In September 2006, after the Salvadoran Congress passed the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, then-US Ambassador H. Douglas Barclay congratulated the Salvadoran people. “The US and El Salvador are [now] partners in the war on terror,” he beamed. The law, modeled on the USA Patriot Act, establishes a special terrorism tribunal and allows for anonymous witnesses and undercover agents to participate in those trials. It also criminalizes acts such as public protests, street blockades and “publicly justifying terrorism” with punishments of up to eighty years in prison. More than a year later, this law has turned scores of Salvadoran citizens into fugitives.

Last July, I spent two weeks in San Salvador chasing down one of these ersatz outlaws–Sandra Henriquez, a leader of the Salvadoran National Vendors Movement. On May 12 the National Civilian Police (PNC) raided vendors’ stalls, including hers, in downtown San Salvador, attempting to confiscate the pirated goods they sell. The vendors resisted, and a group of angry onlookers–some say provocateurs–set fire to a police car. Shortly after, 150 riot police showed up and subdued the crowd with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Henriquez avoided arrest, but nineteen others were taken into police custody and charged under the antiterrorism law. At a press conference, President Elías Antonio Saca said, “[The vendors] are terrorists–the correct word is ‘terrorist’…. Anyone who sells something illegal on the streets must go to prison.”

On May 30 the government issued a blacklist of suspects accused of participating in the Vendors Movement and thus wanted on terrorism charges. Henriquez was in her home watching her 3-year-old son when she heard that her husband was on the list and had been arrested, along with several others, bringing the total to twenty-two in jail. “What I didn’t know was that the government had made the order to capture me as well,” she said. During the country’s long civil war, government officials issued similar blacklists–the next day, many of those on the lists would be dead. “When I found out I was on the blacklist, I fled,” Henriquez said.

The vendors were the first activists to be accused under the antiterrorism law, but they will not be the last. On July 2, protesters gathered in the town of Suchitoto to oppose President Saca’s plan to “decentralize” the country’s water systems, which many believe is the first step toward privatization. As government helicopters swirled in the sky, protesters blockaded the street, preventing Saca’s caravan from entering the city. Riot police and PNC agents opened fire with tear gas and rubber bullets, and arrested thirteen people, including four leaders of the rural development organization CRIPDES, as well as journalist María Haydee Chicas. Thirteen of those arrested are being charged under the antiterrorism law.

María Silvia Guillén, executive director in El Salvador of the Foundation for Studies of Applied Law, believes the law is being used as a political weapon. It creates “wild cards that allow the concepts and penalties of the law to be invoked or left aside at any given time, influenced by any political motive,” she says. Pedro Juan Hernández, a professor of economics at the University of El Salvador, concurs. “The objective of these antiterrorist laws isn’t to fight terrorism, because there haven’t been acts of terrorism [in El Salvador] in many years,” he recently told In These Times.

The Bush and Saca administrations maintain close ties. El Salvador is the only Latin American country with troops still in Iraq and was the first to sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The country receives $461 million over five years in US aid through the Millennium Challenge Corporation and is home to the controversial US-run International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in San Salvador.

Despite ample evidence of abuses, US officials have failed to condemn violations of civil liberties in El Salvador. “Whatever step a government takes against terrorism is an appropriate step,” said Ambassador Barclay after El Salvador’s antiterrorism law squeezed through Congress last year. He also made news when he urged the Salvadoran government to step up its use of wiretaps. Current US Ambassador Charles Glazer has remained silent on the issue and declined to go on record for this article.

US economic interests run deep in El Salvador. After the 1996 privatization of the country’s electricity industry, corporations like North Carolina-based giant Duke Energy, once a business partner with Enron, swooped in to invest. If El Salvador’s water infrastructure is privatized, analysts predict, a similar assault will follow; in May the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, an agency of the US government, held a conference in San Salvador focusing on “investment opportunities in sectors such as infrastructure [and] energy.” CAFTA also streamlines the privatization process and prioritizes strengthening intellectual property laws and punishments, and the ILEA’s founding charter establishes intellectual property rights as a prime concern. Elsewhere, the ILEA has said its mission is to “enhance the functioning of free markets.” The vendors, however, say that repression has increased since CAFTA and the ILEA came to El Salvador.

Wilfredo Berrios, a labor leader in San Salvador, argues that the recent crackdown is designed to silence protest against Saca’s economic policies and to protect the investment climate for foreign businesses. “The opposition to CAFTA and to water privatization has been very strong,” Berrios says. “These policies can’t go forward unless their opponents are silenced.”

Opponents of the new law now include three judges from the San Salvador tribunals, who recently criticized the measure for being too vague. In August forty-one US Congress members sent a letter to President Saca expressing concern over the arrest of Suchitoto protesters. On September 1 the government dropped all charges against the vendors. But the thirteen people arrested in Suchitoto, including Haydee Chicas, still face terrorism charges and will stand trial in February. If convicted, they could face up to sixty years in prison.

While it has offered rhetorical support for the antiterrorism law, the Bush Administration remains cautious about more direct intervention. After all, US involvement in the country’s affairs–like the massacre at El Mozote, where US-trained soldiers raped, tortured and executed 900 villagers in 1981–has caused diplomatic disasters in the past. But like Ambassadors Barclay and Glazer, Washington remains quietly supportive of repression in El Salvador, continuing to deepen and benefit from economic and military ties with the Saca administration.

If the United States has learned to be more hands-off in its relations with El Salvador, President Saca draws a very different lesson from history. In a May 7 speech, he offered an example for today’s armed forces to emulate in the “war on terror”: Col. Domingo Monterrosa, the commander who led the massacre at El Mozote. “Colonel Monterrosa,” Saca said without irony, “knew how to defend the nation, with nobility, in the saddest moment of the Republic.”

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