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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 182 | Septiembre 1996
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El Salvador

What Has Changed?

The worst of the nation’s past remains present in the land: intolerance, anachronistic mentalities, threats, illegal methods... This political subculture has roots that go deeper than the feeble roots developed so far by the Peace Agreements. The country moves, but on its own axis.

Carlos G. Ramos

With some modifications in its formulation, El Salvador could be an exemplary case, the ideal reference to recover the theses of the ancient Greek philosopher Parmenides of Elea. Four years after the peace accords were signed and the war ended, too many political signs insistently demonstrate that El Salvador is still in pre transition.

The signs include the traditional behavior frameworks that rule party political behavior, the anachronistic mentality prevalent on the right that still sees destabilizing "communist" plans in every expression of social protest, or the low tolerance levels of political leaders and common citizens in general. Even more importantly, they include the tendency to use anomalous and extra legal methods as the first recourse for solving conflicts or influencing the political process.

The various components of the Salvadoran political structure were shaken by the Peace Accords, but little progress has been made in building the "new El Salvador" that "center" and "rightwing" propaganda claims is being attempted. What the left has to say about it is still an enigma, not only because few appear willing to position themselves there on the political spectrum, but also because, in general, the forces that up to now considered themselves "leftwing" seem to be retreating from political debate and their ability to influence the political process is ever weaker.

Organized Crime and a Divided ARENA

The country's socio political climate between the end of April and mid July is a good example of how El Salvador has been shaken up but not transformed. Already by mid April, the business strike in the east of the country and the Emergency Law-- approved without much thought by the Legislative Assembly-- indicated a disturbing political situation and put two very important issues at the top of the agenda for public debate: the existence of organized criminal structures and the marked divisions within the ARENA party.

Much has been said about organized crime, but neither the Emergency Law nor efforts by the police or judiciary have decisively tried to attack organized crime. On the other hand, very little has been said about the divisions in ARENA, despite new and clear indications that something very serious is happening within the governing party. The ARENA leadership has done everything possible to minimize the quarrels.

Disputes and Confrontations

The dispute sparked by Antonio Cornejo Arango, ARENA founder in the eastern zone, took on major importance in this regard. Cornejo refused to recognize the party leadership structure (COENA) because it did not faithfully represent the thinking of deceased Roberto D'Aubuisson. The poorly monitored confrontations between ARENA officials are also important. Among them are the dispute between the current ANTEL telephone company president and the party president, Juan Jose Domenech; the criticisms Domenech has made of government officials, above all the Minister of the Treasury and the Presidential Commission for State Modernization; and the declarations by liberal Democratic Party leader Kirio Waldo Salgado regarding the existence of a plan to kill him and Cornejo Arango, supposedly involving, among others, Tomas Calderon, brother of the President of the Republic, Hugo Berrera, Security Minister, and Rolando Garcia, deputy director of the Civil National Police (PNC). While this latter is not yet certain, it is still a concern.

This is the context for a series of incidents that have marked a definite rhythm in the political scene in the last three months, reminding everyone that the worst of the past is still with us, and its roots are deeper than those the Peace Accords have been able to generate.

The First Bomb Explodes

The first of a series of incidents started at 8:20pm on April 25, with the explosion of a car bomb a short distance from the residences of former President Cristiani and businessman Saul Suster, president of ANTEL during Cristiani's administration.

Reactions to the bombing varied. The police speculated that it could have been a desperate act triggered by PNC actions. The ARENA party president blamed extreme left elements, which he accused of trying to provoke a climate of instability. Ronald Umana, General Secretary of one of the Christian Democratic Party fractions, was even more direct, claiming it was a typical FMLN terrorist attack. The FMLN leadership, challenged Umana, should "give explanations about this attack, because we all know they used these terrorist methods during the war." The FMLN expressed concern for the political consequences and called it an "attack against the peace process and democratization." Less publicized versions associated the car bomb with ARENA's increasingly evident internal disputes-- a business strike had taken place in the east two weeks earlier.

Nothing was said about a possible link between this incident and negotiations between the Suster family and an unknown group that kidnapped one of Saul Suster's children in September 1995. That kidnapping apparently incorporates not only economic motives and demands, but also political ones. The length of time of the capture, Suster's position in the Cristiani government and ARENA party and, above all, his close friendship with Cristiani lend credence to that possibility.

On this point, El Mundo, a newsdaily linked to rightwing circles, suggested in August that the kidnapping may have been committed by "ultra right or ex military groups" which dedicated themselves to similar kinds of activities during the war.

Even when little information was available about the incident, it was learned that Cristiani's residence was robbed by unknown thieves after the car bomb exploded.

The Second Explosion

Less than a month later, a second bomb went off, damaging the Insurance and Investment Company building, whose largest shareholder is Alfredo Cristiani. Cristiani's own offices are in the same building. The explosion again took place at 8:20 pm, this time on May 23. At that hour, apparently, Cristiani was in ARENA headquarters celebrating the birthday of party president Juan Jose Domenech. Various ARENA leaders were present during the attack, but made no public statements.

