Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 314 | Septiembre 2007


El Salvador

The Democratic Facade Has Fallen Away

The events of July 2 in Suchitoto mark a watershed. The disproportionate repression was aimed at intimidating and frightening a social movement that has been growing sronger. The government’s democratic facade has finally fallen away, with “political prisoners” for the first time since the civil war. ARENA will do all it can to avoid an FMLN victory in 2009 so we can expect an increasingly tense atmosphere from here to election day.

Elaine Freedman

President Elías Antonio Saca, in a speech on June 1 marking three years in office, vowed that “if they block us, we’ll find another road. If they want to stop us, we’ll push even harder. If they put obstacles in our path, we’ll hurdle them in the name of our people’s legitimate need to better themselves.” Thirty-one days later, his government demonstrated that those were not hollow words.

That most atrocious murder

July 2 marked the first anniversary of the brutal murder of Francisco Manzanares and his wife Juanita Monjarás in the town of Suchitoto. Themselves social activists, they were also the parents of “Mariposa,” the celebrated announcer of the Radio Venceremos guerrilla station that broadcast from Morazán during the war.

Those responsible for that murder have been shielded by impunity. Relatives of the victims and different social and human rights organizations believe the crime was politically motivated and say it bore an uncanny resemblance to the murders committed in the past by the death squads. Because it was the most atrocious killing of this kind since the signing of the Peace Accords, it became a paradigmatic case for measuring the Salvadoran state’s institutional inefficiency and its willingness to let those responsible go unpunished. The cruel treatment of these two people, who were over 70 years old, the fact that fingerprints were wiped out with oil and lime and the police shortcomings in the most basic investigation procedures all suggest something more than just simple mistakes by the country’s institutional bodies.

That plan on that day

Antonio Saca’s government chose the anniversary of the twomurders to inaugurate a water project in the municipality of Suchitoto and launch a new policy for decentralizing the public water service, which the social movement sees as the first step in privatizing access to water. To present his controversial plan, Saca chose a municipality that has been governed by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) since 1994, has a continuous history of struggle and has a large population of former guerrilla fighters. It is hard to imagine anyone not considering it a provocation that the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party chose Suchitoto to announce this plan on the anniversary of a political crime for which ARENA is not above suspicion.

In this explosive context, the municipality’s community organizations organized a Water Forum in the main square on the same day as Saca’s event and mobilized residents from the communities to participate. Because the government event was so symbolical, premonitory of the privatization of one of the few basic services still in public hands, and because access to water is an essential human right that cannot be based on the profit motive, social organizations from other parts of the country added their weight to the protest in Suchitoto.

Repressive operation

In a special report on this case, the Archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office describes how “from early in the morning of July 2, 2007, even before the protest activity had started, a contingent of riot police from the Order Maintenance Unit (UMO) of the National Civil Police (PNC) turned up along with elite police assault units, which probably belong to the Police Reaction Group or the Special Police Operational Group. Also mobilized were units of the Armed Forces of El Salvador, which included semi-tanks mounted with heavy-calibre machine guns.”

One young man from the community of Milingo said he had been working in one of the town’s main streets at 3 am when an armored car rolled past, with its machine gun trained on him.

The roadblock in Ciudadela Guillermo Ungo—a community of former FMLN fighters nine kilometers from the town of Suchitoto—was the first target for the government repression. According to one resident, the first UMO platoon turned up at 7 am. “The leaders of our group, which was peacefully expressing itself, asked them to let us stay there until 10 in the morning. The platoon leader responded that he had presidential orders to repress any protest on the highway and was giving us five minutes to leave. When we started to close ranks and wait for the police’s actions, they fired three tear gas canisters. They immediately started firing rubber bullets as well to scatter us while two helicopters circled above aiming bursts of gunfire all over the place, so everyone flew out of there.”

