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Human Rights Watch World Report 1995 - El Salvador

Publisher Human Rights Watch
Publication Date 1 January 1995
Cite as Human Rights Watch, Human Rights Watch World Report 1995 - El Salvador, 1 January 1995, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/467fcaa1c.html [accessed 23 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 1994

Human Rights Developments

In 1994, the human rights situation in El Salvador showed some improvement over the political violence that was seen at the end of 1993. Important advances were made in the development of a new civilian police force and in the administration of justice. Still, impunity for political violence remained the norm and questions persisted about the hotly contested "election of the century," held in March.

For the first time since the signing of the historic 1992 peace accords, the former rebels of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) participated as a legal political party in March's presidential, legislative, and municipal elections. The governing ARENA party won the presidency and the vast majority of municipalities, and fell just short of a majority in the Legislative Assembly, where the FMLN became the second political force. In an April run-off for the presidency, San Salvador Mayor Armando Calderón Sol easily beat the candidate of a FMLN-led leftist coalition Rubén Zamora by a two-to-one margin.

The elections were monitored by the United Nations Observer Mission to El Salvador (ONUSAL), which declared them "acceptable." Nevertheless, ONUSAL and other international observers noted that electoral irregularities ranging from incomplete voter lists to failures in distributing voter cards prevented many people from casting a ballot. The relatively low voter turnout in the elections, furthermore, underscored the alienation from the political process felt by broad sectors of the country's citizens.

On May 19, the FMLN and the outgoing government of President Alfredo Cristiani agreed on the "re-calendarization" of the still unfulfilled aspects of the peace accords. Most importantly, this included a reinvigorated role for ONUSAL in the monitoring of the new National Civilian Police (PNC) and police academy. The PNC comprised primarily civilians who did not participate in the twelve-year civil war but also included former members of the FMLN and the National Police.

In 1994, serious human rights concerns continued to be raised about the new force and in particular about its deputy director, Oscar Peña Durán, a former army captain who had directed the anti-narcotics police unit. Peña Durán was responsible for the rupture of the PNC's close working relationship with ONUSAL, which had been providing key technical assistance to the new police force during its initial deployment. Reports of the PNC's militarization were substantiated by the increased number of abuses being reported and by the privileged position given former anti-narcotics officers who had not attended the new police academy. A dramatic example of PNC abuses was a series of large-scale and aggressive round-ups of supposed "delinquents" in early 1994, operations which captured few criminals but violated the civil rights of many innocent bystanders. ONUSAL received 147 complaints against the PNC between November 1993 and June 1994, from which it confirmed that fifty-eight violations had occurred, including cases of arbitrary detentions, lack of due process, and torture. In May, before the change of presidential leadership, Peña Durán resigned his post, as did PNC Director José María Monterrey.

Several appointments made by President Calderón Sol, who was sworn in on June 1, raised hopes that the new administration might be more responsive to human rights concerns surrounding the PNC. Among these appointments was that of Hugo Barrera as vice-minister of public security and of Rodrigo Avila as PNC director. In response to criticism of former anti-narcotics and criminal investigations officers who had been transferred into the PNC in early 1993 without having attended the new academy, Barrera and Avila agreed to transfer some of these members out of the agency and to send others to the police academy. Avila was the object of several armed attacks, possibly related to his commitment to a more professional public security force. One encouraging sign of change was that unlike security forces in the past, the PNC went to great lengths to punish agents accused of violations and regularly made such cases known to the public.

Also addressing the problem of political violence in El Salvador was the Joint Group for the Investigation of Illegal Armed Groups with Political Motivation in El Salvador, known as the Grupo Conjunto. The group was established in December 1993 in response both to a recommendation of the United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission and to the upsurge in death-squad assassinations in late 1993.

After eight months of work, the Grupo Conjunto published its findings on July 28, reporting on violent conditions in four separate areas of El Salvador (Guazapa, Morazán, San Miguel and Usulután) as well as on four specific cases of murders and attacks. Contradicting the Cristiani administration's repeated denials of the existence of death squads, the Grupo Conjunto report described how the classic structures of the death squads had undergone a process of "mutation and atomization" in recent years and explained that political violence now "moves within and mimics the underworld of organized crime and delinquency." Finally, the Grupo Conjunto noted that some of these clandestine groups' activities, while not a part of official state policy, "are directed, supported, covered up or tolerated by members of the military and police institutions, and the judicial and municipal organs."

Although the information published by the Grupo Conjunto differed little in content or analysis from that released in ONUSAL's reports, the findings were important because they were well received by President Calderón Sol and some conservative sectors of society. Calling the group's work "patriotic," he pledged to carry out its recommendations, which included the creation of a special PNC unit to look into the cases cited, as well as the writing of new laws that would facilitate the prosecution of cases involving political violence or organized crime.

