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Update on July 5th El Salvador Violence

Dangerous Repercussions of July 5 Violence in El Salvador

Jailed students released, but harsh threats by Saca Administration, U.S. Embassy continue


July 13, 2006

It's been just over a week since a student protest in San Salvador resulted in violent police repression and two police deaths. The violence, which erupted during a student protest against bus fare hikes, also led to the police occupation of El Salvador's National University (UES) for days, the emergency evacuation of more than 700 people, the capture of between 20 to 30 students, and a university administrator being gravely injured. Over the weekend the students were released from jail due to lack of evidence, the police finally left the university, and on Tuesday a captured union leader was also released. However, the ramifications of last week's repression remain frightening. The Human Right's Office has called the violence instigated by the National Civilian Police (PNC) the "worst violation of human rights since the Peace Accords." And although there was indeed a renegade within the protest that fired at police, social movement organizations, human rights groups, and student groups have all called the government's response an unjustified use of force that represents a serious setback to the 1992 Peace Accords.

Background - The events of July 5

On Wednesday, July 5th an impressive array of police - including riot police (UMO), an elite, specialized group of police (known as the GRP), and snipers on the rooftop of a nearby children's hospital - were stationed at the main entrance of the National University (UES) even before a student march arrived. The high school and university students were demanding reduced bus fare for students, elderly, and the differently-abled, a demand the students have been mobilizing around for at least two years. When the UMO violently apprehended two 15-year-old students (at least one of whom was later taken to the hospital because of the severe beatings) the other students responded by throwing rocks at the police. Police then began firing rubber bullets and tear gas, and advancing ominously towards the students. A participant in the protest pulled out an M-16 and fired at police. Two riot police died and nine more were injured. All students ran into the UES for cover.

Soon, police began firing real bullets from both the ground and from at least two artillery helicopters flying over the UES. A UES administrator was shot at from the air while inside a university office and remained hospitalized for a week because the bullet came so close to his heart. That afternoon, the government continued to militarize the surrounding streets of the UES, cordoning off entry and exit from the university and randomly rounding up students trying to evacuate the campus. At 10:00 that evening, the police violated the legally guaranteed autonomy of the National University by breaking the locks and occupying the campus. They remained inside for the next 4 days.

Government Response: Smear, Disinformation, and more Repression

Within a matter of minutes of the violence, ARENA public officials were blaming the FMLN party, long before any clarification of the incident or an initial investigation of the events was possible. "I formally accuse the FMLN of being behind these actions," said Saca on radio and TV stations shortly afterwards. "It is time Salvadorans realize that if the FMLN had won, there would be armed groups circulating the streets." All of the mainstream media joined Saca in accusing the protestors and the FMLN of attacking the PNC, the media and the paramedics. At a press conference held at noon that day, the government used false information to justify the use of force by police. Officials claimed that students had AK-47s and snipers within the UES, and they claimed that the FMLN had planned to the action to distract attention from an internal crisis.

Despite an understanding that the police would be accompanied at all times while on campus, the PNC broke into the university at 10:00 pm that Wednesday - where ARENA claimed there were weapons arsenals- and were not joined by university officials or Human Rights observers until 8:00 am the following morning. Simultaneously, about 30 police raided the offices of the Union Confederation of Salvadoran Workers (CSTS) in another alleged "search for weapons." Union leader Daniel Ermesto Morales was beaten and detained for illegal gun possession, although the only gun they found was registered to a private security officer on the premises. The police raid and pillage of the CSTS offices came in response to a press conference held there by social movement organizations on July 5th in which they denounced the government's repressive actions that morning. Initially, police refused to provide information about the whereabouts of Morales and the captured students. Morales was ultimately held for five days until a judge released him on Tuesday morning.

Meanwhile, the police have arrested one man that they claim was giving cover to the shooter that fired the M-16, and have begun a massive manhunt for Mario Belloso Castillo, the supposed murderer of the two riot police. Because both men have been members of the FMLN, ARENA has launched a full-blown smear campaign claiming that the FMLN was behind the attacks and that it is a terrorist organization. The FMLN responded to the attacks on the party by condemning the use of violence in protests and pointing out that it cannot control the individual actions of the 100,000 party members.

However, while Belloso has indeed been identified in photos, only a thorough investigation can prove that he actually killed the two riot police. Last Thursday, the Human Right's Ombudswoman Beatrice de Carrillo declared that "the deaths appeared to be very exact sniper executions that hit one police officer in the head and the other in the heart, to kill. This indicates that there has been a specific will to provoke this outcome." She added that media footage of the shooter isn't proof that this person was the author of these executions, and that the government's only source of information - an anonymous informant - is insufficient.

Disputed Accounts, and More Fallout From the Violence

Authorities of the National University have challenged claims by the PNC that there were weapons found on the campus. PNC officials have also asserted that police helicopters did not shoot, despite witnesses, pictures and video footage to the contrary. They also deny claims that there were snipers at the nearby children's hospital despite equal proof, as well as claims that multiple air force planes flew over the university, in addition the helicopters. On Tuesday, University officials released photos showing police firing from helicopters.

In defiance of the judiciary, President Saca and Minister of the Interior Figueroa have stated they will appeal the release of the students, claiming that there is more than enough evidence to incriminate them, while the union leader from CSTS will be prosecuted for illegal firearms possession.

Most ominously, ARENA has repeated labeled all those involved in recent protests "terrorists" and used the justification of the violence to push the so-called "anti-terrorist" law, a draconian measure that would criminalize building occupations, street blockades, and other common popular protest tactics. The law is so outlandish that even allied right-wing parties refused to support it last Thursday, and the Assembly voted instead to create an ad hoc commission to further investigate the events of July 5. Still, the law may be presented again by ARENA in the coming weeks.

What's next for El Salvador?

Without a fair, transparent investigation, it is possible that the whole truth about the shooting last Wednesday will never be known. What is clear is that the aftermath of the violence gives the government justification for a dramatic escalation of violence against the social movement. Already the government is threatening to investigate student groups and others because they are presumably armed. Student and youth groups have denounced intimidation after their offices were ransacked by police. Auxiliary bishop Gregoria Rosa Chavez demanded to know the truth this past Monday, echoing the demand of many Salvadorans: a thorough, independent investigation.

Such an investigation, however, is even more unlikely given U.S. intervention into the case. U.S. Ambassador Douglas Barclay gave a rare interview to the press on Saturday in which he repeated Saca's line of calling this a "terrorist act" and implying that the FMLN was behind the shootings. He then suggested that the U.S. could "help" in the investigation through FBI assistance. This incident makes clear that the U.S. should not continue its training and support of Salvadoran police, or legitimize their actions through the presence of a "police professionalizing" academy - the ILEA - which coincidently graduated its first class at the end of June. As social movement leader, Santiago Flores said, "The government is sharpening its repressive tools as the only answer to continue with this exclusionary economic model and maintain power." Even though the mainstream media has concealed the original causes of the protest - the economic crisis that exists in El Salvador - it will certainly be the cause for more mobilizations.

CISPES - Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador
130 W. 29th Street, 9th floor
New York, NY 10001

photos of CISPES consulate protests, NYC July 10

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