Two hours later, the first detainees from Ciudadela Guillermo Ungo arrived at the Suchitoto police station. News of the tear gas, bullets, burned corn fields and injured at the Ciudadela roadblock and in San Rafael La Bermuda reached the town and the forum planned for the main square had to be suspended.

“D’Aubuisson lives”

As this was going on a pickup truck belonging to the CRIPDES community association pulled into town carrying the organization’s president, Lorena Martínez, its vice-president, the driver, a journalism student doing the hours of social work required for her degree and a resident of Ciudadela Guillermo Ungo. According to Martínez, “A PNC patrol car drove up, intercepted us and pulled in front of our vehicle. We were dragged out roughly. First they pulled out our driver and threw him down in the middle of the street. Then they pulled us out one by one and made us get into their pickup. They took us away at 8:30 without telling us why. We kept asking why they were taking us and all they’d say was that it was an order. They didn’t let us identify ourselves. They took us to Suchitoto along an unpaved road, not the highway. When we got there people were waiting for us, but they didn’t listen to the people, the Council members, the parish priest or the organizations either. Then they took us from Suchitoto to Cojutepeque and on the way they were urging an armed conflict. They told us this would justify it all. They were fiddling with their grenades and their rifles. In the Cojutepeque prison we met up with the other compañeras. They’d taken them by helicopter and while they were flying over Lake Suchitlán they told them they were going to throw them to the bottom of the lake and that Roberto D’Aubuisson lived on.”

One prisoner, Facundo Dolores, was filmed being beaten by PNC agents as they forced him into a car in Suchitoto, while Patricio Valladares was hospitalized by the blows he received. All of these actions were condemned nationally and internationally as arbitrary acts of torture and disproportionate use of force.

The captured and injured

At the same time, the people who were demanding the release of their firends were tricked and repressed by the PNC. Lorenza Pichinte, a director of the CRIPDES-affiliated organization PROGRESO, completed that side of the story. “We surrounded the patrol car [containing handcuffed CRIPDES workers and the woman from Ciudadela Ungo],” she explained, “and demanded their release because they weren’t causing any public disorder; they were just traveling along the highway in a vehicle. When we failed to get them freed, we all lay down on the ground in front of the car. We made a human barricade to stop them passing. When they put the car in reverse, we lay down behind them so they couldn’t take our compañeros away. The riot police asked us to give them 15 minutes to obtain the release order but in that time reinforcements turned up. The same police officers we had been talking to sprayed us in the face with gas to get us to leave; with us blinded and in a stupor, they managed to get their prisoners out of there.”

The results of that day’s repression were terrible: 14 people detained, 62 injured and two communities attacked by the armed forces.


Five days later, on July 7, the preliminary hearing was held for the 14 people arrested. It took place in San Salvador’s Special Instruction Court rather than the Suchitoto Court, where it legally should have been held. These new courts were inaugurated just four months ago and many legal experts consider them unconstitutional. They were supposedly created to treat high-level cases involving organized crime and kidnapping, but the Suchitoto defendants were not accused of any activities linked to organized crime. Three charges were brought against them: causing aggravated damage, injury and acts of terrorism against the life, personal integrity and freedom of internationally protected people and public officials.

That same day, Judge Lucila Fuentes de Paz issued her sentence based on the statements of the police officers who arrested the 14 defendants, videos presented by the Honduran Attorney General’s Office and the testimony of a defense witness whose statements were taken as evidence that their actions were planned, organized and premeditated. According to the judge, the acts committed included all the elements needed to justify imprisonment for violating the Special Anti-Terrorism Law. In her judgment, “placing rocks on the highway and throwing stones or sticks at riot police units are acts of terrorism,” which she defined as “acts of extreme violence or grave intimidation with a subversive aim” intended to “destroy the [country’s democratic] political system.”

During that first hearing, Facundo Dolores was conditionally released for the three-month evidence-gathering period, while the other 13 were sent to the respective penitentiaries for men and women. The appeal was heard 11 days later and resulted in conditional release for 4 others and the remaining 9 were given the same conditional release in a rehearing on July 27.

