Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 149 | Diciembre 1993


El Salvador

The Death Squads are Back

Why are the death squads back in action at this moment? Because it is not just “any” moment. It is already clear that the electoral battle will be between the ultraright ARENA, birthplace of the death squads, and the FMLN-CD.

Omar Serrano

Since the signing of the Peace Accords in January 1992, 24 FMLN members have been assassinated without the government determining either cause or culprit. A hundred others were victims of attempts. The killing of two high level former guerrillas in the last week of October finally sounded the alarm in the national and international community.

Are these symptoms of a retreat back into the "dirty war" enmeshing El Salvador when the armed conflict broke into the open in 1981? Both the peace process and the country itself are now facing their greatest crisis.

UN Faults Government

In the struggle to turn the accords into reality, it is the international community that shows the most concern about delays, ambiguities or outright noncompliance. On October 20, United National Secretary General Boutros Ghali released the UN's evaluation of the advances and setbacks that have occurred following the Truth Commission's recommendations. That commission investigated the most serious acts of violence in the country since 1980, those whose mark on society has made it imperative that the whole truth surrounding them be known. The Commission's report contained a series of recommendations, in particular to the government. For that reason, the UN evaluation focused principally on government noncompliance.

The UN notes that eight officers mentioned in the Commission's report as systematic human rights violators are still on active duty in the army. The report had also mentioned the need to decentralize the Supreme Court's attributions and prerogatives, an important element of the judicial reform suggested by the Commission to guarantee that acts of violence never again have the impunity characteristic of those years. Yet Ghali notes that the same president and magistrates still sit on the Court, despite the recommendation that all resign. The Salvadoran government even named the Court's president, Dr. Mauricio Gutiérrez, as its candidate to the Organization of American State's Inter American Juridical Committee, which the UN considers a major error.

In conclusion, the UN urges the Salvadoran government to promptly implement the still pending recommendations so as to guarantee the peace process.

Accolades and Criticism

Boutros Ghali's evaluation was welcomed by all those in El Salvador who see the UN as the main force that can push compliance with the Peace Accord's many unfulfilled elements. Unions, universities and the FMLN Democratic Convergence (CD) coalition all applauded the UN evaluation.

Not so in government circles. Foreign Minister Manuel Pacas Castro brushed off the issue of the not yet discharged officers by declaring that "it would be a little difficult to accept just any intromission by foreigners, including by the United Nations." A presidential spokesperson argued that purging and reducing the armed forces is now completed, making Ghali's exhortation out of line.

Judge Gutiérrez himself thinks it is time for the UN to stop intervening with issues that violate the Salvadoran Constitution: "We won't tolerate the continued pressure that we resign, against our current constitutional system. Less yet when the pressure comes from the Truth Commission, which has been disparaged by its own members. We are, simply, prisoners of the Constitution and our laws." Myopically, the government views the UN as an interfering weight that tips the scales in favor of the FMLN.

The same week the UN issued its evaluation, San Salvador's auxiliary bishop, Gregorio Rosa Chávez, alerted the population and urged the government to do whatever necessary to dismantle the death squads. He was worried about the increase in killings whose victims bear the typical signs of these dreaded squads. "Some still ask if the death squads really exist. Our answer is that, if we have the fruits, the tree that produces them must still exist," said Rosa Chávez.

From the time they emerged, these squads were linked to the armed forces structure and to financing from the economy's most powerful families. These are also the two main roots of the ARENA party, today in office. The Truth Commission report determined that ARENA's founder, the now deceased Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, also founded the death squads. The report also lamented, without naming names, the proof that "families with great economic power financed them."
In response to Bishop Rosa, presidential minister Oscar Santamaría frontally attacked the Church hierarchy for creating confusion among the population. "If the bishops have proof that these squads exist, then present it," he challenged. An ARENA deputy linked the Church with a campaign, supposedly orchestrated by the FMLN, to sow terror.

In Cold Blood

The killings of the two important FMLN leaders, and a chain of violent acts in the days following, provided evidence of the truth.

