The army offered her
protection and she refused. These were the same people who murdered
her companeros in the 80s.
I met a young doctor on the bus. She had spent some years in New
Jersey, but couldn't handle life there &endash; she had come home to
San Pedro Sula to work amongst her people for change. She could earn
a fortune in the US but choose to return to this desperate corner of
the world because it was clear that she still believed that things
could be better. She spent a lot of her time stitching up people's
"Better than doing plastic surgery and boob jobs," she
Hers was a nationalist rather than radical position, but it struck
me that she was the first positive voice I had heard in Honduras. The
young Doctor who fixed up the victims of the social war held hopes
for the future.
At dusk, we approached the border. For the final stretch I was
thrilled to have the company of an incoherent and remarkably chatty
drunk bloke who worked in the local mayors office. He insisted on
showing me his official credentials, and even those of his drunken
mate, another fatso, lurching around on the aisle jammed in with 20
other passengers. We trundled through border territory, the mountains
where the Contra mercenary camps were located during the
anti-Sandinista counterinsurgency war. I asked the old drunk about
the Contra war.
"We beat them. Communists. Sandinistas. Cubans. Hic! " he said
somewhat proudly. This part of Honduras was the "unsinkable aircraft
carrier" for the US military in the 1980s, a launching pad for covert
military operations against the Sandinistas. I remember traveling
around these same mountains - on the Nicaraguan side - in 1989. A
region littered by bombed out schools and clinics, Sandinista
agricultural cooperatives burnt to the ground. A grim history.
The dusty border town of Guasaule was like a museum piece. Nothing
had changed in 15 years. People lived in wooden shacks and there was
a creepy, suspicion-filled atmosphere, as if the war was still raging
and nobody could be trusted. Strangely, there was no sign of a
Western Union office. At dawn, I fought my way up to the Migration
window, where a throng of local traders scrambled to have their
documents stamped, paid my bribe, and walked as fast as I could to
get out of Honduras. The intractable problems of this condemned land
led me to conclude that if the end of the world should begin in a
place on earth, Honduras would be a good bet.
Nicaragua, The Revolution Revisited.
I was heading back to Nicaragua for the first time since the fall
of the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections. It's hard to describe or
even imagine the significance of the Sandinistas to the global
radical left in the 1980's. They filled a similar space in the
imagination as the Cuban revolution in the 60s, and the Zapatistas in
the 1990s. The violent overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship in 1979
imposed a revolutionary junta in charge of government and a radical
social program was implemented that had profound impact in terms of
health, education and land redistribution. There was a palpable
feeling of hope and as commentators pointed out, it was not so much
the Sandinistas communist tendencies than the threat of a good
example that upset the US and capital interests. The US launched the
Contra war and finally deposed the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections,
when the population voted under the threat of continued war,
sanctions and the ire of the US sole superpower. The fall of the
Sandinistas and the rolling back of all the gains of the revolution
represented a terrible setback for the worldwide progressive left.
The US broke the back of the Revolution, the revolutionary Sandinista
organization and the moral of the guerrilla movements in El Salvador
and Guatemala. The post-Sandinista economic aid promised by the US
was forgotten about and the economy has never recovered. By all
accounts things are worse for the majority now than 15 years ago.
I had picked coffee here in 1989 in a co-op in La Dalia,
Matagalpa. It was re-appropriated land and the 100 or so families
were evicted when the wealthy landlord returned from exile in Miami
in the 1990s after the fall of the Sandinistas. Who knows where those
people are now. A young bloke called Luis used to let me ride his
horse around the mountains. When the Contras attacked a nearby co-op,
Luis had handed me a Kalashnikov and intimated that I should use it
if he fell. Things like this that remains embedded in my
consciousness. (The Contras didn't attack our co-op, although the
dark nights were sometimes filled with faraway gunfire). Where is
Luis now? Where are any of the ardent revolutionaries I met then now?
