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Amnesty vs. Accountability: How the Past Poisons the Present
Paradox: Where it is easy to bury the past, that's exactly where one shouldn't.
April 16, 2007

In the 2004 vice presidential debates, Dick Cheney stated that El Salvador is "a whale of a lot better" since the United States oversaw elections in the mid-1980s.

But in the past year, four high-profile "disappearances" have reawakened echoes of that country's ugly past, suggesting that improvements in the government's human rights record may have been cosmetic, and prompting calls from various sources for a repeal of the amnesty law passed in 1993 that exonerated all those responsible for extra-judicial killings, kidnappings, torture and other abuses during the twelve-year civil war.

An estimated 75,000 people died during the war, perhaps 40,000 of them civilians, nearly ninety percent of which were victims of their own government; in addition to the deaths, there were also anywhere from 5,500 to 8,000 disappearances, in which the victims are presumed dead, but their bodies have never been discovered. (Given the government's practice of disposing of bodies by dropping them from airplanes over the ocean—among other practices—this is hardly surprising.)

Since April 2006, four prominent opponents of the current Salvadoran government have "disappeared" in a manner that suggests involvement by the national police (the Policía Nacional Civil, or PNC), and the ever-increasing murder rate suggests that death squads have returned as a quasi-official means of asserting social and political control.

On February 7, 2007, student activist Edward Francisco Contreras (he was a member of the left-wing Bloque Popular Juvenil, which is adamantly opposed to the government of President Antonio Saca, of the right-wing ARENA party), was removed from a bus by members of the PNC's homicide unit, and has not been seen or heard from since. His father learned of the homicide unit's involvement from one of his first inquiries into his son's whereabouts, but after that initial inadvertent admission neither the PNC nor the prosecutor's office has disclosed anything, blocking any meaningful investigation of possible police involvement in his disappearance.

The Contreras family turned to the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) for help after they petitioned the Supreme Court for a writ of habeas corpus and searched for Edward in hospitals and police stations, but even these efforts have produced nothing.

Three other prominent activists have also vanished in the past year: Milton Iván Gutiérrez, and the married couple Jorge Alberto Iglesias and María Hortensia García, both of whom were lawyers, and who were last seen having lunch in downtown San Salvador.

The PDDH, which was created as a result of the peace agreement, is an independent body charged with receiving allegations of human rights abuses committed by government officials, investigating them, and if warranted, lodging complaints against specific officials. It is currently headed by Beatrice Alamanni de Carillo, a woman of incredible courage and candor about whom I'll say more in the coming weeks. As for the disappearances, a PDDH communiqué referring to the cases of Contreras and Gutiérrez says, "It is particularly striking that in both cases, there are signs pointing to the involvement of PNC agents, although police files contain no information on the whereabouts of the two men." (It should be noted, however, that de Carillo, with her customary caution, also noted that the disappearances did not necessarily have political motivations.)

Even with that caveat, however, de Carillo joins other activists in identifying the underlying problem as the fact that military elements involved in human rights abuses during the civil war were never punished, and now have re-infiltrated the country's security forces, most notably the homicide and organized crime units of the PNC. The problem is severe enough that in February and March, human rights groups and the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances called for the amnesty law to be overturned, because the cases resonate so hauntingly with the methods of El Salvador's military dictatorship during the 1970s and 1980s, when the now partially demobilized security forces and death squads routinely murdered or "disappeared" political and social opponents of the regime—similar to what was occurring during that same time period in other Central and South American countries, such as Guatemala, Honduras, Argentina and Chile. (Under the peace agreement, the security forces were reduced by half and supposedly purged of "known human rights violators," but such men found their way into business or other legitimizing endeavors, and some have now resurfaced in the PNC).

One of the loudest voices calling for repeal of the amnesty belongs to 64-year-old Alicia García, with the Committee of Mothers of the Detained-Disappeared (Comadres). She lost a son and a brother to forced disappearance during the civil war. Her son, Jose William, was kidnapped in 1978 at the age of 12. He is still missing, as is one of García's brothers. A second brother was killed in 1981. And another of her sons, Juan Carlos, was killed in 1993, when he was 16, after he testified before the Truth Commission.

