El Salvador: State Repression and Shadows of the Past

Fallout from violence that left two police dead at a July 5 demonstration continues to reverberate throughout El Salvador.

Some facts have emerged, but three weeks later many questions remain unanswered about what exactly happened in front of the National University on that day.  What is clear, however, is that the ramifications from July 5 will shake up the political scenario for some time to come. 

Initial reports that three students had been killed were never substantiated, but two police officers were shot to death and 10 were wounded by gunfire. University Dean Herbert Rivas was struck by a bullet that entered a second story meeting room on the University campus.

Based on video and photos of the scene, police identified and accused Mario Belloso Castillo and Luis Antonio Herrador Funes of murdering the officers at the protest. According to police, Belloso fired an M-16 and Herrador served as Belloso’s lookout. In a July 12 press conference, National Civil Police (PNC) Director Roberto Avila stated that M-16 bullets were found on the dead officers, though he did not offer forensic evidence since the weapon in question has not been located.

Herrador was captured by police in his home on the evening of July 5, where he admitted to being at the scene. He was charged with complicity in the attack on police. In a July 8 interview, Herrador said that he was unaware that Belloso intended to hit police. Herrador ostensibly accused Belloso. He urged Belloso to turn himself in and said, "He has to answer for his actions."

Mario Belloso, meanwhile, is on the run. Published accounts report that he was seen in Amatillo, on the El Salvador-Honduras border.

The Search for Clues

In the chaos after the shooting, police violently arrested 23 people. Two detainees were charged with possession of illegal firearms or explosives. At 11pm that evening, the PNC and the attorney general’s office forcibly entered the National University and conducted a search for weapons. Agents displayed some AK-47 cartridges and a few homemade grenades allegedly found in the search. The PNC maintained a perimeter around the National University for six days.

National University Officials denied weapons were found on campus, insinuating that they had been planted. They maintained that where their personnel accompanied the police search, nothing of note was found. Still, the weaponry produced, planted or not, was hardly incriminating evidence for a police squad that declared the University was harboring terrorists.

Police accounts paint a tidy picture of Belloso and Herrador’s actions, but they do not address three key factors: First, do the bullets found on the dead officers match the yet-to-be-located murder weapon? Second, did government sharpshooters stationed on top of the Benjamin Bloom Children’s Hospital fire their weapons and if so, at whom? Third, what was role of authorities in overtly and covertly fomenting a tense protest atmosphere? In short, did authorities incite a violent confrontation? The answers to these questions could point to an entirely different scenario than police have thus far suggested.

There is good reason for curiosity. Authorities have reversed themselves on a number of important facts relevant to police action during the protest. On July 20, Avila admitted that police fired live ammunition at protesters. Previous statements claimed only rubber bullets had been used. Police also admitted, after initial denials, that sharpshooters took up position at the Bloom Hospital on the night before the protest.

When the daily La Prensa Grafica published photos of armed police riding in helicopters over university grounds, Avila revealed that airborne officers had orders to fire on protesters. He denied that shots were fired in this fashion, but the revelation contradicted previous statements by Interior Minister Rene Figueroa that firing from helicopters was impossible, since gunfire would destabilize their flight.

The "corrected" statements and other contradictions led Human Rights Ombudsman Beatrice Carrillo to wonder aloud whether a fair investigation of the July 5 events could be carried out by current authorities. She called for an independent investigation, but said she doubted that the truth would ever be known.

The Chips Fall

In the early aftermath of the protest, the crude logic of Salvadoran politics was evident in the media coverage of the event. From his first statements, President Tony Saca attempted to muscle the facts to his political advantage.

"I want to say to the Salvadoran people: let’s realize what would happen to this country if the FMLN governed. The FMLN would have armed bands in the streets, as they have shown," the President told noontime newswatchers.

"This constitutes an act of terrorism," cried Minister of Governance Rene Figueroa, as he framed the fresh events into a familiar logic.

Saca declared that Belloso and Herrador were FMLN members who acted in the name of the political party when they attacked police. (Indeed, Belloso was a City Council member in the San Salvador suburb of Mejicanos from 2000-2003.) Saca claimed their intention was to destableize the country and draw attention away from internal divisions within El Salvador’s largest opposition party.

Saca further maintained that the attacks on police represented a violation of the 1992 Peace Accords, since the FMLN, a signatory to those accords, was the intellectual author. He requested that a UN investigative team to look into Peace Accords compliance. Later, as head of ARENA, Saca ordered the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to investigate the possible dissolution of the FMLN as a political party. ARENA deputies in the Legislative Assembly made a motion to sanction three FMLN deputies, accusing them of harboring a terrorist (Belloso).

