Strike by Police Unit In El Salvador Shakes Foundation of Peace

A STRIKE by a defiant group within El Salvador's police has raised worries that the country is not achieving a key postwar goal: the submission of security forces to civilian authority.

The two-week-old strike by the police's anti-drug team confirms critics' warnings that a side agreement to the 1992 peace accords, which transferred a unit of the National Police to the new civilian police force, could lead to trouble.

The hostile attitude of the strikers ``has confirmed some of our worst fears,'' says Enrique ter Horst, head of the United Nations observer mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL). ``I think they're confirming that they have not adapted to the new circumstances, nor have they adopted the new doctrine embodied in the peace accords.''

Without a civilian police force dedicated to upholding the rule of law, some say El Salvador could slip back into the climate of violence that preceded the country's 12-year civil war.

During that time, the security forces - the National Police, the Treasury Police, and the National Guard - largely acted with impunity and were accused of being closely linked to right-wing death squads who murdered thousands of Salvadorans.

The peace accords abolished all three forces - a move heralded by many as the accord's greatest accomplishment. But later, in a much-criticized move, the drug-fighting unit was transferred, nearly intact, from the old force to the new.

Then last July, after ONUSAL had concluded a two-month investigation of the criminal division, it reported some worrisome results about the anti-narcotics unit. The members failed to honor promises made when joining the civilian police force and overextended their jurisdiction, the report said.

The government promised that the unit would take a course on rule of law, for example. But while an average course of its type would last at least six months, the unit's course lasted only five days. No one took attendance, and no exams were given. Mr. Ter Horst described the course as ``bogus.''

ONUSAL concluded that the unit ``functioned with an excessive level of autonomy,'' answering only to its own leaders and failing to recognize the authority of the regional police chiefs.

In this same investigation, ONUSAL found that 71 people were improperly added the drug-fighting unit. So the government, at ONUSAL's recommendation, fired the 71 in mid-January.

The anti-drug unit reacted by calling a strike, occupying their own headquarters, and warning that any government attempt to remove them would be met with force. ``If we stay,'' proclaimed a sign tacked to a headquarter wall, ``we want autonomy.''

``They don't want to be integrated into the rest of the [police force],'' Ter Horst says. ``I don't think this country or the police can afford to have islands of autonomy .... [The unit] has to be within a hierarchy. There is no place for units that bring with them the attitudes of the past....''

Strike leader Jose Perez says that the people dismissed from the police force would consider leaving but only if they were given severance pay three times higher than what they are being offered.

That demand can't be met, says Vice Minister of Public Security Hugo Barrera. ``It's impossible. The peace accords clearly establish the amount each person is to receive - 12 months pay.''

Mr. Barrera played down the strike's significance. ``We should see this as part of the democratic process that El Salvador is living,'' he says.

The strike may even prove to have a positive outcome, says an analyst following the case. ``I think they have to be fired, all of them,'' he says of the strikers. ``And if they were, it would be quite fortunate for the peace process and for strengthening the civilian nature of the [police].''

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