The concentration of the attacks in a relatively short time period, their synchronized detonation time apparently to serve as a warning while minimizing the possibility of victims and the use of materials (C 4 plastic explosives, at least in the first attempt) employed by the army suggest professionalism and experience. The coordination in implementing both incidents could not be controlled by novices without committing major errors or leaving multiple witnesses. All of this led the Salvadoran government to solicit the collaboration of FBI experts in explosives and investigating terrorist attacks.

Four University Students?

On June 15, after almost a month of confusing investigations and the finding of a questionable key witness about whom little is publicly known, the PNC's Organized Crime Investigation Department (DICO) captured four law students from the University of El Salvador as the supposed perpetrators of the crime. The police assured that the students were part of an organization that calls itself "Popular Revolutionary Voice of the People," organized within the University. They accused a university professora an important Supreme Court official--of intellectual involvement in the students activities. Incomprehensibly, the professor was neither held nor interrogated.

Few think the police argument holds water. Even ex President Cristiani insinuated the need for more investigation. After the arrests, however, the police investigation appeared to be closed by higher orders, leaving the judicial process with a weak basis: an accusation against a university professor of intellectual responsibility without even enough evidence to permit his incarceration, an enigmatic key witness, evidence that could be refuted--a C 4 tablet, according to the accused, was planted in his house by a police agent at the moment of his capture--and a logo of a clandestine organization whose initials do not even corres pond to the supposed group.

Even if the accused are members of the clandestine university group, their characteristics do not seem to meet the requirements needed to have been able to execute actions like those perpetrated against ex President Cristiani. Strangest of all is that, accepting the guilt of the accused, the attacks have no defined motives. What sense and political logic is there behind these attempts against Cristiani, since he is not on the immediate horizon of conflicts for that clandestine group? Why run such high and dangerous risks? In fact, apart from placing the incidents in the lax category of terrorism, neither the police nor the prosecutor have given any halfway reasonable hypothesis to explain the motives behind the attacks.

"Your Days are Numbered"

In this context of terrorism with political motives and doubtful police investigations to clarify them, other incidents added to the already turbulent political climate. As in earlier critical moments, the existence of threatening notes by extreme right clandestine organizations became public.

The first of these messages, sent by a group calling itself the Major Roberto D'Aubuisson Nationalist Force (FURODA), was made public the first week of July. According to this FURODA, the moment of confrontation with anti government forces-- including local media and the "ominous" international press--has arrived. The message indicates that the time has come for all those "destabilizing and sell out elements" who defame honorable people like Tomás Calderón, Security Minister Hugo Barrera, Interior Minister Mario Acosta and the ARENA president. Finally, it provides a list of 15 people, among them politicians and religious people, who could become FURODA targets and warns that they will pay for defending terrorists based in the University of El Salvador who continue destabilizing the country.

Recalling one of the multiple rebuffs of the President of the Republic to his political opposition, FURODA's message warns "all those bad seeds"--in this case those protesting the failure to comply with labor laws in tax free zones--that "we are letting you know your days are numbered."

Against "the False Right"

After a chain of criticisms against this presumed rightwing group, a second, even more distressing, communication was made public. In this one, FURODA refers to the "scheming government officials," whose incredulity in the face of the warnings is because they do not know that the struggle since 1980 has been "to keep El Salvador from falling into the hands of the traitors of the false right." It adds that the warnings are fatal and clarifies the threat against the international press, explaining that it refers to "those correspondents who serve the interests of traitors who report negatively about the government and the transparent privatization process." Finally, it insists that the "pigs" or "political pigs," using another of President Calderón Sol's terms against leftwing politicians, "will not make it to the next elections." "This," it warns, "we have sworn before the cold, but nationalist face of Roberto D'Aubuisson. For this reason we are not put out by the schemers, who have never offered their quota of blood, commitment and sacrifice."

Without going into great detail, at least two more messages were made public the first two weeks of July. The first, in the name of the National Front for Mental Health, criticized FURODA and made its own threats against important political personalities. The second, which was more commented upon, was the work of the supposed National Liberation Strategic Command, made up of high and mid level armed forces officers. It threatened a coup if the President of the Republic did not dismiss cabinet officials linked to organized crime. Calderón Sol, the communication warns, "should act as soon as possible, or else we will take control of the state so that the glorious Armed Forces can once again be the symbol of change and the people's armed tool."

The Same Country as Always

That these communications respond to real clandestine paramilitary groups is unclear. Even though the majority of the threats are directed towards the opposition, all of them express discontent with the government in one form or another and reflect differences regarding the political line that ARENA should adopt.

It is hard to know what is behind the communications and how true the threats are. Paramilitary clandestine groups? Ultra rightwing sectors seeking to benefit from a modification in the correlation of forces before the elections? Retired military officers unhappy with the results of the process--in which they have paid the greatest costs while others have reaped the benefits? Or an operation mounted by some parallel intelligence office? All are possible. No evidence exists to suggest which hypothesis is more likely.

What is clear is that all of these incidents in the last quarter, as well as the political climate to which they have contributed, are expressions of the fact that, despite publicized institutional modernization, the mentalities, political conduct and methods used to influence the process and political decisions have not changed. Other controversies and incidents confirm this.

El Salvador has been shaken up and it has moved, but it is moving along its own axis. Very little has changed after four intense years of transition. We are in a permanent, unchanging country.


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