Delays in Police Reform Stir Mistrust in Salvador

Many worry government will allow Army rights abusers to join force

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

SUBCOMMANDER Nelson Antonio Donan is a front-line example of El Salvador's new civilian-run police force: friendly, youthful, and college-educated. He represents a stark contrast to the poor reputation of the military-run National Police force.

The task is often a frustrating, uphill battle. The 320 officers under his command patrol one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city without enough radios, cars, or weapons.

``One of our biggest challenges is to win the trust of the people, to create a new image of the police,'' Mr. Donan says. ``If we can't get the equipment and training to be effective, we're going to lose the trust of the people.''

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But equipment shortages are only part of the problem. US Ambassador Alan Flanigan, UN officials, and human rights advocates here say the Salvadoran government is jeopardizing the new National Civilian Police (PNC) by trying to incorporate into its ranks members of National Police (PN) as that force is dismantled.

``If the Salvadoran people can't have confidence in their security forces, democracy is not going to work,'' Ambassador Flanigan says.

Before the United Nations-brokered 1992 peace accords ended a brutal 12-year civil war, Salvadoran security forces consisted of the PN, Treasury Police, and the National Guard. All were military units with reputations for human rights abuses, such as torture and assassination. Two have been abolished under the peace accords. The PN, basically an urban antiterrorist unit, is starting to be phased out. It is being replaced by newly recruited and trained PNC agents, such as Donan.

Over the last two years, the United States has spent nearly $27 million on training and equipment for the PNC. The long-awaited delivery of 180 patrol cars is expected within a month.

The Salvadoran government - criticized by the UN for withholding funds and technical support for the development of the PNC - is apparently delaying the demobilization of the PN in a maneuver to incorporate more of its members into the new police force, Flanigan and others say.

Disbanding the PN has already fallen behind the schedule stipulated by the peace accords. The latest halt: a three-week pause to provide security for the March 20 presidential elections.

The concern is that the new government will wait until just before the Oct. 31 deadline to demobilize the bulk of the PN in hopes of transferring large numbers of ex-PN into the PNC. It may even try to push back the demobilization deadline.

``The 5,700-member PNC force expected by Oct. 31 is not sufficient to provide security for the entire country,'' says Minister of the Presidency Oscar Alfredo Santamaria. To allow time to train more PNC agents, ``we're talking about a delay in the PN demobilization until March 1995.''

THERE is a good case for more police. Crime soared 300 percent last year, according to the UN. But Mr. Santamars statement seems at odds with the position of the ruling party's presidential candidate. ``We are going to conclude this year, in the shortest time possible, the total and absolute transformation of the PNC and the disappearance of the PN,'' Armando Calderon Sol says.

The peace accords stipulate 20 percent of the PNC can come from former PN agents; another 20 percent can be ex-rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The rest must be civilian recruits. But the PN is over its limit, and technically, a PN agent becomes a civilian when he quits the PN. He can then apply to the PNC academy.

The loophole worries human rights groups. ``The contamination of the new police force with existing police units notorious for abuse poses a serious and potentially permanent problem,'' warns a Human Rights Watch/Americas report released last week.

Human Rights Watch and Hemisphere Initiatives, a Cambridge, Mass., nonprofit group monitoring the Salvadoran peace process, are calling for the Salvadoran government to respond to a UN request to provide a list of all former members of the defunct Treasury Police, National Guard, and Army rapid-reaction brigades to prevent them from entering the civilian police force.

The Salvadoran government has refused. Santamaria says the list is unnecessary. The UN and the police academy review the applicants' histories and test them before admittance.

PN agents are not eager to leave their jobs, UN officials say, because the Salvadoran government is not paying retiring agents the one-year's salary stipulated by the accords. It is only paying normal severance benefits based on time of service. Santamaria says the peace accord indemnification only applies to the Salvadoran Army. UN and PN officials argue that the PN is an Army unit. PN agents still pay into the Army social security fund and take their orders from Army officers. UN officials worry this may prompt demonstrations (mirroring a march last year by disgruntled ex-soliders) and cause further delays in demobilization.

UN sources say retraining programs funded by the US are also behind schedule and the retraining organization is too willing to accept PN excuses for delays. ``By the end of March, we'll have 1,500 PN agents ready to start the six-month program. It's a question of whether they'll be released from active duty,'' says Marcelo Fabre of Creative Associates International, a nongovernmental group managing the PN reintegration programs.

``We're entering a very uncertain political scenario with a new president taking office in June,'' a UN official says. ``The FMLN and UN influences weaken as we near the end of the UN mission here. Time is on the side of the government.''

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