Anti-Terrorism Law Fails to Silence Salvadoran Social Movement


On July 2, 2007, peaceful protesters in Suchitoto learnedwho would be the real targets of the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorismthat was pushed through the National Assembly in September of 2006. Despite thename, this new law does not explicitly define terrorism, but only states thatits objective is to prevent, investigate, and punish crimes committed with theintention of provoking states of alarm, fear or terror in the population, puttingin immediate danger peoples life or physical or mental integrity, materialgoods of significant value or importance, the democratic system or security ofthe State or international peace. 

On July 2, President Antonio Saca planned to announce hisgovernments National Policy of Water Decentralization in the town of Suchitoto. Communityorganizers, including members of SETA (the national water workers union) andrural development organization CRIPDES, view this policy as a preliminary steptowards the privatization of water. They met President Sacas arrival with apeaceful protest demanding that the government uphold its Constitutionalresponsibility to assure the human right to water. President Saca was forced toreturn to the capital by helicopter and announce the policy via pressconference after protesters blocked his caravan from entering Suchitoto.

The government responded to the protest by sending in theriot police (UMO) and the specialized forces of the National Civilian Police(PNC) in mass. They opened fire on demonstrators with rubber bullets, tear gas,and pepper spray, in the largest joint police- military operation againstsocial movement protest since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992. Theyviolently detained 14 community leaders on charges of terrorism and injuredan estimated 75 others.

Five days later, on July 7, Judge Ana Lucila Fuentes de Pazof the Special Tribunal of San Salvador, granted the government prosecutorsrequest to send 13 of the 14 people charged with terrorism to 90 days ofpreventative imprisonment.  The prisoners were not indicted at this timeunder any specific section of the Anti-Terrorism law, but were held undercharges of terrorism in general. The fourteenth prisoner, Facundo Dolores García,was released on July 13 due to lack of evidence.

The Salvadoran social movement and the FMLN immediatelydenounced the arrests as politically motivated, demanded the release of thepolitical prisoners, and organized public demonstrations against governmentrepression and its new tool: the overly broad Anti-Terrorism law. Edgar Mejia,whose wife Beatriz Nuila was detained, described the events as evidence thatonce more in this country we are traveling down a dangerous road of repressionand human rights violations.

Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna called forrevisions to the law and stated that the application of the Anti-Terrorism lawin the Suchitoto case did not seem to me to be the most adequate given theactions.  In response to these statements and international pressure,President Saca announced his supposed openness to a revision of theAnti-Terrorism law, saying, I think thatthe law can be improved to moreclearly define terrorism. However, this lack of clarity and commitment is whatallowed the government to hold the protestors as terrorists without chargingthem with specific legal violations, and sent a message to would-be protestorsabout the consequences of voicing dissent in El Salvador.

On July 19, four more prisoners were released, but theircharges still held. The social movement occupied the central plaza of San Salvadorand the Salvador del Mundo monument 24 hours a day until July 27, when thejudge reversed her previous ruling and the 9 remaining prisoners were freed.The charges of terrorism still stand, however, and the prisoners will facetrial on October 7.

Chapter III of the Anti-Terrorism law used to prosecute thiscase criminalizes acts of terrorism against the lives, physical integrity orliberty of public officials and internationally protected persons. The 13defendants were cited with throwing rocks and blocking the street, which fallunder a provision criminalizing actions seen as destroying or damaging thebelongings of government officials and is punishable by 10-15 years in prison(Article 5). As José Miguel Vivanco, Americas Director of Human RightsWatch, states: blocking roads and throwing rocks may well be crimes, buttheyre not acts of terrorism.

Saca has been vague when commenting publicly on theSuchitoto case, but he has noted the importance of distinguishing betweenpublic disorder and acts of terrorism. However, Security Minister ReneFigueroa was candid with the media, saying that our interest is that those whoare rebellious be punished; they must be punished, either with theAnti-terrorism law or the Penal Code. Attorney General Garrid Safie maintainsthat the terrorism charges apply.

Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna has demanded aninvestigation of police brutality, particularly in the case of prisonerGertrudis Valladares Aquino, who was beaten mercilessly by the UMO and spent 7days in the hospital as a result. The FMLN leadership applauded Lunas efforts,and went even further to demand an investigation of the entire process. Chiefamong the FMLNs grievances are the torture tactics employed by the police asthey transported several prisoners to the local jail via helicopter. As theyflew over Lake Suchitlan, prisoners claim they weretold the helicopter was going to drop thema common practice during theSalvadoran armed conflict.

FMLN deputy Walter Duran asserted that the President isshowing that we are entering a time of civil dictatorship, announcing that hisgovernment will continue to respond to the increasing protest with morerepression.  This repression and disregard for human rights by thegovernment and its increasingly militarized police forces are a dangerousindication of the lengths to which the government will go to push itsneo-liberal agenda. The Anti-Terrorism law and the way in which it is beingenforced are blatant attacks against the social movement and the voice of theSalvadoran people.

Similar Entries

Meet some of the sustainers who power our work!

"I am a CISPES supporter because continuing to fight for social justice and a more people-centered country means continuing the dream and sacrifice of thousands of my fellow Salvadorans who died for that vision.” - Padre Carlos, New York City

Join Padre Carlos by becoming a sustaining donor to CISPES today!