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El Salvador: What Bloggers are Saying About Protesters and Terrorism

A bloody street protest one year ago led to the passage of an Anti-Terrorism Law in El Salvador. The alleged cop-killer in the disturbances outside of the University of El Salvador has been arrested, and the Anti-Terrorism Law is being used — to prosecute protesters demonstrating against the government's water policy. The Salvadoran blogosphere has had much to say about this turn of events.

On the 5th of July 2006, a demonstration outside the University of El Salvador turned deadly violent as a sniper shot at riot police, killing two and wounding several more. (In the Salvadoran media that day's events are now known simply as “5-J”). After a year long manhunt, the alleged sniper Mario Belloso was apprehended on July 2, 2007, with an orgy of media coverage in the Salvadoran press which has yet to end.

The aftermath of Belloso's capture has journalist blogger Jorge Ávalos concerned. Soon after the capture, he notes [ES] that ruling ARENA party officials were trying to make propaganda use of the arrest, and the press and the government seemed not to care about the presumption of innocence. On the day of Belloso's capture, Ávalos expressed his hope that the national police could act with professionalism and good forensic technique as they assembled the case.

Two days later, however, Ávalos found that the police couldn't seem to resist the temptations of the high profile case. Police officials had leaked a photo from the search of Belloso's house which showed Belloso with a ranking member of the opposition FMLN party. Ávalos commented that the police were playing a very dangerous game[ES] in their anxiousness to get such photos into the hands of the media. The consequence might be a loss of the “chain of custody” over that proof.

Looking back with a year's perspective, blogger Ixquic writes that the events of 5-J were the birth of “terrorism”[ES] in El Salvador — at least in the eye of the conservative ruling parties. With the images of the 5-J shootings still playing across the TV, the government pushed through a new anti-terrorism law. While Ixquic, a lawyer blogger, says she has no problem with a law which condemns terrorism properly understood, this new law left important terms undefined, allowing for the possibility that it could be used maliciously by a government which wanted to come up with its own definitions of terrorism.

The new anti-Terrorism law had its most controversial application yet on July 2, the same day Belloso was captured. Demonstrations to protest the water privatization policy of El Salvador's current government resulted in clashes with riot police outside of the city of Suchitoto. On that day, president Tony Saca was scheduled to travel to Suchitoto to give a speech and initiate a project for “decentralization” of water systems, which many understand as the piecemeal selling off of water systems to private businesses to run. Demonstrators blocked access on the roads leading into the city. Various units of then anti-riot police (Unit for the Maintenance of Order “UMO”) arrived to clear the roads. Tear gas and rubber bullets were launched at demonstrators, and press photographs show demonstrators throwing rocks and buring rubbish in the streets.

Marches through the streets and demonstrations which block traffic are not uncommon in El Salvador. But this time the government had a new tool — 14 of the protesters, including several leaders of the local development organization CRIPDES, were arrested and charged under the Anti-Terrorist Law. Photos and video of the protests and the arrests were quickly on the Internet and being spread to supporting groups nationally and internationally.

On July 7, the 14 arrested outside Suchitoto faced an initial hearing in the specialized Organized Crime Court in San Salvador. The organization US-El Salvador Sister Cities carried a live blog from the large group of demonstrators outside of the court who were urging that the court throw out the terrorism charges. The judge, however, ruled against the demonstrators, sending 13 of them to prison for “provisional detention” for up to 3 months prior to the actual trial on terrorism charges.

From the scene after the decision was announced:

The crowd is angry but peaceful, still outside the tribunal building. The Riot Police is still there, but there has been no aggression. Julio Portillo, (Marta Lorena Araujo Martinez’s husband) spoke to the crowd immediately following the verdict, saying that he was disappointed and outraged, and called upon all Salvadorans to work ceaselessly over the next 3 months to get the accused out of jail. Now FMLN leaders are speaking, as well.

The crowd is waiting to see where the detainees will be taken, to go with them in caravan and hold vigil outside the jail, wherever it turns out to be.

In his blog, writer Juan Jose Dalton criticized charging protesters with terrorism [ES]:

Los detenidos en Suchitoto serán procesados como “terroristas”, pero eran activistas sociales que a lo sumo lo que tiraron fueron piedras….

¿Cómo comparar a Lorena Martínez, presidenta de la organización de campesinos cristianos CRIPDES y procesada como “terrorista”, con los secuaces de Osama Bin Laden? Estamos retornando a la locura…

Those arrested in Suchitoto will be processed as “terrorists,” but they were social activists and the most that they shot was stones.How does one compare Lorena Martinez, president of CRIPDES, an organization of Christian campesinos with the followers of Osama bin Laden? We are returning to the madness [a phrase used to describe the conditions surrounding El Salvador's civil war from 1980-1992]

Similarly, blogger JC at La Terminal found that this use of the anti-Terrorism law made the word “terrorism” a farce:

Tirar piedras, quemar llantas, tapar una calle, quemarle un carro a los desprevenidos PNCs en el marco de una protesta anti gubernamental no es algo que me cause gracia, ni que me guste ni que apruebe.

Pero si una ridícula Ley da pié a que una jueza diga que eso es “terrorismo” entonces cualquier cosa es terrorismo….

Pero si ser tonto es terrorismo, yo también soy terrorista… y la jueza también.

To throw rocks, burn tires, block streets and burn a car in an anti-government protest is not something that amuses me, nor do I like it, nor do I approve it. But what a ridiculous law where a judge can say these things are terrorism, then anything is terrorism….To say their actions was terrorism is to insult common sense and to insult the victims of true terrorism acts. If what they did in Suchitoto is terrorism, then I am a terrorist… and so is the judge.

Another blogger, Victor Castro, picked up on this same theme, writing in his blog[ES] that “because I have plans to go back out and march in the street expressing my discontent with government policy X or Y, — then I am a terrorist too.”

In addition to this application of the anti-Terrorism Law, Jjmar, who is one of the original contributors at the popular Hunnapuh blog, was worried about the presence of the armed forces[ES] in the confrontation between the government and the protesters in Suchitoto:

El otro elemento de preocupación es el uso de la Fuerza Armada en incidentes de protesta popular. La fuerza armada tiene claramente definido su rol en la Constitución de la República. No tiene funciones de seguridad pública o de servir de apoyo a la PNC ante protestas populares. Además los soldados no tienen la preparación adecuada para actuar en estos casos. No es lo mismo que un antimotín dispare una escopeta con balas de goma o lance una bomba de gases lacrimógenos a que un soldado dispare su M 16 o con una ametralladora punto cincuenta contra la masa de manifestantes.

The other element for worry is the use of the Armed Forces in incidents of popular protest. The armed forces have a clearly defined role in the Constitution of the Republic. It does not have functions of public security or to serve as support to the PNC [National Police] before popular protests. Besides, the soldiers do not have adequate preparation in order to act in these cases. It's not the same thing for an anti-riot officer to fire a shotgun with rubber bullets or launch a tear gas bomb as a soldier to shoot his M-16 or a 50 caliber machine gun against the mass of demonstrators.

All of these events are playing out in El Salvador where the atmosphere is already politically polarized and will only become more so as national elections in 2009 approach.

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