Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CENTRAL AMERICA: The Far-Reaching Tentacles of the Drugs Trade

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Mar 5 2007 (IPS) - “You can’t trust anyone any more. Things are going from bad to worse,” said Julio Mónico, a retired Salvadoran, commenting on the drugs-related murders in Guatemala of three Salvadoran legislators and on four police officers who are in prison for the killings.

Mónico, 58, was sitting with a group of friends in a hotel in downtown San Salvador. They all agreed with him. The mood was of despair, and an unanswered question hovered in the air.

Who can the people trust, if state institutions, particularly those responsible for public security, have been infiltrated by drug traffickers?

Salvadoran officials, rightwing politicians and most of the press have said the two massacres were evidence of the extent to which organised crime has penetrated the structure of the Guatemalan state.

But analysts and religious leaders have stated that El Salvador is equally riddled with the same problem.

The accusations of Salvadoran authorities have caused a certain amount of resentment among Guatemalan officials, who attribute the killings of the parliamentarians to their own drug trafficking activities.

Social researcher Jeannette Aguilar, of the Jesuit University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), said the murders are evidence that organised crime is a regional phenomenon which has taken root in several states and in political and economic power structures in Central America.

“Drug traffickers are known to have ties with officialdom,” Aguilar told IPS, adding that El Salvador is by no means exempt.

“In all honesty, we should take heed from what’s happened in Guatemala, because we’re going down the same road, although in El Salvador there is no open recognition that organised crime is operating with impunity,” she said.

“But here there are increasing glimpses of organised crime and its ties with officials,” she pointed out.

Eduardo D’Aubuisson, 32, William Pichinte, 49, and José Ramón González, 57, were Salvadoran members of the Central American Parliament (Parlacen) and belonged to the governing rightwing Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA). They and their driver were killed on Feb. 19.

On the way from El Salvador to Guatemala City for the monthly session of Parlacen, the vehicle in which they were travelling was intercepted on the outskirts of the city by agents of the Guatemalan National Civil Police (PNC)’s organised crime unit.

After holding them for several hours, the police officers took the lawmakers and the driver, Salvadoran policeman Gerardo Ramírez, to a house near the highway leading back to El Salvador.

There they were shot, apparently with M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles, and their bodies were burned inside their vehicle.

Before being intercepted, DÁubuisson, Pichinte, González and agent Ramírez had inexplicably pulled away from a motorcade made up of four vehicles in which other legislators were traveling along with two police vehicles that had been escorting them since they crossed the border into Guatemala.

Two days later, Guatemalan authorities captured four police officers suspected of the killing and sent them to El Boquerón, a maximum security prison.

On Feb. 25, an armed commando slit the throats and machine-gunned the officers in their cells. According to the official statement, prison guards did not notice the break-in, although the intruders got through several locked internal doors.

Guatemalan President Oscar Berger declared that the lawmakers’ murders were linked to drug trafficking. But Salvadoran authorities asserted that the victims had no ties to the drug trade. Video footage recorded from a traffic light showed the police searching the parliamentarians’ vehicle before the killing.

A high-ranking Guatemalan police officer told the Guatemalan newspaper Siglo XXI, on condition of anonymity, that there were “ties to a drug trafficking organisation made up of Guatemalans and Salvadorans, and among them contacts with people holding political and economic power” in El Salvador, where the order for the killings is presumed to have originated.

The auxiliary archbishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chávez, was surprised that the Salvadoran authorities should have ruled out “a Salvadoran connection to the crime from the word go,” and said that the contradictions that had come to light suggested an attempt at a cover-up.

El Salvador “did not follow a policy of seeking out the truth, particularly about organised crime,” the clergyman told IPS. “If we don’t pursue the investigation further, there will be more danger for the future of this country and for the region,” he said.

“I hope we’re aware that we must get to the bottom of this, not out of a desire for vengeance, but to lay the foundations for the future,” he said.

IUDOP’s Aguilar blamed the murders on the governments’ failure to fulfil provisions for public security and justice established in the 1990s peace agreements that brought the longstanding civil wars in both countries to an end.

“The levels of corruption and impunity have gone beyond the control of society and the state, because the law and constitutional mechanisms haven’t been enforced,” said Aguilar, who stated that terrorism and criminal gangs were not the biggest threats to security in the region.

In her view, it is “organised crime under the protection of the state,” which has allowed drug trafficking, human trafficking, sexual exploitation for gain, and arms trafficking to flourish all over Central America.

The El Salvador peace accords, signed in 1992, provided for the creation of a new National Civil Police firmly based on the principles of service to the community and respect for human rights.

But ARENA, the ruling party since 1989, and its allies amending the law regulating the police force in such a way that these principles were undermined and corruption was given free rein, according to Aguilar.

“It’s a spreading cancer that will lead to political instability and social upheaval,” Aguilar warned.

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