...or political prisoners?

The next hearing was programmed for October 7 and will determine the fate of all 14 defendants, who meanwhile must report to the court every 15 days and can’t leave the country or change their place of abode.

The Suchitoto case came just four days after four people were detained in Tacuba, Ahuachapán,for participation in protests against the way water is managed in their municipality. While the charges against them are different—deprivation of liberty and aggravated threats—the general features of the two cases are similar. During the same period, three of the four were conditionally released and are awaiting the next hearing in early October. The case against the other was dismissed on July 3.

According to Edgar Mejía of the recently-formed Committee of Relatives of Political Prisoners in El Salvador (COFAPPES), they “were expressing their constitutional right to protest against the privatization of water. When you look at the judge’s opinions, you can see that the Attorney General’s Office changed the offense from ‘public disorder’ to ‘acts of terrorism.’ And when you see the Appeals Court’s decision and listen to the speeches by government officials, you realize these are political decisions, which is why we’re calling them political prisoners.”

All this explains why starting in July 2007 people in El Salvador have been talking about the existence of 17 “political prisoners,” a term that nearly disappeared after the Peace Accords were signed in 1992

Tying up loose ends

July 2 was no ordinary day. Hours before the government repression in Suchitoto, a police operation that had started the previous day in San Salvador was drawing to a close. Mario Belloso, El Salvador’s most wanted man, was captured with little fuss in a residential street of the capital. Outgoing Human Rights Ombudsperson Beatrice de Carrillo commented that “It seems strange to me that his capture happened to coincide with the anniversary of the murders. They must be diligent and analyze the circumstances of this investigation because it’s impossible to believe that in such a small country a man spent almost a year hidden in his own house... This case is just a show mounted by the police.”

Belloso had hit the headlines on July 5 a year earlier when he brandished an M-16 rifle at a student protest then shot at the riot police. The authorities tried him for causing the death of two policemen, although scientific and technical studies showed that the PNC’s own snipers—on the veranda of the “Benjamín Bloom” Children’s Hospital since the previous day—could also have been responsible.

The confrontation and the subsequent campaign orchestrated by the mass media in collaboration with government officials helped create a climate of national terror. Within a few hours, President Saca told the press, “We have to call a spade a spade. The FMLN is behind these actions and I formally accuse it for what happened.” Government Minister René Figueroa and PNC Director Rodrigo Avila both declared that the FMLN had broken the Peace Accords.

De-legitimizing the FMLN

Mario Belloso has a history of FMLN militancy, allowing the application of an oversimplified mathematical logic to national politics to turn public opinion against the FMLN: Mario Belloso is a violent man who killed two policemen; he is an FMLN militant and has been a Municipal Council member for that party; ergo the FMLN is a violent party that kills police officers and doesn’t deserve the right to participate in the political-electoral process.

The events of July 5, 2006, were never satisfactorily explained, despite the sentencing of Belloso to 35 years in two trials in August that year. But they did serve to justify the approval of the Special Anti-Terrorism Law, which was passed in September 2006, just two months after the shooting. The bill had been opposed by the social movement, the Christian Democrats and the FMLN, all of which argued it was more like a legal instrument of social control than an instrument for blocking possible acts of terrorism of a kind never seen in El Salvador.

What happened on July 5 served to de-legitimize the FMLN when it and ARENA, the other main party, were already well into the pre-electoral campaign—which actually started immediately after the last elections. It also served to de-legitimize the social movement and the street protests that had been increasing almost in line with the harmful effects of the neoliberal policies afflicting the population.

