OEA/Ser.L/V/II.77 rev.1
doc. 7
17 May 1990
Original:  Spanish




The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has continued to monitor the human rights situation in El Salvador with great concern.  This section summarizes the findings of its monitoring activities during the period from September 1989 to April 1990 and provides information to update previous reports on the serious human rights problems affecting the country, which is in the throes of armed conflict.


As mentioned by the Commission in its previous Annual Report, the first 10 months of 1989 were marked by two conflicting tendencies–on the one hand, an escalation of acts of violence and an increase in charges of human rights violations and, on the other, talks between representatives of the Government of El Salvador and members of the leadership of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front with a view to arriving at a negotiated political solution to the conflict.  In its Annual Report, the Commission expressed the hope that such a solution would make it possible to achieve peace, an essential condition for the observance of human rights.


Thus, on September 13 to 15, 1989, representatives of the Government of El Salvador and the FMLN initiated talks in Mexico City to discuss the cessation of hostilities and to agree on an agenda and schedule for future meetings.  At the conclusion of that meeting, the Agreement of Mexico, establishing procedures, dates and topics for a future meeting, was signed and issued.


The second round of negotiations on the cessation of hostilities was held in San José, Costa Rica, October 16-17, 1989.  At the end of that meeting, a decision was made to hold another round of talks in Caracas, November 20-21, 1989.  It was also decided that the members who attended that meeting would be fully empowered to discuss and reach decisions on the items included on the agenda so as to enable significant progress to be made.


Taking place at the same time as these efforts to arrive at peaceful solutions were extremely serious acts of indiscriminate violence.  For example, at about 2:15 a.m. on October 31, 1989, a powerful bomb exploded in the offices of the Committee of Mothers of Missing Persons and Political Prisoners of El Salvador, COMADRES, in San Salvador, seriously wounding four persons, two of them children.  Witnesses reported that, just minutes before the explosion, they had seen two men in uniform running in the vicinity of that building.


On the same day, at approximately 12:30 p.m., while, a number of union members and friends were having lunch in the FENASTRAS building, another powerful bomb exploded inside the building, killing 10 and wounding more than 35.  Among the dead were Febe Elisabeth Velásquez, Secretary General of FENASTRAS, and other important leaders.


Various explanations were given as to who might have been responsible for that serious attack.  For example, it was claimed that the explosion occurred when explosives stared in the FENASTRAS offices were set off, or that it was carried out by FMLN members as an act of "self-purging (auto-depuración)."  Human rights organizations and the labor organization itself asserted that the attack could not have taken place without the participation, or at least the acquiescence, of the Salvadoran security forces.  The Commission is in the process of considering an individual case on this matter, in which FENASTRAS has requested the Government to allow the Inter-American Commission to conduct a follow-up of the investigation.


It should be pointed out that, according to union members, the attack on FENASTRAS must be viewed within the context of a strong escalation of violence against members of labor organizations, whom government sectors consider to be guerrilla sympathizers and front groups for the FMLN.  On September 18, 1989, during a demonstration organized by FENASTRAS to protest numerous arrests of union leaders, the National Police arrested 64 members of that labor union, many of whom claimed to have been tortured while in detention.


The attack on FENASTRAS headquarters was invoked by the FMLN leadership when it announced that it would not attend the round of talks scheduled for Caracas.  On November 11, 1989, the FMLN launched the largest-scale offensive in the war, among other things, to reinforce its negotiating position.  The Government responded with military force and on November 12, imposed a state of siege.  This conflict has been marked by acts of an extremely serious nature, which have tended to heighten its negative impact and complicate efforts to find a peaceful and negotiated solution.  This serious situation had a negative impact on human rights as a whole and caused them to deteriorate sharply.  The FMLN action consisted in taking control of densely populated neighborhoods of San Salvador and other cities, areas against which the army carried out a number of air attacks, taking a high toll of victims among the civilian population.


According to information given to the Inter-American Commission, during the response to the FMLN’s general offensive, the armed Forces often refused to provide proper care to persons wounded in combat.  In particular, on November 19, five health workers were detained in Mejicanos, four of whom were subsequently released, and eight people who had been seriously wounded disappeared.  It was also reported that the Government rejected CICR’s offer of a truce to allow the wounded to be evacuated during the first week of combat, although it said that it would not obstruct health care.