With all the hyperbole emanating from official sources, it began to feel as if the conflict which marred El Salvador for 12 years from 1980-1992, had never ended.

Logic Fails to Hold

Saca’s exaggerated claims began to fall apart when student groups who called the protest denounced the violent acts and distanced themselves from the FMLN. In the same breath, students reiterated their militant opposition to the rise in bus fares and electricity rates—the original reasons for the July 5 protest. The accused Herrador lamented from his cell, "I am an FMLN member and I feel abandoned by them."

On July 10 the FMLN took out full page ads in the nation’s largest daily papers and used the space to offer condolences for the officer’s deaths. The FMLN statement denied any party involvement in the attacks and declared that neither Herrador nor Belloso had standing in the party. Eight days later, the party joined the "Citizen’s Committee for Peace" initiated by Benjamin Cuellar, director of the Human Rights Institute at the University of Central America (IDHUCA). (Cuellar is often critical of FMLN positions.)

As civil society groups, the FMLN, and his alleged co-conspirator distanced themselves from the violence, it seemed more likely that Belloso acted alone. Saca’s original position became untenable. The President stopped referring to Belloso as an FMLN agent and withdrew the request that the UN investigate Peace Accord compliance (which was never filed). On July 11, an upbeat Saca cheered what he said was the FMLN’s rejection of terrorism (The FMLN, to be clear, rejected violence, not "terrorism.") And on July 21 Saca reversed another decision, "We have no interest in asking for the dissolution of the FMLN. There should be an open and healthy competition [in elections]."

Investigation or Repression?

Daniel Morales

Daniel Morales

Saca’a attempt to league the cop killers with the FMLN didn’t stick. Unfortunately, student groups and labor unions didn’t fare as well. On the night of July 5th, the offices of the Confederation of Unionized Salvadoran Workers (CSTS in Spanish) were raided by police. Sleeping inside was Daniel Morales, who was arrested and charged with firearm possession. Police took $2000 in cash, union rosters, lists of workers, and a gun registered to a member of a security guard union. Morales was released days later, but the message was clear: under the guise of investigating the July 5 attacks, police are gathering information on legitimate organizations.

Students at the INFRAMEN and other public high schools that form part of the Salvadoran Revolutionary Student Movement (MERS), from which many missed school to attend the July 5 protests, report intimidation, constant surveillance and tailings. An anonymous caller to the YSUCA radio station, identifying herself as an INFRAMEN employee, detailed how attendance records had been turned over to police and that students had been threatened with expulsion if they participate in future protests.

Taken on their own merits, the investigative actions by police could be interpreted as being within bounds, if heavy-handed. However, when PNC agents raided the Catholic Church in Soyapango and arrested 194 youth during a wake for two murdered teens, they proved that, for the PNC, nothing is sacred. Church leaders voiced outrage, but local residents were dumbfounded that police could raid a church during a service.

One Soyapango resident told this reporter, "The priest worked out an agreement with police not to enter the Church. That was a wake! The police have shown us that they don’t respect anything in our communities. Not even our dead."

La Prensa Grafica and El Diario de Hoy touted the raid as a "preventative" slap against crime and reported that the raid had removed "60%" of Soyapango’s gang youth off the street. That claim that was unlikely to hold, since many of the arrestees were under 15 years old, some as young as 11. Neither paper decried the violation of church sanctity.

The threat of further repressive measures weighs heavy in the air.

What’s to Come

The whodunnit part of July 5 still needs to be sorted out. However, without minimizing the deaths of two police officers, the protest and its aftermath have turned into more than what happened in front of the National University that day.

The events surrounding July 5 shine light on the Salvadoran struggle for the legitimate exercise of political rights in the shadow of the 1992 Peace Accords. They symbolize a national effort to create peace and justice after decades of silence, repression and impunity. El Salvador’s Human Rights Office and the Catholic Church have expressed grave concern over the reemergence of "Extermination Groups." Gruesome execution-style murders are committed at the rate on one per week, exemplified by the murders of the elderly

Manzanares couple in Suchitoto in early July. These murders have led many to wonder if there has not been a severe regression in establishment of basic human rights in El Salvador.

Key mobilizations against mining concessions and water privatization will take shape in the coming weeks. The response to these and other popular initiatives will reveal if the existing political forces in El Salvador wish to build on the promise of democracy, or head in a different direction.