Salvadorans demanding land rights reform seek Salvadoran President Bukele’s support ahead of his annual address to the Legislative Assembly. (Facebook/COFOA)
  • Feature

Unable to claim title to homes they paid to own, Salvadorans unite to fight developers for land rights

A new campaign for land rights is working to end the decades-old practice in El Salvador that has denied more than 350,000 families title to their property.
Salvadorans demanding land rights reform seek Salvadoran President Bukele’s support ahead of his annual address to the Legislative Assembly. (Facebook/COFOA)

Heidi Zelaya is determined to see her grandmother’s legacy of property ownership realized. 

But along with more than 350,000 families across El Salvador, she is living in legal limbo, unable to claim title to property that her family paid to own. 

Zelaya is a community leader with Communities of Faith Organizing in Action, or COFOA, a faith-based grassroots organization that has mounted a struggle for land rights, representing hundreds of thousands of disenfranchised Salvadorans who bought land lots from developers but have not been awarded legal ownership, sometimes decades after paying the balance due. 

“Our vision is to create citizen power capable of advocating for national public policy that alleviates the tensions that exist because of inequality and poverty, and that improve health services, education, housing, security and employment,” explained COFOA Executive Director Alberto Velázquez.

They call their campaign “RENACER,” a Spanish acronym meaning “National Network in Action with Hope and Resistance.” It also means “rebirth” in Spanish, and the initiative has rallied more than 3,000 community leaders across the country representing 7,500 of the affected families in seven states (referred to as “departments” in El Salvador). Their goal is to push land developers to hand over titles long owed to lot owners and to pressure the government to enact reform that would hold private developers accountable. 

A bill proposed for a vote by Minister of Housing Michele Sol is now headed out of committee to the full legislative assembly. It would not resolve Zelaya’s situation, according to organizers.  

Decades ago, Zelaya’s grandmother was one of many in the El Socorro housing development who paid cash for her small slice of land. Informally, she was given the developers’ word that once half the properties sold, the title to her land would be transferred and registered to her name. 

“That was in 1991,” Zelaya said. “This is 2021.”

Her family still doesn’t hold the title to the land and she says the developers, now living in Miami, don’t have much incentive to resolve the 30-year-old situation. Many others are in the same boat as Zelaya. 

She is among the leaders who helped organize 600 demonstrators who showed up in front of the assembly on June 1 to appeal to President Nayib Bukele as he arrived for his second annual address. Weeks earlier, they arrived en masse at the Presidential House to deliver a letter requesting a meeting to present their case. 

“We’re not against you, President Bukele. We just want to touch your heart,” read a sign held by a demonstrator on June 1. The president has not responded to requests from COFOA-RENACER, who say face-to-face meetings with government officials are a cornerstone of the COFOA organizing methodology.

Velázquez says people who buy lots in housing developments, often paying the balance over a number of years, are easily left landless. He claims real estate developers who accept lot payments and make promises to transfer titles have for decades evaded or simply defied a national system of property registry — known as the National Center of Registry — which is responsible for assigning those rights . 

After more than a year of organizing, demonstrations and in person appeals to confront private development companies, the National Center of Registry and other government agencies, leaders have begun the next phase of their campaign as legislators consider the bill they’re being asked to vote on. 

Oligarchs continue to hold the majority of land, still benefiting from historic privilege and government structures that favor the elite.

Organizers are meeting across the country throughout the month of June with legislative deputies, asking them to insist on a just law that protects the rights of citizens who purchase lots and are routinely denied title. They say the law must require developers to abide by reasonable timelines for submitting title transfers to the National Center of Registry, and they are demanding sanctions against private companies when they fail to comply.  

COFOA says that commitment on the part of the legislature to pass a “Lots and Parcels for Habitational Use” law could mean greater security for families like Zelaya’s. But in its current form, a vote is premature because it fails to protect all lot purchasers. According to organizers, amendments COFOA proposed in January to the Public Works, Transportation and Housing Commission would correct the deficiency.

“The proposed law the commission approved for a full assembly vote would only protect future lot buyers, not the people who have already made purchases,” Velázquez said. “[The bill] doesn’t permit any government agencies to hold developers accountable or protect the public when their rights have been violated … It doesn’t obligate developers to legalize their lots but rather invites them to, if they’d like to.” 

Though some government officials have voiced support for citizen efforts to stake their long-awaited claims, the amendments COFOA offered to specifically protect citizens were ignored. 

