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.