Thursday, September 9, 2010


When I lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the 1970s, the burning of Zozobra was one of the biggest events of the year, and it continues to be a great tradition. Zozobra, a giant figure symbolizing worry, anxiety and general grumpiness, is burned at the culmination of the Santa Fe fiesta - here's a photo of the creature.

But the zozobra we've experienced this week in El Salvador is far from fun or funny. It began on Tuesday, after gang members had put out the word that any buses operating would be shot up. The speculation is that the gang members were reacting to a recently passed law outlawing gangs, and also to the police seizure of buried barrels of money worth $10 million plus (a great story that, which everyone here has enjoyed: narcobarrels!) The threats and menaces were compelling, and on Tuesday, when I was in the capital, no buses were running and the downtown markets were deserted.

It's shocking to see how completely this series of threats was able to terrify and paralyze the country. The government response has been good - police and military were out in numbers, and official trucks were turned into transportation for the many people trying to make their way to work or home. But even today, Thursday, the bus transportation system - on which probably 80% of the population depends - was not back to normal. Buses are, in many ways, the most vulnerable link: they travel fixed routes, so they're easy to hold up, and they are so frequent here that it would be almost impossible to guard them all. A friend of ours was robbed on the bus just last week, along with all the other passengers. Drivers and conductors are terribly vulnerable, and are subject to extorsion payments, as are the owners of the bus routes. Hearing about the murder of a driver or conductor is a commonplace in the news.

The panico y zozobra, panic and anxiety, show how completely seriously everyone here takes the menace posed by the gangs. Our priest, Father Carlos Elias, talked on Wednesday about the fear that everyone says is perhaps worse than it was during the Civil War. He talked about El Salvador, a country uniquely named for Jesus, as a small country with a powerful history of light and darkness, not unlike Jesus' country two thousand years ago. He talked about our need to rely on God in this time.

Here, we can't burn zozobra. The darkness is too real and the threat is too great.

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