El Salvador's new wave of repression

Fifteen years after a peace agreement was signed to end El Salvador's bloody civil war, the government has launched a new wave of repression against the growing social movements, including the struggle to stop the privatization of public services.

Last July, 14 people participating in a peaceful demonstration against President Antonio Saca's plan to decentralize the municipal water resources in the town of Suchitoto were arrested after a violent assault by police. National and international pressure led to their release on bail, but 13 of the activists still face charges of terrorism--and could go to jail for 60 years if found guilty.

Alexis Stoumbelis, an organizer with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), talked to Kevin Chojczak about the context of the Salvadoran government's application of the anti-terrorism law, and what this means for activists in the U.S.

WHAT HAPPENED on July 2 of last year in El Salvador?

BEFORE ANSWERING that, I want to talk about the context.

The struggle against water privatization had been going on for about two years and was extremely well organized and effective. There were mass mobilizations of tens of thousands of people consistently demanding that the government not privatize the national water system. They were fighting some pretty big institutions because one of the loans they got from the IMF in 2003 basically mandated they move toward privatization.

Under the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which passed in 2005, transnational corporations have the same rights to the water system as the country itself. So, against the odds, the water workers union and a broad coalition of groups in the social movement led this grassroots effort to prevent privatization.

What else to read

For more information on the case of the Suchitoto 13, visit the CISPES Web site. See the CISPES action alert against the anti-terrorism law for more on how to make your voice heard to the U.S. State Department. Contact your Congressperson and pressure them to speak out and take action against U.S.-backed repression and cut funding for the ILEA.

CISPES has local chapters in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Olympia, Wash.; San Francisco; Los Angeles; Missoula, Mont.; New York City; Boston; and Washington, D.C. Go to the CISPES Web site to find out more about what these chapters are doing.

On July 2, there was a really big action in Suchitoto to stop President Saca from making the announcement that the government was going to "decentralize" the water system, which everyone recognized as the first step toward privatization. The action was so successful that they blocked President Saca from making the announcement.

To retaliate against the social movement showing its strength, the Salvadoran National Police attacked the protest and arrested 14 protesters, four of whom were well-known community organizers. Thirteen of those arrested were then charged with acts of terrorism under the new "anti-terrorism" law, the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, which was implemented in November 2006.

This anti-terrorism law is modeled after the USA PATRIOT Act, but it's even more extreme. It was really designed to target the social movements and silence dissent because it defines common protest techniques, like blocking a road or occupying a building, as acts of terrorism. The Suchitoto 13 face up to 60 years in prison for taking part in a peaceful protest.

These arrests and the upcoming trial are happening in the midst of a new wave of violent repression in El Salvador because the social movements and the left political party, the FMLN, pose a genuine challenge to the right-wing elite. Historically in El Salvador, the stronger the social movement, the more violent repression becomes, and this is just as true today.

WHY IS it important that people here in the U.S. know about this case?

I THINK the three most important reasons are, first, that the U.S. is actively involved in funding and training the police in El Salvador at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), and it openly supported the passage of the anti-terrorism law.

It's significant that ILEA was opened a month before CAFTA was passed in the U.S., and that Condoleezza Rice was very specific that the function of the ILEA was to ensure the success of free trade in Latin America.

So here you have police being trained to protect capital and transnational corporations against the popular movements that are actively claiming their rights to land and resources. The U.S. is at least tacitly supporting, if not openly encouraging, this level of oppression in El Salvador.

The second reason is that the U.S., in making El Salvador a "partner in the war on terror," wants to see what it, too, can get away with. Can it set a precedent that activists can be tried as terrorists?

I think a third reason is that the U.S. wants to use El Salvador as a base in Latin America to counter democratic revolutionary movements like the one in Venezuela. As Latin America shifts to the left, El Salvador remains one of the few right-wing governments that Washington can count on.

So for all of us in the U.S. who support liberation movements in Latin America, we need to stop the U.S. from using El Salvador as a base to undermine promising social movements across Latin America.

WHAT IS CISPES doing about the Suchitoto 13?

CISPES committees across the U.S. have been doing rallies and actions to draw attention to this trial and pressure not only the Salvadoran government to drop all charges, but the U.S. State Department to denounce this use of the anti-terrorism law that it publicly endorsed. We had a national week of action in October, which was led by human rights and solidarity organizations, and got good media coverage and generated calls to the State Department.

While the State Department has not yet come out against this serious violation of civil liberties, the trial for the Suchitoto 13 was delayed until February. I believe that this international solidarity, along with the massive resistance in El Salvador to the charges, helped stop the trial last October.

One of the reasons the Salvadoran government delayed the trial was because they wanted this kind of pressure and international attention to die down. And we can't let that happen, so we are mobilizing again before the trial starts in early February.

HOW DOES what's happening in El Salvador relate to what's happening in the U.S.?

I THINK it's the same processes at work in the U.S. in many ways. The neoliberal economic model that the movement in El Salvador is fighting is the same model, and some of the corporations are the same as we are fighting here in the U.S. The economic crisis in El Salvador is caused by the same system that is leading the U.S. deeper into recession.

At the same time, we're experiencing similar assaults on civil liberties and the right to organize--especially against immigrants and people of color.

Furthermore, with regard to the "war on terror," the intention to define protesters as terrorists as a way to criminalize dissent is not unique to El Salvador. The "Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act" that passed in the U.S. House of Representatives has a lot in common with El Salvador's anti-terrorism law. It leaves a lot open to interpretation in terms of what constitutes a "radical ideology" or "use of force" and could very easily be used to target activists of all kinds.

Lastly, if capital knows no borders in the transnational neoliberal model, neither does police and military repression. The "iron fist" policies of the right wing in El Salvador are modeled after former New York Mayor Giuliani's "zero-tolerance" programs.

The U.S. is doing a lot of cross border-police initiatives that involve heightened surveillance and tracking of deportees in the name of the "war on gangs." Impunity and police brutality, especially against youth of color, is on the rise from San Francisco to San Salvador.

If their tactics are without borders, then our struggle must also be without borders.