“Today we began the work to break with the mafia of developers that have kept lot inhabitants in legal limbo,” Deputy Saúl Mancía of the president’s Nuevas Ideas party wrote in May when the committee voted to approve moving the bill out of committee. Nuevas Ideas controls the newly seated legislature, the presidency and — after a controversial move last month by the party that replaced all five of the justices of the highest national court — the judicial branch.  

Mancía’s statement indicated the legislature will provide legal tools to the Ministry of Housing to ensure those who purchase lots are granted title. Legal title is necessary in order to access credit or even put a water or electric bill in one’s name. 

“Having legal certainty, it will be much easier to access basic services and credit,” he said.  

The ball is now in the full legislature’s court, but COFOA leaders say their current efforts fall short. 

As it stands, developers who don’t transfer title when they’ve been paid for the property continue to be the legal owners, maintaining their wealth and their rights to the land. This leaves lot dwellers vulnerable to exploitation and land grabbing. Velázquez says developers take advantage by becoming lenders to people who purchase from them, since they are unable to access credit through traditional lenders, multiplying their earning potential on the land. He says there are also cases in which the developers re-sell land to other buyers when a lot dweller misses payments or falls behind, sometimes keeping years of equity and “refinancing” so that purchasers have to start over from zero.  

Hundreds of Salvadorans have marched on private real estate developers, government agencies, the legislature and the president, demanding land rights reform in recent weeks. (Facebook/COFOA)

The concept of buying land outright or paying off a lease or contract for deed, in most contexts, is cause for celebration, relief and a growing sense of financial, social and legal security — but for many Salvadoreans, it can be a struggle to get there. 

This is not a new plight. Calls for land reform in the 1980s accompanied El Salvador’s plunge into a 12-year civil war and many advocates ended up dead at the hands of death squads propped up by the United States. Oligarchs then and now continue to hold the majority of land, still benefiting from historic privilege and government structures that favor the elite. 

For the thousands of people who paid off the debt on the lots where their homes now sit — some of them 15, 20, or, as in the Zelaya family’s case, as many as 30 years ago — it has been a never-ending wait to legally own land they paid for. 

As Mancía noted and organizers confirm, the result is not simply that owners don’t have legal claim to their property. It also means that they often can’t access basic services like water and electricity because access is granted to owners. Because the government is not legally bound to extend services like public water to privately owned land, this is both a money and face-saver for them and wealthy landowners. 

Omar Serrano is vice rector for social projection at the University of Central America, which has been a hub for Jesuit intellectuals and human rights organizers since the Salvadoran civil war of the 1980s, when many of its scholars were murdered for their opposition to the right-wing Salvadoran government. According to Serrano, the land rights issue is an old problem that grew out of shared negligence on the part of the developers who don’t appropriately facilitate the transfer of title upon sale. He also holds the National Center of Registry responsible for ignoring the problem for more than 30 years. 

Serrano believes that COFOA’s community organizing strategy has been effective. “The value added by COFOA is its closeness with the people,” Serrano said, dubbing himself an outside observer. “The people take ownership of their cause, their problem … and they feel that they’re defending something that is their own.” 

“Where there is unity, there is strength. There’s a feeling of power. We’re no longer three or four members of a local council, but a total of 39 communities working together.”

Organizers with COFOA view the land rights battle and the struggle for access to clean, affordable water as intrinsically connected. For decades, the rich have continued to accumulate wealth as water flows freely from their publicly-funded taps, and activists have voiced concerns about privatization of public resources and skyrocketing costs that have ensured access is secure only for the elite. COFOA has been at the forefront of this fight. 

Though there is widespread public consensus surrounding water rights, the movement has made few material gains. Serrano says this is because party politics determines what issues count, referring to the legislature’s recent vote against a public water rights law. He finds COFOA’s practice to confront officials at the local level promising, but with the political distribution of power even at the local level dominated by Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party, he believes they’ll have to be strategic.

“The human right to water has been the issue with the greatest consensus in our country … It can be the most noble cause, but unless it comes from the party in power, it won’t advance … I think [COFOA] should be conscious of this,” he said of the land rights reform efforts. 

A testament to the intimately tied issues, many lot dwellers who’ve been denied their titles are forced to walk long distances several times a day to fill receptacles to meet their families’ daily needs or pay black market prices to purchase water from those who do have access

Their ability to access credit is also derailed by the lack of legal collateral to secure even a small loan. 

