The Fight Against Latin American Terrorism or the Destruction of Democracy?

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On August 29, demonstrators tried to break through a police blockade around La Moneda, Chile’s presidential palace in the center of Santiago. This sparked yet another string of police violence against social protestors in a Latin American country. That day in Chile, the Central Unitaria de Trajabadores demonstrators were joined by a socialist senator of the ruling Concertación party, Alejandro Navarro. “My government should not be afraid of the workers,” he stated after being pounded by the police for speaking with other nearby politicians. “The government should have allowed the demonstrators down the main avenue of Santiago.” All together, 453 protestors were arrested in the capital.

The episode in Santiago was the latest incident of what seems to be a dangerous trend in which civil libertarians have come to see an increase of a resort to force, in which the military and police target social protestors throughout Latin America. Many of the groups under attack include community activists, labor organizers and militant priests. The motive behind each of these street scenes is to try and voice dissatisfaction with the government. The ever-looming shadows of what were often U.S-sponsored military dictatorships that plagued the region in the late 1970s and into the 80s, have been reconfigured in the twenty-first century and translated into what now can be portrayed as right-wing counterinsurgency efforts against what is most accurately described as left-leaning dissidents with basic reforms in their eyes. However, these demonstrations have been at times masked by a popular media and a U.S.-backed crusade, which it had consecrated as the “War on Terror.” This enabled security forces to assail any group suspected of aggressively challenging the status quo and lack of accountability on the part of public authority who swing their clubs without probable cause or credible evidence.

Salvadoran Social Protests: Acts of Terrorism?
Earlier this summer the first of many recent civil-military confrontations occurred in El Salvador when 13 protestors, including one journalist, were arrested for blocking the road to the small colonial town of Suchitoto, north of San Salvador. They were out to disrupt government plans to decentralize the country’s drinking water services. Police alleged that the hundreds of local residents and social activists fired shots, threw rocks, and committed other crimes of public disorder, labeling these actions as “acts of terrorism,” which fall under the Law Against Terrorism. Those arrested served almost 90 days in jail before the Salvadoran courts ascertained that the charges against them were not even minimally supported by the evidence that the prosecution managed to muster.

El Salvador’s Special Law Against Terrorism came into effect in November 2006. One of its shortcomings is that it never provides an explicit definition of terrorism. This term, although widely understood in the international community in terms of setting the point, nevertheless, it carries with it no precise definitions, nor only applying to the most serious crimes of violence meant to instill generalized fear in the population in order to achieve a political goal. However, as the Americas’ director of Human Rights Watch has observed, “The Salvadoran government should not misuse counterterrorism legislation against less serious crimes.” At the end of the day, “Terrorism” connotes anything Washington has on its mind on that particular occasion.

The closest the law comes to defining terrorism is in Article 1. It states:

“by their form of execution, or means and methods employed, evidence
in the intention to provoke a state of alarm, fear or terror in the population,
by putting in imminent danger of affecting peoples’ lives or physical or mental
integrity, or their valuable material goods, or the democratic system
or security of the State, or international peace.”

The provision used against the 13 defendants charged with “destroying or damaging” the belongings of government officials, covers a wide variety of delinquencies not traditionally classified as terrorism or ones that fall into any reasonable definition of it.

Articles 6 and 8 of the anti-terrorism measure call for prison sentences, which the Human Rights Watch estimate could range anywhere from 5 to 10 years for publicly justifying terrorism, and 25 to 30 years for anyone participating in “taking or occupying, in whole or in part” a city, town, public or private building, or a variety of other locations. The law would be activated when weapons or “similar articles” are used to “affect the development of the functions or activities” of its inhabitants. Once again, these vague conditions criminalize a variety of what previously was classified as common crime, and with no clear definition of terrorism, it is not hard to imagine that putting this legal justification into the hands of some power-hungry forces, could have the potential to unravel years of democratic gains in the region.

The Colorado Party May Be Heading Back to Its Dark Roots
With the development of the soybean industry in Paraguay, hundreds, if not thousands of rural poor are being forced from their land, resulting in a growing number of movements of the dissatisfied landless. These increasing radicals have become cause for concern under the new penal code and Anti-Terrorist Law, which could result in the prosecution of any aggressive opposition in the country. Juan Martens, a lawyer with the National Coordinator of Human Rights in Paraguay said, “The law is so lax that anyone could be considered a terrorist….A lawyer giving a workshop, a journalist doing an investigation or an international NGO providing financial support could all be accused of promoting terrorism.”

This pattern of social limitations and scare tactics is an echo of some of the country’s past traumas, which occurred during the extremely repressive 35-year dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. His time in power was the longest in Latin America and his harsh practices were implemented by the still-ruling Colorado Party. During the early Pinochet period, Stroessner collaborated with the region’s other dictators through Operation Condor, which coordinated the computer-based coalition that arranged for the kidnapping, torture and murder that squashed dissent and sternly dealt with political opponents. His human rights record was so abysmal that even the then Reagan Administration made an exception to condemn at least one the region’s military dictatorships.

Following the end of the dictatorship in 1989, scores of civil society organizations began to form which staged a number of mass demonstrations, some adding up to over 30,000 protesters. However, it soon became clear that the new “democratic” Colorado government took little interest in heeding the demands of the rural peasants and urban workers started finding “alternative” ways to deal with the social unrest, such as the Duarte Frutos government unleashing the Public Defenders Office, culminating in the Anti-Terrorism Law. This last mentioned institution has become synonymous with the word cháke, which means ‘be careful’ in the official indigenous language of Paraguay. In other provinces, such as Concepción, the fall of the dictatorship meant small victories for rural communities, with several being granted legal land titles, but in the past few years hundreds of local organizers have been imprisoned.

Despite its own monitoring system, the Paraguayan government has not been entirely on its own. In May of 2005, the Paraguay’s Senate voted to allow American troops to operate in Paraguay with total immunity for any crimes committed by U.S. personnel while in the country. Washington had threatened to cut off millions in aid to Paraguay if it did not grant U.S. troops entry under these conditions. In July of 2005, hundreds of U.S. soldiers arrived in the country, and Washington’s funding for counterterrorism efforts in Paraguay doubled. U.S. troops conducted various operations and joint training exercises with local forces, including so-called Medical Readiness Training Exercises (MEDRETEs). In December 2006, the Paraguayan Senate and executive branch, responding to pressure from neighboring countries, voted to end the American troops’ immunity from prosecution for any crimes that they committed in the country. Latin American governments trading bloc MERCOSUR, of which Paraguay is a member, were especially concerned, predicting future problems within the region if Paraguay continued to grant immunity to U.S. forces. But even though there is not a strong physical U.S. military presence in Paraguay, as President Duarte has made sure of, Washington continues to have significant influence over the country’s foreign policy.

Heading Down a Slippery Slope of Anti-Democratic Processes

After the White House implemented its own Anti-Terrorism Law, including the establishment of the Department of Homeland Security and the Patriot Act, many countries in Latin America started to follow suit. However, the difference is that unlike in the U.S., where democratic consolidation, especially in the existence of strong political institutions, is at the base of its political and social achievements, the same is not true in Latin America. If Washington continues to push its own anti-terrorism agenda in the Southern Hemisphere, before the regional nations are ready for it, the result could be considerable political dysfunction and serious prospects for the impingement of personal freedoms.