US food aid for destitute sold illegally in Salvadorean markets

Food supplies donated by the United States government are being sold in local marketplaces here. Such sales are illegal, but they have been going on for several months, according to sources in this provincial capital.

Vendors, in fact, are doing a brisk business selling US food that was intended for impoverished and displaced people. Stalls in the expansive marketplaces here are selling measured quantities of soybean oil, corn, cornmeal , and bulgur from containers marked, ''Furnished by the people of the United States of America. Not to be sold or exchanged.''

Several of the stalls display bags of this US food prominently.

''People like to buy US goods,'' a vendor says. ''The quality is better.''

This food is donated to El Salvador through the US Agency for International Development (AID). It is part of the allocation known as Public Law 480. In 1984 , AID will give the Salvadorean government $11.5 million worth of PL-480 food - food intended for the poor and for people displaced from their homes by this country's civil war.

The Salvadorean government organizations charged with the distribution of the food are the National Committee to Assist the Displaced People and the Directorate of Community Development. Allegations of inefficiency and mismanagement are often leveled against these organizations by independent relief organizations, including the office of the Roman Catholic archbishop.

Two other organizations also distribute US PL-480 food: Catholic Relief Services (CRS) and the World Food Program. Since it was unclear which of the four distributors' food was being sold illegally, CRS last week launched an investigation in San Vicente. CRS says it found that the serial numbers of items in the marketplace did not correspond to its PL-480 allotments. The World Food Program says it, too, will investigate immediately.

As for US AID officials, a high-ranking staffer says, ''We have seen no significant diversions of food.'' But when informed of the violations in San Vicente, the official promised to launch an investigation. Local officials in San Vicente also promised to investigate the problem.

Stall owners so far refuse to reveal how the PL-480 food arrived at the marketplace. Many actually denied the bags, piled one on top of the other in their small stalls, belong to them. Some attempted to hide the 50-pound bags when this reporter began writing down the serial numbers.

''The bags are not mine,'' Norma Garcia, the owner of one small store in the marketplace, said. ''I'm guarding them for someone else.''

When pressed to produce the owner, Garcia sent for another vendor, Maria Reyes. Reyes, who says she paid $8 for the two 50-pound bags of corn, claims she bought them from a stranger in Cojutepeque, the capital of Cuscatlan Province. A later visit to Cojutepeque revealed similar food-sale violations.

''Listen,'' Garcia said, clearly perturbed by the questioning, ''if you want to see US food, go down to the National Guard Command Post.''

The street in front of the Guard headquarters is a section of the San Vicente market that appears to specialize in US-donated products. Each vendor has at least 100 pounds of US grains and several gallons of soybean oil for sale.

Maria Lydia Villabos has three 50-pound bags of cornmeal she is selling for $ 5 a piece. She claims strangers sold them to her. ''We do not know them and we do not know where they get the food.''

Her sister and brother, who operate stalls next to hers, have even larger quantities of US food for sale.

Phillipe Villabos is busy selling soybean oil to customers. He pours the oil from a 1-gallon tin, identifying it as a gift from the American people, into small containers. I ask him to read the sentence on the side of one of his tins.

'' 'Not to be sold or exchanged,' '' he recites slowly and looks up anxiously. ''A lot of people who get this oil cannot use it,'' he says, ''because it is bad for their health, so they sell it to me to buy something they can use.''

Mr. Villabos claims he knows the identities of the sellers. ''They are peasants who work on the government cooperative,'' he says. ''They have money taken out of their paycheck to buy this food so it is theirs to do with as they want. A lot of them don't like this food, so they come to the market to sell it.''

Villabos claims he buys only small quantities from various farmers who receive the food from the government.

Behind him are cardboard boxes marked as containing US-donated soy-bean oil. Most are empty. Others contain cornmeal. Villabos claims the boxes are gifts from those who sell him oil. His sister Inez says they came filled with cornmeal siphoned from other bags.

Under a table behind Villabos are stacks of empty 1-gallon soybean oil tins. I ask permission to count them. There are 62 empty tins, which he says he has sold in the past few weeks.

About 20 feet from the vendors is the National Guard center. Outside the building Roberto Garcia is on guard duty.

''I have never heard of US-donated food being sold in the marketplace,'' he says.

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