On October 25, former guerrilla commander Francisco Velis ("Miguel Hernández") and member of the Central American Workers' Revolutionary Party (PRTC), one of the five FMLN groupings, was killed in cold blood while walking his two year old daughter to nursery school. Velis was intercepted on the street and shot in the head at point blank range with an exploding bullet. Passersby took charge of his blood spattered daughter.

A hundred meters away, two policemen claimed to have heard nothing (the weapon was fitted with a silencer). "We saw two men running, but didn't detain them since we didn't know what had happened." According to the National Chief of Police, both agents are being held pending investigation.

Only five days later, on October 30, another former commander of the same level, Heleno Hernán Castro ("Carmelo"), was assassinated at km. 65 of the Littoral Highway. According to reports, a vehicle that had been following him for some time smashed into the back of Castro's vehicle. When the two drivers got out, Carmelo was killed with three shots one to the forehead, one in the face and the third to the heart. The assassins immediately sped away.

The two murders put the country into a panic that El Salvador was returning to the times in which such assassinations by illegal groups were daily fare. Many people have been overtaken by the old terror. Many more are convinced that, if the government and the international community do not act quickly and firmly to unmask and neutralize these groups, the step backward will be unrecoverable.

None So Blind...

The government condemned each murder right after it happened, and President Cristiani ordered an exhaustive investigation to find those responsible. But the government emphatically doubts the existence of death squads. Some ARENA deputies, particularly Legislative Assembly president Roberto Angulo, even say there is no reason to assume these killings had political motives. Ministry of the Presidency Oscar Santamaría declared that Carmelo's death was due to a simple street brawl. They take this position because these crimes seriously damage ARENA's electoral image. Everyone knows the historic and tight links between the party and the squads.

Due to pressures from the FMLN, various social sectors and the UN itself, President Cristiani had to solicit the collaboration of international police agencies Scotland Yard, the FBI and the Spanish police in investigating the assassinations.

It is quite possible that the existence and the activities of these groups of assassins are today effectively out of the control of the government and the sectors that backed them years ago. What is in no doubt is their existence and their desire to sow terror.

How to Respond?

At Carmelo's funeral, top ERP leader Joaquín Villalobos declared to the assembled press that these actions would provoke unpredictable reactions by people indignant at seeing their comrades murdered. "I can't tell our people to trust the peace process with three deaths a week," he said, adding that "some sectors of the FMLN itself could react against the party's line to stay calm, and act on their own." His words gave the right an opportunity to blame the FMLN for several actions that took place following the assassinations.

After Carmelo's burial, some 40 individuals using FMLN kerchiefs held a disorderly demonstration outside the publishing offices of the pro government newspaper El Diario de Hoy. The demonstrators burned tires and spray painted the building's outside walls, accusing the paper's director of being the death squads' spokesperson.

On November 2, national TV channels received a communiqué, signed by a new grouping called the Salvadoran Revolutionary Front (FRS), demanding that the death squads be dismantled and the Truth Commission's recommendations be met. The FRS defined itself as comprising middle level FMLN commanders acting independently of the leadership. The FRS charged the members of the oligarchy with promoting the death squads and declared that, if these groups are not neutralized, the business magnates and their fancy homes in the exclusive sections of San Salvador will become military targets.

That same day two other acts occurred, further infecting the climate of insecurity. Sebastián Aramiba, ARENA member and alderman in the municipality of Chinameca in San Miguel, was murdered, apparently for political reasons. That same day the FMLN representative in the same department was machine gunned and left in critical condition.

Hunger Strike for Peace

Many Salvadorans fear that the FMLN could decide to kill those who are killing them. Seeking to open up another alternative, a group of FMLN members and sympathizers several priests, former FMLN commanders, peasants and even some government employees began an indefinite hunger strike on November 1 in a small church in the department of Chalatenango. Their slogan was: YES to peace, NO to war. With their gesture, they are demanding that the government close the institutional spaces that still permit the death squads, comply with the pending Truth Commission recommendations underscored by the UN and fully investigate the killings.

"The death of our compañeros will not serve to provoke us, as the assassins want. We will not respond with violence, because what we want is to live in peace, which is the fruit of justice and liberty," declared former guerrilla commander Héctor Martínez, one of the hunger strikers.