I return 15 years later a stranger, a tourist, totally unconnected,
and its disconcerting. To walk the land where once I felt part of a
great struggle and now I am anonymous &endash; from the epic to the
Stepping off the bus at Mercado Israel Lewites was the personal
equivalent, if I could be so modest, of Neil Armstrong returning to
the moon. My heart leapt. The unforgettable tropical blast of heat,
the interminable dust in the air and the aromatic smell of heavy
diesel fumes mixed with tortillas cooking on makeshift roadside
stalls. The hustle and mood of urgency is strangely distinct from
elsewhere in the region. It was all so familiar from my sojourn in
1990, and yet everything had changed, changed utterly, this was not
the revolutionary hope of those times, but a horribly battered
country, reeling from years of war, and then the traumatic
neo-liberal reforms of the 90's, and now a descent into almost
endemic official corruption, the dissolution of the political class
into appalling petty squabbling, and shocking rates of crime, and of
course, migration. Remittance outlets feature predominantly on the
city and townscapes.
But still, Nicaragua is beautiful, if a terrible beauty
Lets start at the Plaza de la Revolution, the expansive park
situated on the banks of Lake Managua, flanked by an awesome volcano.
I stood here in February of 1990 on the eve of the elections,
surrounded by a half a million red and black bedecked Sandinistas
cheering President Daniel Ortega as he assured the multitude of an
FSLN victory and the consolidation of the revolution once a mandate
was won and the contra war would surely end. It was a sublime moment,
and the massive party continued into the warm night as reggae legend
Jimmy Cliff played from the stage. Surely a half a million dancing
revolutionary enthusiasts couldn't fail?
Today its called Plaza de la Paz, Peace Park, and the same stage
is occupied by a bunch of gray suited evangelical ministers
lambasting a crowd of 5000 devotees on the evils of Sandinismo and
the need for celestial salvation through sexual abstinence,
intemperance and faith in, what did they call Him?, Jehovah. Oh dear,
I lament, the Revolution is dead and gone, its with Sandino in the
Central Managua is no longer in ruins. In 1990, this area was
filled with shells of buildings from the devastating 1972 earthquake,
occupied by squatter families. Now there are some pleasant parks and
an open-air convention center. There's a Christmas commercial fair
here, and as I peer into the enclosure, all I see are multinational
and franchise signs. This boulevard used to be decorated by a long
line of colorful and creative revolutionary murals. All gone, and in
their place billboards advertising Western Union, the Metro Center
shopping mall and the usual US brand names. I search for the palapa
bar, a lovely humble open space beneath a grass roof, where once I
was part of some meetings with Cuban officials to dispatch solidarity
brigades to Cuba during the crisis of 1990, as the Berlin Wall came
down and the US threatened a military strike. The palapa has been
erased, and in its place, a Cineplex and a shopping mall. Even the
Intercontinental Hotel, a historical landmark once filled with
international journalists, diplomats, dignitaries from socialist
countries and in Feb 1990, international election observers, has
transformed into a ubiquitous luxury hotel, the Crown Plaza, catering
for bland, rich tourists. I remember on the emotional filled morning
after the election results came out in 1990, coming here, and
stepping into an elevator occupied by ex US President Jimmy Carter
and his entourage.
Managua was like that in those days - a point of extraordinary
global convergence, where one went from a meeting of barrio residents
organizing local food distribution to hobnobbing with the
international political jetset. Next door to the Intercontinental is
a military complex where one night I found myself pushing aside
Bianca Jagger and Billy Bragg to get to the free salad bar during, I
don't remember, some fucking journalists bar-b-queue do. I didn't
dare push aside Daniel Ortega, also lingering around the catering
stand, with his gang of hardcore guerilla pals. His wife Rosary gave
us a lift home that night. No really, now it sounds totally
implausible, but so it was -a young anarcho dirt-bag like myself was
driven home by the nations first lady!
Now I approach the same military quarters, and two hostile guards
send me on my way. Nearby, a comely prostitute offers her services.
This genuinely shocks me. In 1990, maybe more in all my
naiveté than my consciousness, I never came across a sex
worker. Today, sex tourism is a big thing. Prostitutes linger all
around the center of Managua.
