Death Squads Still Operating in
by Raúl Gutiérrez
For years, human rights organisations
and experts have said the death squads that operated during the
counterinsurgency war in the 1980s never disappeared, but merely
became groups of paid killers that still operate with impunity,
and are hired to "settle scores, carry out vengeance killings,
eliminate a businessman's competitor, carry out 'social cleansing'
or work for organised crime."
Lawyer Jaime Martínez, with the
Institute of Comparative Studies in Criminal and Social Science
(INECIP), told IPS that the groups "are the visible face
of organised crime, and do their dirty work."
There are strong indications that "criminal
groups are embedded" in the National Civilian Police (PNC),
He lamented that the authorities have
not made this a key concern, and instead dismiss such reports
by arguing that the problem is just a few bad officers who must
be weeded out.
"We cannot continue to believe in
the 'few bad apples' theory," said the expert, who conducted
research on citizen security and death squads when he headed the
Foundation for Studies on the Application of Rights (FESPAD) Criminal
Studies Centre for 13 years.
Police Sergeant Nelson Arriaza and officer
Roberto Carlos Chévez were arrested Jul. 28, along with
the now fugitive Rember Martínez, and accused of murdering
campesino (small farmer) Amado García in the town of Nueva
Esparta in the northeastern department (province) of Morazán.
Four other police officers were arrested
Aug. 27 in the eastern department of San Miguel in connection
with the group headed by Arriaza, and were charged with belonging
to a death squad.
Another police officer and a civilian
are also facing arrest for alleged ties to the same group.
PNC chiefs have acknowledged the problem,
which they downplay, however, as "isolated incidents."
But the prosecutor's office has not ruled
out an investigation into possible connections between Arriaza
and other members of the PNC, as well as other killings in San
Miguel, where the police sergeant was posted.
Another indication of the existence of
death squads was the distribution of flyers over the past two
weeks in the town of Chalchuapa, 80 km from San Salvador, signed
simply with the initials "E.L." The leaflets declare
a "curfew" and urge local residents and the members
of the PNC themselves to stay inside at night.
"For your own good, we advise you
not to be on the streets after 10:00 PM, because we are carrying
out a cleansing campaign," says the flyer.
The town's murder rate has soared from
four or five killings a month at the beginning of the year to
17 in August alone, according to the local PNC offices.
In the 1970s and 1980s, death squads in
El Salvador abducted, tortured and killed thousands of students,
trade unionists, teachers and leftist political leaders and activists,
as part of the U.S.-backed anti-Communist crusade led by the late
Major Roberto d'Aubuisson, founder of the right-wing Nationalist
Republican Alliance (ARENA), which has governed the country since
The 1980-1992 armed conflict between the
security forces and the leftist Farabundo Martí National
Liberation Front (FMLN) left 75,000 people dead and 8,000 "disappeared".
But although a 1992 peace agreement put
an end to the civil war, El Salvador still has one of the highest
homicide rates in the world: 56 per 100,000 population in 2006,
according to the Institute of Forensic Medicine.
The Inter-American Court on Human Rights
will soon hand down a ruling in the case of the June 1994 murder
of businessman Mauricio García Prieto, who was allegedly
the victim of a death squad. García Prieto's parents took
the case to the Inter-American Court when they were unable to
find justice in El Salvador.
In addition, several leaders of the FMLN
- now the main opposition party - were killed after the peace
agreement was signed, including Mario López and Darol Francisco
Velis, who were murdered in 1993 by death squads. Others escaped
attempts on their lives.
In late 1993, the inter-institutional
Joint Group for the Investigation of Politically Motivated Illegal
Armed Groups was set up, led by the United Nations observer mission
that monitored the peace process.
In its 110-page report, the Joint Group
cited declassified documents from the U.S. Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) which referred to death squads that operated between
1980 and 1991.
But an appendix to the report that was
never made public contained the names of businessmen and member
of the military involved in death squads, which according to the
investigators were financed since 1979 by government security
offices, kidnapping, extortion and contributions from members
of the ruling elite in El Salvador.
The death squads also received support
from members of the elite in Guatemala and even Miami, Florida,
as well as from right-wing groups in Argentina, Venezuela and
Mexico, and the World Anti-Communist League, according to the
The 1994 report stated that after the
end of the civil war, the nature of political violence had shifted
"toward more decentralised structures geared primarily to
common crime and exhibiting a high degree of organisation."
It also maintained that this "broad
network of organised crime , in which there is active participation
of members of the armed forces of El Salvador and the National
Police, cannot be divorced from many acts of politically motivated
David Morales, a lawyer with Tutela Legal
del Arzobispado, the Catholic church's legal aid office in San
Salvador, told IPS that despite the fact that the Joint Group
"recommended that former president (Armando) Calderón
(1994-1999) take measures to dismantle these groups, the recommendation
was never heeded."
And today, the death squads "are
intact, active and armed," he asserted.
In 1993, a group that calls itself Angels
of Death committed a wave of murders in western El Salvador, while
a "social cleansing" squad, Black Shadow, killed a number
of suspected gang members in San Miguel in 1994 and 1995.
At that time, an assistant police commissioner
and several PNC officers, along with a former soldier who is now
mayor of San Miguel, Wilfredo Salgado, were accused of the murders,
but the cases were closed when the key witness failed to show
up at court.
The witness, police Sergeant Vilma Quintanilla,
had refused to take part in the activities of Black Shadow.
After becoming a whistle-blower, Quintanilla,
who was afraid of being killed if she testified, fled the country,
according to the documents from the case, which Morales handled
when he was assistant human rights ombudsman.
INECIP's Martínez said that 622
possible cases of death squad killings were documented by FESPAD
between January 2001 and August 2005.
In 2006, the Human Rights Ombudsman's
Office (PDDH) reported the case of a young man, Abimilet Ramírez,
who after being picked up by the police was thrown down a well.
He survived, and there were witnesses
who saw him being seized by the police. But he was killed later,
after he and the PDDH reported his case to the public prosecutor's
Investigations by human rights organisations
have found that these incidents form part of "homicidal practices"
that "year after year have been seen in the post-war period,
and up to the present, and that are carried out with the acquiescence
of high-ranking authorities," Morales said in a television
These groups "resort to common crime
or organised crime as a means of financing themselves," he
The PNC has been perverted to such an
extent that it has completely lost the values and principles that
it had when it was created as the country's new civilian police
force by the peace agreement, said Martínez.
Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna said
he would propose "the creation of an external commission
to investigate the police," because "there is no effective
oversight" of the PNC.
Civil society representatives would form
part of the commission, he said.
Martínez said such a commission
should also review the country's public security policies, strengthen
the PNC's poor capacity to investigate crimes, review the police
force's budget, and develop oversight and disciplinary mechanisms
for the PNC, while studying the labour conditions and rights of
the police officers.
Without such an in-depth analysis and
overhaul, he said, the police force will continue reverting to