García herself was seized and tortured. In an interview with Raúl Gutiérrez of IPS (whose reportage is the source of much of this posting), she stated that on Oct. 9, 1981, when she was five months pregnant, "They shoved me into a car, blindfolded me, tied my hands together, and started to beat me in the stomach."

She says the men who abducted her belonged to the National Guard, the infamously abusive security agency formed to protect the property interests of rich landowners, and which was disbanded as part of the 1992 peace accords.

In the military installations where she was taken, she was tortured by having a mask tightly wrapped around her head until she almost suffocated, while electric shocks were applied to her vagina and nipples. She was also raped. She miscarried three days later, then after another three weeks was dumped in the street, tied up, blindfolded and naked.

Such experiences did not keep her or other Comadres from hunting for their vanished family members, however. "We searched for our loved ones everywhere: military barracks, cemeteries, prisons, but we still know nothing about what happened to them. Total impunity surrounds their disappearances."

The amnesty went into effect in 1993 under right-wing president Alfredo Cristiani. It was rushed into law after the peace accords were negotiated, but before the 1994 elections (to prevent a possible left-wing government from prosecuting rights abusers). Since then, succeeding ARENA governments have refused to repeal it, arguing that such a move would only reopen old wounds. But activists and many families of victims argue that the wounds have not healed precisely because the truth about what happened has not come out and reparations have not been made.

Lawyer Gisela De León of the Costa Rica-based Centre for Justice and International Law, who is representing several cases against the Salvadoran state being heard by the Inter-American Court on Human Rights, said the Salvadoran amnesty has sent a message that those guilty of human rights abuses can continue to commit crimes with impunity: "The investigation, identification and punishment of the perpetrators, on the other hand, would send a message to future generations that violence of the kind that occurred in the past will not be tolerated."

In early February, the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances visited El Salvador to gather new information. At the end of the visit, the Working Group "reminded" the state that the perpetrators of forced disappearance "should not benefit by any amnesty law," and urged the Saca administration, despite powerful forces opposed to any repeal, to strike the amnesty down or at least bring it into line with international law.

Such calls for accountability are more than just the latest tactic of those seeking redress (or revenge). They also resonate with research results that indicate that the transition to democratic rule often fails when human rights abusers go unpunished. This conclusion was summarized by Guillermo O'Donnell and Phillipe C. Schmitter in Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies (The Johns Hopkins University Press), part of a five-volume study sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson Center in the mid-1980s. They stated in part:

Morality is not as fickle and silent as when Machiavelli wrote his expediential maxims of political prudence; transitional actors must satisfy not only vital interests but vital ideals—standards of what is decent and just. Consensus among leaders about burying the past may prove ethically unacceptable to most of the population. All our cases demonstrate the immense difficulty of this dilemma; none provides us with a satisfactory resolution of it.

But even under the worst of circumstances—heavy and recent occurrence, and heavy and widespread military complicity, as in contemporary Argentina—we believe the worst of the bad solutions would be to try to ignore the issue. Some horrors are too unspeakable and too fresh to permit actors to ignore them. Part of the cost of such a cover-up . . . would be to reinforce the sense of impunity and immunity of the armed forces, especially in the most sinister of its elements. A second cost is more diffuse but no less crucial. It is difficult to imagine how a society can return to some degree of functioning which would provide social and ideological support for political democracy without somehow coming to terms with the most painful elements of its own past. By refusing to confront and to purge itself of its worst fears and resentments, such a society would be burying not just its past but the very ethical values it needs to make its future livable. Thus, we would argue that despite the enormous risks it poses, the "least worst" strategy in such extreme cases is to muster the political and personal courage to impose judgment upon those accused of gross violations of human rights under the previous regime.
(emphasis added)
It is not merely a case of "opening old wounds." It's a case of being genuinely committed to democracy. And if the United States is going to hold up El Salvador as a model for success in the Cold War resistance of Communist totalitarianism, we cannot turn a blind eye to its failure to transition successfully to a society in which people can speak out without fear of vanishing forever without a trace.

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