Campaign for the liberation of the "Suchitoto 13" prisoners in El Salvador, 2007-08

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
This campaign was conducted in two major waves of action, with a period of inaction in the middle. This means that most of the tactics took place at the beginning and the end of the campaign.
July
2007
to
February
2008
Location and Goals
Country: 
El Salvador
Location City/State/Province: 
Suchitoto and San Salvador
Goals: 
Demands varied by organization, but the core demands were that the thirteen prisoners were released without charges. Additionally, some groups demanded that that the government stop using anti-terrorist law to suppress legal protest and demonstrations.
 

In El Salvador in 1998, the Inter-American Development Bank, a branch of the World Bank, approved a loan for a reform program directed at the nation’s water sector. The loan focused on a program based on decentralization and privatization of El Salvador’s water systems. 36 million dollars of the loan was designated specifically for the promotion of private sector participation in the decentralization program. In 2005, President Antonio Saca cut the budget for the national water agency Administracion Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados (ANDA) by an additional 15%, the lowest of the decade. In a country where 40% of the residents don’t have access to potable drinking water, community and activist groups in El Salvador remain highly critical of the privatization process.

On July 2, 2007 President Saca planned to formally announce his decentralization policy. The event was planned to take place in the city of Suchitoto, but the morning of the announcement, protesters filled the city. The protesters, who included unionists, community members, and local organization affiliates, created blockades in the streets leading to the event venue. President Saca and hundreds of invited dignitaries were unable to make it through the protesters. Meanwhile, riot police and the National Civil Police (PNC) attempted to disperse the crowds by using tear gas and pepper spray, and opened fire with rubber bullets from close range on the crowds. The police stayed on the scene well until the afternoon, injuring 75 people and arresting 14. Saca was eventually forced to take a helicopter back to San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador. He later arranged a press conference to announce the decentralization plan.

Within a day, social movement groups and solidarity organizations began publicly denouncing the unlawful arrests of the protesters. Two of the fourteen people arrested were Marta Lorena Araujo and Rosa Maria Centeno, the president and vice president of the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), a social development organization. The two women were in a pickup truck on the way to the protest when they were pulled over and arrested. Human rights organization protested the arrests, saying that the unlawful detention was the government’s attempt to send a repressive warning against protest. One prisoner was released right away, but thirteen of the fourteen detainees were charged with “acts of terrorism” under the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism, which is modeled after the United States Patriot Act. The charges could potentially hold a sixty-year prison sentence. Judge Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz threw out the charges of ‘public disorder’ and ‘illicit association’ based on a lack of evidence, but also denied bail for the prisoners.

On July 3, representatives from different human rights and community organizations met with the government’s office of human rights member Beatrice de Carillo. They wanted her to demand the release of the prisoners without charges and to denounce the increased repression of the anti-privatization campaign. Additionally, CRIPDES and other groups presented a resolution to the legislative assembly to demand that representatives of the different political parties repudiate acts of repression against the campaign. On July 4, a statement that was signed by 60 Salvadoran social organizations demanded the immediate release of the prisoners without charges, and barring that, it demanded respect for the physical well being of the detained.

Meanwhile, public demonstrations against the arrests continued and support for the prisoners began to grow abroad. Amnesty International released a statement saying that the Salvadoran government was punishing citizens for participating in a legitimate protest, and was trying to inhibit future acts of protest. Protesters began to refer to the prisoners as the ‘Suchitoto 13,’ and called them the first political prisoners since Peace Accords were signed in 1992.

On July 11, the American-based group El Salvador Sister Cities Organization met with the United States ambassador to El Salvador Charles Glazer to demand that the United States Embassy make a public statement declaring its position on the July 2 protest and the prisoners. Other international groups began showing support for the release of the prisoners including Human Right Watch, Center for Justice and International Law, and Reporters Without Borders. Furthermore, the Committee in Solidarity with People of El Salvador (CISPES) drafted a letter bearing the signatures of forty members of the United States Congress. The letter, addressed to President Saca, questioned the use of an anti-terrorism law against peaceful protesters. In addition, several members of congress sent personal letters in support of human rights, civil rights, and freedom of political expression in El Salvador.

After weeks of protest, the thirteen protesters were conditionally released on July 27, 2007, under the terms that they were not to leave the country and they must report to the judge every fifteen days. The prisoners spent a total of twenty-six days in jail. The case stayed in court for several months until on February 8, 2008 Judge Fuentes de Paz dropped the charges of ‘acts of terrorism’ and changed them to ‘public disorder’ and ‘aggravated damages.’

On February 11, 2008 CRIPDES, the Foundation for Cooperation and Community Development of El Salvador (CORDES), and the Popular Resistance Movement- 12 of October (MPR-12), organized a three-day march from Suchitoto to San Salvador to protest the charges against the prisoners. Almost 700 people left from Suchitoto on the first day, twice as many people as the organizers expected. The marchers held large photos of the incarcerated and signs reading “liberty for the political prisoners of Suchitoto.” The group marched 16 miles (25 km) the first day and arrived to music and a vigil in San Bartolome Perlupia, Cuscatlan. On the second day of the march the group traveled from Perulapia to Soyapango. On the last day, Wednesday February 13, the marchers joined a mass mobilization of 3,500 people for the last leg to San Salvador. The group surrounded the Special Tribunal Building where the defense attorney met with Judge Fuentes de Paz. The judge dropped the terrorist charges and the case was moved the regular judicial system, which was the Suchitoto regional court.

On February 19, the judge in Suchitoto dropped all the charges against the ‘Suchitoto 13’ because the Attorney General’s office failed to present official accusations and sufficient evidence against the prisoners.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Not known

Sources: 
"CISPES - Solidarity with El Salvador - Protests against water privatization repressed, 13 violently arrested in Suchitoto." CISPES - Solidarity with El Salvador - Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. <http://www.cispes.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=232&Itemid=28>.

"El Salvador: Privatizing Water and the Criminalization of Protest - Worldpress.org." Worldpress.org - World News From World Newspapers. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2011. <http://www.worldpress.org/Americas/2873.cfm>.

"El Salvador: Saca Water Privatization Announcement Shut Down; Police Arrest 13." Upside Down World. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. <http://upsidedownworld.org/main/content/view/797/74/>.

"El Salvador: Victory for the Suchitoto 13." El Salvador. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. <http://wwwjustice-for-elsalvador-ann.blogspot.com/2008/02/victory-for-suchitoto-13.html>.

"Soyapango Women Fight for Water | Food & Water Watch." Food & Water Watch. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2011. <http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/global/latin-america/el-salvador/soyapango-women-fight-for-water/>.

"US - El Salvador Sister Cities - Hundreds Join 3-Day March to Free the Suchitoto 14 - February 13, 2008." U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Mar. 2011. <http://elsalvadorsolidarity.org/joomla/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&

Additional Notes: 
The campaign for the liberation of the 'Suchitoto 13' was a smaller part of the movement against the privatization of the water sector in El Salvador. In the last ten years, demonstrations and construction of road blockades as a form of protest, have taken place all over the country. Some towns, such as Santa Eduviges, have waged successful campaigns on the local level to maintain government control over water supply and maintenance of quality standard. However, the sustainability of these victories, as well as the success of the national movement, remain to be seen.
Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Sachie Hopkins-Hayakawa 20/03/2011