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Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - El Salvador

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1994
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1994 - El Salvador, 1 January 1994, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fca7f7.html [accessed 23 August 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 1993

Human Rights Developments

The human rights situation deteriorated markedly in the second year since the signing of the January 1992 peace accord. By the end of 1993, politically motivated extralegal executions and death threats were on the rise and what the United Nations Observer Mission for El Salvador (ONUSAL) called "irregular groups" resembling death squads were once again responsible for violent murders.

The month of October alone witnessed the murder of four former combatants of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), two of them high-ranking. On October 25, FMLN leader Francisco Velis Castellanos was shot in San Salvador as he left his young daughter at a day-care center. Velis, an alternate candidate for the Legislative Assembly, was the highest-ranking FMLN leader killed since the advent of formal peace. Eight days later, former senior guerrilla leader Eleno Hernán Castro, a member of the FMLN's land commission, was murdered in San Vicente province. Accordingto the Catholic church, two other ex-combatants, a married couple, were murdered in late October. In early November, local FMLN leader Gabriel Quintanilla was shot at close range in San Miguel and critically wounded, and the body of another ex-combatant was found stuffed in a garbage can in San Salvador.

The quickened pace of political murder posed a threat to the legitimacy of March 1994 presidential, legislative, and municipal elections, the first in which the FMLN was due to participate as a political force. In addition, the refusal of the government to undertake structural reforms to improve the administration of justice, so that crimes would be investigated and punished, became all the more critical in light of ONUSAL's plan to depart from El Salvador following the 1994 elections.

Continuing abuses, some of them serious and systematic, reflected the historical failure of El Salvador's judicial system to prosecute those responsible for human rights crimes. In 1993, however, there were dramatic attempts to challenge impunity. The United Nations-brokered peace accord established two commissions, one (the Truth Commission) to investigate past acts of violence and make recommendations for the future and another (the Ad Hoc Commission) to review the records of military officers in order to purge those involved in corruption and wanton violence. The findings of both commissions made human rights in El Salvador the subject of broad national and international debate. They also underscored the resistance of key Salvadoran military officers and civilian elites to making structural changes that would help institutionalize improvements in the respect for human rights.

In mid-March, the Truth Commission issued From Madness to Hope: The Twelve-Year War in El Salvador. The report examined assassinations, disappearances, and massacres attributed to official forces and death squads, and murders and kidnappings attributed to the FMLN. Renowned cases such as the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the 1981 army massacre at El Mozote, and the rebel kidnapping and murder of municipal officials in the mid-1980s were examined in great detail alongside several other major cases that had never been publicized. A full 85 percent of the cases denounced to the Truth Commission were ascribed to state agents, paramilitary groups, or death squads allied with official forces. Five percent of the cases were attributed to the FMLN.

The commission's report also identified by name over forty military officers and eleven members of the FMLN responsible for ordering, carrying out, or covering up abuses and suggested that those named be banned from holding public office for ten years. (In mid-October, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali reported that eight military officers, two judges, and one forensic doctor named by the commission still retained their posts.) The commission also made detailed recommendations for judicial reform, and cited the "tremendous responsibility" of the judicial branch for impunity in calling for the resignation of the entire Supreme Court. In perhaps its most spectacular finding, the Truth Commission named Minister of Defense René Emilio Ponce as having ordered the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Previous investigations had involved Ponce and other officers in the planning of the Jesuit murders, but had not traced the direct order to the defense minister himself.

Military officers, conservative politicians, and government officials vehemently repudiated the report, a reaction stemming principally from its thoroughness in documenting official abuses. In an attempt to limit the impact of the report and prevent a full reckoning with its findings, President Alfredo Cristiani asked for an "immediate, general, and total amnesty" on the eve of the report's release. Within days, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly, over the objections of the FMLN and opposition parties, passed a "broad, absolute, and unconditional amnesty" for political as well as most common crimes. As a result, those jailed in even the most notorious cases, including the Jesuit murders and the 1991 FMLN murders of two wounded U.S. servicemen, went free. The amnesty and its guarantee of impunity emboldened would-be killers to continue their murderous campaigns.

The Truth Commission was instrumental, however, in furthering the government's compliance with the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Commission for a purge of 103 officers, including the minister and vice-minister of Defense. President Cristiani failed to carry out the purge in late December 1992, transferring rather than dismissing seven senior officers and allowing another eight, including Ponce, to retain their posts. U.N. Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali stated in early January 1993 that the government's actions were "not in compliance" with the peace accord.

