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Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - El Salvador

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1993
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1993 - El Salvador, 1 January 1993, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca641e.html [accessed 26 November 2014]
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.

Events of 1992

Human Rights Developments

On January 16, 1992, the government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) signed a historic peace accord that ended twelve years of bloody civil conflict. Negotiated under the auspices of the United Nations, the peace accord laid out sweeping reforms to permit the FMLN to participate in political life; to transform the institutions that had accounted for major human rights violations; and to achieve greater equity in the social and economic life of the country. Not surprisingly, the end of the war has occasioned a major improvement in the observance of human rights, even though, by year's end, the implementation of the peace accord was in serious jeopardy and political tensions had dramatically increased.

Numerous aspects of the peace agreement itself stemmed from the recognition that human rights violations committed by agents of the state had stood at the very center of the conflict. The peace accord called for the dissolution of two of the most repressive security forces, the National Guard and Treasury Police, as well as of all five Army rapid-reaction battalions, some of which had been associated with the worst atrocities of the war. The accord specified that a new National Civil Police (PNC) would replace the existing National Police, and be open to a broad range of civilians as well as to former National Policemen and FMLN combatants. The accord also called for a restructuring of the judicial system to make it more independent of political pressures and more professional. Most of these changes have been marked by serious delays or irregularities in compliance.

The Salvadoran government and the FMLN also agreed to the formation of two commissions to help overcome impunity for past human rights violations. An Ad Hoc Commission of three civilians began work in mid-May to review the records of officers of the armed forces, in order to purge those implicated in human rights abuses and those whose professionalism or commitment to democracy and the peace process were in question. A Truth Commission began work in July, charged with investigating "grave acts of violence that [had] occurred since 1980" and issuing recommendations for prosecution.

After a three-month review, the Ad Hoc Commission issued its report to President Alfredo Cristiani and to the Secretary General of the United Nations in late September. According to pressreports, the list of over 100 officers included Minister of Defense General René Emilio Ponce and the Deputy Defense Minister General Juan Orlando Zepeda. The reaction in the military and the extreme right was predictable. A death squad communiqué issued in late October called the purge "intolerable," while senior officers maneuvered to avoid dismissal or transfer, jeopardizing the entire peace accord.

The Truth Commission took direct testimonies from victims and survivors of abuse in rural areas. It also received denunciations in its San Salvador office for a period of several months ending in late October. Like the Ad Hoc Commission, it also received documentation from a variety of nongovernmental organizations as well as from the Salvadoran government. The Truth Commission, with only six months to complete its investigation, will issue a public report in early 1993.

The work of both commissions was complicated by the Salvadoran Assembly's adoption on January 23, 1992 of an amnesty law covering most political crimes. Exempted from the Law of National Reconciliation were only the handful of cases decided by jury trial (the Jesuit case, the U.S. churchwomen's case, and the Zona Rosa massacre, for example), cases of kidnapping, and cases in which the Truth Commission might recommend prosecution. However, the law specified that the Assembly could "adopt the resolutions it considers appropriate" six months after the Truth Commission issued its findings, either extending the amnesty to all cases or preserving certain exemptions. If the Assembly adopts a blanket amnesty, it will not only undermine the principle of accountability but also ensure impunity in the handful of cases – including the Jesuit murders – in which members of the military have been prosecuted for human rights crimes.

One positive step toward coming to terms with the record of atrocities during the war involved the exhumation of remains of the victims of the 1981 El Mozote massacre in which an estimated 794 civilians were killed by the Salvadoran Army. After resisting the exhumation for months, the government ceded to domestic and international pressure, including that of the Truth Commission, and allowed a team of Argentine and U.S. forensic anthropologists, together with the Salvadoran Institute for Legal Medicine, to go forward in October. The initial discoveries included a large number of skeletons of small children, confirming eyewitness accounts of the massacre and graphically revealing that U.S. denials of the early 1980s that a massacre had taken place were patently false.

Since the beginning of the cease-fire on February 1, 1992, the number of human rights violations in El Salvador greatly diminished. Combat-related violations and violations of the laws of war, including attacks on the civilian population, forced recruitment, restrictions on freedom of movement, and detentions for suspected collaboration with the guerrillas, were reduced or eliminated altogether. Nonetheless, politically motivated killings, death threats, mistreatment of prisoners by government forces, and attacks aimed at opposition trade unions, popular organizations, and media continued, albeit at much-reduced levels. Late in 1992, as compliance with the peace accord began to cut deeply into the power of the armed forces, clandestine groups stepped up threatsagainst members of the FMLN. The near-complete and ongoing paralysis of the judicial system continued to ensure that the Salvadoran state, if not guilty of direct involvement in abuses, was complicit by failing to investigate or to take preventive action.

