Sunday, July 22, 2007

Different views of what constitutes "social peace"

Eight and one half months ago, president Tony Saca established a special Commission of Citizen Security and Social Peace, made up of representatives of all 5 political parties as well as representatives of churches, business and universities. Two weeks ago, the Commission issued its report titled Security and Peace, Challenge of a Nation: Recommendations for a Policy of Citizen Security in El Salvador. The report contains 75 consensus recommendations, summarized in El Faro. Among them:

  • Expansion of gun control rules,
  • Revision of the criminal and juvenile codes,
  • Greater financial support and control of the National Civil Police (PNC),
  • Re-engineering the prosecution and police institutions devoted to fighting crime, greater emphasis on prevention,
  • Providing a more active role for local governments.
But I don't think certain legislation to be introduced in the National Assembly next week was part of the recommendations of the Commission. Tony Saca confirmed that his security cabinet will introduce a new law which will impose stiff penalties of 4 to 15 years in prison for "public disorders" or "attacks on public peace." The laws are aimed at disturbances where certain participants engage in vandalism, looting, setting fires, etc. Those actions can certainly be criminal acts, but the magnitude of the penalties and the potential vagueness of a term like "public disorder" may make such a law subject to misuse to stifle legitimate social protest. We saw this danger in the use of the similarly vague Anti-Terrorism law against demonstrators in Suchitoto.

Finally, there was a development Friday on the case of the Suchitoto 13. A review panel of judges permitted 4 of the 13 defendants to be released from detention under special conditions. They are still charged with terrorist acts, however, along with the other 9 who remain imprisoned. The review panel rejected the petition of defense lawyers to dismiss all the pending terrorism charges.


wally said...

In the U.S., if you decide to shut down a major thoroughfare, burn a few tires, and mess up a lot of people's day, you have probably 15 minutes before the cops show up and take you away. Given the state of road rage in some areas, the cops may be a welcome sight. If you want to stand by the road and carry a sign, you can do that all day long if you don't block traffic or trespass. The exception may be the WTO anarchists but they are ignored as much to deny them media oxygen as anything else.

That's not the case in El Salvador. My experience has been that the police here seem to stand by during most demonstrations and watch. If no one gets seriously hurt or there is no major damage to private property, it's pretty much hands off. I assume that´s because of a response to move away from the history of governmental repression here. But it seems like the pendulum may have swung too far the other way, and now free speech and the right to demonstrate means blocking highways, vandalizing private property and the right to throw objects at the police as long as you don't kill them. Any attempts to prevent you from doing that is repression.

Has the law here been eroded in this area to the degree that authorities are powerless to prosecute these cases? If so, that might explain the police standing by and watching, and also might explain why government officials are looking for other laws to use to prosecute disruptions of the public peace. A law passed to protect against terrorists granted is a bit of a reach, but at the same time if you want to have a country that is moving to a more peaceful and prosperous existence, there has to be the rule of law.

pedro said...

I agree with Wally that the rule of law has to be established in El Salvador. Yet, starting with public protests seems to be the wrong place to start. I have been living here for over two years working for a local ngo. I was shot earlier in the year traveling home from a community we serve and almost lost my life. I joined the thousands of people this year who are attacked, many murdered, and whose cases are never prosecuted.
It's estimated that only 3% of the murders in this country ever are ever prosecuted successfully.

People are sick and tired of the violence. Yet, few will ever testify because investigation methods put witnesses at tremendous risk. Justice is carried out through vigilantes because few have trust in the justice system. As a result, buses have become extremely dangerous, most homes and businesses employee armed guards, and the public seems to live in a constant anxiety due to the pervasive violence.

Before wasting time and resources shutting down protests that speak to the real power struggle in the country, the government would be wise to start by protecting its people. Rather than making a spectacle out of 13 protesters, there are thousands of cases that need honest prosecutors, defendants, judges, and legislators that will do the hard work of carrying out justice one case at a time. Every time someone is needlessly shot on a bus, or robbed on the road, it is an opportunity for the government to prove it wants to serve its people by protecting them.

When I was in the hospital, I was visited by an officer. He seemed a pleasant fellow. Yet, as we talked I knew that our conversation was pointless. They would never find, nor prosecute the men who almost killed me. I had absolutely no confidence that anything he was doing would prevent a shooting like this from happening again. I got a taste of what most salvadorans must feel daily.

If peace is what the government wants, then it should begin by protecting the most vulnerable of El Salvador. Only once the people of this country gain some level of trust in the system will there ever be hope for justice. Sadly, it seems that instead the government is more concerned with power than with a path to peace. Shades of the past...