Protestors of Water Privatization Arrested and Charged as Terrorists:
In July 2007, events in El Salvador turned decidedly insidious. As one observer noted, "The rule of law and respect for human rights are crumbling," and the country seems to be careening toward violent civil unrest. The most recent troubles concern government schemes to privatize water services; just such a scheme lies at the heart of my latest novel, Blood of Paradise.
On July 2nd, demonstrators took the streets of Suchitoto, a popular tourist destination: a colonial city founded in 1525, with stone-paved streets and houses with flaring white walls and bright, red-tiled roofs. The demonstrators were protesting a visit by President Antonio Saca to announce a national plan to “decentralize” drinking water services. (Euphemisms such as “decentralization,” “concession,” and “private sector participation” with regard to water services have become routine in the wake of Bechtel’s failed plan to privatize the water system of Cochabamba, Bolivia.)
As has been the case elsewhere in Latin America, water privatization has a troubled history in El Salvador. A prime example is the town of Santa Eduviges, where in 2006 the water system was “concessioned” to a private provider who always made sure water bills were sent on time, but failed two months running to provide anyone in the town with running water. The townspeople demonstrated, and the police responded with teargas to break up the crowd and jailed five of the protestors—but the citizens were ultimately able to have their water system returned to public control.
This is a mixed blessing in El Salvador, where the national water agency, ANDA, has at best a spotty record of providing services. (There are in fact numerous state agencies overseeing water services in El Salvador, ANDA being the largest, and their often conflicting mandates lend an almost impenetrable confusion to water issues.) ANDA’s poor performance, however, has been made even worse lately by questionable tactics devised, some say, to subvert public trust in the agency in order to turn public opinion more favorably toward privatization.
Despite the fact that almost 50 percent of the population does not have access to piped water, almost 90 percent of the country’s surface water is contaminated, and the country ranks at the top for infant mortality in Central America due to intestinal infections and diarrhea, President Saca has slashed ANDA’s budget by 37 percent since 2005. ANDA workers have reported that water systems already targeted for privatization always get priority from management in repair scheduling. Cities that resist such efforts find their repairs denied or endlessly delayed—an example is the capital, San Salvador, where repairs have slowed to a crawl because the mayor, Violeta Menjivar, is a member of the leftist FMLN, which opposes privatization.
Privatization of the telecommunications and electricity sectors led to the firings of thousands of workers, who then had to reapply for their old jobs at a fraction of the pay with none of the government benefits previously provided, plus a loss of seniority and the dissolution of their union. Many ANDA workers fear a similar fate awaits them if the proposed General Water Law, sponsored by the right-leaning ARENA party, led by President Saca, is passed in the Legislative Assembly—in addition to higher rates, lower quality, less access, and less citizen control over services, as happened in the case of the telecommunication and electricity sectors.
El Salvador’s water privatization has been driven in large part by the World Bank’s Inter-American Development Bank, which in 1998 approved a loan with $36 million earmarked for “promotion of private sector participation (PSP) using specialized consultants to give support and financial advice to the government toward the effective organization of PSP schemes.”
One such “scheme” was to be unveiled on July 2nd, when President Saca arrived at an elite resort on Lake Suchitoto to make his pronouncement. Dozens of invited dignitaries never made it to the ceremony, however, because protestors—including unionists, grassroot organization members, and community residents—set up roadblocks that prevented their arrival.
Police SWAT teams with backing from military units then fired teargas and rubber bullets into the crowd, and began making arrests. Fourteen people in all were detained, including the protest organizers and the leaders of the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), a widely respected grassroots organization. Four of the protest organizers were riding in a red pickup toward the protest in Suchitoto when police pulled them over and arrested them near the town of Milingo. Journalist Maria Haydee Chicas, working for a local television channel, recorded the arrest on video, which showed how the vehicle was intercepted by the police and its driver violently removed and thrown to the ground, on the pretext that he had obstructed the passage of the police. (The driver was charged with assaulting a police officer, though the video reveals he put up no resistance.)
The others in the truck were arrested when they complained about the driver’s treatment, as was Chicas, even though she shouted repeatedly that she was a journalist. "More than anything, this was a kidnapping," charged a spouse of one of the detainees. "With it, the government is sending a political message: 'Don't protest.'"