Once the findings of the Truth Commission regarding Ponce's involvement in the Jesuit murders were known, however, pressures mounted for his removal. Ponce publicly offered his resignation several days before the Truth Commission report's release. Not until July 1993 did he and several others step down from their posts.

Other aspects of the peace accord touching on human rights issues presented a similarly mixed picture in 1993. New units of the National Civilian Police (PNC) had replaced the National Police in five of El Salvador's fourteen departments by early November. But the U.N. noted on several occasions that the ranks of the existing National Police "increased significantly" rather than being reduced. Particularly troubling was the incorporation into the National Police of former personnel from the National Guard and Treasury Police, two security forces that were abolished because of their notorious involvement in human rights abuses. Members of the army's dissolved rapid reaction battalions, whose human rights record was similarly tarnished, were also incorporated into the National Police. These transfers represented a flagrant violation of the peace accord. The new PNC, meanwhile, continued to suffer from inadequate domestic and international funding, even while the Salvadoran government continued to direct new resources to the existing National Police. The appointment of a former military officer to the second-ranking post at the PNC also had the potential to undercut the peace accord's intention that it function as an entirely new security body.

In addition, President Cristiani announced in July his decision to deploy 3,000 army soldiers along the highways for an indefinite period of time, supposedly to fight common crime. Opinion pollsshowed that the Salvadoran public perceived there to be an increase in crime, and that fears for personal security ranked at the top of citizens' concerns. ONUSAL reported in May that a review of crime statistics "[does] not indicate a dramatic increase in common crime" even though figures for later in the year did show a rise.

Regardless of common crime, the deployment of the army for internal security functions contradicted provisions of the peace accord separating the military from the police and limiting the army's role strictly to matters of external defense. Americas Watch was also concerned that the government's dwelling on the issue of delinquency was intended to play on public fears, thereby generating support for a continued military role in strictly police matters. Moreover, we shared the fear expressed by ONUSAL as well as opposition forces that generalized violence could "become a front behind which serious violations of human rights, such as political murders, masquerade as ordinary crimes."

While government compliance with human rights provisions of the peace accord left numerous gaps, the FMLN also undercut the accord in ways that potentially jeopardized its full political participation. In May 1993 an arms cache in Managua, Nicaragua accidentally exploded. A subsequent investigation revealed that it belonged to the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), one of the five groups composing the FMLN. Over the next several months, all five of the FMLN's constituent groups admitted to having over 114 other arms caches in and outside El Salvador. The existence of the weapons depots demonstrated that the FMLN had lied to the United Nations when it claimed to have fully disarmed late last year and to have turned over its arsenals for destruction.

The U.N. Security Council called the existence of the arms caches "the most serious violation to date" of the peace accord, and inside El Salvador there were calls for the FMLN's cancellation or suspension as a political party. A second process of verification and destruction of weapons belonging to the FMLN was completed in mid-August, but not after a serious breach of trust in the FMLN's commitment to peaceful political participation.

The climate for the 1994 elections was further marred by the government's failure to expedite the issuing of voter registration cards for 27 percent of El Salvador's potential voters, approximately 786,000 people. (The Supreme Electoral Tribunal was dominated by the right-wing ruling party.) Following an August freeze of $70 million in U.S. Economic Support Funds by the chairman of a congressional subcommittee, the pace of registration picked up. In October, members of ONUSAL's elections division expressed optimism that 90 percent of potential voters could be registered by the deadline of November 20. It remained to be seen whether that goal would be met, or whether the 1994 elections would fall short of their intended role as the culmination of the peace process.

The consolidation of democracy and the expansion of political participation were also undermined by the quickening pace of human rights violations as the year drew to a close. ONUSAL's eighth report issued in November, as well as reports by the newly-created office of the human rights ombudsman (Procuraduría para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos), noted an increase in violations of theright to life, including outright assassinations and death threats. ONUSAL said in November that admissible denunciations of "deaths as a result of the violation of judicial guarantees and arbitrary or extralegal executions" had increased by 30 percent over the previous three-month reporting period. It noted as a positive development that there had been no forced disappearances during a thirteen-month period beginning in mid-1992 but also indicated an increase in arbitrary executions, not all of them political, as well as a handful of cases of torture. The ombudsman's office likewise signaled in October that "organized violence in the political arena" was worsening the situation of public security.

In July, ONUSAL engaged in a public dispute with Salvadoran human rights groups over the number of killings that could be attributed to death squads. ONUSAL's human rights division stated that several cases denounced by the archdiocese of San Salvador's human rights office, Tutela Legal, as having been committed by death squads were, in fact, common crimes without political motivation. At the same time, ONUSAL verified that certain homicides "involv[ed] methods and procedures similar to those which, in the past, were used by the death squads."

