The Multinational Monitor

September 1988 - VOLUME 9 - NUMBER 9



By Sandy Smith
SAN SALVADOR--The distress call from the National Unity of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS) came across the radio just before noon on Tuesday, September 13, 1988. Army soldiers from the First Brigade were trying to force their way into the union headquarters, said the communique. A few minutes earlier a student demonstration in another part of town had been dispersed with tear gas. This military crack-down on anti-government organizations included nighttime raids on labor offices and arbitrary arrests and beatings of organizers.

At the UNTS office in the residential neighborhood of San Miguelito, squads of soldiers stood on the corners. Salvadoran TV crews arrived, and, along with other journalists, slipped past the corner guards and gathered in front of UNTS headquarters in mid-block. Army commandos with M-16s and black bandannas over their noses crouched ominously in doorways and behind trees. Windows of the two-story union headquarters were filled with anxious faces of Salvadoran workers and an eight-person U.S. delegation. As the soldiers cordoned off both ends of the street, reporters gathered to interview UNTS spokesmen through the barred windows.

There had been numerous gunshots in the street, said the spokesmen, then a group of soldiers with covered faces rang the bell and demanded entry to the offices. "We're not going to permit them to violate this office, nor to capture anyone," he declared. Individuals of the U.S. delegation then asked to speak. A visibly shaken blond woman with glasses took the microphone to declare their solidarity with the UNTS and their intention to remain with the Salvadoran workers until the soldiers retreated. She complained that upon calling the U.S. Embassy for help the Americans had been referred to the Salvadoran security forces. An embassy spokesman later justified the embassy's inaction by explaining that the caller had refused to give consular personnel names of the Americans trapped inside the building. Frightened workers inside interrupted the interview to ask about positions of soldiers on the block. Residents on the block watched nervously from their windows or asked soldiers for permission to leave the area.

Finally, just as suddenly and mysteriously as the siege had begun, it dissolved. Soldiers pulled back and began to board trucks and leave. The press corps returned en masse to the union office asking for permission to enter. In a hastily-arranged press conference, UNTS leader Julio Cesar Portillo recounted the events. "We think the government and the High Command of the military are ready to commit violence against us. We've been accused of having arms, but this is just a provocation," Portillo told the reporters. "We call on the international presence, the popular organizations and Archbishop Rivera y Damas to help us. Please don't go away. Bring us food and we will stay here morning, noon and night to defend our union headquarters." Humberto Centeno, a member of the UNTS executive board, invited the press to search the premises to verify that no arms were being hidden. As the press conference ended word came that the student demonstration had been broken up by soldiers shortly before the UNTS encounter--several dozen wounded, massive arrests, police firing into the crowd.

The military cordon at UNTS was part of a new "get tough" policy announced that morning by Defense Minister Gen. Eugenio Vides Casenova, who stated that anti-government demonstrations would no longer be tolerated. In a phone interview, military spokesman Col. Galileo Torres justified the military cordon around the UNTS office by explaining that armed demonstrators from the student march had taken refuge in the building. No evidence was provided, nor could eyewitnesses be found to support the charge.

Earlier that day, when armed and uniformed members of the Hacienda Police raided a union-affiliated child care center, arresting and beating three people and stealing $1,300 in funds supplied by the Australian government. The people arrested included Roberto Campos, 27, and Laura Mira, 22, both employees of the Australian Garden Childcare Center, established with Australian funds as a project of the women's committee of the National Federation of Salvadoran Workers (FENASTRAS), a UNTS- affiliated federation. The police also arrested Mira's husband, Otoniel Guevara, 21. When the three were released two days later Campos told the story of what happened: "They woke us up as they broke in around 1 a.m. They hit and kicked me and forced me to open the gate to let in 50 more police. They searched the whole place, turning over everything, even the food prepared for the children for the next day. They even turned over the flower pots. They threatened to stab me if I didn't tell them where the arms were hidden. But there were no arms." From the child care center the police carried the three, blindfolded and tied, to the Hacienda Police headquarters. Two days of non-stop interrogations and beatings followed. Campos reported being repeatedly punched and forced to stand for long periods. "Who funds the center? Who meets there? Where are the arms stored?" The interrogators repeatedly asked these questions. Campos began vomiting blood, he says, and fears he has suffered internal injuries from the beatings. When the three were released, they were warned that they would be "disappeared" if they went back to the center. A week later, an Australian diplomat who investigated the attack, reported that the Australian government was "deeply concerned and disturbed" by the police actions. The center has reopened, but the number of children cared for has dropped to less than half the 15-20 who normally came before the raid. Campos vowed that the unionists would continue the project, but reported that he is wary of returning to his job.

Another union office, that of the UNTS-affiliated National Association of Agricultural Workers (ANTA), was raided the night of September 13 around midnight. This time, the security force was the National Guard and the number arrested was 13. But the methods and the questions were the same. The offices were ransacked for three and a half hours while the workers lay face down on the floor, bound and blindfolded. Then they were jailed, interrogated, threatened and tortured over a two-day period. One of the men reported being repeatedly kicked and beaten while police held a plastic bag over his head. Another told of being forced to drink filthy water from a toilet. The police accused them of belonging to the FMLN.

A few nights later on Monday, September 19 a bomb was thrown out the window of a moving car at the front of FENASTRAS headquarters. International observers who have followed the series of attacks on the labor sector speculate that the crackdown on the 13th was intended to have a chilling effect on organizing for the large Independence Day demonstrations planned for September 15. Those protests went ahead as scheduled, but the numbers of marchers and general level of enthusiasm were dampened by the heavy Army presence on the streets and the steady rains from the fringes of Hurricane Gilbert. The new repression against urban organizers must also be viewed in the light of the political shift to the right in Salvadoran politics and the recent electoral successes of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. Juan Jose Huezo, secretary of international relations at FENASTRAS, notes, "The government wants a small popular movement to give the impression of democracy. But the movement has grown too big and now they have to bring in the army to control it. The government is worried because its counter-insurgency policy isn't working. Now it's beginning to turn to terrorism."

Sandy Smith is a freelance writer in San Salvador.