NACLA–Upside Down World, August 24, 2007
Title: “El Salvador: Water Inc. and the Criminalization of Protest”
Author: Jason Wallach
The Nation, December 31, 2007
Title: “GWOT: El Salvador”
Author: Wes Enzinna
Peacework, September 2007
Title: “Salvadoran Activists Targeted with US-Style Repression”
Author: Chris Damon
In These Times, November 13, 2007
Title: “El Salvador’s Patriot Act”
Author: Jacob Wheeler
Inter Press Service, August 19, 2007
Title: “El Salvador: Spectre of War Looms After 15 Years of Peace”
Author: Raul Gutierrez
Student Researchers: Juana Som and Andrea Lochtefeld
Faculty Evaluator: Jeffrey Reeder, PhD
Salvadoran police violently captured community leaders and residents at a July 2007 demonstration against the privatization of El Salvador’s water supply and distribution systems. Close range shooting of rubber bullets and tear gas was used against community members for protesting the rising cost, and diminishing access and quality, of local water under privatization. Fourteen were arrested and charged with terrorism, a charge that can hold a sixty-year prison sentence, under El Salvador’s new “Anti-terrorism Law,” which is based on the USA PATRIOT Act. While criminalization of political expression and social protest signals an alarming danger to the peace and human rights secured by Salvadorans since its brutal twelve-year civil war, the US government publicly supports the Salvadoran government and the passage of the draconian anti-terrorism law that took effect October 2006.
Salvadorans, however, maintain that fighting for water is a right, not a crime.
The conflict that confronted the small community of Santa Eduviges over their demand that their water system be de-privatized and put under the National Water and Sewage Administration’s (ANDA) control stands to be repeated now that right-wing deputies in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly are threatening to pass a controversial General Water Law. The legislation calls for water administration to shift from the national to the municipal level and requires local governments to sign over water management through “concessions”—or contracts with private firms—for up to fifty years. The proposed law has become a lightning rod for opposition from community groups and social organizations who say it amounts to a privatization of the country’s water system.
El Salvador’s water workers union (SETA) accuses the government of engaging in a plan to discredit the state agency in order to justify privatization. ANDA’s budget was slashed by 15 percent in 2005, falling to its lowest level in a decade, a perplexing reduction in a country where 40 percent of rural Salvadorans have no access to potable water.
SETA took out half-page ads in the nation’s two biggest daily newspapers opposing the General Water Law, which according to the ad “would privatize water and condemn thousands of our compatriots to suffer thirst for the inability to pay.”
SETA members point to the devastating results of the recent privatizations of the country’s telecommunications and electricity sectors, which led to the firing of thousands of workers. Many of these workers were forced to re-apply for the same jobs at half the pay with none of the state-provided benefits.
Privately run water concessions in Latin America have a terrible track record. The most notorious example occurred with a project imposed by the World Bank in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Bank made delivery of a loan conditional on the privatization of the country’s largest water systems. When the Cochabamba water services concession ran by the US-based Bechtel Corporation raised household water bills by 200 percent, it sparked a civil uprising that forced the company to leave the country and the water system to be put under public control (Censored 2001, #1).
After Cochabamba, the World Bank retired the word “privatization” and replaced it with terms like “concessions” and “decentralization,” or “private sector participation.” But critics say whatever the euphemism, the end result is the same: higher rates, lower quality, and less access.
Outcry from international human rights organizations led to the release of the Santa Eduviges activists, after nearly a month of imprisonment. But instead of loosening their grip, in August of 2007, President Saca and his ultra right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance Party (ARENA) pushed through penal code reforms that changed disorderly conduct from a misdemeanor to a felony. Three weeks later, the government arrested eight leaders of a nurses’ trade union for striking against the privatization of healthcare services and lack of medicine. If convicted, the union leaders could face eight years in prison under El Salvador’s new “Patriot Act.”
“The objective of these anti-terrorist laws isn’t to fight terrorism, because there haven’t been acts of terrorism here in many years,” says Pedro Juan Hernandez, a professor of economics at the University of El Salvador and an activist. He says the new law’s objective is to “criminalize the social movement and imprison community leaders.”
The Salvadoran social activists fighting for water access, healthcare and education, and now the right to protest, have seen enough war, says Hernandez. “But the origins of the violence are in the politics, the unemployment, and the government’s policies against the population,” he explains. “We are back to the level we were when the armed conflict began.”
Washington’s support for these repressive measures comes at a time when El Salvador is the only Latin American country with troops still in Iraq and was the first to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Adoption of a US-based Patriot Act and the housing of the controversial US-run International Law Enforcement Academy (see Story #4) establish Saca as a strong US ally in the increasingly militarized neo-liberal agenda in Latin America—sometimes understandably confused with the Global War on Terror.
