Last Updated: Friday, 19 September 2014, 13:55 GMT

Human Rights Watch World Report 1996 - El Salvador

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1996
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1996 - El Salvador, 1 January 1996, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a8a67.html [accessed 20 September 2014]
Comments This report covers events of 1995
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Human Rights Developments

Human rights violations in 1995 did not take place on the massive scale to which human rights monitors had become accustomed prior to the signing of the 1992 peace accord. Nonetheless, several troubling developments did take place during the year, including vigilante killings and police-related abuses. As yet, it is too early to know if promising reforms in the police will resolve these problems or if the diminishing presence of the United Nations will adversely affect the human rights situation.

Since presidential elections in 1994, which brought the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA) to a second five-year term, the United Nations has increasingly withdrawn from El Salvador after playing a key role in bringing the peace process to fruition, monitoring human rights abuses, and restructuring the country's abusive security forces. Scheduled to withdraw in April 1996, the U.N. mission, known as MINUSAL since May, reduced its staff to only a dozen by mid-1995. MINUSAL was responsible for monitoring unfinished commitments in the peace accords, especially land transfers and public security issues. As the mission wound down, so too did its influence and ability to monitor closely issues related to human rights. Regional offices were closed in early 1995, and the human rights division as such ceased to exist at the end of March.

The formation of a professional, apolitical police force was generally seen as the most transcendent potential contribution of the historic 1992 peace accords, which ended the twelve-year civil war. The most disturbing indication of setbacks in the establishment of this new force, the National Civilian Police (PNC), came with the news in March of the involvement of a PNC agent in the 1993 assassination of FMLN leader Francisco Velis, leader of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN). The suspect, Carlos Romero Alfaro, had been a former National Police (PN) investigator working within the Criminal Investigations Division of the PNC at the time of the October 1993 assassination. The attorney general's office showed reluctance in pursuing Alfaro, who fled El Salvador. The whereabouts of Alfaro remained unknown until mid-September, when he was arrested on an immigration violation in Houston, Texas, where he awaits extradition to El Salvador.

The new force, which struggled in 1995 to establish itself as the autonomous and professional police service it was intended to be, found itself at a crossroads: either it would begin to terminate the impunity that long characterized El Salvador's administration of justice or it would come to resemble the abusive security forces it sought to replace. Given the important role played by the United Nations on human rights issues, Human Rights Watch/Americas ended the year concerned about the extent to which positive development in the PNC would continue with a diminishing U.N. presence. The United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL, as the U.N. mission was called between July 1991 and May 1995) played an important role in the Alfaro case by pressuring authorities to move forward. The case showed the continuing importance in El Salvador of the U.N. mission, but it also highlighted ongoing concern about the extent to which former members of the pre-1992 security forces exercised authority in the PNC. The U.N. also played an important role in dismantling the Anti-Delinquency Battalion, which was made up of former National Police agents.

At mid-year, the ARENA government signed a political pact, known as the Pact of San Andrés, with the Democratic Party. The government committed itself to increase the size of the PNC from its current 8,000 to 20,000 by the end of 1996. But there was growing concern that the ARENA government has yet to address a number of serious problems with the PNC. In late September, at the request of President Armando Calderón Sol, MINUSAL presented the government with a detailed critique of the PNC. According to press reports, the report urged that the government remove greater numbers of former PN members from new force.

Problems remaining in the PNC included excessive use of force and the preponderance, since July, of former PN officers in key positions. Anti-riot units of the PNC used excessive force in a number of cases involving labor protesters or demobilized soldiers, while in other cases they exercised admirable restraint. In one particularly grievous example in March, the PNC dispersed a demonstration of wounded war veterans with tear gas and rubber bullets, wounding sixteen protesters and briefly arresting 200. Although the PNC was to be composed primarily of civilians, by year's end, most of the key leadership posts at the PNC were held by former PN officers. Internal systems to account for abuses by PNC officers were lacking; for much of 1995, the post of inspector general remained empty. In addition, MINUSAL found that the internal disciplinary unit, while sanctioning police misconduct such as drunkenness and violation of internal police regulations, rarely penalized PNC abuses committed against civilians.

The continuing crime wave, which the PNC was unable to stem, drew significant public attention to the PNC's problems in 1995. The response of the Calderón Sol government to rampant crime raised human rights concerns; the government involved the military in rural patrols in an operation called "Plan Guardián." While these patrols were ostensibly mixed army-PNC efforts under PNC direction, in practice they tended to be run primarily by the armed forces. Public security officials cited a decrease in criminal activity as a result of these patrols, while critics charged that crime simply moved from one area to another. Given the army's lack of training for internal policing, Human Rights Watch/Americas was concerned that Plan Guardián could lead to increased human rights violations. In the second half of the year, there was also discussion of extending the joint military-PNC patrols under Plan Guardián to urban areas.