Another video, which was not broadcast on local media, shows demonstrators asking the PNC not to use force while its officers advanced on the protestors. Photographer Luis Galdamez of the Reuters news agency, the only foreign correspondent present on the scene, was also beaten by police, although he told them he was a journalist and showed his press credentials.
Questionable police tactics did not stop there, however.
David Morales of Tutela Legal, a human rights agency of the Roman Catholic Church, stated that his agency’s lawyers and relatives of those arrested have reported that some of those arrested were beaten, threatened, and tortured, and that the pilot of the police helicopter carrying the detainees to prison swerved the aircraft in such a way that the handcuffed prisoners slid towards the doors, and were in danger of falling out at a considerable altitude. (This sort of behavior has resonance in El Salvador, where the Air Force’s A-II intelligence unit was notorious during the civil war of throwing bound captives out of airplanes over the ocean—a practice referred to as “night freefall training.”)
The arrestees have been charged under the "Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism,” based on the U.S. Patriot Act and passed after a sniper killed two police officers during a protest last July. Activists say the application of the antiterrorism law confirms their warnings that the law would be used to criminalize protest and silence dissent. The defendants face up to sixty years in prison if convicted.
Judge Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz of the Special Tribunal of San Salvador affirmed the terrorism charges against thirteen of the original fourteen arrestees (one was released, since it was determined he was merely trying to help others being arrested, which is not a crime), but dismissed "Public Disorder" and "Illicit Association" charges against all the defendants, on the grounds that prosecutors failed to provide evidence of these crimes. However, she also denied bail for the jailed activists, who will have to wait up to ninety days in El Salvador's notoriously violent, unkempt, and overcrowded jails while prosecutors gather evidence for trial.
Amnesty International condemned the detentions, which it fears were carried out to punish people for participating in legitimate protests and to inhibit similar demonstrations in the future.
Similarly, Reporters Without Borders has filed an official request with Saca to intervene, requesting the immediate release of Chicas, whose arrest they describe as a “grave abuse of authority,” adding: “It is ridiculous to claim that someone who was just doing her job as a journalist was engaged in an act of terrorism.”
In the face of these protests regarding the use of an antiterrorism stature against civil demonstrators, ARENA officials have presented to the Legislative Assembly a list of “reforms” to the Penal Code, creating the crime of an “attack against the public peace,” with a sentence of three to ten years, a move immediately condemned by the opposition FMLN as an attempt to criminalize protest and create the legal machinery to strengthen government repression.
This change for the worse in human rights is taking place while the Salvadoran economy continues to serve the interests of only a select few, even as neoconservative apologists like Paul Wolfowitz continue to claim that El Salvador is one of the great successes of American foreign policy, and that it has “the strongest economy in Latin America.” Contrast such glowing appraisals with the United Nations Human Development Report on El Salvador for 2003, which reported that El Salvador’s levels of income inequality rank among the highest in the world. In the 10 years before the report was issued, the wealthiest 20 percent of families “had increased their share of national income to 58.3 percent,” and the neediest 20 percent “had their share cut to 2.4 percent.”
In the words of the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chavez:"Since we signed the peace, poverty and unemployment have increased, and there is a great sense of insecurity among the people. We signed the peace, but we do not have reconciliation in the country. . . . The government does not recognize that the causes (of violence) are linked to structural injustice, and that the injustice continues. Therefore we have another kind of war, and we see people dying every day."
Or, as freelance journalist Carol Towarnicky wrote for the Philadelphia Daily News after a trip to El Salvador:
“When we ask some women what they wish for their children, it's heartbreaking to hear them preface their dreams with an acknowledgement that they're unlikely to come true. . . . The inspiring spirit and hard work of the people is being undermined by their lack of resources and by corrupt government practices. . . . The Central American Free Trade Agreement has lowered prices so much that exports are impractical. . . . Many people survive only because they get money from the States. . . . It's not hard to understand why, according to a 2005 U.N. report, 700 people a day leave El Salvador, most on their way to the U.S. Many of the intrepid are the potential leaders of the country, the innovators and artists. The human capital is being depleted and little is being done to conserve natural resources. Soon there will be nothing left to rape.”
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