UPDATE BY JACOB WHEELER
So much of the destruction wrought upon the people of El Salvador during the second half of the twentieth century originated in Washington—corporate land grabs, environmental destruction, abuse of workers, death squads and counterinsurgency, harmful trade pacts and stunted democratic movements—and yet, a positive new chapter to El Salvador’s history may be written in early 2009. For the first time since the Peace Accords were signed in 1992, ending El Salvador’s brutal, twelve-year civil war, the progressive Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party has a reasonable shot at winning power in national elections (the parliamentary election will take place in January 2009, followed by the presidential election in March). As of late spring 2008, the FMLN held a comfortable lead over the incumbent, right-wing ARENA party, which has perpetuated the same harmful policies that led to civil war in 1980.
If it gains power, FMLN is expected to stop the disastrous privatization of healthcare and water access, restore workers’ rights, fight to amend trade deals so that they benefit more than just wealthy corporations, end El Salvador’s participation in the occupation of Iraq, and, in general, follow the path paved by pragmatically progressive Latin American governments—such as those of Lula in Brazil and Correa in Ecuador, instead of the fiery, combative style of Chávez in Venezuela. FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes has made one thing clear: Washington is not going anywhere, and despite the scars of the past, he’s willing to work with George W. Bush’s successor.
I’ll be penning a series of stories in late 2008 and early 2009 about El Salvador’s upcoming elections for In These Times. In them I hope to broadcast the voices of those who are rarely heard, chronicle the evolution of the Salvadoran progressive movement—from guerilla rebels, to grassroots organizers, to politicians ready to seize San Salvador—and influence the way both independent and mainstream media in the United States cover these important elections. Please look for future coverage of El Salvador in our magazine and athttp://www.InTheseTimes.com.
UPDATE BY WES ENZINNA
Since the publication of my article, and following an international outcry by human rights observers, the charges against the thirteen protestors arrested in Suchitoto have been dropped. The judge presiding over the case, Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz—who I later discovered had been trained at the US-run International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador—ruled that there was not enough evidence to convict the protestors. Under the “Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism,” the protestors faced up to eighty years in prison.
Despite this positive ruling, however, the story of the Suchitoto 13 does not end happily. On May 3, nineteen-year-old Hector Antonio Ventura—one of the thirteen arrested and charged in the Suchitoto case—was murdered in the town of Villa Verde. Ventura was beaten in the head and fatally stabbed in the heart by unknown assailants.
There is considerable suspicion that the killing was politically motivated, and Ventura’s murder followed a spate of political assassinations against leftist activists in El Salvador, among them the January slaying of FMLN mayor Wilber Funes. Further, the killing occurred just two days after Ventura had agreed to give testimony of his experience at a public ‘Day Against Impunity,’ planned for July 2, 2008, by the mayor of Suchitoto. “Given his role as one of the accused in the high-profile anti-terrorism case,” writes a member of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), “Ventura’s death could likely be politically motivated.”
Members of the Salvadoran human rights community are demanding a full investigation of Ventura’s death, yet the government has not been forthcoming about such an investigation. Political crimes often go uninvestigated in El Salvador, and many critics say that ARENA has contributed to the climate of impunity by prosecuting leftist activists, such as the vendors and Suchitoto 13, while ignoring cases of alleged political violence.
The 2009 presidential election represents the biggest possibility for the Salvadoran public to reject by electoral means ARENA’s “iron fist” policies. Indeed, many analysts predict an FMLN victory in March. However, while many observers look hopefully toward the March elections, other critics claim ARENA has been engaged in electoral fraud. In particular, the ruling party has been accused of manipulating census numbers in FMLN strongholds such as Santa Tecla, Soyapango, and Las Vueltas, in order to deny FMLN candidates of government funds. Further, on May 9, 2008, Walter Aruajo, ARENA representative and head of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, announced new restrictions for international election observers. The new restrictions, Aruajo explained, “intend to regulate that no group of observers come and take part in political activity in the country.” “Meddling in the electoral process,” he continued, will result in expulsion from the country.
Critics worry the absence of a clear definition of “meddling” could leave the door open for the arbitrary application of these new restrictions, and more generally, they worry that these moves foreshadow an effort by ARENA to protect its electoral power through the creation and enforcement of self-serving and constitutionally questionable laws.