From a remote church deep in the country, the strike echoed nationally. It gained attention by the type of peaceful response it offered in the midst of the tensions, and many other groups around the country also held days of fasting and prayer.

FMLN CD Responds

The candidates on the FMLN CD coalition ticket, Rubén Zamora and Francisco Lima, made concrete proposals to begin to eradicate the political violence once and for all. In the opinion of both, the violence is the result of neglecting important aspects of the Peace Accords. The five proposals of these leftist political leaders are the following:
* They demand that the Truth Commission recommendations relative to investigating clandestine groups be fulfilled;
* They request that the Civil National Police (PNC) be cleansed of all elements from the Intelligence Section previously belonging to the Treasury Police and the National Guard, for being a threat to the citizenry;
* They propose that the Executive Anti Drug Traffic Unit (UEA) and the Commission of Criminal Acts not be automatically transferred to the PNC;
* They suggest that all PNC candidates be screened first;
* They note the need to dismantle the Military Intelligence Battalion and the telephonic espionage structure set up from the National Telecommunications Administration and to replace the director of the state intelligence body.

At the Root of the Violence

Various public hypotheses have emerged on the motive of the recent assassinations. The presidential minister's explanation is the most simplistic: they are just common criminal actions, to which Rubén Zamora responded, "This is not the time to cover over political assassinations as common crime."
The more ultra right sectors put forward the opinion that the killings are due to "purges" within the FMLN, as happened during the war. The fact that the two victims are from different organizations confirms this conviction for them.

The majority, however, link the crimes to the well known death squads. Why at this moment? Because it is not just "any" moment: the latest polls by the Salvadoran universities clearly show that the March 24, 1994 electoral race will be between ARENA and the FMLN CD.

But the reasons? There are basically three. First is an effort to provoke the former guerrillas to respond in kind, thus discrediting their image and losing votes.
The second is that violence and instability favor the position that the armed forces insistently defend: only the military can bring order and tranquility to the nation. This idea, already assimilated by a large part of the population that is terrorized by the killings and the general crime wave, is a vote for the right. And third, the killings are a clear message to the population that sympathizes with the left and even to those still undecided. The memory of war and repression, when being a guerrilla member or a leftist sympathizer meant risking one's life or being a candidate for a horrible death, is still very fresh.

The war is the social phenomenon that has most changed the Salvadoran nation and Salvadorans as individuals. Even the right, though it is still the right, has changed. A broad sector of ARENA has finally internalized the idea that democracy and stability are necessary to make their own interests viable. Although they refuse to accept that the squadrons to which they were once organically linked still exist since this stains them in the electoral race their declarations are pure image. At this point, most in ARENA do not want to know anything about these squads, which in the past decade also kidnapped more than a few big capitalists.

Nation v. Squads

The re emergence of the death squads should not be seen as a conflict between left and right. The gravity of the moment demands that no one fall into such politically black and white thinking. It is a problem of the entire nation against small fanatical groups that choose not to understand that the country decided to change course.

The left has a major responsibility as a result, as Rubén Zamora recognizes: "The right as a whole does not want to back the squads and we should not push them to do so." But the major responsibility is in the ARENA government's lap. Pressure and support from the international community will be key in pushing it toward definitively clarifying this result of its "original sin."

It is a corruption of truth to call the overall growth of the gross national product "national recovery and economic development." Good economists admit that El Salvador is still surviving thanks to the family remittances of Salvadoran exiles and to foreign loans and donations. What does it mean that the national product grew 4.5% in 1991, when inflation grew 20%? What really grew was inequality.

The National Reconstruction Plan in the formerly conflictive zone and the Social Investment Fund projects are carried out thanks
to these loans and donations, because the national savings, piling up in private banks, does not see these social investments as profitable business. The banks and the exchange houses which are one and the same thing absorb and channel 700 million Salvadoran poor dollars, recycling part of them to their market and part to their speculation.

The Reconstruction Plan (1992 1997) will perhaps improve the situation of the marginalized majority, but it is not correct for ARENA's neoliberals, defenders of the market god, to use these
outside financed projects as enchanting images in their election campaign propaganda, to use foreign social investment to preserve their domestic private market. It clashes too much with reality.

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