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The Murder of Josť Gilberto Soto
April 2, 2007

While I was writing Blood of Paradise, a chilling event took place, an event that not only underscored the deterioration of civil society in El Salvador, but eerily echoed elements of the novel's plot: the murder of an American—a Teamster leader named Gilberto Soto.

He was visiting family in El Salvador, but had also made plans to meet with trade union leaders for the airport and Maersk-Sealand drivers in Apopo, and wanted to meet with port drivers in Acajutla to discuss their efforts to unionize. He'd also arranged to meet with trade union leaders in Nicaragua and port drivers and dockworkers in Honduras.

A matter of days after confirming these meetings—at about 6:00 PM on November 5, 2004—gunmen shot him dead outside his mother's house in Usulután. Many of the trucking companies at the Acajutla port that would have been affected by unionization are operated by ex-military officers, but the police investigation never pursued this. Instead, after American church and union officials visited El Salvador and spent three days urging local authorities to look seriously into the possibility that Soto was killed because of his trade union activities, police pressed and possibly tortured two gang members into confessing that the victim's mother-in-law, who had less than a hundred dollars to her name, hired them to kill Soto out of some vague, illogical family rancor. (Soto was indeed estranged from his wife, but the supposed motive for the killing was the payout on a life insurance policy that would have benefited none of the alleged suspects—nor would it have benefited Soto's wife: the beneficiaries were their children.)

Two of the three defendants, Soto's mother-in-law and the alleged triggerman, were acquitted in February 2006. The man alleged to have supplied the murder weapon was convicted, despite the fact that Beatrice Alamanni de Carillo, the Human Rights Ombudsman, in her scathing critique of the investigation—an investigation which was not conducted by the local prosecutor, but the PNC's notoriously corrupt Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime—specifically noted that, to the best she was able to determine, no chain of evidence existed concerning the gun and bullets. (She made this determination in the face of considerable resistance and obfuscation—she was not permitted full access to case files or witnesses—some of whom were "anonymous"—something her critique emphasized. She was ultimately permitted access to the accused, and it was she who determined that they had been physically and possibly sexually abused during questioning.)

During the investigation, the Salvadoran government requested assistance from the FBI, which never contacted the Teamsters for background into Soto's union activities. Instead, the Bureau supplied Salvadoran officials with information concerning decades-old arrest records on minor charges from Soto's youth—despite the fact Soto was never convicted of anything, ever. It was clear the Salvadoran authorities were far more concerned with smearing the victim than finding his killers, and it is regrettable if not shameful that the FBI cooperated in that effort.

The U.S. State Department backed the Salvadoran government's position, echoing official claims that the defendants' protestations of innocence were predictable, i.e., people willing to murder would certainly be willing to lie (a position which convicts the accused prior to trial). State Department officials also repeated police attestations that every investigative avenue had been pursued (though the police would never allow access to the full record of the investigation). And once the verdict was in, the State Department lamented the acquittal of two defendants, saying, "Even if one does not agree with the verdict, one has to respect the process"—this despite widespread condemnation from numerous trade union and human rights groups regarding the blatant, transparent corruption, stonewalling, and deceit at every stage of "the process." (In private conversations, the U.S. Ambassador actually echoed the Salvadoran government's disparagement of their own Human Rights Ombudsman.)

This murder took place during the American debate over ratification of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and only by considerable arm-twisting was the Bush administration able to secure the necessary votes for passage. (CAFTA passed the House by a mere two votes.) How can there be free trade, opponents argued, if men and women seeking a just wage and honest bargaining rights can be murdered with impunity? But such arguments did not prevail.

I dedicated Blood of Paradise to Mr. Soto's memory, and I have been deeply touched by how warmly the Teamsters and other members of the trade union and human rights community have embraced the book.

For more on Gilberto Soto's murder, the investigation, and continuing Teamster efforts to find the real killers, click here.

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