Another positive development in 1994 was the long-awaited selection in July of a new Supreme Court. All of the justices on the previous court had been asked to resign by the Truth Commission, a recommendation which was ignored. Nevertheless, it had so stigmatized the magistrates that not one was reelected.

The new justices were widely accepted as a great improvement, and immediately began to exercise the kind of independence and professionalism which the previous court lacked. Shortly after taking office, the new court appointed a competent director to the Institute of Legal Medicine, responsible for the judicial branch's forensic work.

The new court also began to tackle the problem of impunity in Salvadoran courts by implementing a review of all judges, which it hoped to complete by the end of 1994. In its eleventh report, released in July, ONUSAL found that between November 1992 and February 1994, in the seventy-five most serious cases of violations of the right to life, including arbitrary executions, attempted executions, and death threats, no one had been tried or sentenced. An important but incomplete list of constitutional reforms relating to the judicial system was approved by the outgoing Assembly on April 29 and was due to be ratified sometime during the current Assembly's three-year term. These reforms included expanded access to constitutional guarantees such as habeas corpus and invalidation of all extrajudicial confessions. In addition, pending legislative proposals for a new criminal code and criminal procedure code would outlaw extrajudicial confessions.

The dire situation of the country's prison system came to the forefront in 1993-94 as several riots broke out, resulting in dozens of deaths and injuries. ONUSAL provided mediation in all of these instances, in which prisoners generally demanded better prison conditions. The fact that some 80 percent of inmates had not been tried and sentenced, also contributed to the volatile situation. In response to this situation, the new Supreme Court proposed a review of the legal situation of all inmates and a new penitentiary law was brought up for consideration in the Assembly.

Finally, one of the most potentially destabilizing aspects of the post-war political situation involved the plight of demobilized military and security forces. In both July and September, former soldiers took over the Assembly building, in the second instance holding more than two dozen deputies hostage for over two days. In both cases, the assailants demanded indemnization they claimed was due them by the government for their service during the war. Both takeovers were resolved peacefully, and although no amnesty was granted, the government urged that no legal action be taken against those responsible. Some of the deputies held hostage filed charges anyway. Following the September episode, the government agreed to review each case individually and expand the possible number of beneficiaries to include some former civil defense members and others who were not previously eligible. Again ONUSAL played an important role as mediator.

The Right to Monitor

Despite some cases of intimidation and political violence, human rights groups generally felt few limitations in carrying out their activities in 1994.

ONUSAL continued to take complaints from citizens through its offices in Santa Ana, San Salvador, Chalatenango, San Vicente, San Miguel, and Usulután, although it planned to scale back significantly by the end of 1994 in preparation for a withdrawal early next year.

By mid-year, the human rights division of ONUSAL began a closer working relationship with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, which had grown to eight regional offices. The ombudsman, a three-year post, which was due to come up for re-election in February 1995, improved its operations somewhat during 1994, but still lacked trained personnel, financial resources, and the confidence of the Salvadoran citizenry needed to do its job effectively.

U.S. Policy

The U.S. government continued to be supportive of the peace process in 1994. In addition to providing financial support for the work of Grupo Conjunto, the U.S. (along with Spain) was a major contributor to the National Civilian Police and the National Academy for Public Security, providing training and technical assistance as well as material resources. U.S. aid also helped resolve a potentially explosive problem early in the year by providing funds to the Land Bank, which was required to help resolve the transfer of properties in the former conflict zones.

In July, the U.S. Trade Representative removed El Salvador from the list of countries under examination for labor rights violations, allowing it to be fully eligible for trade benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences.

Addressing recent human rights violations, the State Department twice expressed concern about attacks on FMLN leader Deputy Nidia Díaz which occurred in February and May. The U.S. also, after some hesitation, pressed for the removal of PNC Deputy Director Peña Durán; although this position was slow in evolving due to the resistance of Peña's former benefactors in the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The Work of Human Rights Watch/Americas

In 1994, Human Rights Watch/Americas was principally concerned that human rights considerations should remain an integral part of the peace process. In pursuing this goal, we made clear our support of the human rights organizations working in the country. Human Rights Watch/Americas wrote a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali expressing support for the work done by ONUSAL and underscoring its continued importance. We also supported the work of the Grupo Conjunto by providing documentation on cases of human rights violations in the country.

Also important in maintaining the centrality of human rights in the transition process, Human Rights Watch/Americas continued focusing international public attention on current human rights violations. In March 1994, Human Rights Watch/Americas published a report on the eve of the elections which emphasized continuing human rights problems at a particularly critical juncture in El Salvador, underscoring the need for free and fair elections. We also continued to bring individual cases of human rights abuses to the attention of United States lawmakers in order to continue diplomatic pressure for change.

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