While the end of the war accounted for some of the improvement in the human rights situation, part of the reduction in violations was clearly attributable to the presence of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL). ONUSAL began operations in El Salvador in July 1991 as the result of a human rights accord between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN signed the previous year. It was empowered to "take any steps it deems appropriate" to defend human rights and, perhaps most significantly, was granted the power to visit any military installation or detention center without prior notice. With the signing of the peace accord, ONUSAL expanded to include large military and police divisions responsible for overseeing the implementation of the peace accord, yet ONUSAL's Human Rights Division continued to play what its own officials described as a "dissuasive" and "preventive" role with respect to abuses.

ONUSAL's unique position within the country and its unparalleled access to the government and security bodies allowed it to comment with authority on numerous aspects of the human rights situation. The fifth report of the Human Rights Division was issued in August 1992, a year after ONUSAL began operations. For the period since the cease-fire, ONUSAL observed:

  • In the eastern and central parts of the country, active duty soldiers were responsible for "a disturbing number of cases" of violations of the right to life, most of which "bore the hallmarks of common crimes." In the western and central parts of El Salvador, the Army's territorial service of military escorts was frequently cited in complaints of summary executions or deaths. Arrests by members of the civil defense or the territorial service were "in open violation of the law and of the Peace Agreement."
  • Complaints of death threats went up dramatically following the signing of the peace accord, in some cases directed against religious, political, and trade union organizations, and in some cases made by members of the armed forces, security forces, and civil defense against private individuals. The Salvadoran government failed to follow ONUSAL's recommendation that the state provide special protection when threats emanated from organized clandestine groups, such as the Salvadoran Anti-Communist Front or the Secret Army of National Salvation. Moreover, in some murder cases, death threats "were designed todeter witnesses or members of the victim's family" from coming forward with information relevant to prosecution.
  • Although ONUSAL could not establish that the practice of torture was systematic, "cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment," including beatings and a disproportionate use of force, was "a systematic practice." Complaints of mistreatment were often lodged against the Municipal Police, a security force under the direct control of local mayors, which was responsible for the beating death of a youth in Soyapango and whose troops "systematically make arrests in a manner which rarely meets the minimum legal guarantees." Reform of the Municipal Police was not touched on in the peace accord.
  • Even in those areas in which there had been improvement, such as reductions in cases of disappearance, torture or kidnapping, there was no corresponding consolidation of the rule of law. ONUSAL called for profound reforms of criminal law and procedure and in the judicial system, without which improvements in human rights practices may well be ephemeral.

While many of the complaints received by ONUSAL, particularly of summary executions, turned out to have been common crimes (that is, without an explicit political motivation), there were a number of cases in which political motives appeared more clear-cut. In none of the following cases was there an adequate investigation, let alone punishment of those guilty. This failure suggests state involvement by omission, if not direct commission.

For example, immediately after the signing of the peace accord, a bomb destroyed the vehicle of the Reuters correspondent in San Salvador and damaged a vehicle belonging to The New York Times. Three foreign journalists received death threats from the Salvadoran Anti-Communist Front (FAS), the same group that had threatened ONUSAL, United Nations, and other international personnel when ONUSAL began operations in July 1991. On January 6, the clandestine Secret Army of National Salvation issued a death threat against nine pastors and lay persons of the Protestant National Council of Churches (CNI); two of those threatened had been previously arrested and interrogated by the National Guard, and the wife of a third CNI member was abducted on January 22, blindfolded, and interrogated about CNI activities. She was subsequently released.

In a February report, ONUSAL concluded that "there may be a link" between the threats against CNI and the prior arrests by the National Guard, and deemed the case "so serious" that the authorities should clear it up "fully and expeditiously." A month later, however, members of the military-dominated SpecialInvestigation Unit (SIU) still had not spoken with the National Guard. No suspect has ever been identified.

In the most prominent political murder since the cease-fire, Nazario de Jesús Gracias of the Federation of Independent Associations and Unions of El Salvador (FEASIES) was brutally hacked to death on March 2, at union headquarters where he worked as a night watchman. Gracias had been arrested the previous year by the Army's First Brigade for "conspiracy to subvert" (he was reportedly returning from a labor demonstration), had been turned over to the National Police, and was released after several days. He later received death threats which he denounced to ONUSAL.

Following Gracias's death, his fellow unionists briefly detained a suspicious individual loitering outside the union headquarters who carried a card identifying himself as a member of the Army's Territorial Service. Despite this important lead suggesting state involvement in the murder, the SIU told Americas Watch that it was unable to locate that individual. It also failed to follow leads publicly indicated by ONUSAL, which repeatedly called on the government "to take decisive and firm measures" to prevent and investigate murders and death threats. Such recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.

