Salvadorans Raise Concerns Over Latest Death-Squad Investigation

Some call for foreigners to participate on new investigative group

JOSE Maria Mendez could have avoided the danger and tribulations involved in living through El Salvador's 12-year civil war. A renowned attorney, he would have had no trouble finding a satisfying and well-paying job in any number of countries.

But Mr. Mendez stayed on. More remarkably, given the violence that had cowed others into silence, he remained outspoken. Three months ago, he was named El Salvador's ``Lawyer of the Century'' by three prestigious attorneys' associations.

Then the death threats started coming.

Francisco Lima, a candidate for vice president in the current election campaign, remembers the November afternoon when Mendez received the first threat. ``They told [Mendez] to convince me to withdraw from the campaign,'' Mr. Lima says, ``and that if he didn't succeed, they were going to harm his wife. They gave him till Dec. 15.''

Lima and Mendez had been friends since 1935, when they met as law students at the University of El Salvador. Lima, vice president of the country in the 1960s, came out of political retirement late last year when a left-of-center coalition asked him to run on the ticket headed by Ruben Zamora, a prominent figure in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the party of the former guerrillas.

Mendez and his wife fled El Salvador the day before the threat was to be carried out.

Before and during the civil war, death threats were common and many were carried out. In the early 1980s, thousands were killed by shadowy death squads; most were peasant farmers, but an attorney general and Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero were among the victims. The death squads have not been active on a large scale for several years, and the hope had been that, with the war's end, death threats would end, too. But late last year, members of the FMLN, including some running for office in the country's March election, were murdered.

It became apparent that two commissions that grew out of the 1992 peace accords - one to investigate the war's most publicized violent acts and another to review the records of top-ranking Army officers for possible human rights abuses - had not had the desired effect on El Salvador's violent climate. And many observers question whether a new investigative group, the Grupo Conjunto or Joint Group, will be able to have any more far-reaching effect. The Joint Group was formed under pressure from the United Nations when the killings of FMLN officials began again.

``It's lamentable when there are cases like the threats against Dr. Mendez,'' says Abraham Rodriguez, a political insider praised for his work on the commission to investigate Army officials. ``But it's even worse when people are killed. If this country is really going to be pacified ... the so-called illegal armed groups, or death squads, will really have to disappear. And they're only going to disappear when the country identifies them, judges them, and condemns them.''

The Truth Commission report released in March 1993 called for formation of a follow-up group to do an ``immediate, in-depth investigation,'' given ``the risk that these groups could renew their action.'' But the government never formed that follow-up group. And while the government did form the Joint Group in December, many observers say its mandate is too limited. It will be restricted to investigating political violence that has occurred since Jan. 16, 1992, the date peace accords were signed.

``How can illegal armed groups be eliminated,'' says San Salvador Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas, ``if we don't keep delving into the past until we find the roots of current violence?''

Also, evidence gathered by the group will not be admissible in court. ``The whole process would have to be repeated,'' Rodriguez says, in order to prosecute those identified in the report. ``And there's a great danger the evidence could `disappear' later.'' Nor can the group investigate someone who has been amnestied. After publication of the Truth Commission report, the government passed a much-criticized blanket amnesty bill.

David Holiday, a Salvador-based consultant to the human rights group Americas Watch, said the Joint Group's success ``depends a lot on the amount of resources it gets, who it hires to do the work, and how aggressive they are in the investigation. The key, obviously, is cooperation from the government.''

At the swearing-in ceremony for the group, President Alfredo Cristiani declared that political violence ``must never be repeated in our country. If there are people or groups who still persist in carrying out violent acts for political motives, the group can serve as a mechanism to block the possible covering up of this nefarious violence.''

David Escobar Galindo, member of the government commission that negotiated the peace accords, says it is imperative that the group's staff be made up of ``first-rate detectives, mainly foreigners.'' The demand that staff members be foreigners has also been made by people on the left, who criticize the track record of the government's Special Investigative Unit (SIU).

The Truth Commission said that in the course of the investigation into the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women in 1989, the then-director of the SIU, Col. Manuel Antonio Rivas Mejia, ``learned the facts and concealed the truth; he also recommended to Col. [Guillermo] Benavides [later convicted in the killings] measures for the destruction of incriminating evidence.''

Finally, it is crucial that all the group's recommendations be carried out. Bitter controversy has followed the failure to implement some Truth Commission recommendations, the most prominent being the call for removal of all Supreme Court members.

``What most bothers me,'' says Chemita Mendez, Mendez's son, ``is that things haven't changed in the country, and that in the future we may have to continue living under threats, and even attempts on us. We won't be living in a war, but we will be living with these conflicts that leave us all insecure, with the possibility of another war in 10 or 15 years.''

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