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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 157 | Agosto 1994
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El Salvador

Security, Impunity, Justice

The new government had its plans: it went easy on crime in order not to dissolve the police and to get the army to take on public order duties. A highly publicized assault on an armored bank vehicle changed the rules of the game.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

Two big problems have plagued the first 30 days of Armando Calderón Sol's presidency. One is the insecurity caused by the organized crime, embedded in the old National Police and the armed forces. The other is the hotly disputed and as yet unresolved election of the new Supreme Court judges.

Two other issues hover in the background the persistent economic crisis and the FMLN's redefinition. The former is affecting the majorities while the latter is absorbing most of the left; neither of the two seem likely to be resolved in the near future.

The Cry for Security

Leaders of private enterprise have been demanding since early June that the government act seriously and now to reduce the violence shaking the country, particularly the wave of assaults, kidnappings and assassinations. Businessmen and landowners have been the most affected, as has the country's western region as a whole. The recent proliferation of kidnappings evokes the dirty extortion practices commonly carried out during the war by unscrupulous armed forces personnel in influential positions.

Since the war ended, the Cristiani government and private business have operated on the hypothesis that the kidnappings are now being carried out by discharged military and security officers who were allowed to keep their weapons. Official eyes closed rather than look in any other direction: i.e., at the structures of criminality and impunity that the Truth Commission says are present in the intelligence groupings of the National Police and army, or at the corruption mechanisms also entrenched in these organizations.

A Calculated Game

At the end of Cristiani's administration, the continued presence of the National Police was renegotiated with ONUSAL and the FMLN; it was agreed that the old police force would not be definitively dissolved until 1995.

Ever since the peace accords took away the armed forces' security functions, it has been suspected that the inefficiency of the National Police as well as the foot dragging in training and deploying the new Civil Police were part of a government plan to trade on the citizenry's sense of insecurity.

The objective? To provoke a groundswell of sentiment in favor of giving the internal security task back to the army. The mayor of Santa Ana, the Society of Merchants and Industrialists and the president of the Industrial Association one of the country's most influential organizations led the clamor.

And, in fact, the demand to involve the army in the war against crime has grown with the new government. Food businessman Hugo Barrera, the Ministry of the Interior's new deputy minister of public security, has a mandate from private business to put an end to so much insecurity. He began his administration by arguing that it had been an error to do away with the National Guard and the Treasury Police so quickly, notwithstanding their long records of human rights violations. Doing so, he says, led unnecessarily to an internal security void in the country. Vice President Enrique Borgo, the new government's top representative of financial and commercial capital, has also publicly expressed his concern about internal security.

It seems clear that, between the two key concerns of most Salvadorans, the government has opted to give priority to the anxiety created by rising crime rather than the anguish caused by the worsening economic situation. It seems equally clear that the two preferred means for waging the fight against crime are to increase the armed forces' involvement and to strengthen the National Police right up until it is dissolved next year. The intent of the latter is to subsequently transfer a significant number of its personnel to the new Civil Police.

An Unexpected Shift of Focus

Then, on June 22, a crime occurred that suddenly shot collective concern about crime to new levels. In a matter of days, the government had to totally change its focus, to say nothing of its game.

Around 9am that day, an armored vehicle from a private security firm carrying large sums of money stopped in front of the Bank of Commerce on Rubén Darío Street, one of San Salvador's main arteries. Although the number of assailants is unclear (some have spoken of more than 40), at least 10 people dressed in National Police uniforms and bearing weapons used by the Salvadoran security forces (M 16 and G 3 rifles) assaulted the vehicle. They shot to kill both the vehicle's guards and the bank's security personnel, leaving behind four bodies and two critically wounded men, both of whom later died. They escaped with two million colóns, a direct and spectacular blow to financial capital.

Key coincidences: a local TV news team that happened to be passing by filmed the event, and a team from the newspaper Diario Latino, whose offices were around the corner, did a photographic report. In addition, two men with gunshot wounds entered area hospitals seeking medical assistance almost immediately afterward, and were taken into custody. They turned out to be former members of the National Guard and the National Police.