UPDATE BY CHRIS DAMON
In the year following the arrest of fourteen social movement activists in Suchitoto, there have been gains for the Salvadoran social movement, which launched unified, concerted actions to overturn the law and to achieve the unconditional liberty of the detainees; however, there have also been significant losses.
Thirteen of the original fourteen activists arrested spent twenty-six days under detention in the main men’s and women’s prisons. As a result of prison overcrowding, for some this meant going without a bed and having to purchase water for bathing and drinking. The thirteen were released July 27, 2007, under conditional terms that prevented them from traveling outside the country pending the presentation of further evidence against them by the state.
This waiting period extended for seven months, finally ending on February 8, 2008, at which point the state attempted to quietly change the charges from “Acts of Terrorism” to “Public Disorder and Aggravated Damages.” Given this change, the Special Tribune appointed to handle terrorism charges transferred the case to the regular judicial system. An audience was held February 19 for which the States Attorney’s office failed to show up to present their case leading the presiding judge to grant definitive liberty to all fourteen defendants due to the lack of charges or evidence presented. Despite an appeal by the States Attorney, the ruling was upheld on April 4.
Jubilation over these victories was short lived, given that on the night of May 2 one of the former defendants, Hector Antonio Ventura, was murdered as he slept in his small village of Valle Verde, Suchitoto.
While no one has been arrested or charged in the murder, both the media and authorities have characterized the death as related to the epidemic of gang crime which plagues the country, the most violent in Latin America.
However, the murders of activists like Ventura have caused human rights organizations to take notice. On May 12, the Foundation for the Study of Law Application (FESPAD), together with other social movement organizations, presented the case as the central element of a formal request to the States Attorney’s office to investigate this and fourteen other murders that they argue may represent the use of gang elements to commit political assassinations. They cite the “Combined Group for the Investigation of Illegal Armed Groups with Political Motivations” (1994), which established criteria for determining the probability of political motivation in a given crime: modus operandi, characteristics of the victim, and level of impunity achieved by the authors. Since the initial release of FESPAD’s list of fifteen suspicious murders, the list has been expanded to nineteen.
As of yet there has been no official response to these demands. And the controversial Anti-Terrorism Legislation remains in effect.
UPDATE BY RAUL GUTIERREZ
I strongly believe that it is important for Salvadoran society to be informed adequately on developments such as those that happened in Suchitoto on July 2, 2007, since that confrontation represented a strong risk for the country’s political stability and democratic coexistence—particularly after the achievement of 1992 peace accords that left behind twelve years of war, 75,000 deaths, and 8,000 disappeared.
From my perspective, independent journalism should provide Salvadorans in-depth information and analysis on the national reality based above all on ethics, giving voice to those mostly unheard.
Meanwhile, the assassination of Héctor Ventura—one of those arrested during the protest in Suchitoto—on May 2 has added more fear among those detained in Suchitoto, according to David Morales, one of the accused defendants, who then worked for Tutela Legal (Legal Guardians), a human rights agency of the Roman Catholic Church, and now is member of the Foundation for the Study of Law Application (FESPAD).
The fourteen detainees who were arrested during the demonstration spent twenty-seven days in jail under charges of “acts of terrorism.”
Lorena Martínez, president of the Association for Development in El Salvador (CRIPDES) and one of those jailed, reported that Ventura was stabbed in his heart while visiting a friend near Suchitoto. Ventura’s friend was also injured during the attack but now is recuperating.
“We believe this was a political attack; first of all, we were accused of being terrorists and during detention our human rights were cynically violated,” stated Martínez. When asked if the crime could be part of the country’s circle of violence, she replied: “It could be.”
The community leader said that the charges against the fourteen protesters went on for nine months and finally on April 16, a court dropped the charges against all the accused.
“It was a very tough experience; I could never have imagined being in jail in time of peace without committing any crime whatsoever,” Martínez explained, and added that mass detention “was part of the Salvadoran Government plan to criminalize social unrest which seeks to intimidate people.”
On the other hand, it seems there was no direct response to the article published on Inter Press Service. Nevertheless, I have to point out that most mainstream media coverage was biased, and in most cases only used government accounts of the confrontation. Further, some media did not cover police aggressions against protesters, journalists, and town residents not participating in the demonstration. The detention of Haydé Chicas, press officer of CRIPDES, while documenting the arrest of three coworkers, was aired by some media implying that she had been part of a protest that had blocked the road minutes before.
Anyone wanting further information regarding Suchitoto developments may contact the following persons:
Lorena Martínez, president of the Association for the Development of El Salvador; (503) 226-3717; http://www.cripdes.org
David Morales, defendant of those arrested in Suchitoto; (503) 236-1888; firstname.lastname@example.org