ONUSAL underscored that drawing the line between criminal and political acts was difficult when the government failed to investigate violent deaths. In fact, throughout 1993 the government failed to launch an investigation of death squad violence as recommended by the Truth Commission. By its October report, ONUSAL became less circumspect regarding death squad responsibility for murders, saying that it could not "rule out that former members of irregular groups like those who operated in the 1980s" were involved in violent deaths of unidentified individuals. ONUSAL also issued more frequent and prompt denunciations of individual cases, a positive development that helped generate pressure to resolve them.

The reports of ONUSAL's human rights division, issued at more frequent intervals than in the past, highlighted the persistence of:

  • military personnel involvement in ordinary crime, in which some of the victims were members of the FMLN;
  • abductions carried out by "irregular groups organized for that purpose" possibly involving security forces personnel;
  • severe beatings and mistreatment of prisoners at the hands of the security forces, even though torture was not practiced on a systematic or massive scale;
  • former FMLN compatants' participation in organized criminal bands;
  • the murder of several former members of military intelligence, including those who had begun to share information with human rights groups.

Given the history of political killings in El Salvador, and in light of the upcoming elections, Americas Watch was especially alarmed by several targeted attacks during the year. On May 20, 1993, the National Police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration by disabled veterans from both the armed forces and the FMLN, killing José Santos Martínez Pérez, a nineteen-year-old amputee. An investigating judge ordered the detention of police agent Alberto Ponce Zúñiga, but as of November, the leadership of the National Police had not turned him over to judicial authorities.

Moreover, in May, Gregorio Mejía Espinoza, secretary of the social-democratic Popular Social Christian Movement (MPSC), was abducted, tortured, and interrogated about the activities of the opposition Democratic Convergence, of which the MPSC is a member. (The Democratic Convergence was running a joint presidential ticket with the FMLN.) Mejía saved himself from execution when he jumped out of a vehicle into a ravine, thereby eluding his captors. He had previously received death threats. In June, Héctor Silva, another leading member of the Democratic Convergence, was attacked by a gunman who fired at him and his daughter as they were jogging in a Santa Tecla neighborhood. In early September, First Criminal Court Judge Francisco Pléitez Lemus, who was responsible for investigating a prior attack on Silva's daughter, was murdered in front of his home. According to a family member, the judge had also previously received death threats.

Moreover, Oscar Grimaldi, a member of the FMLN, was murdered in the early morning hours of August 19 in San Salvador. His death was the subject of a rare immediate public statement by ONUSAL decrying a disturbing pattern of attacks with apparent political motivation; the main suspect in the case was killed in late October before he could be arrested. During the year, ONUSAL verified several other arbitrary executions of FMLN members, including Juan García Panameño who worked for the Committee of Mothers of the Disappeared (COMADRES).

Although the office of the human rights ombudsman increasingly made public pronouncements on human rights cases, it was faced with the need to improve dramatically its capacity to investigate and respond to cases if it was fully to assume its responsibilities by the time of ONUSAL's scheduled departure in early 1994.

The Right to Monitor

A number of nongovernmental organizations as well as ONUSAL actively monitored human rights in El Salvador during 1993; but attacks and threats against them were never investigated, let alone prosecuted. In March, lawyer José Eduardo Pineda Valenzuela died of injuries sustained in a violent attack in July 1992. At the time of the attack, Pineda Valenzuela was working for the newly-created office of the human rights ombudsman. Previously, he had been the leading government prosecutor in the Jesuit case, securing the 1991 conviction of two military officers. No one had been arrested in connection with the attack on Pineda Valenzuela as of November.

In December 1992, following publication of a series of ads denouncing human rights abuses by the military, Defense Minister René Emilio Ponce and Vice-minister Juan Orlando Zepeda filed a complaint against three members of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission (CDHES) and six members of the National Union of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS) for defamation. The attorney general's office filed charges on December 9, 1992 and a San Salvador judge opened an investigation which proceeded slowly in early 1993. The army's attempt to prosecute members of the CDHES was only the latest manifestation of hostility. A number of CDHES workers were killed during the 1980s, most of them presumably by official forces.

While ONUSAL's human rights division continued to operate largely without restriction, it was the subject of renewed anonymous threats following the release of the Truth Commission report. In the wake of that report, the government also summarily canceled a scheduled visit of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States. The IACHR denounced the government's cancelation as a "failure to comply with a previously-made commitment." In October, the IACHR said that the Salvadoran government had expressed renewed interest in a visit.

