By Tomás Andréu
Jan. 16 marked the 24 years since the signing of the Peace Accords between the insurgent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the government of President Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994), of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). The Peace Accords ended the armed conflict that took place between 1980 and 1992, leaving 75,000 dead and more than 8,000 disappeared.
In the commemoration ceremony, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén — former commander of the FMLN and signatory to the Peace Accords — said that: “With the signing of the Peace Accords, our country won international recognition and respect for having the courage and wisdom to end a bloody war through dialogue and negotiation.”
“We knew that the signing of the agreement was a starting point for building democracy and peace. Let’s remember that our opponents wanted to maintain the status quo and we wanted to change it. The 34 amendments to the Constitution of the Republic sought to build the rule law,” said former guerrilla commander and now congresswoman Nidia Díaz to Latinamerica Press.
Among the reforms Díaz mentioned are the creation of the National Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights, the Public Security Academy, the National Civil Police, the purge of the Salvadoran Army that was brought under the jurisdiction of civil society, and the creation of a governing body for assignation of public office posts.
The former guerrilla member Otoniel Guevara — a poet, cultural agent and former 2015 candidate for the mayorship of Quezaltepeque, north of San Salvador — agreed with Díaz.
“We have to celebrate the Peace Accords. It was a firm step for achieving rule of law,” he told Latinamerica Press. Guevara, who participated in the armed offensive of 1989, which was decisive for dialogue between the insurgents and the government, today is an FMLN critic.
For his part, former President Cristiani told Latinamerica Press: “The purpose of the whole negotiation process was to end the armed conflict, and in this respect the agreements served its purpose. For what it was intended at the time, which was to stop the conflict, it was enough. There was nothing outstanding.”
Cristiani insisted that the General Amnesty Law enacted during his rule in 1993 — which eliminated the possibility to prosecute those responsible for crimes against humanity committed during the armed conflict — allowed El Salvador to move forward with a new path.
Since the FMLN came to power, first with Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) and now with Sánchez Cerén, who was elected in 2014, little or nothing has been done to investigate the crimes committed during the armed conflict and bring justice to the thousands of families who suffered the death or disappearance of a loved one.
“Today, as General Commander of the Armed Forces, I apologize to the victims of grave violations of human rights, their families, and I reaffirm to you my commitment that such events will never be repeated in our history,” said Sánchez Cerén.
There has to remember, however, that the current president, when he was a congressman in 2006, demanded the repeal of the Amnesty Law, noting that from the beginning ARENA refused to comply with the recommendations of the Truth Commission, created by virtue of the Peace Accords to investigate the crimes against humanity that occurred in the country between 1980 and 1992.
At this moment is an awkward subject although the Executive has the power to change the legal outcome of the Amnesty Law.
Díaz made a mea culpa regarding the FMLN debt since the signing of the accords: “The debt we have is the compensation for moral and material damage to the victims (…) We have not repealed the Amnesty Law because there has not been a correlation. If we had more representatives, I think we would have done so.”
However, the fight against impunity seems to have taken a step forward with the Feb. 5 capture of four of the 17 former military members accused of murdering six Jesuit priests — five of whom were Spaniards — on Nov. 16, 1989 in the Central American University campus. Since 2011, Spanish courts have requested the arrest of these former military members in order to extradite them, a request reiterated on Jan. 5. Spain can request the extradition of the captured, but the decision to extradite them would depend on the Supreme Court of Justice.
“These are not times of peace. There has not been peace on any day since signing the accords. If we talk about national peace, we must remember the Salvadorans who still suffer from the war because they have missing relatives, disabled or forgotten veterans. We lack of national welfare policies; there is a sharp deterioration of education and training skills of young people, plundering of natural resources, party manipulation of sport, art and culture, electoral political patronage, and demonization of youth, to name a few ‘peace disturbers’,” Guevara said.
In spite of not being at war, El Salvador is currently one of the most violent countries in the world. The number of violent deaths in the country has already surpassed the daily numbers during the armed conflict, according to the Attorney General’s Office. 2015 ended with 6,670 homicides. In August alone there were 911 murders, or 30 people killed every 24 hours.
The government attributes these deaths to the combat against its closest enemies: the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs who kill soldiers, police and judicial officials and their relatives.
The most conservative data estimate that in El Salvador there are 60,000 gang members in the streets. Within the prison system, there are another 13,000. To these figures must be added the accomplices, ranging from family members and neighborhood friends, to judges, police, military members, and middle and low rank politicians.
Félix Ulloa, President of the Institute of Legal Studies of El Salvador (IEJES) and member of the Political Commission of the now defunct National Revolutionary Movement, reflects in an article in the digital newspaper El Faro on the 24 years of peace in El Salvador and its new context of violence.
“The gangs that were initially only the product of the indifference of the state towards the children of war, orphans, children abandoned by parents who left the country, later grew up, got organized and multiplied, and today have us on our knees,” he said.
Citizens and some politicians are calling for the death penalty for gang members, while the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court declared gang members terrorists in 2015.
In his speech, Sánchez Cerén called “everyone to unite, to work together and face together the great challenges facing El Salvador.”
A 60 percent of the population considers violence to be one of the main problems in the country, according to a January survey by the University Institute of Public Opinion. In addition, 66 percent gave the measures the government is pushing to improve security on the ground a failing grade, believing that these are not working.
In this context, the commemoration of the Peace Accords in El Salvador increasingly goes unnoticed. To rescue this festive spirit of the early days of the signing of the Peace Accords, we need to create “a real country. For all. Of all. With everyone,” says Guevara.
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