I scurry over to barrio Martha Quezado &endash; Gringolandia -
where once there was a scattering of bars and cheap hotels, the main
hang for all the international solidarity activists, Central American
guerillas and various renegades and desperados. Today it's a curious
mix of back-packers and local hipster hangouts. The infamous Sara's
bar, where once you could sit around a merry table of quite serious
international revolutionaries plotting all kinds of trouble, there is
a bunch of ubiquitous students of Spanish and a group of Australian
tourists talking about new age spirituality. Up the street, I can't
find the Bobby Sands Bar. Maybe it's that cell phone dealers store.
Or maybe it's the cobblers. The barrio is unrecognizable. I am quite
lost in a place where once, 15 years ago, I spent many days and
nights of intrigue and adventure.
I stumble upon an Irish bar called The Shannon. Now here's a
pleasant surprise! Lured by the prospect of a cead mile failte (big
welcome), I take a peep. But this new bar is fancy, and populated by
a hip crowd. Its reminiscent of a typical Irish theme bar you
encounter anywhere across the globe, corny Guinness posters and
soccer paraphernalia decorating the walls. I'm disappointed to be
told by the standard gorgeous barmaid that they don't actually serve
Guinness. It's not like the ramshackle Bobby Sands Bar of yesteryear,
filled with provos on the run romancing heart-wrenching Salvadoran
So I decide that this place, this pastiche representation of a
global Irish bar is a symbol of all that has changed in Managua. A
neo-liberal outpost trading a cultural brand, profiting upon other
peoples misery. I engage the owner, a Corkman, in flippant
conversation and he further compounds my analysis by telling me that
he's here for the Craic (fun), the cheap beer and the beautiful
women, all present here in abundance. I'm appalled: so this is the
new Nicaragua, where once there was authentic international
solidarity as people shared a common purpose, coming together in the
bars at night to exchange experiences of struggle and plot. Now
there's a bunch of random trendy people gathered in a commercial
space to have vacuous fun. Revolutionary Nicaragua is dead and gone;
it's with the Bobby Sands Bar in the grave.
Suddenly the idea came to me that it would be a good idea to
interview the bar owner, and write a piece for some Irish magazine
using this bar and his attitude as a damning metaphor for shinny new
Managua. I presume the Corkman would love to do an interview and get
a little bit of exposure for his business.
"So, pal," I begin, breezily. "What would you say to a little
interview for a magazine back home...."
His hostile reaction is unexpected.
"Are you for fucking real?" he says with an edge. Mr.
Cheap Beer and Good Craic turns nasty.
"Well, just a chat about Managua and the changes....". I'm a bit
"Whatever you feel comfortable talking about...."
"Get the fuck out of here," he says, and walks off.
End of conversation,. I finish up my beer and legit out of The
Shannon for fear of one of his mates at the dartboard taking me for a
Turned out that I had got it all wrong. Barrio Marta Quezada still
had its quota of provos on the run romancing Salvadoran refugees, and
this bar was not all it seemed. So too the cleaned up downtown
sector. Next day, I return and realize that I missed a sold out
concert the previous night in the Ruben Dario theatre by the Meiji
Godoy brothers, the bards of the Sandinista revolution. An exhibition
of the paintings of Armando Morales is decorating the walls of the
next-door art gallery. He portrays the Sandinista struggle in dark
brooding portraits of Sandino, the victims of Somoza dictatorship and
insurgents, pulsating with revolutionary vigor, masked and armed. Him
being an artiste, there is also lots of portraits of nude women with
guns. The art gallery is full of people. Maybe the Sandinista legacy
remains only in art and culture?
No. Outside the Ruben Dario theatre I am delighted to stumble upon
the statue of the massive realist representation of a revolutionary
worker holding a Kalashnikov sky high. A Sandinista flag flies from
his gun barrel, 12 meters high. It's not so much the survival of this
symbol of the revolutionary days, but more that there's a throng of
people around the statue. It's a group of boisterous high school
students with their teacher, who is explaining what the monument
signifies, and he is all about the armed struggle and the heroic
struggle to overthrow the dictatorship. He reads the words engraved
on the plinth - only the workers and peasants go the whole way. The
young students, amongst giggles and hoots, seem to appreciate the
revolutionary sentiment. Nearby stands Carlos Fonsecas' mausoleum -
the martyred founder of the FSLN, and it's an impressive structure
flanked by a row of proud red and black Sandinista flags. The eternal
flame that accompanied this monument in 1990 is extinguished, but it
still stands, as a memory of the overthrowing of the dictatorship and
it is a fresh monument, shiny, well tended, and judging only by the
array of gorgeous flowers, cherished.
