Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 170 | Septiembre 1995


El Salvador

Labor Unrest and Organized Crime

Social and labor conflicts find violent expression, and violence is also used to confront and try to resolve them. The violence of “organized crime” also continues, a post-war version of the death squads.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

In its political transition from war to peace, El Salvador is swinging between authoritarianism and democracy. Labor problems and demands by workers and employees in some of the piece work plants, state institutions and associations of ex combatants are being answered by public security forces. Workers are still using own combative methods forged in the days of mass demonstrations, when legal channels were so brutally repressed, and the National Civil Police (PNC) has turned too quickly to repression. At the bottom of all these conflicts is the fact that the economy is worsening for the majority of Salvadorans.

Agitation in the Maquilas

The industrial free trade zones, where most piece work assembly plants maquilas are located, have been going through very tense times in 1995. Labor conflicts were never common in these firms, which offer work to many unemployed women in a labor market with few job opportunities. But the enormous concessions granted to these sources of capital have led the maquila firms into abuses so serious that they have sparked protests by many women workers, assisted by union leaders and organizations.

Firing a worker without paying for work already done, without compensation, without having registered the worker's salary deductions for the Social Security or Social Housing Fund and including pregnant women on the list of fired workers are all examples of the serious human rights violations taking place. In addition to these injustices, at least two cases exist of the business owners one US and one Cuban simply fleeing the country when things don't go well for them, without fulfilling even the most basic agreements they had with their workers or paying debts incurred with other business sectors.

The Minister of Economy commented on this in the context of the bill to reform the Free Trade Zone and Fiscal Areas Law, indicating that "a social clause regarding the obligations employers must fulfill, or risk losing their benefits" would be annexed to the reforms. This underscores the serious deficiencies in current legislation. In fact, ARENA representatives who took the initiative to reform the legislation precisely to make the country's ability to attract this kind of foreign investment more competitive recognize that current legislation "lacks a social clause that guarantees, among other things, payment of salaries to workers in case of a factory closure." In March, according to a survey by the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, 66.4% of Salvadorans felt that the "foreign maquilas are violating workers' rights."

Agitation in the Public Sector

There is in today's El Salvador ongoing conflict between the right of workers to publicly and peacefully protest once the means of dialogue have been exhausted and the right of citizens to freely circulate through public streets. Massive daily protests, either labor related or with other characteristics, in the streets of San Salvador, sparked a perception by many people that this threatens social stability. Instability is mechanically identified with a drop in private investment, in turn mechanically associated with the creation of wealth and employment.

Beginning July 12, labor conflicts exploded in three state institutions: the Ministry of Public Works (MOP), the National Administration of Water and Sewage Systems (ANDA) and the Rosales Hospital, part of the Ministry of Health system. Previous conflicts had occurred in the autonomous communications enterprise (ANTEL) as well as in other institutions, in virtually all of which employees feared the impact of privatization plans.

In July's three major conflicts, the unions charged noncompliance with worker management agreements. In the MOP, the issue centered on a number of agreements made with the former minister: worker reclassification, overtime payment to watchmen, worker training, etc. In ANDA, the conflict revolved around whether or not workers will be given shoes, ponchos, uniforms and umbrellas. In the Rosales Hospital, opposition is growing to the increase in social service deductions, the virtual dismantling of the hospital and the firing of 21 doctors. This conflict has been complicated by a confrontation between medical students from the National University and the Ministry of Health. The students demand that all intern posts in the state hospitals go to them according to the Constitution and oppose the mere 60% quota the Ministry of Health has allocated them, granting the other 40% to medical students from the country's private universities.

Who Cast the First Stone?

Once the strikes began, the initial concerns broadened to include opposition to firings and the docking of salaries to punish strikers. In addition, solidarity with other protest movements was sometimes added to the agenda.
Since April, the PNC's riot troops have repressed all public protests with impressive speed. There are always disputes about "who cast the first stone" whether the police were attacked by the demonstrators first or the demonstrators were first attacked by the police. Reality shows that the protests were both conceived and met with violent methods.

So far this year, firearms have been employed only once at these demonstrations, killing one demonstrator. A former guerrilla died in the hospital hours after being wounded by a police officer in a demonstration the third in ten months between the PNC and ex combatants from the armed forces, security corps and guerrilla army. In addition, a police officer was kidnapped, seriously beaten, held hostage and later freed by the demonstrators after his weapons were taken from him. The confrontation took place on a coastal highway, where the former combatants were demanding a clear route to San Salvador so they could protest against delays in land transfers, granting of credit for reinsertion into civilian life, etc.

Both Sides Bare Their Teeth

In the country's new democratic setting, worker management conflicts and legitimate protests obviously cannot run rampant, ignoring legal frameworks or using violence against workplaces, dissident workmates or police agents except in cases of legitimate self defense. In turn, the police cannot attack disabled or wounded demonstrators with impunity, or use force of any kind except as a last and controlled resort to impose order.

