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  Number 113 | Diciembre 1990
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El Salvador

SI Leader's Murder Remains Unsolved

Envío team

The January 1990 murder of Hector Oquelí, deputy general secretary of El Salvador's National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and secretary of the Socialist International (SI) Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean, has yet to be solved. In Guatemala en route to an SI conference to be held in Managua, Oquelí and Gilda Flores, a Guatemalan lawyer, were abducted on their way to the airport the morning of January 12. Their bodies were found later that day, one and a half hours' drive outside Guatemala City. Two official reports have been issued since their murders, but no one has been charged with the crime.

At the request of the Socialist International, two American University law professors, Tom Farer and Robert Goldman, went to Guatemala to evaluate the official Guatemalan investigation into the murders. Farer, an independent Democrat, is a former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, and Goldman, a Republican, is currently on the board of directors of Americas Watch. Both are familiar with Guatemala's legal and administrative structures and its political conditions. In their evaluation, the two noted that the investigation was conducted in a sloppy manner that leaves many questions unanswered and even more unasked. The Guatemalan authorities issued an interim report in February and a second report in May. According to Farer and Goldman, the two reports contradict themselves and each other.

Twenty four hours in Guatemala

Hector Oquelí's fateful trip to Guatemala was marked by suspicious events from the moment of his arrival from Mexico. He apparently passed through airport customs with no problems, but while waiting for his luggage, he was delayed by Guatemalan security officers, who took his passport and held it for half an hour. By this time Oquelí had met up with René Flores, an MNR associate who had flown from El Salvador to deliver some documents and funds Oquelí needed. Flores had no problem at customs.

According to an interview with René Flores conducted by Farer and Goldman, he and
Oquelí were met by Gilda Flores, who drove them to her house. Twice Oquelí noted strange men watching him—once at the airport and once outside of Flores' house (near the Peruvian Embassy). In the afternoon, the three returned to the airport and René Flores flew back to El Salvador.

The events of the next day are less clear. According to the Guatemalan investigator's interview with Gilda Flores' maid, Oquelí and her employer left the house around 6 a.m. They were abducted shortly after that. Unidentified witnesses interviewed by Guatemalan Security Forces said that a vehicle crossed in front of Gilda Flores' car and three armed people got out and took her. According to other witnesses, a man fled from the vehicle, which was variously described as grey or brown.

The two government reports directly contradict each other regarding the finding of the two bodies. Either one or two men left them in a truck at either 1 or 2 p.m., then either flagged down a bus or got into a waiting car with four other men. Even though people went immediately to the truck and saw the bodies, the report states that the authorities were not notified until 5 p.m.

Unanswered questions plague report

In their evaluation of the government reports, Farer and Goldman interviewed some of the same witnesses as well as Interior Minister General Carlos Morales Villatoro; Joseph A Gannon, an FBI agent lent to the case; and René Flores. In their written evaluation, they point out the following contradictions and problems (among others) with both reports:

* When Farer and Goldman spoke with the immigration officer who stamped Oquelí's visa, he claimed that he never retained the passport. He would have been the person legally authorized to do so if papers were not in order.

* The second report vaguely claims that René Flores was present when the two were abducted (thus implicating the Salvadoran Left), even though Guatemalan immigration shows he left the country the day before.

* The report does not mention, as do Farer and Goldman, that "the point of abduction is within one block of a military installation that is under constant guard."

* The second report says at one point that Flores and Oquelí had been killed no more than six hours after they were abducted, but in later pages reduces that to three with no apparent notice of the discrepancy.

* According to autopsies, the two were killed with one shot to the head, but they had also been recently injected in the arm. Blood samples to determine what they were injected with (as well as other forensic evidence) were either never taken or were sequestered by high-level Guatemalan Security Forces and not sent to available FBI labs for processing.

Three hypotheses

The second report puts forward three possible suspects: the Salvadoran Left, the Salvadoran Right and the Guatemalan Security Forces. At the time of Oquelí's death, two prominent FMLN leaders were in Guatemala holding a private meeting with US Senator Christopher Dodd. An intransigent faction of the Salvadoran Left, the report hypothesizes, may have killed Oquelí to frustrate the possibilities of a negotiated settlement to the Salvadoran war. The Guatemalan report, note Farer and Goldman, largely ignores this option, except for vague effort to implicate René Flores as the man who "fingered" Oquelí to the assassins. In their interview with Interior Minister Morales, they found him much less equivocal about this hypothesis. They concluded, however, that it would be nearly impossible for the Salvadoran Left to successfully operate in Guatemala, and that the timing was too early in the negotiations to have any such impact.

The Guatemalan Security Forces were rejected as an "implausible" group. The report concludes that the only basis for such attribution was the delay at the airport, a delay understood to be the moment in which interested parties were notified and subsequent surveillance set up. Two other factors remain unmentioned. First, the truck in which the bodies were found had been stolen in Guatemala City around noon by men who the driver said confronted him with pistols and Guatemalan National Police identity cards. Second, the form of the abduction: independent experts told Farer and Goldman that "unprotected criminals" (those without police collaboration) would take the car of the abducted. The police, or criminals operating with police collaboration, would transfer a "suspect" to their own vehicle, as was the case. It should be kept in mind that the report itself was the work of the same Security Forces, and thus hardly impartial. In particular, Farer and Goldman offer clues that Minister Morales may have inhibited a more professional investigation.

Farer and Goldman point out that "at least one observer of Guatemalan politics and institutions has suggested that the decision to murder Oquelí could be understood as a response by powerful elements within the military institution to the meeting between two commanders of the Salvadoran FMLN and US Senator Christopher Dodd" on Guatemalan soil. In addition, a peaceful settlement in El Salvador could set a "precedent" that might lead to a limiting of Guatemalan military power. In summary, Goldman and Farer comment that "one is struck by the casual brazenness of the entire criminal enterprise," pointing out that the perpetrators left lots of forensic evidence, perhaps confident that it would never be used.

Despite these motives, however, Farer and Goldman agree with the report that the Salvadoran Right had even stronger motives. Should negotiations between the FMLN and the government be successful, they would likely lead to a reduction in the size and power of the Salvadoran army, "the institution that for much of the country's modem history has been the guarantor of its social and economic status quo."

It is likely that Oquelí was thought to be connected to the Dodd/FMLN meeting, though his presence appears to be coincidental. He may have been abducted initially for interrogation purposes to find out more about the meeting, and then killed. Or he may have been killed to frustrate FMLN/Salvadoran government negotiations. As Farer and Goldman note, "during the [November 1989 FMLN] offensive, Oquelí's name was among those, including two of the Jesuits subsequently executed by Salvadoran armed forces units, denounced as traitors."

Farer and Goldman do not rule out the possibility that the Salvadoran Right may have been working with elements of the Guatemalan Security Forces. They conclude that because of the inconsistencies in the two reports and the apparent sloppiness of the investigation, President Vinicio Cerezo must still "redeem his pledge" to the Socialist International to make every effort to identify the assassins of Oquelí and Flores.

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