Indeed the newspapers are full of anti-dictatorship battles. The
current president, a nasty piece of neo-liberal work called Bolenas,
is accusing the opposition Sandinistas and Liberals of fermenting a
collective dictatorship to depose him. Daniel Ortega, still leading
the party, is in turn denouncing him as a dictator trying to
centralize state power. So the idea of dictators is the currency in
the political circles. The Sandinistas failed in their revolution
program but the political classes are united in revulsion to the
notion of dictatorship. This is one legacy of the FSLN years.
Ironically enough, to a nation plagued by 60 years of Somoza
dictatorship, the "Marxist" Sandinistas brought parliamentary
democracy to Nicaragua. And this explains why this prominent monument
to a Marxist leader takes center place in Managua, and why it is
acceptable to all political strands - Carlos Fonseca is presented as
a slayer of dictators.
But it's clear that the current day Sandinistas have lost their
revolutionary vigor and have become mired in incestuous battles for
political power. Today's paper has the same Commandante Ortega
pictured shaking hands with the conservative Cardenal Obando y Bravo,
as he cuts a deal with his previous sworn enemy against the current
embattled President Bolanas. Ortega and his cohorts in the Sandinista
leadership are also scheming with the right wing neo-liberals of the
Liberal party, snuggling up in an anti-Bolonas orgy with the
repellent party leader Gordo Aleman, currently under house arrest for
embezzling millions of dollars from the national exchequer while
serving his Presidency term in the 90s. This kind of despicable
Machiavellian political chicanery is typical of the Sandinastas
today. They embrace the free market and have feathered their own
nests while fatuously talking up the interests of the workers and the
campesinos. A cartoon in La Prensa shows Ortega with a bag of money
&endash; We the Sandinista leadership are very practical, goes the
caption, the Left for the masses, and the free market for us....
News comes through from Chiapas via email that I need to be back
there in a few days. First of all, it strikes me that when I was here
before; there was no such thing as email. We wrote and the postal
odyssey usually took a month or so to arrive each way. Telephone
costs were prohibitive, and even sending faxes was a rare occurrence.
So being in Nicaragua in 1990 was really being far away from anywhere
else. Now I communicate with people all over the world
instantaneously by the Internet. It leads to a strange and
disconcerting disconnection with the present. I cant locate anybody I
knew in Nicaragua in 1990 - things have changed too much, but I have
everybody I've known since I began using the internet - 1997,
anywhere in the world, just a keyboard away. I search out the
Salvadoran Center where I had hung out with refugees riveted by news
of the 1990 insurrection in San Salvador. But it has disappeared
without a trace. I am overwhelmed to be a tourist in a place where
once we were all so integrated in the urgent exigencies of the day,
struggling to build ....a new world.
Early the next morning I left Managua, and headed north for Leon,
a sweltering town where 15 years previous I had taught English to a
class of Sandinista students at the university. Leon is a lovely
colonial town blessed with a fantastic climate. The former Sandinista
Mayor, Omar Cabezas (who wrote the quintessential guerrilla text,
Fire From the Mountain) is in the newspapers being elected as the
parliamentarian Human Rights assessor. Leon is still Sandinista, but
it's the new neo-liberal version. Subtiava, the indigenous barrio, is
as poor and wretched as before, yet the spruced up center of town is
full of fancy SUVs and franchises. Such is the path of progress
&endash; the few get rich, the majority stays the same. I am
perturbed by the presence of several Sandinista museums to the
Revolution. Is that it &endash; museums? Its good that they are
cherishing the memory of the struggle, but the Sandinistas still
control this town. The revolution is dead and gone, it's with the
neo-liberals in the grave of the bickering parliament.
