Student Researchers: Juana Som and
Faculty Evaluator: Jeffrey Reeder, PhD
NACLA–Upside Down World, August
Title: “El Salvador: Water Inc. and the Criminalization of Protest”
Author: Jason Wallach
The Nation, December 31, 2007
Title: “GWOT: El Salvador”
Author: Wes Enzinna
Peacework, September 2007
Title: “Salvadoran Activists Targeted with US-Style Repression”
Author: Chris Damon
In These Times, November 13,
Title: “El Salvador’s Patriot Act”
Author: Jacob Wheeler
Inter Press Service, August 19, 2007
Title: “El Salvador: Spectre of War Looms After 15 Years of Peace”
Author: Raul Gutierrez
Salvadoran police violently captured community leaders and residents at a
July 2007 demonstration against the privatization of El Salvador’s water
supply and distribution systems. Close range shooting of rubber bullets and
tear gas was used against community members for protesting the rising cost,
and diminishing access and quality, of local water under privatization.
Fourteen were arrested and charged with
terrorism, a charge that can hold a sixty-year prison sentence, under El
Salvador’s new “Anti-terrorism Law,” which is based on the USA PATRIOT
While criminalization of political expression
and social protest signals an alarming danger to the peace and human rights
secured by Salvadorans since its brutal twelve-year civil war, the US
government publicly supports the Salvadoran government and the passage of
the draconian anti-terrorism law that took effect October 2006.
Salvadorans, however, maintain that fighting for water is a right, not a
The conflict that confronted the small community of Santa Eduviges over
their demand that their water system be de-privatized and put under the
National Water and Sewage Administration’s (ANDA) control stands to be
repeated now that right-wing deputies in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly
are threatening to pass a controversial General Water Law.
The legislation calls for water administration
to shift from the national to the municipal level and requires local
governments to sign over water management through “concessions” - or
contracts with private firms - for up to fifty years. The proposed law has
become a lightning rod for opposition from community groups and social
organizations who say it amounts to a privatization of the country’s water
El Salvador’s water workers union (SETA) accuses the government of
engaging in a plan to discredit the state agency in order to justify
privatization. ANDA’s budget was slashed by 15 percent in 2005, falling to
its lowest level in a decade, a perplexing reduction in a country where 40
percent of rural Salvadorans have no access to potable water.
SETA took out half-page ads in the nation’s two biggest daily newspapers
opposing the General Water Law, which according to the ad “would privatize
water and condemn thousands of our compatriots to suffer thirst for the
inability to pay.”
SETA members point to the devastating results of the recent
privatizations of the country’s telecommunications and electricity sectors,
which led to the firing of thousands of workers. Many of these workers were
forced to re-apply for the same jobs at half the pay with none of the
Privately run water concessions in Latin America have a terrible track
record. The most notorious example occurred with
a project imposed by the World Bank in Cochabamba,
Bolivia. The Bank made delivery of a loan conditional on the
privatization of the country’s largest water systems. When the Cochabamba
water services concession ran by the US-based Bechtel Corporation
raised household water bills by 200 percent, it sparked a civil uprising
that forced the company to leave the country and the water system to be put
under public control (Censored
After Cochabamba, the
World Bank retired the word “privatization”
and replaced it with terms like “concessions” and “decentralization,” or
“private sector participation.”
But critics say whatever the euphemism, the end
result is the same: higher rates, lower quality, and less access.
Outcry from international human rights organizations led to the release of
the Santa Eduviges activists, after nearly a month of imprisonment. But
instead of loosening their grip, in August of 2007, President Saca
and his ultra right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance Party
(ARENA) pushed through penal code reforms that changed disorderly conduct
from a misdemeanor to a felony. Three weeks later, the government arrested
eight leaders of a nurses’ trade union for striking against the
privatization of healthcare services and lack of medicine.
If convicted, the union leaders could face eight
years in prison under El Salvador’s new “Patriot Act.”
“The objective of these anti-terrorist laws
isn’t to fight terrorism, because there haven’t been acts of terrorism
here in many years,” says Pedro Juan Hernandez, a professor of economics
at the University of El Salvador and an activist. He says the new law’s
objective is to “criminalize the social movement and imprison community
The Salvadoran social activists fighting for
water access, healthcare and education, and now the right to protest, have
seen enough war, says Hernandez.
“But the origins of the violence are in the
politics, the unemployment, and the government’s policies against the
population,” he explains. “We are back to the level we were when the
armed conflict began.”
Washington’s support for these repressive
measures comes at a time when El Salvador is the only Latin American country
with troops still in Iraq and was the first to sign the Central American
Free Trade Agreement.