Everything fits the plan

Belloso’s capture also fit several other ARENA government and party purposes. His “miraculous” apprehension just three days before the first anniversary of the crime for which he was sentenced in absentia served to improve the image of the constantly questioned police force. And his extra-judicial confessions to a video camera from jail served to malign several FMLN leaders. The arguments in the video were never mentioned during the trial and appear more as elements in a deliberate mud-slinging campaign. Finally, the banner with the letters CRIPDES that the PNC presented to the press in relation to the Belloso case on the very same day as the repression in Suchitoto allowed the press to link Belloso’s capture with the arrests in Suchitoto.

In his July 2 declarations, President Saca stated that “we have found destabilizing plans that included the Suchitoto plan. What happened today around Suchitoto was precisely set out in the plans possessed by Mr. Belloso.” Once again the objective was to de-legitimize the social movement and the validity of demands not to privatize water, as well as to generate a national climate of fear.

Intimidate and terrify

This climate of fear has been the main result of July 2007. In addition to the detentions, the repression of a peaceful march, the pumping up of the ghost of terrorism and the militarization of the municipality of Suchitoto, the social movement was also rocked by the murder of Electrical Workers’ Union leader Miguel Ángel Vásquez on the night of July 17. His car turned up in the municipality of Soyapango, southeast of San Salvador, while his body—with two bullets through his head—was found in the municipality of Mejicanos, northeast of the capital. It bore all the hallmarks of the killings committed during the civil war years. The report by the Archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office on the events in Suchitoto included the following passage: “The use of armed forces contingents in the police operation described here was totally unnecessary and the idea was therefore clearly to intimidate the population in that location, where many former FMLN combatants and their families live.... In the opinion of the archbishopric’s Legal Tutelage Office, It also sought to terrify the social movement to arbitrarily dissuade it from the legitimate exercise of social protest.”

The neoliberal vanguard

“If they block us, we’ll find another road. If they want to stop us, we’ll push even harder. If they put obstacles in our way, we’ll hurdle them in the name of our people’s legitimate need to better themselves.” After July’s events, nobody can doubt President Saca’s seriousness when he uttered these words. And nobody doubts they were directed at the social movement and the FMLN. “Another road” for what? It has also been made perfectly clear that in his dual role as President of both the country and ARENA—Elías Antonio Saca has a vision of “our people’s legitimate need to better themselves” that focuses on two main aspects.

From the ARENA point of view, the first is that of fully consolidating and maintaining the implementation of the now worn-out neoliberal model. Despite hot competition from other countries in the region, El Salvador has been setting the pace in this respect in Central America. Throughout the nineties, it successfully implemented the structural adjustment program’s main components and pushed the liberalization of the economy forward by deregulating both the basic basket of essential goods and bank rates while legalizing and promoting the sale of cooperative agrarian reform lands.

It was no surprise to anyone that El Salvador was the first Central American country to approve the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (now known as CAFTA-DR following the inclusion of the Dominican Republic). The tax reform, another central pillar of structural adjustment, was initiated in 1989 with the elimination of taxes on coffee and sugar exports, the scrapping of the tax on capital wealth and the implementation of a new regressive value-added tax. Finally, most of the state’s economic activities were privatized: banks, the exportation of the economy’s main products, the importation of oil, the running of the airport, the pensions system, the Urban Housing Institute and Supplies Regulatory Institute, the telephone and electricity distribution services, and part of the health system. The dollarizing of the economy complemented all of this in 2001, while privatization of the water system, the bulk of the health system and much of the education system is still pending.

The FMLN can win

The second main issue for ARENA is holding on to state power, particularly the executive branch, which is the best way to guarantee continuity of the neoliberal model. Despite the FMLN’s errors, reversals and internal problems, it is better placed than ever to snatch the presidency from ARENA in 2009. The exhaustion of the Right’s economic project, the continuous and increasingly drastic decline in the population’s living standards and the incipient reactivation of the social movement, characterized since the signing of the Peace Accords by passivity and fragmentation, are the main reasons for this concern. The social movement and the FMLN are clearly the main threat to the dominant class—which is regionally wedded to the United States and politically wedded to ARENA—continuing along the “road” Sada alluded to.