Further it was reported that incidents occurred during the offensive in which FMLN members used civilians as shields and obliged them to form corridors; on other occasions FMLN members obstructed the free movement of civilians and even obliged them to set up barricades.


For its part, the Government reported that on November …, 1989 members of the FMLN took control of the Hospital Santa Teresa in the city of Zacatecoluca, using explosive to destroy one of the floors of the building and killing a sick soldier.


Both the strategy used by the insurgent forces and the means of repression used by the Government and the Armed Forces came under severe criticism because of their effect on the civilian population.  Thus, the Message of the Bishops of the Central American Isthmus, of November 30, 1989, stated that:


The Christian conscience considers repugnant such actions as utilization of the civilian population as a protective shield by armed groups, the heavy bombing of densely populated areas and the use of the mass media to heighten tension and increase hatred between brothers.


The military operations were carried out in densely populated neighborhoods in the northwest and northeast of San Salvador, whose inhabitants fled en masse to other areas of the city.  Heavy fighting also spread to suburban regions in the southeast, whereas, in the interior of the country, numerous armed clashes took place in various departments.


The Commission has received information on the possible use by the Air Force of incendiary bombs against the civilian population.  The number of civilian casualties has become so great that the Archbishop of San Salvador launched an urgent appeal to the army to suspend the serial bombing of populated areas.  The intensity and means of combat constituted a serious threat to the right of life of many city dwellers.  According to official sources, the number of people killed in November and December totaled 2,400.  In the midst of this extreme violence, especially serious incidents occurred, which are described below.


Early in the morning of November 16, world public opinion was shaken by the killing of six Jesuit priests, a cook and her 15-year old daughter in the Oscar Romero pastoral center of the Universidad Central de América José Simeón Cañas in San Salvador.  The Commission had maintained close personal ties with many of them because of their important human rights work and their efforts in that academic center to find formulas for a peaceful solution to the Salvadoran conflict.


The Jesuits killed were the Rector of the University, Ignacio Ellacuría; the Vice-Rector, Ignacio Martín Baró; the Director of Human Rights center and founder of Legal Aid (Socorro Jurídico), Segundo Montes; and Fathers Amando López, Juan Ramón Moreno and Joaquín López y López.  Murdered with them was the housekeeper Julia Elba Ramos and her 15-year old daughter, Celina Marisette Ramos.  The Inter-American Commission has opened a case which is now being processed.  It should be mentioned that, on January 19, 1990, after an announcement by President Cristiani on national television in El Salvador, judge No … of the criminal courts ordered that Colonel Alfredo Benavides Moreno, three officers, three non-commissioned officers and two soldiers who were charged with the crime be taken into custody.  The Commission has not received any answer from the Government to its request for information, which was sent to it urgently on the day after the killings.


Also during the offensive, according to information supplied to the Commission, on November 12, 1989 nine youths were executed in the neighborhood of La Unión, in the city of Santa Ana.  Salvadoran Army sources said that they were members of the guerrillas who had died in combat.  However, relatives of these nine young men, as well as eye witnesses, said that the nine civilians had been unarmed when apprehended and that members of the National Guard had accused them of being rebels, moments before beginning the execution.


According to press reports, a witness of these events said that the guerrilla groups had left the area moments before the members of the armed Forces arrived and that they had taken revenge on come civilians who happened to be in the area at that time.


A similar incident occurred on November 19 in Cuscatancingo, a town west of San Salvador, in which six youths were executed.  Witnesses told members of humanitarian organizations that the members of the armed Forces lined the young men up against a wall and proceeded to kill them.  A seventh man who was in the surrounding area was also executed.


It has been extremely difficult to identify the victims, since members of the army cremated the bodies to prevent possible epidemics.  For their part, Salvadoran army sources claimed that the Santa Ana and Cuscatancingo victims were guerrilla members who, according to army reports, were killed in combat.


