FMLN/Arena Reach Accords

By Bill Stouffer
November 1991; pages 8-9; Volume 3, No. 2

In the past month two key events transformed the political landscape of El Salvador and moved that country back into the headlines of newspapers across the world. A round of intensive negotiations at the UN produced a surprising set of agreements on how to move towards peace and two military officers were convicted by the Salvadoran Supreme Court for the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests. It is part of the paradox of Salvadoran history that such signs of peace should also bring about an increase in violence by the military, the death squads and the government.

New York Accords Bring Hope of Peace

"After eleven years of war we are at the door of a new phase in our history, a new country, a new democratic republic in the next century."
-FMLN Commander Francisco Jovel

On September 25 the FMLN and the ARENA government of El Salvador reached an historic agreement - a major step forward in the attempt to end the 11 year old civil war. Mediated directly by UN Secretary General Perez de Cuellar, the accords broke a three month impasse in the negotiating process. The direct participation by the Secretary General helped the Cristiani government and the FMLN reach a compromise on substantive issues blocking the talks. While most hopeful observers expected the two sides to create the foundation for further negotiations at these meetings, the signing of such an important accord came as a surprise.

According to FMLN commander and negotiating team member Joaquin Villalobos the accords "institute a set of changes which are practically a revolution in El Salvador." Although he refused to participate directly in the talks, shortly before leaving New York, President Cristiani praised the accords and predicted an end to the war in 1991.

Perhaps the most important immediate result of the negotiations is the creation of a pluralistic commission to oversee the implementation of all the political agreements reached since the talks began. Through the National Commission for the Consolidation of the Peace (COPAZ), civilian society will control and participation in the changes instituted by the negotiators, including changes in the armed forces. COPAZ will include two representatives of the government (including one from the Armed Forces), two from the FMLN and one representative from each of the political parties or coalitions represented in the Assembly.

The FMLN and ARENA also agreed that the government and private landowners would distribute private properties over the constitutional limit of 600 acres to landless peasants, to respect current land tenure in FMLN zones of control, and to limit the role of the army to national defense, eliminating its current police functions. In addition to these agreements, negotiators produced a draft agreement in preparation for the dissolution of the military security forces and the creation of a National Civilian Police, which will be pluralistic and will likely include members of the FMLN.

Although most of the accords will only be implemented upon the signing of a ceasefire agreement, the Salvadoran government, the FMLN and political parties met in Mexico City on October 9 to discuss COPAZ. Delegates to the commission have been named and installed. They will be attempting to design mechanisms to implement the accords while negotiations continue on the purging of human rights violators from the army and other as yet unresolved issues.

Reactions to the accords have been enthusiastic in nearly every sector of Salvadoran society. Edgar Palacios of the Permanent Commission of the National Debate for Peace (CPDN) congratulated the two sides for "reaching an intelligent accord which establishes preeminence of political aspects over military aspects."

Ruben Zamora of the Democratic Convergence Party said a period of demilitarization of the country has begun which will be the key factor in ending the civil war. He noted that for the first time the peace process has dealt with economic and social problems such as land ownership and economic planning. Guillermo Rojas of the labour central UNTS called the dissolution of the security forces and their substitution with an independent National Police a triumph. Even members of the conservative Salvadoran business association ANEP have praised the accords as the precondition for continued economic development in the country.

Logic Lacking in Jesuit Verdict

On September 29, an anonymous five-member jury found a colonel and a lieutenant from the Salvadoran Military School guilty of the November, 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women. The other seven defendants, two officers and five soldiers from the Atlacatl battalion, were acquitted. Colonel Guillermo Benavides was found guilty in the death of the six priests, while lieutenant Yushy Rene Mendoza was blamed for the death of the priests' housekeeper and her 15-year old daughter.

The two military figures found guilty had been assigned to the Military School, responsible at that time for security in the area including the Central American University (UCA) where the murders occurred. Those found not guilty were members of the elite Atlacatl Battalion.

Because this is the first time in Salvadoran history that a top-ranking military officer has been convicted for the murder of civilians the verdict is undeniably a very important event. The nationally televised images of eight military men seated in the dock symbolize for many Salvadorans a shift away from the absolute power of the military over the civilian society. Further, the message sent by the jury through its verdict reinforces the conviction that responsibility must be sought at higher levels, thus establishing a new frame of reference and encouraging the search for those who masterminded the killings.

The FMLN and ARENA also agreed that the government and private landowners would distribute private properties over the constitutional limit of 600 acres to landless peasants.

Nonetheless, it is hard to deny what the Jesuit University of Central America has called the lack of legal and moral logic in the verdict. "In the end, we were left with a measure of truth wrested from a process which was flawed from any point of view, and the overall desire for justice largely unfulfilled." Those who actually carried out the crime were acquitted despite the fact the Nuremberg principles are part of official Salvadoran law. The message this sends to rank and file soldiers is that impunity remains intact and that human rights violations will not be prosecuted. Even more disturbing is the failure to pursue the question of responsibility farther up the chain of command despite evidence of widespread advance knowledge of the assassination plot.

There was also widespread criticism of the role of the US government in blocking a thorough investigation of the charges. While the State Department lauded the trial as an "historic achievement", Leonel Gomez, a Salvadoran with long time connections to US agencies, charged in the Los Angeles Times that the High Command could never have withstood international pressures on the case for eighteen months "without at least tacit support from U.S. officers and agencies." He noted that U.S. intelligence has "hundreds of full-time employees" in El Salvador and would certainly have conducted an investigation into the assassinations but has not shared that information. Finally, Gomez called on Congress to subpoena CIA officers and the MILGROUP commander "if they really want to know the truth."

Military Launches Nationwide Offensive

The period of negotiations was also a period of stepped up military activity by the army in the communities of repatriated refugees in Chalatenango, Morazan, and in the vicinity of the Guazapa volcano. It is widely believed that these attacks are the army's response to the Jesuit trial and the prospects of demilitarization opened up by the New York Accords.

On October 6, after weeks of aerial assaults on the region, troops of the Bracamonte Battalion moved into the northern Guazapa area, occupying the repopulations along the Aguilares-Suchitoto road. Two days later the army began firing 105 mm mortars from Suchitoto toward the communities of San Antonio, La Mora and Los Almendros. At 10:00 a.m., three helicopter gunships fired rockets around the communities, partially destroying the roof of the new schoolhouse built by residents and inaugurated just a month previously. No civilian casualties were reported, but the women, children and old people in the communities are "suffering great anxiety" according to the non-governmental Human Rights Commission.

The following day, the right wing Salvadoran daily, Diario De Hoy published an editorial titled, "Are They Camps of Displaced People or Forts for Future Conflicts?" The editorial denounced the presence of foreigners in "displaced camps" and referred to the communities along the Aguilares-Suchitoto as "future forts for the new phase of the war which will be initiated with the signing of a cease-fire."

Death squad activity also increased during this period marking the resistance of extreme right wing elements to any compromise or negotiated settlement as a means of bringing an end to the war. The most prominent target of death threats was Mirtala Lopez, a leader of the Christian Committee for the Displaced (CRIPDES), an organization which works with communities in Chalatenango. The first threat, delivered on September 12, warned that "just as we eliminated the Jesuits, we are committed to ending the lives of those who claim to be leaders of the FMLN-FDR's Machiavellian organizations." Lopez is scheduled to receive an international human rights award in Houston in early December.