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Salvadorean security agents and the law

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ON June 2, hundreds of Salvadorean police carrying automatic weapons burst into five hospitals and 20 clinics of the state-run health system to end takeovers by striking health workers. According to press reports, one patient and four plainclothes security guards were killed. At the General Hospital, according to witnesses, more than 100 security agents bound the hands of several hundred hospital workers and forced them to lie on the floor. The commanding officers of the operation produced no evidence to reporters that any of the striking workers were armed.

The issue is not only whether the strikers had legitimate grievances; a more important question is the use of a supposed ``antiterrorist'' force to respond to labor grievances.

From the United States standpoint, the distressing fact is that the Salvadorean policemen, drawn from a ``Special Anti-Terrorist Command,'' were trained and equipped by the US, in dubious compliance with provisions of the US law.

Since 1974, the US government had been prohibited by law from providing any ``training or advice . . . or any financial support for police, prisons, or other law enforcement forces'' abroad. In El Salvador, that law has meant that the US could not provide assistance to the ``security forces'' -- the National Guard, National Police, or Treasury Police. Yet the ``Special Antiterrorist Command,'' trained by US advisers, has been drawn almost exclusively from the notorious Treasury Police, according t o Defense Department officials.

In this year's foreign aid bill, signed into law Aug. 8, Congress repealed the decade-old ban on police training in El Salvador and Honduras. The decision occurred in the wake of the tragic attack by guerrillas on US marines and US and Salvadorean citizens at a sidewalk caf'e in San Salvador. The anger reflects a nearly universal desire here at home to take action against terrorism abroad.

But without careful controls, police assistance in El Salvador may only repeat the failure of our past training efforts to promote respect for human rights. At worst, the program may be totally counterproductive and assist those who have been accused of massive brutality over the past five years.


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