The abuse of power comes as no surprise. So Ortega and his gang
play the power game, casting off renegades along the way, like Sergio
Ramirez his vice-president during the revolutionary years, who cast
aspersions on the naked pursuit of political power. Ortega came close
to taking power in the 2002 elections, but the US stepped in,
interfering in Nicaraguan politics again, and ensured by undisguised
threat, that their man, in this case the sorry, unforgettable figure
of Bolanas got elected. The upcoming elections in 2006 may see Ortega
gaining power because of the appalling economic and political
failures of the neo-liberals, and the current left turning trend in
Latin America. Nostalgia for his heady revolutionary past will guide
the beleaguered electorate, but it remains to be seen if his
potential administration, by current standards, beset by chronic
clientalism and compromise, will affect any real progressive change.
The betrayal of the Sandinistas of their revolutionary principles
also raises questions of solidarity and support. On a personal level,
did my support of the Sandinista project mean that my political
formation was based on a flawed principle, an untruth? Returning to
Nicaragua 15 years later, I think it is still consistent to lend
support to the Sandinista revolutionary program if not the flawed
Party itself. I might well have got a little carried away with the
revolutionary fervor back in the day, but the principles were sound.
Unconditional solidarity for any political party or movement is a
foolish stance, especially when you have no participation in the
process of decision or ideological direction. But the loyalty remains
to the idea, and the revolutionary actions of a movement in a
North Bound Chicken Bus Odyssey
I'm back on the chicken buses on the long trawl to Mexico. In 48
hours of intense road journey, bus-to-bus, I leave Nicaragua, pass
through Honduras, cross El Salvador and the Pacific coast of
Guatemala, crossing 4 international borders. A perusal of the local
newspapers along the road presents the usual depressing vista. In the
toll of daily violent deaths Guatemala fares better than Honduras
&endash; eight to six, but El Salvador is way ahead &endash; 13
murders reported in today's paper, 21st December.
There's not a lot you can say when you spend all of 18 hours in a
country, half of that on buses traversing the length of it, but El
Salvador reads like the same bad script from the same shit movie. The
(neo-liberal) government has declared a super mano dura policy
against the Mara Salvatrucha, and here, the birthplace in many
respects of the gang phenomenon, the slaughter is more pronounced. I
stay overnight in San Miguel, once a strategic center of the
anti-guerrilla insurgency war, and its like the war never ended.
There is a palpable sense of fear lingering around the town, as I
search out a place to eat after sunset. The streets are deserted at
7pm, and random people warn me of the dangers lurking at every
Salvador dollarized their economy a few years ago, resulting in a
general price hike. It's the most expensive of the Central American
Republics. More pressing is the issue of currency sovereignty, but
the Salvadoran government has all but accepted a poorly colonial
status as a satellite of the USA and its (clandestine, illegal)
migrant workforce in the US contributes up to 50% of the cash flow in
the local economy.
The FMLN, the ex-guerrilla insurgency, are now the nations second
most powerful political party and the compromises undertaken to
achieve this status have been astonishing. Following the same
neo-liberal path as the Sandinistas, the FMLN has converted
themselves from an outlaw force to an insider dealer. Practically
speaking, that means that any remnants of the 1980s revolutionary
program has been shelved and today's FMLN embrace neo-liberal
programs introduced by the IMF and World Bank. Still, like the
Sandinistas, they are the only left of center show in town for those
who feel the urge to vote. At least they are not on-board the
governments super mano dura policy, denouncing it as a further
incendiary to widespread violence.
The bus crossing the frontier to Guatemala is filled with
migrants. A couple of illiterate campesinos sitting beside me have
hired street moneychangers to fill out their migration papers in full
sight of the migration officials checking peoples papers. Nobody
gives a fuck. The peasants pay a few dollars to the hustlers, and
probably pay a few to the migration officials too. All the way up the
isthmus they will be shelling out cash, hand over fist.
We kept getting taken off the packed chicken bus while crossing
Guatemala. Cops made us line up by the bus and we were ordered to
spread our legs as they patted us down, as if we were being arrested.
A while later, the army came onboard and ordered us all off again.
