Violence Escalates in El Salvador as International Spotlight Turns Away
By Charley MacMartin
July 1990; page 8; Volume 1, No. 7
June 1 marked the one-year anniversary of the government of Alfreda Cristiani. The ARENA party president, to celebrate the occasion, proclaimed 1990 to be "a year of peace" for the country of El Salvador.
That afternoon, government helicopters rocketed the community of Zamora in the eastern province of Usulutan. Both crops and buildings were destroyed as part of a military campaign which one community leader termed "the fiercest since November of last year".
The morning Cristiani spoke, the tortured body of an unidentified man was found in the western city of Santa Ana, with stab wounds in the neck, eyes, face, shoulder, and abdomen.
The next day, June 2, Professor Antonio Dimas Alvarengo of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador disappeared from a street near his home. Two days later, his body was found on the UCA campus with bullet wounds to the head.
As June unfolded, residents of San Salvador explained that this month closey resembled the violence of the early 1980's, when hundreds of tortured bodies appeared weekly.
Illusion of Progress
At first glance, conditions seemed to have improved in El Salvador, where over ten years of civil war have left 75,000 dead and more than 20% of the population as refugees. On June 19, FMLN leaders and government representatives began a new round of peace talks in Mexico City. Earlier this spring, Cristiani lifted the "state-of-siege" legislation which had previously given security forces free rein in disappearing and interrogating community organizers. In the capital, the ARENA government allowed the main campus of national University of El Salvador to reopen on June 4.
Scraping below the surface, though, a curious correlation is discovered. As one political observer in El Salvador notes: "The level of political repression this year has had little to do with formal legislation passed or withdrawn in the Salvadoran National Legislature. Instead, the death squads keep a closer eye on activity in the United Slates Congress."
During the second half of May, when the U.S. Congress was debating whether aid to El Salvador should be cut as part of the Supplemental Appropriations Bill for 1990, the Salvadoran Army cut back on blatant abuses of human rights. Even still, violations persisted. For example, on May 20, Salvadoran Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez denounced the abduction of Cesare Sommariva, an Italian priest, and of lay worker Luis Montiel, by paramilitary forces in San Salvador.
By early June, with the U.S. Congress temporarily silent on the question of El Salvador, repression escalated. Incidents included overt acts as those described above as well as the publishing of names "for later retribution". For example, Chris Norton, reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, was named by the Salvadoran Armed Forces Press Service (COPREFA) as responsible for a recent report by the Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus (ACFPC) which criticized ranking Salvadoran officers for human rights violations.
"Making insinuations about someone in this country can cause serious problems," Norton said. "Often journalists can't report happy news, but we are not inventing these things."
CDHES Issues Report
Foreign reporters and religious persons are, of course, not the only ones subjected to the increased wave or repression. Rank and file Salvadorans must confront the repression daily. The non-governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES) produced a report in June on the first year under Cristiani.
Violations - assassinations, captures, and disappearances - increased during the first year of the ARENA government. The government assassinated 2,791 people and captured 1,119. In addition, the Salvadoran Army conducted fifty-nine "arbitrary searches" of offices of grassroots organizations, according to the CDHES report.
By contrast, the CDHES attributed 38 killed, 48 wounded, and 135 captured to the rebel forces of the FMLN.
The terror of repression spread beyond the borders of the country. Salvadoran social democratic leader, Hector Oqueli, was killed while changing planes in Guatemala. Salvadoran solidarity organizers in Los Angeles have been captured and tortured death-squad style.
And on May 29, the Washington, D.C. office of the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners and the Disappeared of El Salvador (COMADRES) reported receiving a handwritten note claiming the office and several COMADRES members were under personal and electronic surveillance by the FBI and the Intelligence Division of the D.C Metropolitan Police Department,
July to Produce Renewed Debate on FY 1991 Aid to El Salvador
The summer will bring a new round of debate on aid to El Salvador. The Fiscal Year (FY) 1991 appropriations bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Operations Subcommittee the week of June 11 with a provision to withhold 50% of the military aid to El Salvador, or about $45 million. The mark-up in the full Appropriations Committee was scheduled for Wednesday, June 20. It is likely to go forward on that day, and likely to reaffirm the 50% withholding language. The full House is scheduled to vote on the full appropriations bill in July, although debate may postponed final decision until after the July recess.
Secretary of State Baker returned from his meetings with Central American presidents during their summit in June with a potentially powerful weapon: a call from the presidents of the region to the FMLN to disarm. He may well use this to attempt to pressure Congress into abandoning their challenge to Administration policy, arguing that they are acting counter to the "mandate from the region".
It is difficult to predict whether proponents of a change in policy will maintain the position of a cut in military aid, especially if the Bush Administration offers a compromise, instead of simply opposing the Democrats' initiative as they did in the case of the Moakley-Murtha amendment (50% cut) to the 1990 Supplemental Appropriations Bill. A compromise could be, for example, a smaller cut in aid, or a postponement of some kind.
A useful vehicle which House members should be encourage to sign on to is the "Dear Colleague" letter by Rep. Gerry Sikorski. It culls for a cut-off of "all military-related funding" to the Salvadoran government, and will be delivered to members starling early Tuesday morning for their signature. The goal is to get 60-70 signers as soon as possible, in order to pressure the Democratic leadership leading up the Appropriations vote in July.
Still, dear colleague letters are not legislation. A strong position against continued aid is demanded of U.S. Representatives from Texas who have received ample information on current conditions in El Salvador. Austin CISPES is working for a complete cut in aid to the government of El Salvador because of the persistent and systematic violations of human rights by the security forces. In the short term, "rapid action response" and delegations are being increased to meet the new demands upon the international solidarity. For more information, contact Austin CISPES at [defunct phone number redacted].