More struggle sparks more repression and more repression more struggle

Faced by the bullets of a repressive army and the dirty tactics of the “security” forces, the Salvadoran grassroots movement of the seventies popularized the slogan, “The greater the repression, the greater the struggle.” But everybody knows that the relationship between struggle and repression is dialectic, so the same slogan has its counter-slogan: “The greater the struggle, the greater the repression.” That counter-slogan is essential to interpreting the current Salvadoran situation and the July 2 “events”—as they have come to be labeled—in Suchitoto.

Mass mobilization of the Salvadoran population returned with the fight against the privatization of the health system when health sector unions and health workers occupied the streets in 2002-2004 in what were dubbed the “white marches” to protest that government policy—hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans were estimated to have participated. For the first time in years the social movement had the strength to stop a rightwing, anti-grassroots project. But it put the government on alert: it would have to resort to repression to stop the social movement continuing to accumulate the strength to destabilize the neoliberal project.

Although no similar levels of social mobilization have been seen since, the number and diversity of demands made on the streets has increased. The approval, ratification and implementation of CAFTA mobilized members of different social movements with a diverse base and, at times, a degree of coordination. On the sectorial level, incipient efforts have been made to unite sectors suffering rivalries and division.

The result is greater unity

Faced with this reality, the conciliatory discourses, the “roundtables” and other strategies to mask the anti-democratic audacity of the neoliberal model have given way to repression. But the repressive policy has in turn brought various organized social expressions closer together, aware that isolated groups can’t stop the gravely repressive situation let alone support the building of a different future for the nation. The creativity, timeliness and force of Salvadoran society’s participation in protesting the repression of the social movement and the capture of “political prisoners” have been very important. A considerable number of individuals, organizations and international institutions have asked the Salvadoran government to explain the treatment of those on trial for the events in Suchitoto and have rejected the Anti-Terrorism Law, the Law against Organized Crime and the functioning of the specials courts.

One of the most important developments in this respect has been the emergence of the Committee of Relatives of Political Prisoners in El Salvador in response to the abuse and maltreatment of the detainees’ relatives and as an expression of the awareness that a “political trial” was being initiated. In the first days after its creation, with support from different organizations of the social movement, COFAPPES entrenched itself for nine days and nights in the Salvador del Mundo Plaza on a hunger strike that only ended when the last of “the 14” was granted conditional release.

Reforms with a special dedication

With just a year and a half to go before the 2009 elections and a pair of privatization projects still to be implemented to fully comply with the structural adjustment program, it is hard to imagine that the current tension will dissipate. This was demonstrated by the latest reforms to the Penal Code passed with the combined votes of ARENA and the Conservatives on August 16. The Suchitoto case had already revealed the intention of applying the Special Anti-Terrorism Law to punish the social movement, while national and international denunciations had shown that using it to criminalize the social movement would hinder “the good relations” the government needs to foster during this period.

Weeks later, the new response was ready: the Penal Code had been modified to create a special new category called “aggravated public disorder,” with increased penalties for public protests. This was clearly aimed at the social organizations. In the end the reforms were passed despite lobbying and mobilization by the social movement, including an important contingent of informal sector venders.

No more bridge

In line with the words uttered by Elías Antonio Saca, the Right is hurdling the obstacles in its way. But the end of this story is still unwritten. What is certain is that conciliatory rhetoric and gestures are things of the past. In 2006, Saca’s predecessor Francisco Flores flirted with the main opposition force in the report on his first year in government: “I want to ask you to let me address some words to the FMLN,” he began. “I am aware that yesterday’s vote represents a concrete act of political will. It is a bridge by which we can reach an understanding to the country’s benefit. Legislators, I’m going to cross that bridge.”

The era of such euphemisms is now behind us. The bridge has disappeared and El Salvador’s democratic facade has fallen away.

Elaine Freedman is a popular educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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