March 24th marked the 27th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the tenacious defender of El Salvador’s poor and marginalized majority who was gunned down by an operative of El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military while saying Mass. Romero had predicted his own death just days earlier, but he also foresaw the powerful effect that his martyrdom would have, famously stating that, "If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people." Indeed, Romero’s example still inspires Salvadorans – and countless others around the world – in their ongoing struggle against injustice and inequality.
Archbishop Romero’s life was among the 75,000 that were lost during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, a conflict he recognized as having its roots in "the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery" of the oppressed. Tragically, these same social structures that led to the civil war- mass poverty, inequality and exploitation – remain largely intact even 15 years after the war’s end and the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992. According to the Washington Office on Latin America, a D.C.-based policy and advocacy group, "almost fifty percent of the population [remains] under the poverty line. Poverty [and] inequality rates still persist at levels comparable to the pre-war era."
Similarly consistent over the past 27 years has been the role of the United States in maintaining poverty and inequality in El Salvador. As they did in 1980, these structures benefit the United States today by enabling foreign ownership of land and natural resources and the exploitation of a cheap, abundant supply of labor. During El Salvador’s civil war, the United States government used the guise of fighting communism to justify its support for ruthless military regimes that protected these economic interests. Today, the instruments used to perpetuate such conditions are more subtle: "Free trade" agreements, the privatization and comodification of public goods and services, and the extraction of natural resources through mining and other corporate activity.
In the face of such policies, Romero’s demand for justice continues to be echoed, just as he predicted it would be. Student activists, religious leaders, union organizers and the leftist party have continued working to build a new El Salvador despite the efforts of their own government, as well as that of the United States, to maintain the status quo in El Salvador and silence those who will not acquiesce. Just as the U.S. was complicit in Archbishop Romero’s murder – along with those of thousands of other civilians killed by the Salvadoran military throughout the war – today our government trains and funds a Salvadoran security apparatus that fails to meet human rights standards, violates the country’s 1992 Peace Accords, and is used by the state to carry out politically-motivated repression against the Salvadoran people.
Among the most blatant violations of the Peace Accords is the reintegration of the military into domestic law enforcement activity, with soldiers now joining civilian police to conduct joint patrols. For its part, the National Civilian Police (PNC) is routinely manipulated for political ends by the government, including military-style operations to confront peaceful protest and assembly by university students. One such confrontation last July lead to the occupation of the National University campus by the PNC; a direct violation of the Peace Accords’ guarantee of the University’s autonomy. Student leaders who have organized protests against the recent repression have been detained and interrogated, and one such leader recently disappeared.
As during the 1980s, this new wave of repressive and illegal tactics on the part El Salvador’s security forces is carried out with the complicity of the United States, which recently opened an International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador. Similarly, the United States continues to train the Salvadoran military at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC – formerly the School of the Americas) at Ft. Benning, Georgia . This training, combined with U.S. military aid to El Salvador, legitimizes and endorses the tactics of Salvadoran security forces. In light of this fact, 46 members of Congress called on the State Department to investigate the conduct of the National Civilian Police in a July 31, 2006, letter.
Along with Congress, watchdog groups and El Salvador’s Human Rights office have repeatedly decried recent violations of the Peace Accords on the part of both military and police, and have even presented evidence of the resurgence of the notorious "death squads" that operated with impunity during the war. The assassination of social justice organizers, including members of the clergy, has again become commonplace, and the nation’s own Human Rights Ombudswoman alleges the involvement and complicity of the state’s security forces in such acts.
The cry for justice rising from El Salvador today is as urgent today as it was when it rose as the voice of Archbishop Romero in 1980. And, as in later case, those cries are largely directed at us in the United States, where our government is actively working to maintain the structures of poverty and injustice that Romero struggled against. In the coming months, the U.S. Congress will have several opportunities to respond to El Salvador’s cries.
In the legacy of Monseñor Romero, and in solidarity with the social movement of El Salvador, from the United States we demand:
– Under the leadership of Rep. James McGovern of Massachusetts, Congress must finally shut down the School of the Americas and investigate its role in countless atrocities committed throughout the hemisphere.
– Funding for the International Law Enforcement Academy in El Salvador must be withheld as long as the police there continue blatantly violating human rights and the terms of the country’s own Peace Accords.
– Congress must reject trade agreements with Peru, Colombia and Panama that will further exacerbate poverty and inequality in those countries, as similar accords have done in Mexico and Central America.
– Congress must not renew the president’s "fast track" trade promotion authority, which has enabled recent trade pacts to be implemented without Congressional input.
For more information on how to impact U.S. policies in El Salvador, and get involved with current solidarity campaigns, please visit the CISPES website at www.cispes.org.