Salvadoran Court Cases Frustrate US Officials

ATTENTION has recently been riveted on the mysterious loss of crucial prosecution evidence in the case of six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers who were murdered here in November. That was a blow to United States hopes that the Salvadoran judicial system might operate efficiently and fairly. But aside from that much-publicized case, other US policy objectives have been dealt equally significant setbacks with the virtual collapse of two less-well known, albeit highly symbolic human rights court cases.

One of those cases is the prosecution of the September 1988 massacre of 10 peasants in the town of San Sebastian, allegedly by the Army. The other case involves a kidnapping-for-profit ring that preyed on wealthy businessmen.

In both instances, Salvadoran judges during the past two weeks have dropped charges against most of those accused despite ``strong evidence,'' US officials say.

Added to the recent disappearance of crucial evidence in the Jesuit murder prosecution, US officials say they are frustrated that the Salvadoran judicial system seems incapable of delivering justice even in high-profile cases. This despite a $1 million US program to reform the judicial system.

``I'm very discouraged,'' says US Ambassador William Walker. ``Last week wasn't a very good week.''

These twin blows come at a time when the US Embassy is already on the defensive because of criticism that it has not pushed the Jesuit case far enough. The US Congress is pushing cuts in US military aid to El Salvador. And Mr. Walker has changed his position from praising the Jesuit investigation to strong public critcism of the case judge.

But the ambassador's concerns are not mirrored by Mauricio Guti'errez Castro, president of the Supreme Court, who says the case is progressing.

``The judgment against the accused in the Jesuit case is moving forward and the statements of US congressmen that the case is stalled are false,'' Dr. Gutierrez says. ``The irresponsible statements that the case is stopped are false.''

Such statements have done little to pacify the situation, however. ``There is a mood of frustration,'' a US diplomat says. ``There were rulings on two of the most important cases - San Sebastian and the kidnapping case. These are priority cases in the judicial system and there were unsatisfactory results.''

When charges were dropped against 11 of 12 Army defendents in the massacre of villagers near San Sebastian, it was a blow to Walker, who had made its prosecution a personal crusade.

The killings occurred one month after Walker was posted in El Salvador in 1988, and he viewed prosecution of the case as vital to showing the Salvadoran military it could not act with impunity. But, two weeks ago, two appellate judges dropped charges against 10 of 11 Army defendents. Maj. Mauricio Beltr'an Granados is still charged with ordering the murders.

``I'm really upset about this case,'' Walker says. ``How are they going to convict the major for ordering the soldiers if the judge has already ruled that the soldiers didn't kill the people?''

The kidnapping-for-profit case was another the US Embassy had pushed hard. The kidnappers were a group of military men and rightists, who, pretending to be leftist guerrillas, kidnapped businessmen for ransom.

Several judges, fearing for their lives, withdrew from the case. A judge who pursued the prosecution, Jorge Alberto Serrano Panameno, was murdered by gunmen in May 1988. Last March another judge, who Western diplomats say was pressured, ordered the release of three people who had been detained in the case. Although that ruling was overturned, one of the accused escaped. The week before last, yet another judge dropped charges against all the defendents except two, only one of whom is in custody.

With the collapse of these two cases and the uncertainty of whether Colonel Benavides will face all relevant evidence in the Jesuit case, Western officials seem at a loss with how to deal with an essentially nonfunctioning judicial system. ``Where do we go?'' the diplomat asks. ``That's a tough one.''

Regarding the six murdered Jesuits, Judge Ricardo Zamora, who is directing the case, rejects US criticism that the case is not going forward.

``Ambassador Walker does not understand the judicial system in this country,'' says Judge Zamora. ``Just look at the case history and you'll see we've been working hard on the case.''

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