“I operate as a street vendor and financial institutions won’t give me credit,” said Marcos Álvarez, whose family is among the disenfranchised lot dwellers who often can’t make even small purchases for his business. “This hurts me a lot because it’s my raw material.”

He says that as a community leader, the methods he’s learned through COFOA are working. 

“Before, I would have never agreed to participate in a protest,” Álvarez said. But the nonviolent pressure and transparent, peaceful and orderly methods organizers have been trained to use with businesses and government institutions support his principles and “they’re effective and efficient.”

Over the years, individuals and small groups of organizers from different communities have approached the developers and local and national government agencies responsible for assigning land rights. Zelaya and Álvarez agreed that the appeal had never been unified. Lacking the benefit of connecting the dots from municipality to municipality and in departments across the country, community leaders connected through COFOA have recognized a need to band together and organize.  

“Where there is unity, there is strength. There’s a feeling of power,” Álvarez said. “We’re no longer three or four members of a local council, but a total of 39 communities working together.”  

COFOA was established in El Salvador as a locally-owned branch of Faith in Action International, a U.S.-based Catholic organization that began its work there in 2008. The non-governmental organization equips and trains local leaders to build effective nonviolent campaigns to effect change through a methodology of community-led relationship building, research, dialogue to identify and prioritize issues they want addressed, and demonstration of their people power, demanding accountability and action from public officials. 

On the heels of the first year of the land rights campaign, 80 families in the first community to organize were awarded their titles, exceeding a collective value of $1 million.

Velázquez says COFOA has helped communities access millions of dollars in municipal and state funding and reforms over more than a decade. Their efforts, grounded in church-based organizing across the country, have helped communities gain greater access to water and healthcare, build bridges necessary to facilitate economic and social mobility, and ultimately strike at the heart of unjust and negligent government systems through direct action.

“Our strategy is built on relationships and empowering regular people to meet directly with officials en masse to raise their concerns and make demands,” Velázquez said. When this method alone doesn’t get results, they stage nonviolent, organized marches, making public appeals that pressure officials by demonstrating the risk of losing at the ballot box. 

Following Bukele’s annual address repeatedly attacking the oligarchy and asserting his unflinching allegiance to “the people,” more than 1,000 leaders are leaving letters addressed to him at the Presidential House this week. The individually written letters ask him to meet with RENACER leaders in person and to support reform and protect “the people” by holding the multi-million dollar real estate development companies accountable.  

“We teach people that public officials are their employees and their salaries are paid with the people’s tax dollars,” said Velázquez. “COFOA isn’t a welfare organization … What we do is empower regular people through a methodology of leadership formation so that they can exercise their power as citizens, in an active, participatory democracy, and from a place of faith.” 

Velázquez claims COFOA’s success over the past 13 years includes community campaigns that have netted more than $18 million dollars in public infrastructure projects that improve the lives of ordinary citizens. 

One community led a two-year campaign to get the Ministry of Public Works to construct a needed bridge that had been an unfulfilled promise for 20 years. They garnered more than $500,000 in government investment in 2018 after increasing pressure on officials through direct negotiation and public demonstrations.

On the heels of the first year of the land rights campaign that became RENACER in 2020, 80 families in the first community to organize were awarded their titles, exceeding a collective value of $1 million. RENACER aims to keep growing until everyone who is owed gets the title to their land.  

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Organizers plan to hold the pressure firm on deputies throughout the month of June, bringing together community leaders to demonstrate the power of their vote at meetings scheduled with legislators in their home districts. They’re arguing for the inclusion of COFOA amendments presented in January that have been left out of the bill slated for a vote.    

“Getting the law passed is critical for advancing the cause of people who need their titles registered and for advancing the processes necessary for developers to finally transfer the titles,” Velázquez said. He and community leaders agree that if the law passes, with or without the amendments, the work is far from over. He says they will keep pushing to ensure people get their titles and training and growing the ranks of the movement to turn up the heat across the country all the way to the ballot box. He says if necessary, they’re prepared to seek international support.

“They say they’re there for the people, they work for the people,” said community leader Alicia Merino, repeating the refrain of Bukele and his Nuevas Ideas party. “And as the people, we’re going to pressure them until they approve a fair law that, as one current legislator put it, ‘has claws, nails and teeth’ … to benefit the people who are affected and not just the developers.”

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