The establishment of the state of siege in a situation of acute violence considerably infringed on the right to personal liberty of numerous individuals who were arrested.  Especially serious were the detentions of members of various churches and humanitarian organizations, many of whom received threats or were obliged to leave the country.  On November 16, 1989, 12 members of the Lutheran Church were detained and placed in the custody7 of the National Guard.  They were all released the following day, on the condition that they immediately leave the country.  On the morning of November 17, National Guard troops surrounded the Lutheran Church in the zone of San Miguelito.  Their commander said that he had been ordered to detain anyone coming into the area and to arrest Father Gómez.


As reported by journalistic sources, on the morning of December 19, 1989, Juan Antonio Berti Quiñonez, co-director of the social agency of the Episcopalian Church, and Francisco Paz were arrested by uniformed members of the National Guard.


On the morning of November 15, 1989, military forces entered the parish of San Roque, intimidating and ill-treating a number of workers and other people who were there seeking refuge.  Four days later, National Guard troops returned in search of Father Pedro Cortéz, who was not in the parish at that time.  According to reports, the situation was extremely tense, and approximately 50 people were obliged to leave the parish.  It was claimed that the members of the National Guard went into many places of asylum to get the names of all those who had gone there to seek protection.


According to information given to the Commission, these threats, acts of intimidation and detentions of members of different churches have been taking place systematically.  Members of the National Guard have detained at least 42 people and have conducted searches in more than 50 locations.  More than 30 social workers, whose work is affiliated with church institutions, have had to leave the country as a result of actions by the security forces.


On several occasions priests and religious complained about the harsh treatment of the civilian population in areas of conflict by members of the Armed Forces: searches, threats, arbitrary prohibitions and excessive control of the entry of food and medical supplies are practices that, as reported to the Commission, occur time and again.  General conditions for the urban and rural civilian population in areas of conflict are therefore extremely harsh and burdensome.


With regard to personal liberty, the Inter-American Commission has been informed of incidents in which security forces, when unable to find the people they were looking for arrested their family members.  For example, on November 30, 1989, nine relatives of Jorge Alberto Amaya Ayala, a member of the STISS union, were arrested by members of the Air Force in the town of Soyapango.  The Commission also reported that at least 11 STISS members were arrested between November 11 and December 15, 1989.


Further with regard to the right to personal liberty, it should be mentioned that on November 19 the Hospital Pimero de Mayo was surrounded by members of the police, who later entered the hospital to look for certain people, over a period of about four hours.  In that incident, eight people were arrested; they remained in detention until December 14.


The heightening of violence and the suspension of individual guarantees under the state of siege have resulted in a significant increase in the number of people deprived of their freedom.  According to information initially supplied to the Commission, many of these people are now being held alongside common criminals, in very poor conditions.  However, the Commission has not been informed of recent developments in this situation or of how the Government of El Salvador is solving the problem.


Nongovernmental organizations also reported a marked increase in cases of torture of political prisoners by their interrogators.  The testimony of people who were detained and then released invariably indicates the same pattern:  prolonged interrogations of blindfolded detainees who are not able to sit down or rest, repeated blows and threats, the use of hoods that make it difficult to breathe and induce fainting, giving electric shocks using water basins, the use of various drugs and acids, and often rape and the sexual abuse of women, and even men, as well as death threats directed against them and their relatives.  A few witnesses said that they had not been ill-treated, although the interrogations had been harsh and humiliating.


In their answers, the competent authorities indicated that modern scientific procedures were used in interrogations, including the use of polygraphs or lie detectors, but that in any event all the methods used were proper.  Information from the same sources holds that the Government has been injured by campaigns to damage its reputation launched by the FMLN and groups of FMLN sympathizers.  However, government officials admitted that the detainees were blindfolded during interrogations to prevent them from being able subsequently to identify their interrogators.  Authorities have recognized that there might be cases of isolated abuse, but that it was by no means an institutionalized practice.


In addition, the Commission was informed of inspections and searches by security forces of the offices of labor organizations and political parties, as well as of the homes of the leaders of these organizations.  Some institutions like ASPS, CORDES and PADECOES have been subject to numerous searches.  In some of them–for example, in the offices of COACES, COMADRES, CONAMUS, UNADES and UNTS–military troops forced their way in, destroying property, which meant that on some occasions the offices were unable to continue their day-to-day operations.  As a result of this insecurity, the Nongovernmental Commission on Human Rights (CDHES) was forced to move most of its members and operations to Mexico.