Another alarming response to the crime wave was the emergence of clandestine vigilante groups, whose stated aim was to "cleanse" society of criminals. The Black Shadow (Sombra Negra), a vigilante group operating in San Miguel, issued public death threats against several judges, saying they should resign to help weed corruption out of the judicial system. The Black Shadow, which is thought to be made up of some forty members, has claimed responsibility for several dozen murders, mostly in the eastern part of the country.

In July, the Organized Crime Unit of the PNC rounded up sixteen alleged members of Black Shadow, including four members of the PNC. Uncovering PNC collusion with vigilante operations ratified, in a startling way, the findings of the report issued in 1994 by the Grupo Conjunto, the working group established to investigate death squad killings. That report found that illegal armed groups continued to exist and were "directed, supported, covered-up or tolerated by members of the military and police institutions, and the judicial and municipal organs." Furthermore, while the fact that the PNC was willing to capture some of its own members (including the head of the San Miguel PNC delegation) was positive, the Black Shadow prosecution made little progress in the ensuing months. Meanwhile, the PNC agent who testified to her fellow officers' involvement was demoted, and high-level PNC officials tried to discredit her testimony.

Several municipalities, particularly those in San Salvador and its environs, moved to strengthen their municipal police structures. While theoretically limited to administrative detentions, the municipal police were identified as responsible for serious human rights abuses; furthermore, the existence of these municipal police undercut the constitutional provision that the PNC be the only body to carry out public-security functions.

Perhaps the most encouraging development in the overall human rights situation in 1995 was the March election for a three-year term of an active, articulate human rights ombudsman, Victoria Marina de Avilés. Avilés took public positions on many important human rights issues. She criticized police excesses in handling demonstrations, unequivocally opposed the death penalty, and challenged the nomination of an unsuitable candidate for PNC inspector general. The ombudsman's office still required a number of internal reforms to improve its effectiveness.

In addition, the Legislative Assembly discussed constitutional and secondary law reforms that had been recommended by the United Nations Truth Commission for El Salvador and ONUSAL's human rights division. If approved, these reforms would, among other things, invalidate extrajudicial confessions, strengthen the right to defense and the presumption of innocence, reduce the maximum period for administrative detentions from fifteen to five days, and classify torture and enforced disappearances as crimes. The legislature also recognized the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and ratified the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Iner-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women (known as the Convention of Belém do Pará), and the Additional Protocol to the American Covenant on Human Rights in the Area of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (known as the Protocol of San Salvador).

The Right to Monitor

The consolidation of regional offices of the human rights ombudsman in each of El Salvador's fourteen departments by early 1995 was an important benchmark in promoting the right to monitor in El Salvador. The ombudsman's office initiated better coordination with nongovernmental human rights organizations, and began to employ directly many former members of these organizations. However, the ARENA government sought to discredit the new human rights ombudsman, both in officials' public remarks and in the government's news bulletins. This campaign began shortly after Avilés refused to endorse the nomination of the public security minister's legal adviser for the post of inspector general.

To our knowledge, the only incident involving a direct threat to human rights workers occurred on October 4, when two armed men forced themselves into the offices of the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (Universidad Centroamericana, UCA), tying up the institute's director and another worker. The apparent motive was robbery, but one intruder remarked on the institute's attitudes toward the ruling ARENA party. One suspect was caught, and the case was under investigation.

U.S. Policy

U.S. assistance continued to decline in 1995, although $27 million provided in 1992 to bolster the peace process was still being spent during the year. The U.S. continued to provide support to the National Civilian Police (PNC) and the judicial system. But U.S. officials maintained a very low profile in public, rarely making any statements on human rights or any other issues. While supportive of the U.N.'s leadership on issues of compliance with the peace accords, the U.S. did not take the initiative to head off problems with the PNC such as excessive dependence on former National Police (PN) personnel. The United States was one of two international donors to the country's new Public Security Academy, which trains PNC officers, and to the anti-drug and criminal investigations units of the police. In addition, the United States maintained throughout 1995 a trainer's office in the PNC building.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas

Human Rights Watch/Americas continued to monitor developments in El Salvador, watching in particular the development of a new civilian police force to replace the former National Police, which committed systematic human rights violations in the past. Also of continuing concern was the persistence of death squads. In July, we wrote to President Calderón Sol expressing concern about a raid on the office of FUNDASIDA, the only nongovernmental AIDS-awareness organization in El Salvador.

Copyright notice: © Copyright, Human Rights Watch

Search Refworld

Countries