Human Rights Watch World Report 1992 - El Salvador
Events of 1991
In many respects, the human rights situation remained grim, characterized by the steady diet of assassinations, abductions and violations of the laws of war to which the world has sadly grown accustomed over the last decade.
Corpses mutilated beyond recognition continued to appear along roadsides or were dumped in local cemeteries, suggesting ongoing activities of death squads.
On March 10, 1991, El Salvador held municipal and legislative elections which were preceded by more election-related political violence than had accompanied the presidential elections of 1989.
In late February, heavily armed men riding in a pick-up truck assassinated a candidate from the leftist Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN) along with his pregnant wife. Just days before the election, another UDN candidate was shot and wounded when a caravan of vehicles from the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party opened fire on campaign workers putting up posters. The Usulután offices of the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of left-of-center parties, suffered a grenade attack in late January; the offices were located two blocks from the Sixth Infantry Brigade, which is well guarded. In addition, in early February, the offices of the left-of-center daily Diario Latino were burned to the ground.
Throughout the year, opposition politicians and members of church and grassroots organizations representing peasants, women and repatriated refugees were subjected to death threats, detention, surveillance and break-ins.
Nineteen ninety-one distinguished itself as a year in which the judicial system produced incomplete or thoroughly unjust outcomes in a number of prominent cases, including the Jesuit case. The investigations of two new crimes – the murders at El Zapote and at the offices of the Council of Marginal Communities (CCM) – were woefully inadequate in exploring possible complicity by the armed forces. As the following examples illustrate, the judicial system, including the U.S.-funded Special Investigative Unit (SIU), seems most efficient when it is protecting members of the military from the consequences of their own crimes.
Despite Congress's decision in 1990 to withhold fifty percent of El Salvador's military aid as a protest over the Jesuit murders, the Bush Administration was reluctant to deviate from the long-standing U.S. policy of support for the Salvadoran armed forces.
on June 27, shortly after a visit to Washington by Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, the Administration announced that it was releasing $21 million, or half of the withheld aid, to purchase spare parts and "non-lethal" equipment such as medical supplies and rations. The Administration hoped to blunt congressional criticism by pledging that none of the aid would go for arms and ammunition, studiously avoiding mention that about eighty million dollars of undisbursed military aid from previous years remained in the pipeline and was available for expenditure on lethal items.69 The quantity of pipeline aid meant that the release of the $21 million was done for political and not security reasons.
U.S. actions on the Jesuit case complimented the efforts of the Salvadoran military to limit the scope of the investigation. On the record, the State Department insisted that "neither the Salvadoran government, nor the United States government, will tolerate any attempted coverup." But the United States continued to withhold from the judge a videotape of U.S. military adviser Major Eric Buckland's 1990 interview with the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in which he discussed advance knowledge of a plot to kill the Jesuits. A transcript was finally turned over to Judge Zamora in May 1991, revealing a confused and often inarticulate Buckland who was willing to tolerate human rights violations to win the war and accepted the murder of the priests because Central American University Rector Ignacio Ellacuría was "dirty."
The United States cooperated to a limited extent with a request by Judge Zamora for depositions of nine U.S. citizens with knowledge about the case. Over the summer, under a process known as letters rogatory, the U.S. Justice Department deposed six former U.S. military advisers and two former Embassy officials, as well as Major Buckland's sister. However, the State Department refused to allow lawyers for the Jesuits to be present, thus limiting the information that might be elicited. The Justice Department also engaged in a blatant conflict of interest, simultaneously acting as the agent of the Salvadoran government in the letters rogatory process and as counsel for those being deposed, again potentially blocking the emergence of useful information.
As 1991 drew to a close, U.S. Undersecretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger promised Congress that the United States would continue to "press vigorously on the issue of human rights in general, and prosecutions in the Jesuit case in particular."73 One sure indication of U.S. seriousness would be to release documents on the Jesuit case currently withheld on grounds of national security – documents which would show how much the U.S. Embassy, State Department and intelligence agencies knew about the murders before and after they occured. At a minimum, the Bush Administration should add its voice to the dozens of members of Congress who have opposed amnesty for those convicted of the Jesuit murders.
The ability to monitor human rights in El Salvador was also compromised by renewed verbal attacks by the U.S. government on the Archdiocesan human rights office, Tutela Legal. Long-standing U.S. hostility toward the office exploded over remarks attributed to its director, María Julia Hernández, regarding the case of the two U.S. servicemen executed by the FMLN.74 Public criticism by the State Department was widely reported in El Salvador, prompting further verbal attacks on Tutela by the ruling ARENA party.
When Hernández visited the United States several weeks later, she was detained by Customs agents for an hour and a half and her papers and personal belongings were searched. Later, in another apparent act of intimidation, two FBI agents purporting to be seeking her testimony for a U.S. grand jury showed up unannounced at the door of her hotel room rather than making a prior appointment or even calling her from the lobby phone. The denunciations and harassment of Hernández were truly shameful, continuing the Reagan Administration's sad tradition of hostility toward El Salvador's principal human rights organization.