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Two (Salvadoran) Women
April 30, 2007

My apologies for missing last week's commentary. The time and energy demands of the road, plus raggedly problematic Internet connections, made it virtually impossible to get a piece written in time. Hopefully, the length of this week's offering will make up for it, even though I've shamelessly drawn virtually all my remarks largely from news reports from two journalists: Marco Aleman of the Associated Press, and Hector Tobar of the Los Angeles Times, respectively, who wrote remarkable pieces about two valiant women who have left their mark on recent Salvadoran history: Maria Julia Hernandez and Beatrice Alamanni de Carillo. (Hector also has a story in the recently released Los Angeles Noir, edited by the inimitable Denise Hamilton for Akashic Press.)

Maria Julia Hernandez was a human rights activist who aided victims of El Salvador's civil war, and she died earlier this month of a heart attack at the age of 68.

Hernandez was best known as director of the Roman Catholic Church-sponsored group Legal Protection, which continues to aid impoverished victims of El Salvador's 12-year civil war, and she had formerly worked alongside the late Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. (For more concerning Archbishop Romero, see my Weekly commentary for March 12, 2007)

Born to Salvadoran parents in the Honduran town of San Francisco Morazan in 1939, Hernandez and her family moved to El Salvador only a few days later. She dedicated her life to social work in the church and never married. She worked with Archbishop Romero on some of the civil war's first rights cases, and earned a reputation as a relentless advocate for those who suffered at the government's hands during the bloody civil war.

Benjamin Cuellar of the Central American University's Human Rights Institute described her as a selfless "mother of victims," and a fighter for the truth. "She gave us dignity, hope, sacrifice." And Ana Julia Escalante, director of El Salvador's nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, called Hernandez "a person who spent her life giving all to the center and never staying quiet amid the human rights violations that were being committed."

Beatrice Alamanni de Carillo is still alive, but has received death threats both to herself and her family due to her dogged pursuit of justice in her role of Human Rights Ombudsman, a position created during the UN-mediated peace accords in 1992. She runs a government ministry staffed largely by young, and underpaid, female lawyers. They are official government watchdogs, intended as a buffer to the arbitrary exercise of state power that helped lead to the war.

I first learned of Alamanni's work during the writing of Blood of Paradise—specifically when I learned of the murder of Gilberto Soto, and the problematic investigation into the crime (see my Weekly commentary of April 2, 2007).

Alamanni is a somewhat curious candidate for champion of the rule of law in a country too often characterized by its preference for privilege and power. She has a weakness for flash: gaudy jewelry (rings with stones only slightly smaller than marbles, crucifixes encrusted with a blinding array of diamonds), thick eyeliner, exquisitely tailored suits. A native of Turin, Italy, she speaks Spanish with a thick Italian accent, is the proud mother of Miss El Salvador 1995, and recently, at age 62, became a grandmother.

The only child of a well-off Italian diplomat, Alamanni met her future husband, Juan Antonio Carrillo, in Turin in the 1960s. He was a Salvadoran expatriate, studying electrical engineering at the University of Turin. She would eventually earn a doctorate in law. They married in Italy in 1968 and settled permanently in El Salvador a decade later, just as the country's leftist revolution and civil war were beginning. In 1980, she founded the law school at the prestigious Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador. (She launched the law school at the behest of Father Ignacio Ellacuria, a philosopher and social activist, who was murdered by members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion in 1989, along with five associates, their housekeeper, and her sixteen-year-old daughter. Alamanni fled the country after the murders, but returned three months later and ran the law school for another decade.)

She was appointed by El Salvador's legislature in 2001, thanks in part to the fact that many leading members of ARENA, the right-wing party that has been the controlling political force in El Salvador since 1988, had been her law students. Some believe she was appointed to her position because those in power felt convinced she would simply go through the motions. She has proved any such beliefs woefully misguided.

"There are people who think that since I am a bourgeois lady, from a high social circle, I must be crazy to be mixed up with human rights," she said. "They think it's a kind of betrayal."

Her job is to hear out and investigate the daily complaints of crime victims, mothers of prison inmates, and others ill-served by El Salvador's dysfunctional justice system. Their stories include descriptions of bodies of suspected criminals turning up in the city dump, their thumbs tied together by some self-appointed vigilante, reminiscent of the war-era death squads; or accounts by witnesses to killings who are themselves threatened by criminal gangs that operate with seeming impunity. Any citizen can go to the ombudswoman's office to file a complaint, after which the office can then launch a formal investigation, which may result in an official contact, specific recommendations for improvement, or even public censure.

