El Salvador: Free the El Progreso 3 Youth Leaders – Organizing is not a Crime!

Today, representatives of U.S. Solidarity organizations the Committee in Solidarity with the people of El Salvador (CISPES), U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities, the SHARE Foundation, Voices on the Border and the Red Uniendo Manos El Salvador joined members of the El Progreso 3 community, the MPR-12 social movement coalition and human rights lawyers in a press conference outside the Organized Crime Specialized Courthouse in San Salvador to denounce the December 12, 2012, violent raids by the police’s U.S.-trained Anti-Gang Unit on the El Progreso 3 community that resulted in the arrests of eight young community leaders. The eight youth remain in an overcrowded jail in San Salvador and two other youth leaders from the community are in hiding after arrest warrants were issued for them, too. Below is the statement that was read by representatives of the international organizations at the press conference.

Members of the US-trained Anti-Gang Unit, that carries out raids in the country’s urban marginalized communities.

Organizing is not a Crime!
The International Community Demands the Release of Young Community Organizers

For decades the organizations U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities, the SHARE Foundation, and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), Voices on the Border and Red Uniendo Manos El Salvador have supported the social movement in El Salvador in its efforts to construct a democratic and just country. We are here today in solidarity with the Salvadoran people, demanding justice in the case of ten young community organizers who have been targeted for their political activism, charged with Illicit Association and thrown in jail.

On December 12, 2012, 14 young people were arrested in the adjoining communities of El Progreso 3 and Santa Cecilia in the northeastern part of San Salvador. Police from the Anti-Gang Unit stormed the community in the middle of night, going home to home, trampling down doors and pulling young people from a community center. The police claimed that the goal of the raid was to arrest suspected gang members, but 8 young community leaders were also apprehended, while their terrified families and neighbors looked on. The students were taken directly to jail, charged with illicit association, and thrown into crowded cells already bursting with accused criminals awaiting trial.

More than a month after the raid we are here in front of the Specialized Chamber of Organized Crime with members of the Network of Communities for Life and the Movement of Popular Resistance-October 12 (the MPR-12), an alliance of community organizations and unions, demanding justice for these wrongly-accused youth and for all marginalized communities being terrorized by a police force funded in large part by the US government.

The youth that were arrested were not gang members, they are young people actively working to improve their community, organizing popular education schools, soccer tournaments, and health campaigns in the community, and working with their neighbors on infrastructure projects in which the municipal government declined to invest. The police who have targeted the community accuse these youths of participating in gang activity, citing their organizing work as evidence against them. But what these young men were doing was precisely the type of work that can actually reduce violence and discourage youth from joining gangs, work that the municipal government of San Salvador has refused to do in the capital’s marginalized communities. Two of the main organizers from the community escaped arrest, and have been in hiding since December, putting at risk scholarships they were awarded to start their university studies.

As organizations based in the United States, it is troubling to see how the U.S. intervention in El Salvador’s security policy – through the US war on Drugs and gangs in Central America – has contributed to this climate of fear in marginalized urban communities. In communities like El Progreso 3 and Santa Cecilia young people like these arrested youth are spied on and harassed by a police force that receives large amounts of funding and training from the United States, even as they try to organize other youth to contribute to their communities instead of joining gangs. The end result of raids like this is a sense of terror and powerlessness that discourages people from organizing in their communities and actively participating in their country’s democratic process.

While the United States government claims to be committed to helping the Salvadoran government train professional police that respect human rights through U.S.-administered International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), many international organizations have documented an increase in human rights violations since the ILEA opened in 2005. Cases like the December 12th raid on El Progreso 3, perpetrated by a police force that receives training at the ILEA and whose director is a graduate of the U.S. School of the Americas, seriously call into question the commitment of the U.S. and its institutions like the ILEA and the School of the Americas, to making El Salvador a safer and more just country.

This case also illustrates the dysfunction of the specialized court system, in which ILEA-trained judges try those suspected of being involved in organized crime or gangs. Under this specialized system, the police need very little, or even no, evidence to charge suspects with illicit association, creating a system rife with false arrests and imprisonments. In their first hearing in December, neither the youth from El Progreso nor their lawyers were allowed to present evidence in their defense, so these innocent young men have endured yet another month of inhumane incarceration…The process ahead of them could stretch into six months or even a year, since the attorney general’s office can ask repeatedly for more time to find incriminating evidence. Meanwhile, these youth are at risk of losing their jobs and educational opportunities, as are their family members who have to devote time and resources to bringing their sons food and other basic necessities every week.

Since the end of the Civil War, the people of El Salvador have made great advances towards building a more just and democratic society. It is extremely troubling to continue to see the police terrorizing communities and instilling fear in social movement organizers with the funding, training and support of our country’s government.

Therefore, we stand in solidarity with our allies and partners in El Salvador, and reiterate their call for the Specialized Court System, the Attorney General of the Republic and the Minister of Justice to:

  • Drop the fraudulent charges against the ten young leaders from El Progreso and Santa Cecilia and release them from police custody
  • Stop the repression of young organizers in the urban marginalized communities of El Salvador
  • Investigate the links between the young men’s political and community organizing and their targeted persecution by the police

We also demand that the U.S. Embassy, in representation of our own government:

  • Close the ILEA, as it represents US intervention in El Salvador’s internal security policy
  • Stop funding security policies that increase repression and militarization, and instead support the people of El Salvador’s sovereign efforts to resolve the social and economic inequalities and the climate of impunity that have produced high levels of violence in the country

Signing organizations:

The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador

U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities

La Fundación SHARE

Voices on the Border

Red Uniendo Manos El Salvador