As for freedom of speech, it should be mentioned that on November 11, 1989, at about 11 p.m. some three hours after the FMLN began its offensive, the Government ordered all the radio and television stations to come together in one national channel.  Along with the state of siege that took effect the following day, harsh censorship was imposed by obliging everyone to listen to the government station.  These measures were gradually lifted.  On November 22, the news program “Al Día,”  broadcast on channel 12, was forced to suspend its program, explaining that it could not report on existing conditions objectively and independently.  It resumed broadcasting one week later.


The climate of violence has also affected journalists, who have been subject to many arrests and threats.  Regrettably, one reporter died and in many cases journalists and their vehicles have been attacked.  There have been reports that at least 10 duly accredited journalists have been apprehended while exercising their profession.  On December 3, 1989, the National Police stopped a Spanish cameraman, Andrés Cabañas Díaz, while he was trying to interview injured members of the FMLN in El Calvario Church, where they had been since November 7, 1989.


The Salvadoran journalist Eloy Guevara Paiz, a journalism student at the National University and a report for the France Presse and a local radio station, was killed on December 1 in Soyapango, when he was with a rescue squad, clearly identified as such b a white flag, and with other journalists.


Ecclesiastical sources indicated that it has long been impossible to have access to reliable information because of the suspension of individual guarantees decreed on November 12.  They asked the Government to establish certain conditions that would guarantee a free, objective and independent press and to open up political possibilities so that the forces of society would be completely free to express themselves.


Another event that caused serious concern is the adoption by the Legislative Assembly of the new law amending the Criminal Code and the Code of Procedures in the criminal area.  The Legislative Assembly considered that the climate of chaos and violence prevailing in the country justified the adoption of the bill, which the Inter-American Commission found objectionable in light of the international commitments made by El Salvador in the area of human rights.


President Cristiani and members of his administration defended the new legislation by arguing that it was a good means to update the old Criminal Code and to adapt it to the new national constitution, in effect since 1983.  For their part, critics of this legislative reform maintained that it could be used to incarcerate journalists who criticized the Government or to prevent any type of peaceful protest by the population, as well as to prohibit the publication of films, foreign reports or photographs that endangered public law and order.  The new law also imposes penalties of up to 20 years in prison on people who participate in transportation boycotts.


As stated by the human rights organizations, the letter and spirit of the new law seriously restrict individual rights and freedoms and could result in the suppression of all types of political expression or opinion contrary to that supported by the Government.


Another matter of great concern to the Inter-American Commission is that it will be very difficult for persons arrested under the new legislation to have access to an adequate defense.  Salvadoran attorneys are very troubled about taking on the defense of persons charged with acts of terrorism, since by doing so they themselves could be charged with the offense of defending terrorist acts.  It is also a matter of great concern that extrajudicial confessions can be used as evidence against those making such dispositions, since it opens up the possibility for such extrajudicial confessions to be obtained by the use of force or torture.


All these amendments will also directly impede the process of documenting and monitoring human rights violations in general.  Anyone associated with humanitarian groups can be prosecuted merely by obtaining photographs of or testimony on human rights violations committed by the Salvadoran Government or by members of the military.


The Commission must once again express its deep concern over the human rights situation in El Salvador, which has seriously deteriorated as a result of the escalation of the armed conflict in the country.  Recent events prove beyond a doubt that it is impossible to achieve solutions by the use of force.  On the contrary, acts of violence serve to exacerbate the conflict and lead to a vicious circle of new and more serious human rights violations, which result in great suffering for the civilian population that finds itself helpless among the parties to the conflict.


The decisions taken by the Government of El Salvador and the leadership of the FMLN to renew their negotiations to bring an end to the war constitute an important step which the Commission is carefully observing with the hope that they culminate in the peace which the Salvadoran people are demanding.


After 12 years of civil war, and on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the assassination of Monseigneur Oscar Arnulfo Romero, it is painful to note that certain standards on human rights violations continue to be in effect.  The relative advances made have been seriously compromised by recent events and make it more necessary than ever before, in the opinion of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, to find a peaceful and negotiated solution to the conflict, a basic component of which must be unrestricted respect for human rights.  The Commission must note that it has decided to prepare a special report on the human rights situation in El Salvador.


Table of Contents |Previous | Next  ]