People grumbled and got on with the humiliation. The third time it
happened, I somewhat foolishly decided to use my privileged status to
make a stand.
" Why do we have to get off the bus? This is the third time this
afternoon." The cop looked at me with surprise.
" You a visitor to this country, gringo, and you are
obliged to do what the authorities tell you. If you don't like it, go
back to the United States."
He was a nasty bit of work, and I regretted starting this. I had
visions of being stranded on the roadside with this thug and his
mates, and the chicken bus disappearing into the mountains. But I
couldn't back down - that would probably make it worst.
"This is no way to treat people," I said. " We have
been searched twice, let us go on our way...."
He grabbed my passport and flicked through the pages.
"Your visa is out of date!" he said, satisfied to have
caught me out. Now he could have some fun!
I looked at the visa stamp he was pointing at.
" Eh, that's for El Salvador, senor".
Stifled laughter could be heard around the bus. The cop was
He handed me back my passport, and stomped off the bus.
We rolled on and some of the passengers turned to talk to me, to
show their approval for my action. I was satisfied that I had indeed
managed to do one small act of resistance on my trip. It's not much,
but when there's an insane social war raging all around, it's better
Exodus, Migration, Desolation.
This Chicken Bus diary is not about bad roads and shit buses. The
PPP (Plan Puebla Panama) analysis is that if infrastructure were
improved &endash; more highways - the region would improve. Big
highways help big business. The neo-liberal notion that once a region
can produce goods at a competitive rate means that it is realizing
its potential, is flawed. As small farmers and producers are forced
out of the market, big business dispossesses the locals and where
once there was a community, now there is a company.
Days on buses populated predominantly with migrants - poor people
heading north, harassed endlessly by authorities and criminal
elements, is a melancholy experience. People are strong and
resilient, but look at their faces in repose as they try to sleep as
we lurch along the rough roads &endash; lines crease young farmers
visages. Theirs is not a sleep of confidence, but one filled with the
phantasmagoria of the dangers and difficulties they will face on
Economic hardship has spurned people throughout the ages to seek
better fortunes elsewhere. People have always migrated, exodus is
nothing new. But there is something more in Central America, and I
understand it as having something to do with being here in November
of 1989, when it looked like the Sandinistas would win the upcoming
elections and thousands of guerrillas of the FMLN surrounded San
Salvador, and the URNG in Guatemala fought on, and the clandestine
insurgency in Honduras was just waiting for the signal from the
others. The region was a harbinger for a new world -Central America
would lead us into the 21st century with the combined example of
their revolutionary societies, neither capitalist or communist,
something different, something we glimpsed in Sandinista Nicaragua, a
hope, an inspired example of, quite simply, a better way of
organizing society, from below, with more equality, more justice.
The current day exodus is a form of economic migration and,
depressingly, the political desertion of the revolutionary idea.
There is no more hope in the political idea, there is nothing left.
Social disintegration, the breakdown of communities in struggle and
endemic crime - this is the logical conclusion of the neo-liberal
The tragic failure of those movements to implement the
revolutionary program propagated in the 1980s goes some way to
explaining the terrible current situation in Central America. That
those forces were defeated by US promoted neo-liberal capitalism is
the global history we currently live in. The poignancy of the bus
full of migrants (now creating a big problem for the US itself - in
macro terms of security, crime and clandestinity) is that it could
have so easily being so different. 15 years on we could have a group
of thriving, self-determined Central American Republics heading
towards regional autonomy, premised in good education, health and
equality. People would have had a reason to stay and fight.
Instead it is a catastrophic region. Darkly violent places
surviving tenuously from remittances sent back from migrant family
members working illegally in the US and other countries. Nicaragua,
the flagship of the failed revolutionary project, is like an orphaned
child fallen in with a bad gang of glue sniffing street kids.
Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala are mad conflict zones between
state forces, their clandestine death squad militia and poverty-born
violent youth delinquents &endash; products themselves of a
trigger-happy, war-traumatized society.
The old Central American staples of endemic corruption and
periodic natural disasters insure that this wretched part of the
world - now cast into oblivion as the world focuses on Iraq,
Afghanistan and Palestine - remains a veritable hell, a space of near