RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Death Squads Still Operating


By Raúl Gutiérrez

SANSALVADOR, Sep 4 (IPS) - Recent arrests of police officers in ElSalvador accused of committing extrajudicial executions have encouragedhuman rights activists and experts who have long reported the continuedexistence of death squads in this Central American country.

Foryears, human rights organisations and experts have said the deathsquads that operated during the counterinsurgency war in the 1980snever disappeared, but merely became groups of paid killers that stilloperate with impunity, and are hired to "settle scores, carry outvengeance killings, eliminate a businessmans competitor, carry outsocial cleansing or work for organised crime."

Lawyer Jaime Martínez, with the Institute of ComparativeStudies in Criminal and Social Science (INECIP), told IPS that thegroups "are the visible face of organised crime, and do their dirtywork."

There are strong indications that "criminal groups are embedded" in the National Civilian Police (PNC), said Martínez.

He lamented that the authorities have not made this a keyconcern, and instead dismiss such reports by arguing that the problemis just a few bad officers who must be weeded out.

"We cannot continue to believe in the few bad applestheory," said the expert, who conducted research on citizen securityand death squads when he headed the Foundation for Studies on theApplication of Rights (FESPAD) Criminal Studies Centre for 13 years.

Police Sergeant Nelson Arriaza and officer Roberto CarlosChévez were arrested Jul. 28, along with the now fugitive RemberMartínez, and accused of murdering campesino (small farmer) AmadoGarcía in the town of Nueva Esparta in the northeastern department(province) of Morazán.

Four other police officers were arrested Aug. 27 in theeastern department of San Miguel in connection with the group headed byArriaza, and were charged with belonging to a death squad.

Another police officer and a civilian are also facing arrest for alleged ties to the same group.

PNC chiefs have acknowledged the problem, which they downplay, however, as "isolated incidents."

But the prosecutors office has not ruled out an investigation intopossible connections between Arriaza and other members of the PNC, aswell as other killings in San Miguel, where the police sergeant wasposted.

Another indication of the existence of death squads was thedistribution of flyers over the past two weeks in the town ofChalchuapa, 80 km from San Salvador, signed simply with the initials"E.L." The leaflets declare a "curfew" and urge local residents and themembers of the PNC themselves to stay inside at night.

"For your own good, we advise you not to be on the streetsafter 10:00 PM, because we are carrying out a cleansing campaign," saysthe flyer.

The towns murder rate has soared from four or five killings amonth at the beginning of the year to 17 in August alone, according tothe local PNC offices.

In the 1970s and 1980s, death squads in El Salvador abducted,tortured and killed thousands of students, trade unionists, teachersand leftist political leaders and activists, as part of the U.S.-backedanti-Communist crusade led by the late Major Roberto d'Aubuisson,founder of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA),which has governed the country since 1989.

The 1980-1992 armed conflict between the security forces andthe leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) left75,000 people dead and 8,000 "disappeared".

But although a 1992 peace agreement put an end to the civil war, ElSalvador still has one of the highest homicide rates in the world: 56per 100,000 population in 2006, according to the Institute of ForensicMedicine.

The Inter-American Court on Human Rights will soon hand down aruling in the case of the June 1994 murder of businessman MauricioGarcía Prieto, who was allegedly the victim of a death squad. GarcíaPrietos parents took the case to the Inter-American Court when theywere unable to find justice in El Salvador.

In addition, several leaders of the FMLN -- now the mainopposition party -- were killed after the peace agreement was signed,including Mario López and Darol Francisco Velis, who were murdered in1993 by death squads. Others escaped attempts on their lives.

In late 1993, the inter-institutional Joint Group for theInvestigation of Politically Motivated Illegal Armed Groups was set up,led by the United Nations observer mission that monitored the peaceprocess.

In its 110-page report, the Joint Group cited declassifieddocuments from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) whichreferred to death squads that operated between 1980 and 1991.

But an appendix to the report that was never made publiccontained the names of businessmen and member of the military involvedin death squads, which according to the investigators were financedsince 1979 by government security offices, kidnapping, extortion andcontributions from members of the ruling elite in El Salvador.

The death squads also received support from members of theelite in Guatemala and even Miami, Florida, as well as from right-winggroups in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico, and the World Anti-CommunistLeague, according to the Joint Group.

The 1994 report stated that after the end of the civil war,the nature of political violence had shifted "toward more decentralisedstructures geared primarily to common crime and exhibiting a highdegree of organisation."

It also maintained that this "broad network of organised crime ..., inwhich ... there is active participation of members of the armed forcesof El Salvador and the National Police, cannot be divorced from manyacts of politically motivated violence."

David Morales, a lawyer with Tutela Legal del Arzobispado, theCatholic churchs legal aid office in San Salvador, told IPS thatdespite the fact that the Joint Group "recommended that formerpresident (Armando) Calderón (1994-1999) take measures to dismantlethese groups, the recommendation was never heeded."

And today, the death squads "are intact, active and armed," he asserted.

In 1993, a group that calls itself Angels of Death committed awave of murders in western El Salvador, while a "social cleansing"squad, Black Shadow, killed a number of suspected gang members in SanMiguel in 1994 and 1995.

At that time, an assistant police commissioner and several PNCofficers, along with a former soldier who is now mayor of San Miguel,Wilfredo Salgado, were accused of the murders, but the cases wereclosed when the key witness failed to show up at court.

The witness, police Sergeant Vilma Quintanilla, had refused to take part in the activities of Black Shadow.

After becoming a whistle-blower, Quintanilla, who was afraid ofbeing killed if she testified, fled the country, according to thedocuments from the case, which Morales handled when he was assistanthuman rights ombudsman.

INECIPs Martínez said that 622 possible cases of death squadkillings were documented by FESPAD between January 2001 and August2005.

In 2006, the Human Rights Ombudsmans Office (PDDH) reportedthe case of a young man, Abimilet Ramírez, who after being picked up bythe police was thrown down a well.

He survived, and there were witnesses who saw him being seizedby the police. But he was killed later, after he and the PDDH reportedhis case to the public prosecutors office.

Investigations by human rights organisations have found thatthese incidents form part of "homicidal practices" that "year afteryear have been seen in the post-war period, and up to the present, andthat are carried out with the acquiescence of high-rankingauthorities," Morales said in a television interview.

These groups "resort to common crime or organised crime as a means of financing themselves," he added.

The PNC has been perverted to such an extent that it hascompletely lost the values and principles that it had when it wascreated as the countrys new civilian police force by the peaceagreement, said Martínez.

Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna said he would propose "the creationof an external commission to investigate the police," because "there isno effective oversight" of the PNC.

Civil society representatives would form part of the commission, he said.

Martínez said such a commission should also review thecountrys public security policies, strengthen the PNCs poor capacityto investigate crimes, review the police forces budget, and developoversight and disciplinary mechanisms for the PNC, while studying thelabour conditions and rights of the police officers.

Without such an in-depth analysis and overhaul, he said, the police force will continue reverting to the past.(END/2007)

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