A disturbing pattern of attacks and threats against those engaged in opposition political activity has continued into the time of formal peace, and accelerated in the second half of 1992. In early August, five members of the executive council of the Salvadoran Association of Telecommunications Workers (ASTEL) received death threats following a labor conflict. Adrián Esquino Lisco, who achieved international prominence earlier in the decade for his advocacy on behalf of the victims of a massacre at Las Hojas cooperative, received death threats in Sonsonate in September. A number of workers from grassroots organizations reported receiving death threats, as did members of FMLN political communities in the countryside. In some cases, violent deaths of political and trade union activists may have been the result of common crime, but former members of the army and security forces have been implicated in criminal attacks and have continued to go unpunished. In addition, a distur bing number of attacks on FMLN leaders have been carried out; although the perpetrators have not been formally identified, the identity of the target raises deep suspicions of a political motive. The government's ongoing failure to investigate violent crimes – unless specifically pressured to do so by ONUSAL – contributes to the climate of polarization and mistrust.

Tensions came to a boiling point in late October, just prior to the deadline for the full demobilization of the FMLN and the date for carrying out the purge of the Army as specified by the Ad Hoc Commission. On October 22, one of the most notorious death squads from the early 1980s, the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez brigade, announced an "all or nothing" struggle to defend El Salvador from communism and "sentenced to death" virtually the entire leadership of the FMLN. The communiqué also threatened ONUSAL and the foreign press, as well as Salvadoran "front organizations" and "political traitors." While a backlash from the extreme right had widely been feared since the signing of the peaceaccord, the communiqué marked the first instance of an explicit, across-the-board death threat against FMLN commanders.

The vast promise of structural reform in the peace accord has not been fulfilled in practice. Both the FMLN and the government have failed to live up to commitments. The FMLN, for example, is widely believed to have underreported its weapons inventory and to have cached arms. The government, however, has the primary responsibility for institutional reforms that have fallen short; it, and especially the military, have resisted thoroughly implementing many of the reforms until pressured to do so by ONUSAL and the political opposition.

In March, for example, rather than "suppress" the National Guard and Treasury Police as specified by the accord, the government secured hasty passage of legislation that failed to abolish the two forces. While this issue was ultimately resolved (ONUSAL stated bluntly that "the law, as adopted, does not comply with the agreement"), a more explicit violation of the accord lay in the transfer of over 1,000 members of the National Guard and Treasury Police to the National Police. According to ONUSAL, reassigning former members of security bodies to be abolished to law and order functions elsewhere ran "directly counter" to the provisions in the peace agreement calling for the creation of a totally new civilian police force.

The government also devoted few resources to the creation of the new National Public Security Academy, which will train all members of the new National Civil Police. The military refused to provide the existing Public Security Academy facility or the centrally located headquarters of the Atlacatl battalion (due to be disbanded) as the site for the new school; rather, the armed forces insisted on keeping the facilities for themselves, even though the military's size and role in society is to be vastly reduced. Moreover, before military personnel vacated the site that was ultimately agreed on, "they stripped it of anything usable, including beds, door jams, windows, lockers, and light bulbs," according to the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) in a September report. In addition, according to the GAO, "the government of El Salvador has not pledged any funding" for the new police force itself.

Because of these and other delays, the first class of police cadets only started training in late August, some four months later than originally specified in the accords. By October, moreover, it became known that the director of the new public security academy had accepted former members of the National Guard and Treasury Police, as well as members of the army, in the training program for the new officer corps of the PNC. This was an explicit violation of the peace accord.

In addition to these irregularities, serious delays in the resolution of the land issue led the FMLN to justify its refusal to finish the disarmament of its forces by the October 31 deadline. The government, in turn, appeared to cite the FMLN's failure to demobilize to justify its non-compliance with the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Commission to cleanse the armed forces of abusive commanders. Senior U.N. officials worked round-the-clock in October and November to "readjust" the schedule of compliance, appearing tocome to agreement on the final demobilization of the FMLN to be completed by the end of the year and the purge of the armed forces to be completed in early 1993..

The Right to Monitor

In the most serious assault on a human rights monitor in 1992, gunmen in July attacked José Eduardo Pineda Valenzuela, a lawyer with the Salvadoran government's new office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos). Pineda Valenzuela, who was left paralyzed from the neck down, had long worked for the Attorney General's office. He had been the lead prosecutor in the Jesuit case and had worked on the case of the U.S. servicemen executed by the FMLN in January 1991. Several weeks after the attack, gunmen returned to Pineda Valenzuela's house and threatened his wife if she cooperated with investigators. The shooting of Pineda Valenzuela was a severe blow to the newly created Ombudsman's office, set up under the peace accord.

Although ONUSAL had unprecedented access to government officials and institutions in order to carry out its human rights work, the government on several occasions attempted to interfere with its activities. For months the government attempted to force ONUSAL to fire Argentine legal adviser Rodolfo Matarollo, who had given legal assistance in the Jesuit case. The government denied him a visa and members of the ruling arena party kept him from addressing a human rights seminar paid for by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The United Nations did not renew Matarollo's contract when it expired in August 1992.

