“Because we were struggling against the privatization of water. Now we have to struggle against the anti-terrorism law.”
- Vincente Vasquez-
In 2001 El Salvador replaced the colon with the U.S. dollar as its national currency. In 2006 its right-wing government replaced lawful dissent with U.S. inspired anti-terrorism legislation as its national policy. In return, the Salvadoran people are offering Americans an object lesson in the value of our Bill of Rights when dollar meets dissent.
On the morning of July 2, 2007, an estimated 400 Salvadorans who were waiting for buses to take them to the small town of Suchitoto to attend a public forum on the privatization of water utilities were accused of blocking the road and were attacked by riot police firing rubber bullets and tear gas. Two women and one man were arrested.
In Suchitoto’s central square, word of the attack and arrests spread through the crowds waiting for the motorcade and press caravan of President Antonio Saca, who was coming to Suchitoto to announce his administration’s new “"National Decentralization Policy,” a plan viewed by many Salvadorans as the first step in privatizing the country’s publicly-owned water resources.
In solidarity with the marchers being attacked, people began moving in the direction of the melee. Met by police and military units supported by helicopters and machine guns mounted on jeeps, people in the front ranks, attempting to avoid further violence, raised their hands in the air pleading for calm and shouting, “we are unarmed.” The riot squad responded by advancing on the crowd firing rubber bullets and tear gas at close range. Many Salvadorans were injured by bullets or overcome by gas. Ten people were arrested.
Oscar Luna, the Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman, spoke out against the blatant human rights violations committed by the police and military at Suchitoto, stating, “I was able to identify the following human rights violations: excessive use of force, excessive use of weapons, mistreatment, illegal treatment, acts of torture, because that is torture when you threaten to throw someone out of a helicopter. It’s against all kinds of conventions and violations to human integrity….”
A witness to the protest simply said, “The people who were creating terror here were the police.”
The “Suchitoto 13,” as the defendants are known, were initially charged with public disorder, but Attorney General Garrid Safie quickly upped the charges to “terrorism” under the country’s “Decree 108: The Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism” enacted in 2006. Judge Fuentes de Paz ordered the Suchitoto 13 to be held for three month in preventative detention to allow the prosecutor time to gather evidence supporting the charge of terrorism. Released in late July on conditional liberty, the defendants still face the possibility of 60 years in prison if convicted as “terrorists.”
Writing in defense of the Suchitoto 13, Amnesty International said it, “fears that those concerned were arrested to punish them for their involvement in legitimate acts of protest and to prevent similar acts in the future.” They went on to say, “Any charges that impair the lawful exercise of fundamental rights should be dropped . . ..”
The fate of the Suchitoto 13 should be of particular interest to Americans who value the right to lawful dissent and free speech. El Salvador’s Decree 108 was not only modeled on the USA PATRIOT Act, but the vagueness and ambiguity of its language rivals that used in the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December 2007 by a 404-6 vote and which is currently being considered in the Senate. The language in both countries’ anti-terrorism legislation has been crafted so that constitutionally protected dissent can, with a corporate nod, be prosecuted as acts of terrorism and result in draconian sentences.
El Salvador’s right-wing government has close ties to the Bush administration. It was with the urging and support from his friends in the Oval Office that President Saca was able to implement CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) in March 2006. Critics of CAFTA say it was no coincidence that the anti-terrorism legislation was enacted six months later, an occasion praised by the United States ambassador to El Salvador as proof that the two countries are partners in the war on terrorism. Or, more cynically stated, partners with the multinational corporations whose interests both Decree 108 and the Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act are meant to protect.
Lorena Martinez, one of the Suchitoto 13 and president of CRIPDES, the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador, the principal organization coordinating the Suchitoto forum, said that by passing Decree 108 “the government wants to a set a precedence for social movement organizations, especially organizations that have been very visibly protesting against what the government’s been doing . . . CRIPDES and other organizations were very strongly against the free trade agreements, against the interests of multinational companies.”
February 8 was the last day the prosecution had to present its case against the Suchitoto 13. It is not certain whether Attorney General Safie will stay with the charge of terrorism or downgrade the charge to the original public disorder—the definition of which was recently changed and the sentences doubled. The defendants could spend up to eight years in prison if convicted on the lesser charge. Defense lawyers and social movement leaders said that whether the charge is terrorism or public disorder, this case is about the criminalization of social protest.
Whatever the defendants’ ultimate charge, Decree 108 has accomplished what President Saca and President Bush and their multinational corporate partners intended. It has instilled fear and hesitation in the minds of citizens whose right to free speech and dissent are inalienable rights guaranteed by their respective constitutions. In short, it is terrorizing citizens into silence.
Those of us north of the Rio Grande River, who swear by the Constitution’s Bill of Rights, can take cold comfort in the fact that forty-two Senators sent a letter to President Saca last July regarding the charges brought against the Suchitoto 13. They wrote, “It’s hard to imagine such acts could constitute terrorism.”
Let’s hope these same Senators remember the Suchitoto 13 when it’s their turn to vote on S. 1959: The Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, which was written, like El Salvador’s Decree 108, to protect the corporate dollar and prosecute lawful dissent.
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