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Student Protest Against Bus Fare Hike Ends in Bloodshed

July 5, 2006

Police opened fire on students during a protest against recent government-sanctioned hikes in bus fares and electricity rates. Student protesters occupied a busy intersection outside the gates of National University in San Salvador during morning rush hour. Traffic was stalled for blocks and tension grew as police massed in preparation to take control of the area. Both groups waited for a march that arrived from a nearby park.

When police tried to arrest two students in the on-coming march, others reacted by attacking a bank ATM, prompting police to fire tear gas. When the march arrived at the blockaded intersection, students rallied, but a sudden volley of gunshots scattered everyone. A number of students and police fell to the ground. The majority of students sought refuge inside the University gates.

Local television focused on police who had been shot and showed gruesome images of those who had suffered bullet wounds, apparently from a semi-automatic, high-caliber weapon. It was unclear who had fired that weapon. Two police were reported killed and seven more had been interred at local hospital. As of this writing, an unknown number of students have been shot, with three reported dead. A number of critically wounded students were trapped on University grounds, unable to access medical care.

Police helicopters fired on protesters inside the University complex, injuring Herbert Rivas, Director of Multidisciplinary Faculty. Other students reportedly suffered similar fates.

El Salvador's Human Right Ombudswoman Beatrice Carrillo condemned the violence and lamented the casualties.

"I'm still waiting for a complete report and from no point of view can one identify with the use of violence. The deaths of the agents are reprehensible, just as the increase in bus fare is reprehensible," she said.

For many, the sounds, images, and dead have triggered harsh memories of El Salvador´s 1980-1992 armed conflict, which left 80,000 civilians dead, mostly at the hands of government forces. During those years, trademark helicopter gun ships loomed overhead throughout El Salvador's remote rural interior. The soldiers stationed inside were responsible for killing countless numbers of innocents.

Currently, the University has been locked down by police in strict violation of legal codes guarding University autonomy. Police are threatening to enter and conduct building-by-building searches. There are reports that anyone left on University grounds after nightfall will be arrested.

Today's police action comes in the wake of the brutal assassinations of Francisco Antonio Manzanares y Juana Monjarás de Manzanares in their home in Suchitoto, 45 miles northeast of San Salvador.

The gruesome murders bolstered rumors of renewed death-squad activity in El Salvador. The Manzanares, parents of Radio Venceremos co-founder Marina Manzanares, were tortured for hours then killed in their home on the morning of Sunday June 2. Their bodies were found slashed and bleeding. Lye had been carefully spread on the victim's faces and there were signs of a failed attempt to set the room afire.

The killings have terrorized locals in this normally tranquil village 60 miles northeast of San Salvador. On Sunday and Monday, neither reporters nor police could find anyone who had heard anything about the murders, much less witnessed them.

Congressman Sigfrido Reyes of the FMLN said, "This is a crime that revisits all of the markings of the crimes committed by death squads back in the times of military dictatorship and the years of the armed conflict."

Human Rights Ombudswoman Carrillo denounced the continued existence of "extermination groups" beginning in 2005, "If we don't take this problem seriously in this country, we are going to have a social debacle of incalculable magnitude. I believe there are extermination groups and the Attorney General and the police need to investigate. The problem is that the issues are engrained in the same system."

Daughter Marina, known as "Mariposa" during her days as commentator for the FMLN's clandestine Radio Veneceremos station, said that the family had been the target of multiple death threats in recent months. She reported that last week a box of bones arrived at her parent's home with a note that said, "This is how you'll receive your daughters' bones."

The family is no stranger to homicidal violence at the hands of state authorities: Marina's brother, Paco Cutumay (of the famed musical group Cutumay Camones was one of the first political prisoners of the 1980-1992 Civil War. He was later killed by PNC agents in 1993.

For their part, police attribute the murder to a common robbery. Although their story contradicts the family's, police say that valuables were taken from the Manzanares home. One unidentified agent admitted to local press that brutal assassinations were unusual for Suchitoto, robbery or not.

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