Our First Coop Visit Together In El Salvador

By Ron Ober – Associate with Revy Fair Trade Products:

“Sure, I’d like to go,” was my wife’s reply when I asked if she would like to return to El Salvador with me. I had just come back from an initial trip to visit some coops, and I thought that she would like to experience this wonderful country. “But is it safe?” she continued.

“Absolutely,” I said. I assured her that we would be with both a driver and translator who are street smart and wouldn’t get us into any trouble. The fact that San Salvador had the second highest murder rate in the world behind Baghdad at the time should be of no concern.

My assurances may have helped a little, but when we boarded the flight and I received an upgrade due to my frequent flier miles, I gave her my seat. She definitely needed the three free margaritas that were offered in first class.

After an uneventful arrival, we went off to our first coop visit the next morning accompanied by our translator and friend, Chumba, whom I had met on my previous visit. Chumba picked up his English as a refugee from the war when he lived in Indiana. He still carries a piece of shrapnel in his stomach.

The stop was at Las Tinecas, which is located on the outskirts of San Salvador. Marilyn greeted us as we entered her home located along an abandoned railroad line. The home was spartan: a clean swept dirt floor, uprights crafted from tree branches, walls of that rippled fiberglass sheeting sometimes used in outbuildings in poorer U.S. communities. She pulled up two plastic patio chairs and laid out her coop’s handiwork on a small wooden table.

Marilyn had once been a member of the notorious 13th Street gang which originated in Los Angeles among war refugees. Since these refugees were considered “illegal,” jobs were scarce, but extortion easy. When arrested by U.S. authorities, they were imprisoned until the war ended and then returned to El Salvador, bringing their U.S. learned trade and violent methods with them.

Since Marilyn was no longer a member, life was improving for her as she created a wonderful line of jewelry. What we didn’t know was that the neighborhood had not changed. It was a real treat to see my wife’s face as three policemen with face masks hiding their identity and two national guards holding M-16’s knocked on the door. “It’s not safe here – there have been five murders in this neighborhood alone during the past week,” was Chumba’s translation.

So, off we went, backing the car down the abandoned railroad tracks. As I turned to my wife, I once again assured her that we were safe. She smiled. Nothing happened, nor has it in our numerous trips to El Salvador since our first encounter with Marilyn that August afternoon. But it was a great introduction to the country, its problems, and its promise.