Americas Watch was also concerned about violent attacks and threats against other human rights monitors which, even if they might prove not to involve official responsibility, were not investigated by the authorities. In January, attorney Mirna Perla de Anaya, widow of murdered CDHES activist Herbert Anaya, was attacked along with her children on the road between San Salvador and Suchitoto as they returned from visiting a community of resettled refugees. In September, a law professor and member of the National Council on the Judiciary, René Madecadel Perla Jiménez, received several telephone death threats, including one from individuals identifying themselves as the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade, a notorious death squad. Dr. Perla Jiménez is Mirna Perla de Anaya's brother.

U.S. Policy

Given the billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic aid to El Salvador during the war, the report of the U.N. Truth Commission became a U.S. as well as a Salvadoran affair. The Truth Commission's acknowledgment and confirmation that U.S.-supported forces had engaged in massive and systematic human rights abuses led to congressional demands for an examination of past policy. In March, seventeen members of Congress asked President Clinton to declassify documents pertaining to cases examined by the Truth Commission. The President responded positively in June, promising that an initial review by the State and Defense Departments would be concluded by September. Over 12,000 documents were released in early November, identifying several current ARENA leaders as linked to death squad activities, and confirming that the U.S. government knew much more about the death squads than it had admitted to Congress or the public.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, saying that he was "deeply shocked" by the Truth Commission report, also appointed a panel of retired foreign service officers and academic experts to reviewactions and statements by State Department officials regarding human rights. The report, issued on July 15, was a searing disappointment that some in Congress labeled a "whitewash". Despite years of U.S. official denial that Salvadoran government forces were responsible for systematic abuses, and despite prolonged efforts by past administrations to discredit human rights and humanitarian organizations working in El Salvador, the State Department panel found overall that foreign service personnel had "performed creditably" in advancing human rights.

It faulted officials of the Reagan administration for issuing false statements regarding the 1980 murder of four U.S. churchwomen and the December 1981 El Mozote massacre by the Salvadoran army. But the panel found such episodes to be the exception. Overall, according to the report, the State Department provided Congress with "factual and straightforward" information and officials acted, at times courageously, to advance human rights. These judgments were grossly distorted, as U.S. officials had routinely falsified the Salvadoran government's human rights record in order to maintain a steady stream of military aid to fight the insurgency.

After the publication of the reports of the Truth Commission and the State Department's El Salvador panel, congressional interest in El Salvador faded, although the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee did protest the Salvadoran government's failure to register eligible voters by holding up release of Economic Support Funds for El Salvador in August.

Earlier in 1993, the Clinton administration exerted helpful pressure on the Salvadoran military to comply with the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Commission. The State Department quietly suspended $11 million in U.S. military aid in February, after the army high command refused to implement the purge mandated by the peace accord. The funds were released later in September. The department and U.S. Embassy also issued strongly-worded condemnations of the October murder of FMLN party leader Francisco Velis Castellanos and agreed to provide investigative support, along with Spain and Great Britain, to bring the killers to justice.

The Department of Defense requested $2.7 million in new military aid for El Salvador for fiscal year 1994 and an additional $1.1 million for training, although the actual amounts were likely to be smaller. Apparently to offset the effect of this massive reduction in aid and to show continuing support for the Salvadoran armed forces, U.S. Southern Command chief Gen. George Joulwan traveled to El Salvador in early September to inaugurate the Fuertes Caminos (Strong Paths) joint military exercises. While the purpose of the exercises was to build infrastructure such as schools and wells, we were concerned that the maneuvers involved the armed forces in pursuits more appropriately undertaken by the civilian administration. This further weakened civilian control of the military – and thereby accountability – precisely when both needed to be enhanced.

The Work of Americas Watch

Through its representatives based in Washington and San Salvador, Americas Watch continued to play a widely-recognized central rolein shaping the debate over accountability for human rights violations in El Salvador. Americas Watch staff continued to provide information and support to the Truth Commission during its final months in existence. Americas Watch representatives also figured prominently in the U.S. media before and after the release of the Truth Commission report, and worked closely with congressional offices and the Clinton administration in exploring possible U.S. policy responses. A representative of Americas Watch testified before the El Salvador panel established by Secretary of State Warren Christopher and provided the panel with additional background documentation.

In August, Americas Watch released "Accountability and Human Rights: The Report of the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador," evaluating the work of the Truth Commission and issuing specific recommendations for the Cristiani government and the Clinton administration. The report explored the origins of the Truth Commission in order to suggest ways that accountability might become part of future peace processes in other countries.

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