In addition, ONUSAL on occasion was refused access to court files by judges hostile to the U.N. presence. On other occasions, ONUSAL officials were denied access to Municipal Police facilities. ONUSAL officials told Americas Watch that government pressures and threats by clandestine groups in 1991, while not insurmountable obstacles, "complicated" the work of the mission.

The Salvadoran Army also continued to express extreme hostility to the work of human rights monitors in El Salvador. In a communiqué in September, the armed forces called the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission (CDHES) the "chorus and mouthpiece" of leftist organizations and accused it of carrying out a "well-planned propaganda and disinformation campaign." Given previous arrests and killings of CDHES workers, such statements by the military contribute to a climate of hostility that could prompt further attacks.

U.S. Policy

While repeatedly declaring its support for the peace process, the Bush administration appeared unable to let go of a policy of seeking support for the Salvadoran armed forces. However, with some members of Congress opposing any military aid in the wake of the peace accord, the administration was forced to compromise.

On April 1, for example, in approving the second installment of foreign aid for fiscal year 1992, Congress directed most of the administration's request for $85 million in military aid to a fund for the demobilization, retraining and reemployment of former combatants from both sides. Congress restricted the remaining $21.3million in military aid to non-lethal items.

Congress adopted similar cuts in the administration's $40 million request for fiscal year 1993. In late October, Congress approved $11 million in non-lethal military assistance, and devoted the remaining $29 million to the demobilization fund. Congress also specified that, of $1.4 million in military training funds, 75 percent was to be used to help create an effective military judicial system and code of conduct and to conduct training in the observance of internationally recognized human rights.

Of the assistance approved for 1992 and 1993, Congress and the administration pledged $20 million to the new Salvadoran Public Security Academy and new police force. As such, the U.S. was one of two international donors to contribute to the U.N.-supervised endeavor. The Department of Justice's International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) is administering the effort. While supporting the formation of the new civilian police force is a worthy enterprise, the U.S. administration has remained silent about the Salvadoran military's sacking of the designated site for the training academy, and has not criticized either the Salvadoran government or the Army for its failure to devote the necessary resources to the new police force.

The Bush administration also provided cover for the armed forces by refusing to release important information from its files to the Ad Hoc and Truth Commissions. The administration's limited cooperation with both commissions revealed the shallowness of its commitment to reform of the armed forces, and its ongoing aversion to truth about the human rights situation, especially as it reflects upon the last decade of U.S. policy.

In a singular display of callousness, the administration in late October extradited to El Salvador alleged death squad participant César Vielman Joya Martínez. After fleeing El Salvador in 1989, Joya Martínez detailed the activities of what he said was a death squad acting out of the Army's First Brigade, including by naming his superiors. Americas Watch was able to corroborate important elements of Joya Martínez's story, including a murder that had not previously been reported publicly. In agreeing to extradite Joya Martínez, the administration ignored evidence that other members of the military with information about the crimes of their superiors had been killed in prison or in suspicious circumstances. The United States thereby assumes responsibility for the fate of Joya Martínez while he awaits trial in El Salvador.

To its credit, the Bush administration heeded requests by President Cristiani and others not to deport Salvadorans living in the United States. In May, the administration indicated that it would allow Salvadorans to remain for at least a year after June 30, when a temporary amnesty was due to expire.

The Work of Americas Watch

Americas Watch continued to devote considerable resources to El Salvador in 1992, providing information to congressional offices, journalists, attorneys and activists through its staff in Washington, D.C. and San Salvador. In March, Americas Watch published "The Massacre at El Mozote: The Need to Remember," a detailed account of the largest massacre of the war and of the U.S.government's attempt to cover it up. Americas Watch contacted the Salvadoran government on numerous occasions in 1992 requesting that permission be granted to foreign forensic specialists to begin exhumations at the site. The exhumations began in mid-October.

In September, Americas Watch released "Peace and Human Rights: Successes and Shortcomings of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL)," a review of the work of the ONUSAL Human Rights Division. Both the ONUSAL report and the report on El Mozote received considerable coverage in the U.S. and Salvadoran press, and contributed to a constructive debate on these issues within El Salvador.

Americas Watch provided extensive documentation to the Ad Hoc and Truth Commissions, pulling together information on numerous human rights cases from its files and previously published reports. Americas Watch also publicly called on the U.S. government to declassify information in its files regarding military officers and human rights cases. In January, Americas Watch had a productive exchange with the Salvadoran government, the FMLN, and the United Nations regarding the proposed amnesty law.

Americas Watch continued to oppose the extradition of death squad defector César Vielman Joya Martínez, calling on the State Department to deny extradition on human rights grounds. Joya Martínez was sent back to El Salvador from a jail in Texas in October.

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