Adoption of a US-based
Patriot Act and the housing of the
controversial US-run International Law Enforcement Academy (see
Story #4) establish Saca as a strong US ally in the increasingly
militarized neo-liberal agenda in Latin America - sometimes understandably
confused with the
Global War on Terror.
UPDATE BY JACOB
So much of the destruction wrought upon the people of El Salvador during the
second half of the twentieth century originated in Washington - corporate
land grabs, environmental destruction, abuse of workers, death squads and
counterinsurgency, harmful trade pacts and stunted democratic movements -
and yet, a positive new chapter to El Salvador’s history may be written in
For the first time since the Peace Accords were
signed in 1992, ending El Salvador’s brutal, twelve-year civil war, the
progressive Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party
has a reasonable shot at winning power in national elections (the
parliamentary election will take place in January 2009, followed by the
presidential election in March).
As of late spring 2008, the FMLN held a
comfortable lead over the incumbent, right-wing ARENA party, which has
perpetuated the same harmful policies that led to civil war in 1980.
If it gains power, FMLN is expected to stop the disastrous privatization of
healthcare and water access, restore workers’ rights, fight to amend trade
deals so that they benefit more than just wealthy corporations, end El
Salvador’s participation in the occupation of Iraq, and, in general, follow
the path paved by pragmatically progressive Latin American governments -
such as those of Lula in Brazil and Correa in Ecuador, instead
of the fiery, combative style of Chávez in Venezuela.
FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes
has made one thing clear: Washington is not going anywhere, and despite the
scars of the past, he’s willing to work with George W. Bush’s successor.
I’ll be penning a series of stories in late 2008 and early 2009 about El
Salvador’s upcoming elections for In These Times.
In them I hope to broadcast the voices of those
who are rarely heard, chronicle the evolution of the Salvadoran progressive
movement - from guerilla rebels, to grassroots organizers, to politicians
ready to seize San Salvador - and influence the way both independent and
mainstream media in the United States cover these important elections.
Please look for future coverage of El Salvador
in our magazine and at
UPDATE BY WES ENZINNA
Since the publication of my article, and following an international outcry
by human rights observers, the charges against the thirteen protestors
arrested in Suchitoto have been dropped.
The judge presiding over the case, Ana Lucila
Fuentes de Paz - who I later discovered had been trained at the US-run
International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador - ruled
that there was not enough evidence to convict the protestors. Under the
“Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism,” the protestors faced up to eighty
years in prison.
Despite this positive ruling, however, the story of the Suchitoto 13 does
not end happily. On May 3, nineteen-year-old Hector Antonio Ventura - one of
the thirteen arrested and charged in the Suchitoto case - was murdered in
the town of Villa Verde. Ventura was beaten in the head and fatally stabbed
in the heart by unknown assailants.
There is considerable suspicion that the killing was politically motivated,
and Ventura’s murder followed a spate of political assassinations against
leftist activists in El Salvador, among them the January slaying of FMLN
mayor Wilber Funes.
Further, the killing occurred just two days
after Ventura had agreed to give testimony of his experience at a public
‘Day Against Impunity,’ planned for July 2, 2008, by the mayor of Suchitoto.
“Given his role as one of the accused in the
high-profile anti-terrorism case,” writes a member of the Committee
in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), “Ventura’s
death could likely be politically motivated.”
Members of the Salvadoran human rights community
are demanding a full investigation of Ventura’s death, yet the government
has not been forthcoming about such an investigation. Political crimes often
go uninvestigated in El Salvador, and many critics say that ARENA has
contributed to the climate of impunity by prosecuting leftist activists,
such as the vendors and Suchitoto 13, while ignoring cases of alleged
The 2009 presidential election represents the biggest possibility for the
Salvadoran public to reject by electoral means ARENA’s “iron fist” policies.
Indeed, many analysts predict an FMLN victory in March.
However, while many observers look hopefully
toward the March elections, other critics claim ARENA has been engaged in
electoral fraud. In particular, the ruling party has been accused of
manipulating census numbers in FMLN strongholds such as Santa Tecla,
Soyapango, and Las Vueltas, in order to deny FMLN candidates of government
Further, on May 9, 2008, Walter Aruajo,
ARENA representative and head of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal,
announced new restrictions for international election observers.
The new restrictions, Aruajo explained,
“intend to regulate that no group of
observers come and take part in political activity in the country.”
“Meddling in the electoral process,” he
continued, will result in expulsion from the country.
