Words, Not Guns, Now Hurt Peace In El Salvador

A PUBLICITY campaign directed against El Salvador's new official human rights advocate has raised concerns among political and social leaders that the country's peace process may be backsliding.

The target of the attacks is Victoria Velasquez de Aviles, who was elected by the national assembly in March to serve as the nation's watchdog on human rights. Her job was mandated by the 1992 peace accords that ended a 12-year civil war. She fills the shoes of a United Nations mission, whose mandate was partly to deter human rights abuses but which expired April 30. Besides lacking much of the UN's resources, her biggest handicap is that she's vulnerable to a local smear campaign.

At the time of the appointment, Ms. Velasquez was praised by Assembly President Gloria Salguero Gross for ''her excellent record, ... rectitude, and moral strength.''

But Velasquez quickly showed an independence that El Salvador's upper echelon was unaccustomed to. After citing her authority as coming ''from the people,'' she began to criticize the government. One of her first barbs was directed at the police for using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up a march by disabled war veterans.

Inflammatory broadcast aims to discredit

By the end of April, she became a target of attacks in the media. The trigger was her veto of the government's candidate for inspector general of the new National Civilian Police (PNC). Created under the peace accords to replace former security forces accused of collaborating with right-wing death squads, the PNC is a crucial part of the reform package. The inspector general monitors the PNC, investigating it for human rights abuses.

Sources familiar with the attacks say the country's major, privately owned radio news stations are paid by the government to integrate mini-programs into their news broadcasts. The program scripts, read by the station announcers, give listeners the impression that the programs are produced by the stations. The arrangement forbids the stations to alert listeners to the information's origins. The government denies involvement in the broadcasts. But current and former government officials who disapprove of the attacks say they come from a shadowy office here.

Charges of a communist conspiracy

One broadcast said Velasquez rejected the candidate for inspector general, Francisco Bertrand Galindo, ''as vengeance because she couldn't pass his courses when he taught her in law school.'' Dr. Bertrand Galindo himself dismissed the attack, saying she had been an excellent student.

The harshest and most dangerous broadcasts said that, through her, the nation's legal Communist Party was planning to take over the post of inspector general, and accused her of being a member of the Communist Party and of ''following orders from the radical left to destabilize the democratic process.''

The charge of being a Communist ''is dangerous, because in our country the term 'Communist' has been utilized not just to delegitimize a person's work, but also to justify killing them,'' says Supreme Court Justice Anita Calderon de Buitrago. ''They're trying to tell her that there are some things that just aren't done.... They think all an ombudsperson should do is say 'yes.' ''

Among more than a dozen political analysts and human rights experts interviewed, none took the accusations against Velasquez seriously. Most ridiculed them.

But some say the charges are ominous. ''This is a very clear sign,'' says opposition leader Ruben Zamora, ''that despite the advances of the peace process, the government can so easily go back to its old ways. This is exactly what happened in 1950 and 1960 to anyone the government didn't like. This is the kind of thing that caused the war.''

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