What the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman offers in return is the ability to publicize its findings with the hope of possibly shaming the government into action. Alamanni takes this power seriously and wields it freely, and the Salvadoran media loves her for it: La doctora Beatrice is a regular on the nightly news, calling for civil rights and judicial transparency. This visibility, though, and the advocacy it permits, also have a very serious downside. She has vehement detractors among the conservative circles that dominate civic life here.

Popular radio commentator Raul Beltran calls her "the Godmother of the Gangs," and he frequently tries to paint her as a vain outsider jockeying for the limelight, or even a drunk who champions the rights of mareros while remaining silent about the violence they perpetrate. Although the charge against Alamanni is spurious, El Salvador remains a violent country, even fifteen years after the civil war ended. It has the highest homicide rate in the hemisphere, with a serious gang problem and a resurgence of vigilante death squads.

In 2004, the Salvadoran government, dominated by the right-leaning ARENA party, passed an anti-gang law—"Super Mano Dura," or Super Iron Fist—that gave police new arrest powers and increased penalties for youths convicted of "illicit association" (for which they can be charged simply by having tattoos). Alamanni and a small but vocal cadre of lawyers and jurists here, many of them women, say such tactics are endangering El Salvador's judicial institutions.

"The institutions created by the peace process are in crisis," Supreme Court Justice Mirna Perla said. She described the country's penal system as a national disgrace, and noted that the highest levels of the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police, or PNC), a force created by the 1992 peace accords, are controlled by former military men with links to war-era human rights abuses.

Alamanni agreed. "Corruption is widespread in the police, and there are many ties between the police and organized crime." Although Salvadorans see official corruption all around them, she said, "no one is ever punished, and this creates a climate of fear."

Meanwhile, the police take an aggressive, some might say repressive stance against Alamanni and her lawyers. In 2004, two ombudsman attorneys were arrested while trying to stop the deportation of a union activist with joint Salvadoran-Ecuadorian citizenship.

"When we go to the [police] Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime, we never go alone," said Grisela Victoria Gonzalez, a 28-year-old attorney whose monthly salary is $550, a third what attorneys in the government prosecutor's office make. "There always has to be at least two of us, because they might do something to harm us."

Alamanni also believes the police officers assigned as her bodyguards are really nothing but a way for the government to keep close tabs on her activities. Not surprisingly, the guard detail doesn't increase her sense of safety, and death threats have become increasingly frequent.

Recently, one of the national television networks called her home at one in the morning to ask if she was alive or dead—the station had received an anonymous call that she had been killed in a serious car accident. (Death by car accident is an all too common method of eliminating political opponents in El Salvador.)

Recently, during late April, the Teamsters invited Alamanni to Washington, D.C., for a reception and an award in gratitude for her pursuit of justice in the Soto murder case. The trip, however, had an additional, tacit purpose of raising her profile here in the United States, with the hope that this would lessen the likelihood that she would meet with violence in her homeland.

Interestingly, despite the outspoken advocacy that has earned her such animosity, Alamanni remains on close terms with many of those in power. President Tony Saca calls her a friend (while dismissing her most serious allegations against the country's judicial system and police force, as do many in law enforcement), and many of the top judges and government ministers in El Salvador are Alamanni's former students.

Despite these connections, however, members of Saca's Cabinet rarely ignore her public censures. Social Security Director Jorge Mariano Pinto once endured a grilling in her office from senior citizens angered over the state of healthcare provided to them. No top bureaucrat can afford to deny her an audience.

Alamanni interprets her role broadly, transforming herself into an outspoken advocate for all manner of legal and political rights. She broadcasts spots on trade union rights and the right to healthcare, and questioned the government's response to Hurricane Adrian in 2005. When hundreds of inmates rioted at one of El Salvador's most notorious prisons in 2002, taking several policemen hostage in the process, Alamanni arrived with a team of attorneys. She helped negotiate a surrender, but only after two policemen were killed. Some blamed her for delaying a planned rescue operation.

Alamanni says it's her love for the law that inspires her to take on much of the Salvadoran establishment. She still gives the occasional university lecture, and it pains her that no Salvadoran institution offers a doctorate in law.

"We started the law school with the intention of building democracy, of achieving academic excellence, of teaching young people that only with the law, and the rule of law ... could we advance as a country," she said. "People who study law today do it out of self-interest, because it's a career that pays well. There is a total ignorance of recent history.... The youth of El Salvador don't know what happened here 10 or 15 years ago."

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