Salvadoran student organizing suffered a severe blow after a July 5 demonstration in front of the National University (UES) left two police shot dead and ten officers injured by gunfire. Since then, the government of President Tony Saca has utilized the July 5 investigation as a pretext to intimidate, gather information, and damper a powerful Salvadoran economic justice movement, within which students play a critical role.
The Salvadoran student movement in 2006 stayed true to its militant roots through collaboration with unionists, campesino groups and other mass-based organizations that represent the 80 percent of Salvadorans living in poverty. Together with these groups, student action has been focused against the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), opposing the high cost of living, and halting the privatization of public services. Student organizations have also defended the movement of street vendors, who have suffered a number of police attempts to dislodge them from the central market in San Salvador.
July 5 and aftermath
On July 5 a protest by university and public high school student organizations targeted recent increases in bus fares (25 percent) and electricity rates (14 percent). UES students set tires alight to shut down the busy intersection in front of the main campus entrance. As they marched from their school to the UES, students from the INFRAMEN public high school left a trail of graffiti demanding half-price bus fare for students and no increase in electricity rates.
Armed police dressed in intimidating riot gear stood by, casually chatting with each other. Police sharpshooters were stationed on top of public buildings overlooking the march route. A detail of police followed the lumbering march, which, although small, took over the street. None of this was particularly unusual for a UES protest. A similar action in June protested the two-year-anniversary of the Tony Saca presidency.
But things turned sour as marchers reached the National University. Angered that someone had tagged a police pick-up truck with graffiti, officers began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at youth, who mostly retreated into the University campus to escape the violence. (Police are constitutionally forbidden from entering University grounds.) Then someone fired back at police, killing two officers and injuring ten more.
In the ensuing chaos, thirty-two youths were arrested. Police entered University grounds, cordoned off a half-mile zone, and occupied the campus while combing for evidence. Deputies from the right-wing ARENA political party presented an “Anti-terrorism” bill in the Legislative Assembly July 6. The majority of the arrestees were released, but two continue to be held. After photos and video of masked protesters appeared in the mass media, many students who participated in the protest went into hiding out of fear.
Still, courageous student organizations denied connections with the violent acts and publicly denounced police aggressions against them.
“We have more than a dozen complaints from our brothers (“compañeros”) who have suffered verbal insults from police accusing them of being students, as if that were a crime,” said Camilo Escalante from the Utopia Collective at the University Centroamericana (UCA). “We can’t forget that one of the essential elements of the democratic state is the prerogative to organize and protest.”
“[Entering the campus] is a violation of University autonomy,” said Marcelo Cienfuegos of the Popular Youth Block (BPJ in Spanish). “Why did they do it at night? Why did they break into the file cabinets and break down the doors? We condemn the violation of University autonomy.”
Youth = Gang = Criminal
The crackdown against student groups occurs within a national context in which youth—students or not—have been criminalized on almost every level. President Tony Saca’s “Iron Fist” and “Super Iron Fist” policies ostensibly negated the constitutional right to assemble for youth, allowing police to classify any gathering of two or more as “suspicious gang activity,” and therefore subject to “preventative” arrests.
Thousands of innocent youth have been left with police records after being arrested in this manner. Having a record can affect access to higher education since anyone with a police record is assumed to be a criminal, even if never convicted of a crime.
That was the case July 10, when police raided a church in Ilopango during the wake for four teen gang members killed in a street shoot-out with police. Officers arrested 194 youth, some as young as 11 years old. Days later, after authorities from the National Civil Police cheerily announced that “sixty percent of Ilopango’s gang members had been taken off the streets,” Judge Lucia Parada released 160 of the youth for lack of evidence.
“It is humiliating that all of those youth who had nothing to do [with any crime] were unjustly mistreated and had to spend [eight] days behind bars on unjustified suspicions,” said Fr. Domingo Solís of Ilopango’s Queen of Peace Parish, where the youth were arrested. “Police violated church [sanctity] by entering without a warrant.”
IADB? No Thanks.
Students at the National University won their biggest victory of the year on May 25 when the University Supreme Council (CSU), comprised of students, faculty and administrators, debated for eight hours and eventually voted to re-draft a $25 million project to be financed by the Interamerican Development Bank (IADB).
Student and faculty groups, and some staff unions opposed the loan, saying that it would have imposed conditions including the privatization of janitorial and other essential services. Student groups also feared that the loan would have meant higher user fees, which serve as a back-door tuition hike and obligate students to shell out more cash for class-related materials, especially in the sciences.
University officials said they would work with students to reformulate the loan with participation from all sectors of the campus and to ensure that “la U” is not adhering—overtly or covertly—to any privatizing schemes. No timetable was set for the re-drafting of the project. Some student groups oppose financing by the IADB on principle, since the agency imposes privatization in many of the projects it finances.
Jason Wallach is a U.S.-born journalist based in El Salvador. His work appears regularly on Upside Down World and Labor Notes. He is an editor at UpsideDownWorld.org