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

RIGHTS-EL SALVADOR: Police Nostalgic for the Past

Raúl Gutiérrez

SAN SALVADOR, Feb 12 2008 (IPS) - Fifteen years after the end of El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war, activists and experts say the police have returned to past practices, and are once again violating basic human rights.

El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) force was created after the National and Treasury Police were dissolved, as part of reforms put in place by the peace agreement that brought the 12-year armed conflict to an end.

The new apolitical force, distinct from the military, had the obligation to protect human rights, thus helping to strengthen the transition to democracy. But many of the current PNC chiefs emerged from the ranks of the army and the dissolved security forces of the past.

Human rights ombudsman Oscar Luna said that initially the PNC did pledge to respect human rights. The new force, along with the autonomous National Academy of Public Security, where the police are trained, and the General Inspectorate, responsible for monitoring the PNC, “gave the public confidence” because of the creation of new internal supervision and oversight mechanisms, he said.

But that has changed, Luna maintained, because “much of the PNC’s conduct runs counter to the values and principles” on which it was founded.

“Complaints of human rights abuses and the fact that many of the members of the PNC have been implicated in common crimes have undermined the public’s confidence in the force,” the ombudsman told IPS.


In 2007, the office of the human rights ombudsman received 2,779 complaints of human rights violations, 67 percent of which involved members of the PNC. These included mistreatment, the excessive use of force, abuse of power, and illegal and arbitrary arrests.

Nevertheless, the police still deserve “the benefit of the doubt,” said Luna. “They require guarantees of their labour rights, decent wages, and social benefits – aspects that are often ignored.”

The local press has found that in some police stations, police officers sleep on cardboard, have inadequate sanitation services, and in many cases have to buy their own food. In addition, many complain that their wages are not in line with the risks they face or with the long hours they work.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the security forces forcibly disappeared, tortured and murdered tens of thousands of campesinos (peasant farmers), teachers, priests, students, trade unionists and human rights activists.

The bloody fight against “subversives” was spearheaded by the late Major Roberto d’Aubuisson, founder of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the party that has ruled the country since the end of the civil war.

The armed conflict left 75,000 people dead, 8,000 “disappeared” and around 50,000 disabled.

The PNC was created by the 1992 peace agreement signed by the ARENA government of Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994) and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) insurgent group, which is now the country’s main opposition party.

The United Nations-brokered peace agreement stated that “the National Civil Police shall be a new force, with a new organisation, new officers, new education and training mechanisms and a new doctrine.”

The PNC, which turns 15 years old this month, was initially to be made up of 20 percent demobilised guerrillas, a similar proportion of former members of the dismantled state security forces, and 60 percent people with no ties to any former armed force.

However, analysts at the time of its creation said that insurgents and former members of the security forces actually comprised more than 40 percent of the new force.

In the last 10 years, dozens of police officers have been arrested and convicted of involvement in kidnapping, theft, homicide and participation in “death squads.”

A recent case was that of Sergeant Nelson Arriaza, sentenced in late January to 30 years in prison for heading a group of “sicarios” or paid gunmen.

Arriaza, along with two other police officers and a civilian, was arrested after killing a campesino in September 2007.

During a ceremony commemorating the 15th anniversary of the creation of the PNC, the force’s inspector-general, Romeo Granillo, said that although many police officers have taken part in “criminal activity,” they have been “purged.”

“We will not allow criminals in our police force,” said Granillo. According to figures from the office of the General Inspectorate, 400 members of the police were sacked in 2006 because of involvement in crimes like extortion, robbery and kidnapping.

Lawyer Jaime Martínez with the Latin American Council of the Institute of Comparative Studies in Penal and Social Sciences acknowledged that the PNC differs in several key aspects from the forces that it replaced. But he added that it is “regrettably” experiencing a “clear setback,” and has returned to practices of the past.

Martínez, who has closely followed the evolution of the PNC, recalled that in the 1990s, the U.N. truth commission in El Salvador documented the force’s “tendency towards militarisation.”

The last two ARENA administrations, of former president Francisco Flores (1999-2004) and current President Antonio Saca, implemented the “Mano Dura” and “Súper Mano Dura” (roughly, “firm hand” or “iron fist”) plans, respectively, to clamp down on youth gangs and violent crime in general.

But analysts say these zero tolerance approaches to crime have not had the claimed effect.

El Salvador’s murder rate has climbed from 32 per 100,000 population in 2003 to 57 per 100,000 in 2006 – one of the highest in the world.

These tough on crime policies, said Martínez, are an unsuccessful attempt to fill the law enforcement gap left by “ineffective police investigative and intelligence work.”

The PNC, he said, carries the “burden” of “a repressive mindset and a party bias” that keeps it beholden to the government’s designs and has not allowed it to implement “a public security policy” along the lines of the one established by the peace agreement.

 
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