El Salvador: Saca Water Privatization Announcement Shut Down; Police Arrest 13

Unionists, community development activists, and residents blocked streets leading into Suchitoto to protest an announcement by President Tony Saca about a new program to decentralize public services, including water. 

Saca intended to inaugurate the program, which would shift management responsibilities from the national water company, ANDA, to private municipal water companies that would be concessioned by local governments. But protesters blocked his access to the quaint town 45 kilometers northeast of

San Salvador. Saca’s event was cancelled and rescheduled at the Presidential Palace, as many diplomats were unable to get to the event.

Critics of decentralization, including SETA, the union of ANDA workers, argue that municipalities lack adequate financial and technical resources to effectively manage water. They say that Saca’s plan ostensibly privatizes water, and that similar schemes implemented in other Latin American countries have led to decreases in water quality and service, and an increase in water rates.

Witnesses reported that 100 riot police from the elite UMO division guarded the entrance to local National Civil Police office in Suchitoto on Monday. Thirteen arrests were reported, including Lorena Martinez and Rosa Maria Centeno, President and Vice president of the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES).

Arrestees were transported to two other jails before landing at the PNC sub-delegation jail at Cojutepeque.

They are charged with Illicit Association and Public Disorder. The CRIPDES motorist, is charged with assaulting an officer, though footage of his arrest which was repeated shown on the nightly news here, demonstrates that he put up no resistance to officers who used an exaggerated amount of force.


The husband of jailed CRIPDES President Lorena Martinez speaks with a human rights monitor outside the jail in Cojutepeque

"More than anything, this was a kidnapping," said Julio Cesar Portillo, husband of the jailed Lorena Martinez. "With it, the government is sending a political message: ‘Don’t protest.’ These practices harken back to the darkest era of the National Guard."

Portillo says that his wife was arrested without asking for her identification or any questioning. He believes that she was randomly swept up, not explicitly targeted. "It was only afterwards that they realized who she was," he said. CRIPDES is one of the most recognized development organizations in the northern region of El Salvador.

A visit to the jail in Cojutepeque by CRISPAZ representatives revealed sub-human conditions. Six women arrestees shared a 8 X 10 cell. The floor was stained black. There were no available bathroom facilities, nor beds to rest on. Women prisoners related that they were allowed out of the cell twice per day–one by one–to relieve themselves into a hole in the ground, about 12 feet from the cell.


Martinez, Centeno and two other CRIPDES representatives rode in a red pick-up toward the protest in Suchitoto when police pulled them over and arrested them near the community of Milingo. The arrests were shown widely on nightly news, without identifying the arrestees. Once arrested, the four were transported in an army jeep to the jail in Suchitoto using back-country roads. Protesters reacted when they heard the news and surrounded the jail, demanding the release of the arrestees. Shortly after, riot police were called in, fearing that the angry crowd would rush the jail. They dispersed the crowd using tear gas.

Tear gas was also used at the entrance to the community of Guillermo Ungo, where protesters also blocked a road that led into Suchitoto. After protesters were dispersed, police chased them into the nearby community, where some sought refuge in local homes. An undetermined amount of arrests were made there.

Unusual Timing
The timing of a Presidential event in Suchitoto was curious, since this past weekend residents of the town commemorated the deaths of Francisco and Julia Manzanares, parents of Radio Venceremos co-founder Marina Manzanares.  The couple was attacked and killed in their home on July 2, 2006. Evidence at the scene showed signs of torture. Their bodies were found slashed and bleeding and lye was spread on the victim’s faces. There were signs of a failed attempt to set the room afire.

Since the attack, daughter Marina has suffered death threats and has reported being followed.

Commemorative events remembering the lives of Francisco and Juana were held in Suchitoto throughout the past weekend. Other events were scheduled for this week. The government has done little to investigate the case, linking it to common robbery. Statistics don’t lend themselves to a hopeful resolution to the case: a recent report released by the UNDP found that only 3.8% of murders in El Salvador are successfully prosecuted within the courts.

An Amnesty International statement on the investigation, released on the anniversary of the crime, stated that if the Salvadoran government doesn’t investigate such crimes adequately, it is tacitly promoting violence against those critical of government policy.

According to the statement, Amnesty International sent a letter to El Salvador ‘s Attorney General in March 2007 requesting an update about the Manzanares murder investigation, and whether protective measures had been put in place for daughter Marina. More than three months later, Amnesty had not received a response.

"Authorities in El Salvador must live up to their human rights commitments by respecting and protecting the work of political activists. Without dissent, democracy is stifled," the statement said.