El Salvador Must Keep Promise To Stop Political Violence

Government gave limited cooperation to investigative group

A CLUMSY June robbery in downtown San Salvador, a new series of death threats, and last week's report by a Salvadoran investigative body into ``illegal armed groups'' all convey the same message: Politically motivated violence continues in El Salvador.

This violence often involves members and officials of the armed forces and the national police. Each of these events prompts the implementation of military, police, and judicial reforms called for by the 1992 United Nations peace accords that ended El Salvador's 12-year civil war.

In November, a ``joint group'' was appointed to investigate a series of assassinations and their relationship to illegal armed groups or ``death squads.'' As mandated, the group issued a report last Thursday, noting that it had ample evidence of politically-motivated violence in El Salvador. The violence, it noted, is carried out by a broad network of criminal activity. Significantly, the group cited the active participation by senior officials of the armed forces and the national police.

The joint group admitted frustration with the limited cooperation it received from government officials, political parties, and nongovernmental organizations. Even before the report was issued, many said the presence of three government appointees to the four-member group was likely to discourage candor on the part of potential witnesses. It seems that this was the case.

Because of limited evidence, the group reserved the identification of some individuals involved to a private addendum; however, the report forcefully cited the involvement of armed forces and national police personnel.

The link between political terror and for-profit crime has a long and sad history in El Salvador. In the 1970s and '80s, military officers were paid by the wealthy to eliminate ``leftists.'' In the mid-'80s, a military kidnapping ring turned on its patrons and began abducting wealthy businessmen.

The joint group found evidence of new structures and forms for the violence that continues to plague El Salvador. According to the group's report, common crime, rather than political motivation, is now the driving force behind the violence, but the armed groups retain their capacity to execute political crimes as well. The joint group also found evidence of ``private political violence'' solely for the purpose of settling ``past accounts.''

The report stresses the importance of the new Civilian National Police (PNC) to replace the hated national police. The group calls for a PNC special unit to investigate crimes that may be politically motivated. Furthermore, the report emphasizes the need for judicial reforms, as called for in the peace accords, to be more strongly enforced.

The joint group also calls on the Salvadoran government to control intelligence gathering, ending such activity by the armed forces. The government needs to develop an effective and more credible monitoring system to detect illegal activity by government employees, the group says.

The June 22 robbery of an armored car staged by members of the national police, including its director of intelligence, forced newly elected President Armando Calderon Sol to promise the elimination of the old security force by December and the full deployment of the new civilian police by January 1995. Those measures and the implementation of the joint group's recommendations are a good start, but more is needed.

The composition of the joint group was an impediment to achieving more-thorough recommendations toward ending impunity.

Conspicuously absent from its report were specifics and names, such as those made public in the UN-sponsored Truth Commission's report, released last year. The names of death squad members and their supporters have not been made public.

International pressure is important if the joint group's suggested reforms are to be put into practice. The United States must, at the least, declassify all pertinent documents on the El Salvador death squads or share them with the civilian police if the Clinton administration does not see fit to make the information public.

In April, I was with a team of international election observers in El Salvador. We met with Dr. Calderon Sol the day before he was elected president. He told us of his proposal for a permanent investigative body, including international members, to look into alleged death- squad activity. The creation of such a body has recently been endorsed by human rights groups. Calderon Sol should be encouraged to deliver on that promise.

The US must keep pressure on El Salvador, even if US aid diminishes. That pressure can be exercised directly or indirectly through international lending agencies on which El Salvador depends. The purpose is not to meddle irresponsibly but to support and encourage all efforts to erase impunity and strengthen democratic institutions.

For years the US claimed it would bring about democracy in El Salvador through force. Now we have an opening for democracy if we are willing to strengthen the institutions of peace and justice and pressure the Salvadoran government to make good on its promises to its people.

* The Rev. Charlie Currie is rector of the Jesuit Community at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia. From 1989 to 1991, Fr. Currie served as special assistant to the president of Georgetown University, coordinating Georgetown's response to the situation in El Salvador.

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