On July 2, Salvadoran police arrested 14 rural activists who were protesting water privatization in Suchitoto, a colonial town in the middle of the country. The government plans to try them on Feb. 8 under the country’s new anti-terrorism laws, which could make them the first political prisoners in the nation’s post-war era.
In recent years, the Salvadoran government has faced increasing community resistance to the privatization of healthcare and water. Citizens have also protested against Pacific Rim, a multinational corporation that plans to develop the El Dorado mine in Cabañas province and pollute the local water supply.
In response, in October 2006 the government adopted a “Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism,” which gives police and judges leeway to clear the streets of demonstrators and imposes mandatory sentences of 60 years for what was once considered a freedom of expression. Intentionally vague, the law defines terrorism as crimes that “by their form of execution, or means and methods employed, evidence the intention to provoke a state of alarm, fear or terror in the population, by putting in imminent danger or affecting peoples’ life or physical or mental integrity, or their valuable material goods, or the democratic system or security of the State, or international peace.” According to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, the Salvadoran government modeled the new anti-terrorism law after the U.S. Patriot Act.
A small international outcry by those organizations followed the July arrests, and the government released the activists after nearly a month of imprisonment (though they still face trial in February). But instead of loosening their grip, in August, President Antonio Saca and his ultra-right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) Party pushed through penal code reforms by a one-vote margin 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 recently traveled to the United States with members of U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities to bring attention to the Salvadoran social movement. “What happened in New York and in Madrid were acts of terrorism,” says Hernandez. “But it’s not an act of terrorism to peacefully mobilize or concentrate a group of people demanding their rights, including what’s written in the constitution.” He says the new law’s objective is to “criminalize the social movement and imprison community leaders.”
In July, 60 U.S.-based organizations signed an open letter to Saca that appeared in the Salvadoran press. “While the Salvadoran government has the task of ensuring public security, charging demonstrators under an ‘anti-terrorism law’ … does not appear to be the measured response of a government seeking to maintain order while observing basic civil rights, such as the right to freedom of association and the right to protest,” the letter stated. A month later, 41 members of the U.S. Congress also signed and sent Saca a letter that expressed concern about the arrests of the 14 activists under the new anti-terrorism laws. Predictably, the White House and the U.S. Embassy in the capital city o have remained silent.
That silence might stem from El Salvador being a member of the “coalition of the willing” that has supported the United States in its invasion of Iraq. Saca has contributed as many as 380 soldiers at any given time to the war effort.
Meanwhile, $461 million goes to El Salvador through the Millennium Challenge Account, an aid program that President Bush announced at the Inter-American Development Bank in 2002. This money goes to the Central American nation despite the challenge account’s criteria that countries adhere to the “rule of law,” “political rights,” “civil liberties” and “voice and accountability.”
Sixteen years ago, the government of El Salvador signed the Peace Accords with anti-government FMLN guerrillas, ending 12 years of a brutal civil war that killed approximately 80,000 people. The accords were established “to create the necessary conditions to improve the quality of life of the population, especially of those living in extreme poverty.”
But more than a decade-and-a-half later, the country’s poor remain choked by desperation. Almost 50 percent of the rural population lives below the poverty line and 61 percent have no access to water in their homes, according to USAID. The average Salvadoran child attends only 3.4 years of school. Remittances from the 2 million Salvadorans working in the United States account for approximately 17 percent of El Salvador’s economy, according to the U.S. State Department. This is greater than the money generated by any other export.
“The signing of the Peace Accords created the opportunity for reconciliation and to change the causes that led to the armed conflict,” says Hernandez. “But we’ve missed out on that opportunity. In the last 16 years, the government has implemented neoliberal economics, privatized services and signed free trade agreements that haven’t solved the economic problems but have made them more profound.”
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.”