Two days later, Deputy Security Minister Barrera said in a press conference that Lt. Rafael Corea, who heads the Criminal Investigation Department of the National Police, had also been arrested as a suspect. His face had been identifiable in the TV news clip. Both the defense minister and the colonel who directs the National Police joined their voices to Barrera's, declaring that they would determine who was responsible at every level of the case. Several days later, it was announced that one rifle used in the assault belongs to an air force captain; his name has not yet been released.

A Milestone in History

The population has long talked about the widespread participation of many armed forces and security corps personnel in political crimes. The courts have proved such responsibility in the case of the slain Jesuits, and the Truth Commission has done so in that and other cases as well.
Many people are also convinced that current and former top brass are involved in organized crime. The investigation into this assault is now at the point of publicly corroborating those assumptions. Official acknowledgement that a National Police officer is presumed responsible for a crime such as this marks a real milestone in the country's history.
A conclusion intolerable to private business is insinuated: small groups of officers within the National Police and the army are now, on top of tainting daily life with death, conspiring against Salvadoran capital. It is a scandal equivalent in some ways to the revelation that the armed forces had assassinated the Jesuits at the Central American University.

In the days following the deputy security minister's press conference, a number of high level National Police officers tried to get Corea off the hook with alibis, even though the televised images put him at the scene of the crime. But they could not block his detention, which suggests the likelihood of other, higher connections.

Will The Wealthy Stay the Course?

Will Lt. Corea end up alone and scapegoated, or will investigations go high enough to uncover all the connections? During the war, some businessmen tolerated organized crime as a by product of the military conflict. But today, in peacetime, this politically "necessary" crime, stripped of its political mask, is seen for exactly what it is: drug trafficking, extortion, kidnappings, assaults and assassinations.

The ease with which a number of wealthy Salvadorans looked to one side and accepted amnesty, even when the Truth Commission fingered the armed forces and demanded an investigation of the death squads, has vanished. They are now looking the problem square in the face and demanding an end to such organized crime. It would not be unlikely for private business to pressure that all these structures be dismantled, right to the highest levels.

Will they be satisfied once the old National Police is dissolved, or even once the responsible parties are removed from the institutions in question? Or will they follow through to the point of demanding punishment and an end to impunity?
After the bank assault, Calderón Sol's government announced that it was moving up the dissolution of the National Police to December 1994. Moreover, in an implicit admission of a serious irregularity, 500 National Policemen were discharged from the Department of Intelligence on July 5. The peace accords left only the Presidency of the Republic legally authorized to collect information through the state's intelligence organization.

What took place clarified the enormous importance for El Salvador of making sure the new National Civil Police (PNC) becomes a security force capable of truly investigating crime and putting up the first barrier to impunity, thus opening heretofore unknown democratic spaces to everyone.

The events are particularly relevant because they occurred right when Rodrigo Avila, the PNC's new director, took office. Serious and honest actions are expected of Avila, since he is known to have opposed the infiltration of National Police anti narcotics agents into top PNC posts. Even more significantly, the events took place just before ONUSAL, the UN's oversight body, presented the government with a list of irregularities it had detected in the old National Police and in the constitution of the PNC.

The Supreme Court: A Decisive Moment

The National Assembly's election of new Supreme Court of Justice magistrates takes on even greater importance in this context. One of the most important constitutional reforms agreed to in the peace accords raised the votes needed to elect these judges from a simple to a two thirds majority. This reform now law prevents electoral majorities won in the executive and legislative branches from automatically translating into a politicized judicial branch. In addition, the reformed Constitution establishes that the National Judiciary Council will now provide the lists of candidates for the Court and that at least half the names on those lists must be suggested by the country's bar associations.

Much is at stake in this first election of a Supreme Court in the post peace accords period. In El Salvador, social inequality, repression and the reduction and blocking of political space has historically been backed up by a politicized jurisprudence system full of shyster tactics that mocked the spirit and letter of successive Constitutions. The lack of a social function for property, ongoing human rights violations and political intransigence were precisely what led to the war that bloodied the country for 12 long years.

