Salvadorean security agents and the law

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ON June 2, hundreds of Salvadorean police carrying automatic weapons burst into five hospitals and 20 clinics of the state-run health system to end takeovers by striking health workers. According to press reports, one patient and four plainclothes security guards were killed. At the General Hospital, according to witnesses, more than 100 security agents bound the hands of several hundred hospital workers and forced them to lie on the floor. The commanding officers of the operation produced no evidence to reporters that any of the striking workers were armed.

The issue is not only whether the strikers had legitimate grievances; a more important question is the use of a supposed ``antiterrorist'' force to respond to labor grievances.

From the United States standpoint, the distressing fact is that the Salvadorean policemen, drawn from a ``Special Anti-Terrorist Command,'' were trained and equipped by the US, in dubious compliance with provisions of the US law.

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Since 1974, the US government had been prohibited by law from providing any ``training or advice . . . or any financial support for police, prisons, or other law enforcement forces'' abroad. In El Salvador, that law has meant that the US could not provide assistance to the ``security forces'' -- the National Guard, National Police, or Treasury Police. Yet the ``Special Antiterrorist Command,'' trained by US advisers, has been drawn almost exclusively from the notorious Treasury Police, according t o Defense Department officials.

In this year's foreign aid bill, signed into law Aug. 8, Congress repealed the decade-old ban on police training in El Salvador and Honduras. The decision occurred in the wake of the tragic attack by guerrillas on US marines and US and Salvadorean citizens at a sidewalk caf'e in San Salvador. The anger reflects a nearly universal desire here at home to take action against terrorism abroad.

But without careful controls, police assistance in El Salvador may only repeat the failure of our past training efforts to promote respect for human rights. At worst, the program may be totally counterproductive and assist those who have been accused of massive brutality over the past five years.

Congress originally adopted the ban on police assistance in 1974, when a Senate review concluded that the aid was linking the US to the terror repressive governments perpetrated against their own citizens. It stigmatized the total US foreign aid effort, the Senate review concluded.

Between 1957 and 1974, the US spent more than $2 million in El Salvador to train and equip about 500 members of the security forces. When Congress ended the program, administration officials claimed it had been successful: The National Police, they said, had been turned into a ``well-disciplined, well-trained, and respected uniformed corps.''

This glowing assessment, however, was contradicted by organizations in close touch with the situation. According to El Salvador's Roman Catholic archdiocese and international and US human rights groups, the Salvadorean security forces -- some of them led by US-trained personnel -- engaged in systematic atrocities against the civilian population: torture, murder, and disappearances.

Clearly, human rights abuses in El Salvador are not as pervasive as they were even two years ago. Yet administration claims that US aid to Salvadorean police forces will improve human rights must be weighed against the evidence -- witness the hospital strike, and the behavior of the US-trained commando unit.

To renew assistance to internal security forces that have long been linked to death squad activities is hardly a means of ending the killing of innocent civilians in El Salvador. This is especially true in light of the fact that over the past five years, not one member of the Salvadorean military or police has been brought to justice for a human rights violation against a Salvadorean citizen.

Now that the ban on police training is lifted, the administration will ask Congress for tens of millions of dollars for a new program in El Salvador. Rather than turn the money over to some of the same people who were responsible for atrocities against civilians, we should condition its disbursement on the establishment of a functioning judicial system. Until security agents can be held accountable for their behavior, the police will be above the law, not vice versa.

Rep. George Miller (D) of California is chairman of the Central America Task Force of the Congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus.

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