Democracy does not mean pre-established and imposed harmony. It means sustained negotiation to reduce the discrepancies that occur in the course of legitimate conflicts of interest, but this should take place in a framework of basic agreements about procedures and the maintenance of certain values. In the current social conflicts, workers have tremendous difficulty seeing the state as anything but the enemy, and authorities have equal shaking the habit of seeing citizen groups that demand their rights as anything but puppets of a subversive conspiracy. For these reasons all conflicts begin with each side baring its teeth and quickly escalating intolerance. Ministers and state officials deny the validity of workers' demands, while union leaders find it very hard to accept mediators and even harder to put forth realistic proposals and options.

When a conflict breaks out, Minister of Public Security Hugo Barrera always complains that the workers turn to strikes as "a first measure." He seems to forget that the Higher Council of Labor is not functioning, and does not even mention the unwillingness to continue with the Social Economic Forum. Most authorities staunchly resist accepting workers as stockholders in the nation's companies. The Ministry of Security labels all conflicts as political and says the FMLN is "behind them." His aggressive and accusatory tone and the very fact he is allowed to say this show that many still adhere to the conspiracy theory and see the opposition as the "internal enemy." As is traditional, others do not see the strikes as anything but laziness and a lack of work ethic on the part of the workers.

This is not only an elite mentality. An UCA survey done in March of this year shows that 63% of the Salvadoran population feels that "street demonstrations only stir things up and create both social and political problems." And despite the fact that 75% feel it is "very important to be affiliated with or form part of an organization to defend one's rights," only a minority of the population belongs to a formal organization.

Arthritic Police?

The peace accords aimed at building a different kind of police force that would guarantee the public's security, but few Salvadorans feel that this has been done. The Ministry of Security and the Human Rights Ombudsman take opposing views of the serious social conflicts that the country has been going through. The security minister defends the use of repression: "If at any moment, for any reason, laws are not respected, we are obliged as police officers to ensure that they are respected to protect the majority of citizens." The ombudsman has a broader perspective: "Unfortunately we are going through polarizing times, in which people live either in submission or in a state of war; there is no space for dialogue. The police commit excesses and are using what should be their last recourse."
Salvador Samayoa, of the FMLN and FUNDAPAZ, declares that the style of police repression used in the demonstrations has changed, although the inclination towards repression as the key means by which to maintain or restore order has not. "The stones thrown by the demonstrators and the tear gas [used by the police] are the sad and worrisome reflection of a small, precarious and only relative gain made by civilization and moderation, in comparison to the guns and barbarity of the past," he says. "But the PNC could end up repudiating the assignment to maintain public order in a civilized manner. It exhibits striking zeal and mobility in repressing labor demonstrations, but a dangerous arthritis in pursuing organized crime. The police must act equally across the board, strong but measured in all situations."
Over the last two months, it would seem that the PNC has been overcoming its arthritis, slowly demonstrating greater efficiency against both organized crime and "illegal armed groups with political motivations", as a report issued by the Joint Group called those the Truth Commission referred to as "death squads." This could mean a strengthened ability to guarantee citizen security, which would undermine the position of those who still push for army intervention in public security matters. The PNC has been doing serious investigative work and has not slowed down, even in the face of evidence that members of its own ranks are involved in organized crime.

Behind Organized Crime

In June, the PNC detained the "Benedictos Band" (so dubbed for Benedicto Villanueva, Sr. and Jr.), accused of being one of the most powerful organizations involved in trafficking stolen vehicles. The capture of this group was based on sufficient evidence to decree provisional detention awaiting legal processing of Villanueva Sr., a former alternate National Conservative Party (PNC) deputy presumed to have links dating back to the war to powerful elements of the armed forces.

In July, the PNC continued with "Operation Ogro," which appears to have been undertaken to detain people related to financing and implementing the "social clean up" in other words, assassination of criminals through an armed band called La Sombra Negra ("the black shadow"). Among those arrested also with sufficient proof to hold them pending the legal process were a relatively important businessman, a money changer from San Miguel, and four members of the PNC itself, one of them a deputy commissioner who had formerly headed up the San Miguel police force. La Sombra Negra, which has all the features of a post war death squad, has claimed to be behind some 20 assassinations, starting with a December 1994 murder in San Miguel.

At the end of July, the PNC captured another "band" whose head, El Chino Olano, is accused of kidnapping and killing a well known lawyer. The PNC suspects that there may be links between this group and Los Benedictos.

Arriving soon to the floor of the National Assembly is draft legislation regarding police careers, an issue of critical importance to assuring professional and humane security in El Salvador and increased public respect for the institution. According to the March UCA survey, a full 53% of the population still said that people have the right to take justice "into their own hands" if the government cannot insure their security, and almost 62% regard the armed forces patrols as inefficient. This indirectly demonstrates the continued view that the PNC alone is not a sufficient guarantee against crime, and its lack of credibility with respect to ensuring human rights.

The whole issue of organized crime is an extremely heated one, quite present in the media and part of ongoing political debate. Other high profile issues are corruption, consistent reforms to electoral procedures and legal and judicial reforms. The element of most concern in the latter issue is the extremely slow advance in purging judges. Much is yet to be done.

Two months after the signing of the San Andrés Pact, no one refers to it anymore. More fundamentally, there is no sign that the country is seriously defining a socioeconomic direction for the country. Without social investment and a post war reconstruction of the country's productive base, democracy in El Salvador will remain enmeshed in acute conflict and will be precarious for some time to come.


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