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Dismantling the Death Squads

An investigative report in El Salvador calls for judicial and police reforms by president whose own party has been connected to the death squads

JUST two months after taking office, Salvadoran President Armando Calderon Sol is facing what could become the make-or-break moment of his five-year-term.

Already besieged by demands that he take action against organized crime, President Calderon Sol on July 28 was handed an official report documenting the continued existence of death squads and making pointed recommendations about how to stop them. Calderon Sol's own party, ARENA, has in the past been connected to the formation of death squads.

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The report by a team set up to investigate death squad activity, concluded that ``people named in earlier times as functionaries, organizers, or financiers of the so-called death squads are currently involved in actions of political violence. It also concluded that the current goals of those under investigation are ``the destabilization of the peace process ... [and] the militarization of the country.''

``The judicial system, by its acts and omissions, continues to provide the impunity that these structures need,'' the report said.

History of the death squads

Dismantling the death squads, which allegedly murdered thousands of Salvadorans before and during the country's 12-year civil war, was a key demand of the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during peace negotiations with the government from early 1990 to December 1991.

After peace accords were signed on Jan. 16, 1992, the FMLN laid down its arms and became a political party. The killing of several of its top leaders led to charges that that the death squads had merely been dormant, not dismantled, in the period between the signing of the accords and the new killings.

Under heavy pressure from the United Nations and foreign governments, including the United States, former President Alfredo Cristiani responded by naming a commission to investigate the death squads - the Joint Group to Investigate Illegal Armed Groups With Political Motivation, which began work six months ago.

``It seems reasonable to sustain that it would be impossible for the current organized-crime structures to survive without the protection they receive from some active-duty members of the security forces,'' the Joint Group reported.

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``There are indications that members of the Armed Forces and the National Police, and people in government jobs, are members of these clandestine structures. And some of these illegal activities are directed, supported, covered up, or tolerated by members of the Army, police, and judiciary.'' The Joint Group also found evidence that organized crime - in the form of drug trafficking, money laundering, kidnappings, and car-theft rings - has become a serious problem.

The report calls for the creation of an elite, investigative unit in the new civilian police force created under the peace accords, and recommending a cleanup of the judiciary and the naming of a group of special judges to handle cases of political violence and organized crime.

Calderon Sol's dilemma is how to respond to these recommendations. Rejecting them could invoke the wrath of a public which, especially after two recent violent bank robberies, is demanding vigorous action against organized crime.

Responding to the report, Calderon Sol said: ``We're going to take on organized crime and common crime, and no matter who it is, we're going to put them before the courts. That is the response that people want. And that is the commitment and the obligation of my government,'' he said.

``It seems to me that he has the right gut response to the problems,'' says David Holiday, a human rights expert and consultant to Human Rights Watch/Americas. ``But the obstacle may be the extent to which this kind of thing touches on very powerful people who may be government supporters or supporters of ARENA [Calderon Sol's political party].

``Right now it's easy to pick on the military'' and soon-to-be-abolished National Police, Holiday says. ``But there are powerful political individuals who I'm sure are involved, and that will be the next test. I think it's going to be difficult.''

FMLN leader Schafik Handal says some of those involved in death squads and organized crime ``have power in government structures, and they're not just going to sit back. They're going to try at all costs to block this, to corrupt [the new civilian police] and maintain the corruption in the justice system.''

Problems within the ARENA party

Fellow rightists, including some from his own ARENA party, may also pose problems for reforms Calderon Sol might make. Recently, when he determined the candidate he preferred for president of the Supreme Court was opposed by a significant bloc of his party, he dropped his support, two local sources close to the selection process say.

Political analyst Kirio Waldo Salgado, also a rightist, says he is still not persuaded by Calderon Sol's claims that he will be tough on organized crime. Mr. Salgado says that so far the only people arrested have been the lowest-level ones. ``When we see the really important people in drug trafficking and influence-peddling being put on trial,'' Salgado says, ``then we'll begin to believe that there's real political will here. For now, all the rest is just talk.''

Luis Cardenal, president of the Center for Democratic Studies, believes that Calderon Sol could handle the consequences of taking on the death squads and organized crime.

``I think the political will is really there,'' Mr. Cardenal says. ``But I also have the impression that there's a lot of ignorance about the magnitude of the problem. I think what we've seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg. It could be that Calderon Sol is starting, so to speak, with 100 units of political will, but when he sees how big and difficult the problem is, he'll realize he's going to need 500,'' Cardenal says.

Some observers believe Calderon Sol is reluctant to look into the death squads because an investigation could damage the ARENA party. The party was hurt last year when an investigation by the UN-sponsored Truth Commission on El Salvador concluded that ARENA's founder, Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson, was an architect of the death squads.

``A lot of people say, `If, to resolve a problem, I take an action which leads to the discovery that my party is involved in the problem, this will have a huge political cost, and could destroy me,' '' Cardenal says.

``But I think that would just be in the short term. I think people are smarter than that. They know how to read between the lines, and if a political leader makes the painful, important effort to eradicate this problem that's affecting us all, I think people will respect that, and reward the leader with their support in the next election.''

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