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El Salvador: Renewed concerns about militarization of public security as President Funes announces more changes

Linda Garrett

January 24, 2012

Para nuestros lectores que no lean inglés – toda información será traducida e incluida en el Informe Mensual del mes de enero, que será mandado la semana entrante.

The theme in El Salvador shifted quickly from mourning to the subject of militarization, from the victims of a massacre to bewildering personnel moves.

Just one week after President Funes publicly held the Atlacatl Battalion of the Armed Forces responsible for the 1981 El Mozote massacre, and ordered an end to the eulogizing of officers in charge of that operation, he named General Francisco Ramón Salinas Rivera as director of the National Civil Police (PNC), replacing Carlos Ascencio.

General Salinas headed the “Zeus Squadron,” the army unit established to coordinate public security operations with the PNC in 2010. He served as General Commander of the High Command of the Armed Forces, then Vice-Minister of Defense.

This appointment follows the November firing of Manuel Melgar as Minister of Justice and Security, replaced by General David Munguía Payés. Since November, Payés has fired the director of the office of intelligence (OIE) Eduardo Linares and named civilian economist Ricardo Perdomo director - with a military officer, Colonel Simón Molina Montoya, as assistant director.

General Salinas officially retired from the military just hours before his appointment was announced; General Munguía Payés retired in June 2011but maintained his post as Minister of Defense until November 22nd.

The Minister of Strategic Affairs, Hato Hasbún of the FMLN, was removed from his position as coordinator of the Security Cabinet in November, with Minister of Security Munguía Payés assuming that role. And last week, the Director of Immigration was fired..

The Inspector General of the National Civil Police, Zaira Navas reportedly resigned yesterday following the announcement. According to reports, she tendered her resignation in November after Manuel Melgar was fired, but had been convinced to stay. For over two years Navas has courageously investigated corruption and organized crime within the institution.

There are rumors of other possible resignations, including Vice-Minister of Justice, Henry Campos.

Ombudsman for Human Rights, Oscar Luna expressed dismay at the announcement of the new director of the National Civil Police as a violation of the Peace Accords and the Constitution: “It could be that he [Salinas] retired today but in his essence and formation he is a military man and his formation was with the military.”

President Funes defended his decision to appoint Salinas, saying the new PNC director “has played an outstanding role, known by the members of the Security Cabinet.” The appointment responds to a “new strategy of prevention and repression of crime,” he said, “and the need to strengthen coordination between different institutions.”

According to Salinas, there will be no changes in PNC assistant commanders, but the appointment has left many “nervous and disconcerted” about the new direction of the institution and its significance and implications.

In total, these changes signify a complete removal of the FMLN from high-level public security and intelligence positions. It remains to be seen how the party will respond, just as the electoral campaign for control of the legislature and municipalities is getting underway. One FMLN security analyst suggested the changes are the result of U.S. security strategy for the Northern Triangle and pressure on President Funes. “There will be political consequences,” Óscar Fernández warned, for the relationship between the FMLN and the president.

And in another announcement on January 23rd the president ordered retired Colonel Sigfrido Ochoa Pérez to return to active duty, apparently without consultation, and named him to a position with the Border Commission. Ochoa Pérez, currently a candidate for deputy with the ARENA party, was a close friend of Lt. Col. Domingo Monterrosa, commander of the 1981 Atlacatl Battalion operation in El Mozote and has been fiercely critical of the president’s speech on January 16th, saying he is “ready to defend the country.” Returning him to active duty means he is now subordinate to the General Commander of the Armed Forces, President Funes.

The retired colonel said he was not consulted and would refuse the order which he called “dictatorial.” He has 72 hours to report to duty, according to the Minister of Justice and Security, or he could face military justice on charges of disobedience.

Ochoa Pérez was in command during scorched earth operations in Cabañas in the 1980’s including the Piedras Coloradas massacre on March 17, 1981 when hundreds of civilians from Santa Marta and Cinquera were killed fleeing military operations and attempting to cross the Rio Lempa into Honduras. He retired from the military 24 years ago. Most recently he served as ambassador to Honduras but was recalled by President Funes in November 2009 after receiving a decoration from coup leader Roberto Micheletti for his service.
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