Purge of Salvador's Army Brass Dismantles a Military Clique
A question remains: Will the new command come under full civilian control?
SAN SALVADOR — THEY were bitter. They went under duress. And they dragged it out as long as they could. But the top Salvadoran military brass did step down last week in compliance with the 1992 United Nations-brokered peace accords, which ended 12 years of civil war here.
The purge of 102 Salvadoran officers implicated in human rights violations and corruption was recommended by an independent commission set up as part of the UN peace accords. The panel wanted the officers to leave by Dec. 31, 1992. Although many of the lesser ranking officers were eventually dismissed, the top 15 officers refused to go.
President Alfredo Cristiani said that in the interest of stability, he needed more time. Finally, under pressure from the UN and the United States Congress (which withheld $ll million in military aid), Mr. Cristiani agreed to replace them.
At a July 1 ceremony announcing the 18 officers of the new military high command, Defense Minister Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce took a parting shot at the process that brought an end to his career. He said the UN, his government, and the international community had been "tricked" by El Salvador's leftist guerrillas, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), and called the independent commission "prejudiced, unjust, and biased."
Known as the Truth Commission, the panel undertook a six-month, UN-guided investigation into war atrocities. It recommended top officers be dismissed for their roles in the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests and found several rebel leaders responsible for the killing of dozens of mayors during the war. Civilian control?
The key question now, analysts say, is whether the new military command will come under full civilian control.
So far, reaction to the new high command has been favorable. The new defense minister, Col. Humberto Corado Figueroa, is considered a moderate with a close working relationship with Cristiani.
The purge has dismantled the tightly-knit military class of 1966, which ran the war. Several junior officers have been promoted to top positions, indicating that merit rather than class friendships may govern future promotions.
Local human rights groups have criticized the war-time record of some of the officers. But Ruben Zamora, presidential candidate for the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of left-wing parties, says the new high command should be judged on its future performance. "The problem with judging by their record is, what officer in the Salvadoran Army doesn't have a [questionable] record?" Mr. Zamora asks.
FMLN official Facundo Guardado sees the purge of the high command as "the first step toward professionalization of the Army and submission to civil authority and respect for human rights." But he adds, "It's not the most important step." It will be up to the Cristiani government to continue judicial reforms outlined by the peace accords, he says.
So far, the judicial reforms have been slowly implemented. The Truth Commission's recommendation that the 14 Supreme Court Justices be fired has been flatly rejected by Cristiani and the president of the court. A week after the commission report was released in March, the Salvadoran Congress (controlled by Cristiani's party) granted amnesty to those accused of war crimes. Two weeks later, the lone Army officer convicted in the Jesuits' killing was released from prison.
Opposition parties see Cristiani's July 2 decision to have the Army do "preventative patrols" against common crime as a step backward. During the war, all police forces were under Army control. Under the UN accords, the Treasury Police and National Guard have been disbanded. The National Police are supposed to be replaced by a new National Civilian Police force, which is supposed to be impartial.
Government officials say the Army patrols are necessary given the rising crime rate and the inability of the developing civilian police force to cope. They also note that only the Army is capable of disarming bands of ex-rebels now committing highway robberies.
Zamora says Cristiani is violating the Constitution, which only permits the use of the Army for public security under "extraordinary" situations and requires congressional approval. Development of police force
Moreover, Zamora says the Army patrols underline "the principal problem: The government isn't contributing to the development of the civilian police force." He claims the old national police academy continues to turn out graduates, even though the force is to be replaced by next year. More funds and equipment should be directed to the new force. "The old academy has a bigger budget than the new civilian police academy," Zamora says.
Last week, Gen. Mauricio Vargas, the Army's representative at the peace negotiations, defended the continued full strength of the national police and the inclusion of a former military officer in the new civilian police. "Capt. Jaime Pena Duran was in the military. That doesn't mean he is a military officer for the rest of his life. And nowhere in the accords does it require a gradual reduction of the national police," General Vargas said in a television interview.
The incorporation last week of the government's antinarcotics unit into the new civilian police force is also causing alarm among opposition parties.
The government says it cannot afford to lose the experience of veterans in its fight against drugs. The opposition sees the institutional purity and civilian control of the new police force being adulterated by police schooled under an Army system prone to violating human rights.