Critics worry the absence of a clear definition
of “meddling” could leave the door open for the arbitrary application of
these new restrictions, and more generally, they worry that these moves
foreshadow an effort by ARENA to protect its electoral power through the
creation and enforcement of self-serving and constitutionally questionable
UPDATE BY CHRIS DAMON
In the year following the arrest of fourteen social movement activists in
Suchitoto, there have been gains for the Salvadoran social movement, which
launched unified, concerted actions to overturn the law and to achieve the
unconditional liberty of the detainees; however, there have also been
Thirteen of the original fourteen activists arrested spent twenty-six days
under detention in the main men’s and women’s prisons. As a result of prison
overcrowding, for some this meant going without a bed and having to purchase
water for bathing and drinking. The thirteen were released July 27, 2007,
under conditional terms that prevented them from traveling outside the
country pending the presentation of further evidence against them by the
This waiting period extended for seven months, finally ending on February 8,
2008, at which point the state attempted to quietly change the charges from
“Acts of Terrorism” to “Public Disorder and Aggravated Damages.”
Given this change, the Special Tribune appointed
to handle terrorism charges transferred the case to the regular judicial
system. An audience was held February 19 for which the States Attorney’s
office failed to show up to present their case leading the presiding judge
to grant definitive liberty to all fourteen defendants due to the lack of
charges or evidence presented.
Despite an appeal by the States Attorney, the
ruling was upheld on April 4.
Jubilation over these victories was short lived, given that on the night of
May 2 one of the former defendants, Hector Antonio Ventura, was murdered as
he slept in his small village of Valle Verde, Suchitoto.
While no one has been arrested or charged in the murder, both the media and
authorities have characterized the death as related to the epidemic of gang
crime which plagues the country, the most violent in Latin America.
However, the murders of activists like Ventura have caused human rights
organizations to take notice.
On May 12, the Foundation for the Study of
Law Application (FESPAD), together with other social movement
organizations, presented the case as the central element of a formal request
to the States Attorney’s office to investigate this and fourteen other
murders that they argue may represent the use of gang elements to commit
They cite the “Combined Group for the
Investigation of Illegal Armed Groups with Political Motivations” (1994),
which established criteria for determining the probability of political
motivation in a given crime: modus operandi, characteristics of the victim,
and level of impunity achieved by the authors. Since the initial release of
FESPAD’s list of fifteen suspicious murders, the list has been expanded to
As of yet there has been no official response to these demands.
And the controversial Anti-Terrorism Legislation
remains in effect.
UPDATE BY RAUL
I strongly believe that it is important for Salvadoran society to be
informed adequately on developments such as those that happened in Suchitoto
on July 2, 2007, since that confrontation represented a strong risk for the
country’s political stability and democratic coexistence - particularly
after the achievement of 1992 peace accords that left behind twelve years of
war, 75,000 deaths, and 8,000 disappeared.
From my perspective, independent journalism should provide Salvadorans
in-depth information and analysis on the national reality based above all on
ethics, giving voice to those mostly unheard.
Meanwhile, the assassination of Héctor Ventura - one of those
arrested during the protest in Suchitoto - on May 2 has added more fear
among those detained in Suchitoto, according to David Morales, one of
the accused defendants, who then worked for Tutela Legal (Legal
Guardians), a human rights agency of the
Catholic Church, and now is member of the Foundation for
the Study of Law Application (FESPAD).
The fourteen detainees who were arrested during the demonstration spent
twenty-seven days in jail under charges of “acts of terrorism.”
Lorena Martínez, president of the Association for Development in
El Salvador (CRIPDES) and one of those jailed, reported that Ventura was
stabbed in his heart while visiting a friend near Suchitoto.
Ventura’s friend was also injured during the
attack but now is recuperating.
“We believe this was a political attack;
first of all, we were accused of being terrorists and during detention
our human rights were cynically violated,” stated Martínez. When asked
if the crime could be part of the country’s circle of violence, she
replied: “It could be.”
The community leader said that the charges
against the fourteen protesters went on for nine months and finally on April
16, a court dropped the charges against all the accused.
“It was a very tough experience; I could
never have imagined being in jail in time of peace without committing
any crime whatsoever,” Martínez explained, and added that mass detention
“was part of the Salvadoran Government plan to criminalize social unrest
which seeks to intimidate people.”
On the other hand, it seems there was no direct
response to the article published on Inter Press Service.
Nevertheless, I have to point out that most
mainstream media coverage was biased, and in most cases only used government
accounts of the confrontation. Further, some media did not cover police
aggressions against protesters, journalists, and town residents not
participating in the demonstration.
The detention of Haydé Chicas, press
officer of CRIPDES, while documenting the arrest of three coworkers, was
aired by some media implying that she had been part of a protest that had
blocked the road minutes before.
Anyone wanting further information regarding Suchitoto developments may
contact the following persons: