Return to the Republic of Death?

On July 2, the Salvadoran organization CRIPDES (Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador) planned a demonstration in Suchitoto, El Salvador, to protest a proposed privatization of the national water system. As some of the group’s leaders were approaching the town before the start of the demo, they were pulled over by a truck full of police, put to the ground and arrested. Soon, the protesters who had gathered with their signs, banners and hopes were assaulted by police in riot gear – rubber bullets and tear gas were fired into the crowd, and the streets of Suchitoto became toxic, chaotic, militarized with jeeps and the sound of helicopters. (There are You Tube videos online that document the brutality and arbitrary nature of the police violence.)

In all, 14 people were arrested. They were not brought before a normal Salvadoran Judge, however. The Salvadoran government used the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, passed in September 2006, to prosecute the protesters. They were brought before a Special Tribunal Court, created by the Special Law, on July 7, and 13 of the 14 were ordered held for up to 90 days while they are being investigated for crimes of terror. The 13 were released as of July 26, on the conditions that they not leave the country or change their residence. They must report to the Tribunal every 15 days.

The ironies of this type of criminal prosecution are profound. For the Salvadoran government to cite civilian protesters for acts of terrorism in planning and holding a water privatization demonstration is the height of opportunism and cynicism. This is a government that has prospered on State terrorism for decades, and is still ruled by a political party based on the use of terror.

I visited El Salvador in March of this year, to participate in the Rutilio Grande Delegation sponsored by the Center for Exchange and Solidarity (CIS). The focus of the delegation was to join with Salvadorans to commemorate the assassination of Rutilio Grande, which occurred March 8, 1977. Rutilio was a Catholic priest, a mentor and friend of Archbishop Oscar Romero. He was shot down with two friends on a road between Aguilares and El Paisnal, one of a series of assassinations of priests who were working with the poor and for social justice in the spirit of Medellin 1968.

In March of 1980, the Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, was assassinated by a hitman hired by rightwing leaders including Roberto D’Aubuisson. In Romero’s last homily, he made this famous call for an end to institutionalized violence, which sealed his fate, “In the name of God, in the name of this long-suffering people whose ever more tumultuous cries go up to the Heavens, I call on you, I beg you, I order you to stop the repression.”

The decade of the 70’s in El Salvador was marked by demands by the poor and the middle class for fair elections, economic justice and an end to the military rule of an oligarchy that had held absolute power since the independence of the nation. Romero was a leader who stood up for the poor, and admonished the ruling class to accept social change. He was a leader who could have brought together a nation on the verge of total conflict. Instead, his death brought the conflagration of civil war and a wave of violence difficult to imagine.

In the four years surrounding Romero’s death, 1979 – 1983, 40,000 Salvadorans were murdered by death squads, and in the decade from 1979-1989, 80,000 in total were killed, in a nation with a population of about 5 million. The architects of this massacre were the founders of the ARENA Party, (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista) formed in 1979 to provide political cover for a death squad program. To this day, ARENA controls the economy and the government of El Salvador.

Death squads were formed out of military units, dressed as civilians and kidnapped, tortured, disappeared, not just individuals, but in massacres. Roberto D’Aubuisson was the leader, the face of ARENA, but there were other founders, such as David Ernesto Panamá Sandoval, who served as the Salvadoran Ambassador to Paraguay. (A web search shows that Panamá values highly a signed autograph from General Alfredo Stroesner to himself and his good friend Roberto D’Aubuisson. He was in a car with Somoza just 12 hours before it was blown to smithereens with the dictator inside.)

ARENA is very much a creature of Reagan anti-communism.

The ARENA Party even named itself after Reagan’s Republican Party, in honor of their shared struggle against communism at any cost to humanity. The death squad policy of ARENA was an open secret in Washington and was carried out with the knowledge and cooperation of the highest levels of the United States government. The Reagan State Department routinely certified the human rights behavior of murderers and torturers. Reagan appointees and surrogates, including staffers John Carbaugh and Christopher Manion in the office of Jesse Helms, and Margo Carlisle of the office of Senator James McClure maintained close contact with death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson.

These policies were brought to the attention of the United States press and public. Journalists like Allen Nairn in the Progressive, Christopher Dickey in The New Republic, Craig Pyes in the Albequerque Journal and many others brought the reality of the death squads to light in comprehensive fashion. Today, these articles are still being published in El Salvador, in a widely available book titled simply, “Death Squads”.

D’Aubuisson died in 1992, of esophogeal cancer, but his legacy is front and center in El Salvador. ARENA sustains an official cult of this murderer. His picture is diplayed proudly at all ARENA functions, and recently a monument was erected to him in Antiguo Cuscutlan, the oldest part of San Salvador. In 2006, the ARENA majority in the National Assembly tried to have the leader of the death squads named an “hijo meritisimo”, the highest honor that can be granted by the government to an individual. The proposal drew such protest that it had to be withdrawn.

As the murderous decade of the 80’s is glorified by the ARENA government, the killing in El Salvador continues. During the the 1990’s, there were more deaths than during the war years of the 1980’s, as the rate of homicides per 100,000 stayed above 100 and reached 140 in the middle part of the decade. In 2005, the homicide rate was 59 per 100,000, an epidemic of murder.

Last year, I followed a blog, called “100 Diás en la Republica de la Muerte” (100 Days in the Republic of Death). Each day for 100 days, from September 1 to December 10, Mayra Barraza collected the day’s news stream of murder and wrote a meditation and remembrance on that day. It is a moving document to reality, a recognition that policies of murder still exist in El Salvador.

The murder rate, this year, in La Libertad (a city on the Pacific Coast known for its superb surfing) is 83 per 100,000; in the Capital, San Salvador, 65 per 100,000, according to a March 18, 2007 article in La Prensa Grafica, “La Libertad Surpasses Sonsonate in Homicides”. The country is awash with weaponry and has extremely lax requirements for purchasing guns. It is one of the largest importers of pistols from the United States.

When did the war end? The simple answer is that it did not end. Murder and crime permeate the society, and impunity still reigns, as very few crimes are ever solved and brought to justice, as was the case during the years of the death squads, when the United States was pouring $1 million a day into the military that was committing massacres such as El Mozote. In May of this year, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released a report, “The Police, Prosecutorial, and Judicial Defiencies Responsible for Impunity in Investigation and Trial”. The UN group studied 1020 homicides in 2005, of which only 145 reached the court system, and in only 39 of these cases was any one brought to justice.

Within this wave of crime, generated by the availability of weapons, unemployment, poverty, the consequences of a culture steeped in the violence of the civil war and the death squad years, there exists the structures of the death squads and the political impetus that created them.

Political assassinations are still occurring, as happened with the torture and murders, in Suchitoto one year ago, of the parents of Marina Manzanares, known as “Mariposa (Butterfly)”, a voice of Radio Venceremos and a founder of the Museum of the Image and Word. Another suspected political assassination occurred in September of 2006, the brutal killing of Catholic priest Ricardo Antonio Romero, found bludgeoned to death on a roadway 40 miles west of San Salvador.

The ARENA government of 2007 aligns itself completely with the Bush agenda, both economically and in the War against Terror. El Salvador adopted the dollar in 2001, despite the cost to the economy as it dealt with two earthquakes that ravaged the poor population. The architect of this “dollarization” was Juan José Daboub, who later became a key aide to Paul Wolfowitz during his abbreviated tenure at the World Bank. El Salvador adopted CAFTA, and in the first year of its implementation it has cost this poor nation 70,000 small farmers. ARENA President Tony Saca sends about 400 soldiers to fight in the war and occupation in Iraq, where several have died. ARENA has donated the sovereignty of a nation to the United States, and the result is not surprising. About 700 people a day flee El Salvador, the ravaged economy, the crime, the murder, and join the great emigration to the United States.

And now, CRIPDES demonstraters have been deemed “terrorists” for organizing, peacefully, in a way that should be acceptable in a democracy, against the theft of water from the population. President Tony Saca leads this small nation in the footsteps of Bush. He is an architect of the “mano dura” approach to crime, which results in attacks against gang members, youth with tattoos, as assassins walk free. He allows demonstraters to be arrested as terrorists, using extraordinary powers granted the State under the guise of a war against terror, while the real terror has been institutionalized in his own party.

The Interamerican Court of Human Rights has made rulings that ARENA must atone for specific, individual crimes, such as the murder of Romero, and the murders of Ernestina y Erlinda Serrano Cruz. Saca’s government responds with moves to canonize the murderers, rather than bring justice to victims. In El Salvador, the War against Terror has been a war against a civilian population for decades.

The opposition FMLN (Frente Faribundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional) is building toward the 2009 elections, when it is likely that popular television journalist Mauricio Funes will be their candidate for President. ARENA has managed to manipulate the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to separate the municipal and presidential elections, which will present difficulties for the opposition, since it means that there will be 2 campaigns, one in January and another in March, instead of one combined election in March. ARENA’s unlimited ability to spend money gives them a big advantage in this scenario.

Salvadoran civil society needs the support of the international community to demand accontability and justice from the ARENA government. As Leslie Schuld, Director of the CIS, states, “The situation with the Suchitoto arrests is worrisome because basic human rights are being violated, and this was one of the causes of the armed conflict, the civil war. No space was being provided for peaceful and democratic change. People are standing up for their rights, and deserve the space to legitimately protest government policies.”

JOE DeRAYMOND, who writes from the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania, on the website Lehigh Valley Independent Press,, can be reached at