Protecting Freedom in El Salvador: The Country Uses an Anti-Terrorism Law to Squash Legitimate Dissent

By Dale, Mezzacappa; Towarnicky, Carol | National Catholic Reporter, September 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

Protecting Freedom in El Salvador: The Country Uses an Anti-Terrorism Law to Squash Legitimate Dissent


Dale, Mezzacappa, Towarnicky, Carol, National Catholic Reporter


In El Salvador this summer, we heard loud echoes of the Cold War-era civil war there, when the U.S. government spent more than $6 billion backing an infamously repressive regime in the name of fighting communism.

The right-wing ARENA government, obviously worried about losing power in the 2009 elections, is ratcheting up tensions in a clear attempt to silence legitimate political dissent.

Where ARENA once fanned the fear of communism, now it raises the alarm of "terrorism." And it has given itself a new tool: a law passed last November that bears a striking resemblance to the USA PATRIOT Act.

Yet the alleged terrorist targets in El Salvador are not al-Qaeda but four leaders of CRIPDES, a local non-governmental organization with deep roots in Christian nonviolence and a 24-year history of aiding the country's poor.

Their alleged terrorist action? On July 2, CRIPDES president Lorena Martinez; vice president Rosa Centeno; a young journalist, Hayde Chicas; and a driver, Manuel Antonio Rodriguez were driving toward the village of Suchitoto for a demonstration. Salvadoran President Antonio Saca was planning to announce the decentralization of the region's water system, a policy CRIPDES opposes. In a highly improbable coincidence, President Saca's announcement was in the same place on the one-year anniversary of the murders of two elderly opposition activists, murders that Amnesty International has called reminiscent of the infamous "death squads" that roamed El Salvador in the 1980s.

Other demonstrators had blocked roads and diverted President Saca and members of his entourage. But, as confirmed in a video of the arrest posted on YouTube (www.youtube.com/ watch?v=-e9Npsw4X18), the four from CRIPDES were in their car on a public road when they were pulled over and arrested.

Originally defined as "creating a public disturbance," the charges against the four as well as nine others arrested that day quickly were upgraded to "acts of terrorism." After a hearing, the 13 were ordered held in "preventive detention" for 90 days before a trial by a special anti-terrorism tribunal.

After protests by the group Reporters Without Borders, journalist Hayde Chicas and three others were released. They had been held for two weeks. Strong protests by CRIPDES' partners in the United States and interest expressed by Amnesty International and the U.S. Congress may have influenced the release of the nine remaining prisoners on "conditional liberty" July 27, after 25 days in prison.

They still face charges carrying possible 60-year sentences.

So the ARENA government has found a convenient way to stifle dissent: Use a vaguely worded anti-terrorism law to arrest your critics and threaten dissenters with life sentences.

In targeting CRIPDES, the government is going after a credible, organized advocate for the rural poor in El Salvador. Created in 1984 as the Christian Committee for the Displaced in El Salvador, CRIPDES aided thousands of civil war refugees with food, shelter, health care and resettlement. …

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