The new Assembly representatives had up to 61 days to elect a Court appropriate to the spirit of the reforms, but they failed to do so because they could not surmount the inter party conflicts in that time period. "If we don't want the Court politicized, we have a right for its president to be from ARENA," argued Assembly president and ARENA representative Gloria Salguero. To cover for her unsustainable logic, she used the election results to argue that she was defending the "will of the people."
But if ARENA cannot pull together a two thirds vote for its candidate, the opposition cannot either. The opposition bloc's chosen candidate is Christian Democrat Abraham Rodríguez, who came close to being the left's candidate during the elections.

The most admirable element of this still unresolved situation is that the bloc opposing ARENA has stood firm. In the past, such blocs caved in to bribes or to ideological or personal muscle.

The mixture of such personal zeal and an ideological conviction among some that the left must move towards the center divided the FMLN in the first Assembly session two months ago. This time, however, the FMLN, the Christian Democrats, the Democratic Convergence and the Movement of Unity in total, 41 of the 84 representatives know that the only opportunity to demonstrate their weight as an opposition bloc is on issues that require a two thirds majority. They also know that if they don't do it this first time, particularly around such a fundamental issue, they might as well throw in the towel.

Three Reasons for Unity

Opposition sources say there is a threefold basis for their firm unified position. First, they cannot concede dominion over the last, still unstructured, state branch to ARENA because doing so would give it de facto dictatorial power. Second, they cannot permit the continued presence of the old magistrates, over whose heads hang the Truth Commission's verdict and its recommendation that they all resign. Third, they cannot accept ARENA's veto of Abraham Rodríguez as president of the Supreme Court or of Fabio Castillo and former University of El Salvador rector José María Méndez both of whom are politically unaffiliated as respective members of the Criminal and Constitutional benches.
The opposition's proposed candidates all have a reputation for professionalism. The bloc seems to have carefully considered and agreed on which candidate it wants on each of the Court's respective benches, as well as which third it will elect for three years, which for six and which for nine. It appears obvious that any ARENA opposition negotiation will rather take place around the candidate for Court president.

The name of David Escobar Galindo, the government's negotiator during the peace talks, was originally on the list, and he was a rumored candidate for president. He seemed appropriate for an eventual consensus: without being an ARENA member, he was patronized by Cristiani's people within the party, and is also respected by the FMLN. But, probably convinced by friends on both sides, he withdrew, leaving the candidacy open to Rodríguez. The majority in ARENA however, does not respond to the Cristiani line; it decided not to understand this signal and put forth other candidates instead. So far, those candidates are Hernández Valiente, Cristiani's capable minister of justice; Liévanco Chorro, who is not a party member and has a low legal profile; and Arbizú Mata, head of the current Vice President's legal office.

How will this standoff between the government and the opposition end? The opposition seems able to ensure that ARENA will not have absolute state power, with a Supreme Court totally of its choosing. If the opposition can continue to stand firm, it may even be able to elect a Court that begins to fight against impunity and makes corruption increasingly costly for the higher ups, especially those with weapons.
Despite Abraham Rodriguez' business history in the transnational group SIGMA, the opposition is not sure it can guarantee that the new Court president will be someone who will take a sufficiently legal stance towards big business. Most of the jurists on the list are business lawyers or even company executives. The political capacity is thus not there for the new Court to oversee a significant reduction in judicial partiality towards large scale capital. What this shows is that civil society if the Social and Economic Concertación Forum is revived or other participatory bodies for consensus building are created will have to deal with what the peace accords left pending: the country's economic transformation in favor of the impoverished majority.

As the impasse over the Court drags on, the probability grows that it will be resolved with the election of a mediocre Court and a weak President. In that case, ARENA will have surmounted its anti democratic fear that its government will be controlled from the judicial branch. Such a solution will also likely put to rest the military's fear of a more rigorous investigation to put a brake on its impunity. Should this occur, still more tasks overwhelming ones remain pending for civil society.

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