Civil society organizations in El Salvador are increasingly concerned about (a) the ever growing level of violence in the country, (b) the expanding militarized response to that violence, and (c) the appearance of death squads dedicated to imposing their own form of justice on gang members. As an example, I received today the following communication from the El Salvador staff of the US-El Salvador Sister Cities organization:
Repression in the Name of Security, Sound Familiar?
September 3, 2006
Extortions of bus drivers and professionals[i], the reappearance of death squads linked to the National Civilian Police force[ii], more than 11 homicides per day[iii], State imposed curfews[iv], and military occupations of rural communities[v]; this is the content of some of the headlines in major newspapers around El Salvador this week.
On Tuesday communities in the Lower Lempa region of San Vicente denounced the armed raid without search warrant of their historical museum by the Salvadoran Armed Forces and National Civilian Police, under order of the Attorney Generals Office. Likewise, Beatrice de Carrillo, Salvadoran Attorney General for Human Rights has denounced the existence of death squads in the style of seventies and eighties, which she links directly and indirectly to the National Civilian Police. As clear evidence of death squads, she points to the execution style assassinations and bodies recovered showing disfigurations and signs of torture.
The use of the armed forces under the guise of security, whether it be fighting gang violence or protecting borders, is part of an escalating reality in El Salvador, fuelled by the fear increasing levels of violence generates, and political motives. It is this fear that has launched the Legislative Assembly into a discussion about state of emergency curfews, and has people debating the benefits of death squads to eliminate gangs; fear generated security measures at the cost of human rights.
Over the last couple weeks, the Legislative Assembly has been discussing imposing a State of Emergency curfew on some neighborhoods in the Greater San Salvador, in an effort to curb violence[vi]. Nevertheless, many poorer and marginalized communities have been living under gang and organized crime imposed curfews for some time now, simply because leaving ones home at night is so dangerous.[vii]
Now, some CRIPDES communities [Asociación de comunidades rurales para el desarrollo de el Salvador] are experiencing the militarization of their towns, not by gang members, but by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. Since the aftermath of the July 5th shootings at the National University in San Salvador, when the Minister of the Interior Rene Figueroa claimed that the FMLN supported armed groups,[viii] there has been an increased military presence in the Lower Lempa region in San Vicente, and in other parts of the country. Military presence generally is most notable in FMLN strongholds or repopulations of ex-combatants.
On August 24, sixty members of the Salvadoran Army and twenty four police officers occupied the community of La Sabana all day, raiding the local historical museum without a warrant, threatening to arrest community leaders, and intimidating the population. They claimed the museum was a weapons cache, when in fact it holds artefacts that were decommissioned by the UN through the Peace Accords, have been in the community without incident during the fourteen years since they were destroyed, and all carry their UN documentation, certifying their status.
Days before the raid, the Army had been through many of the communities in the Lower Lempa Region, vaccinating farm animals. In retrospect, community members point out that the vaccination program was also a clear reconnaissance mission, in which the army identified potential targets for later raids. In a community wide Assembly in Las Anonas, San Vicente on the 31st of August, community and CRIPDES leaders warned that everyone should be alert for military movement in the area, and ready to leave their houses to confront police and military presence. In La Sabana the National Civilian Police would have arrested community members in charge of the museum had it not been for the rapid response and mobilization of the entire region, who blocked authorities from taking their leaders away.
Militarization is a national phenomenon. In the Arcatao, the Department of Chalatenango, there has been a military post for some time. Military officials in Chalatenango say that the three soldiers they posted in the community were placed there to guard the boarder. However, when the community called an assembly and invited military officials to address disorderly behavior by the soldiers, the Colonel in charge of the post did not show. A few days after the assembly, on August 15th, the Colonel arrived in Arcatao with about twenty troops armed with machine guns, which stationed themselves around the town square. He met with community leaders, and later removed the three soldiers from their post, only to immediately increase the troop deployment in Arcatao to ten soldiers. Like the Lower Lempa, Chalatenango is a historic FMLN stronghold, and at the center of the national mining debate.
In the face of the violence and fear campaign, the organized communities of CRIPDES demanded in an August 29th press release an "end of the campaign of intimidation, terror, and unfounded accusations on behalf of the Government of Antonio Saca, against community leaders and the communities of the Lower Lempa and other regions of the country." Likewise, in a unanimous call at ThursdayÂs community assembly in Las Anonas, the community agreed to unite in the face of repression, to protect their communities and neighbors from the threat of repression and militarization.
[i] Carlos Montes, Mauricio Bolaños, David Marroquán, Milton Grimaldi. Extorsiones Causan Paros y Homicidios. La Prensa Grafica. 1 de septiembre, 2006. http://www.laprensagrafica.com/nacion/580753.asp
[ii] Leonel Herrera. PDDH insiste en investigar a grupos de exterminio. Diario Colatino. 30 de agosto, 2006. http://www.diariocolatino.com/nacionales/detalles.asp?NewsID=13629
[iii] Asesinan a periodista de diario salvadoreño. El Comicio. 28 de agosto, 2006. http://www.elcomercioperu.com.pe/EdicionOnline/Html/2006-08-28/onEcMundo0567314.html
[iv] Beatriz Castillo, Iván Escobar. I Diario Colatino. 29 de agosto, 2006. http://www.diariocolatino.com/nacionales/detalles.asp?NewsID=13606
[v] Beatriz Castillo. Comunidades del Bajo Lempa denuncian acoso policial y militar. Diario Colatino. 31 de agosto, 2006.
[vi] C. Monti, K. Urquilla. Esperan opinión de FGR para el toque de queda. Diario de Hoy. 22 de agosto, 2006. http://www.elsalvador.com/noticias/2006/08/22/nacional/nac2.asp
[vii] Daniel Valencia. Toque de queda en el paraÃso de Soyapango. El Faro. 28 de agosto, 2006. http://www.elfaro.net/Secciones/noticias/20060109/noticias7_20060109.asp
[viii] CISPES. 7 of July, 2006. http://www.cispes.org/english/Communiques_-_Action_Alerts/espanol_7julio.html