Heavily armed gunmen shot and killed Herbert Ernesto Anaya, the head of El Salvador's private Human Rights Commission, yesterday morning. Human rights experts say his murder is part of a trend of increased death squad-style killings and disappearances in recent months.
Anaya, 33, was in his car in his driveway with his wife and children when two gunmen assassinated him with pistols equipped with silencers.
In May 1986, Anaya and other commission members were arrested and charged with links to the leftist rebels fighting the government. While in Mariona Prison, they took testimony from other political prisoners about being tortured while held by the security forces.
Last February, Anaya and the other members were released as part of a prisoner exchange for a colonel who had been kidnapped by the guerrillas. They resumed public work at the commission, publicly presenting evidence of Army killings of civilians and other human rights violations.
Army and government communiqu'es continued to attack the commission and Anaya. In recent months Anaya had received frequent telephoned death threats both at home and the office.
Commission officials say they hold the military and the security forces responsible for Anaya's murder.
The Army spokesman was unavailable for official comment. But a spokesperson speaking unofficially denied military participation in the murder, saying the ultra-right or the left could have been responsible.
Human rights analysts, while noting that death squads have been relatively inactive recently compared with the massive killings of the early 1980s, say that the squads still exist and that some appear to have links to the military and security forces.
``We have no doubt there is a military structure behind the death squads, given the level of intelligence they have, their level of resources, and infrastructure,'' says Mar'ia Julia Hern'andez of Tutela Legal, the Roman Catholic Church's human rights office.
Some human rights experts link the increased death squad-style killings and disappearances to an increase in antigovernment and anti-Army protest in recent months. ``This isn't new. The death squads always appear when opposition increases and the government can't control it,'' says Ms. Hern'andez. Many say the increase has been most noticeable since May, when opposition labor groups started more militant protests. One of the most notable disappearances was the Sept. 1 abduction of the head of the University Worker's Union.
In an interview before his death, Anaya predicted an increase in repression as the economic crisis worsened and opposition to the government grew. ``In El Salvador there will be an increase in repression, simply because the causes of dissent are still there. There is still hunger, misery, lack of housing, and political demagogery that promises a lot but delivers nothing.''