Political tensions mount in El Salvador before legislative vote

Survivors of country’s deadly civil war fear El Salvador is ushering in a new era of political violence and intolerance.

Members of the FMLN party participate in the funeral of Juan de Dios Tejada Portillo, who was one of two victims in an attack after a political rally last month [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

Weeks of escalating political tensions in El Salvador culminated in a deadly attack at an election campaign event in the capital, San Salvador, in the lead-up to a legislative vote later this month.

The killings of two members of the left-wing FMLN party on January 31 came after weeks of comments by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele that human rights groups say promoted “hate and confrontation”.

For survivors of the country’s 12-year civil war that ended nearly three decades ago, the political violence has also stirred up painful memories – and fuelled concerns the country is ushering in a new era of political violence and intolerance while old scars have yet to heal.

“This is the fear of the mothers and victims – that this could happen again,” said Sofia Hernandez, 78. “With these new events that are happening, it makes you fear that a new generation faces this risk.”

Hernandez recalled the war as a time when voicing dissent and criticising the Salvadoran government meant risking being dragged from your home, picked up off the streets, or gunned down by military death squads.

Relatives and members of the FMLN party participate in the funeral of Juan de Dios Tejada Portillo, who was one of two victims in an attack in San Salvador last month [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

More than 75,000 people were killed and 5,000 were disappeared when leftist fighters took up arms against the US-backed Salvadoran government in a conflict that most historians believe officially began in 1980 with the assassination of prominent Archbishop Oscar Romero.

Among the missing are Hernandez’s daughter, two siblings, and four nephews. “The war started because of social injustice,” she said. “It wasn’t just for fun.”

She and thousands of others still await justice for the perpetrators of crimes against humanity during El Salvador’s war, as the country still struggles to control gang violence.

Tensions rising

“These recent events cause pain,” said Leonor Arteaga, a Salvadoran lawyer with the Due Process of Law Foundation, an international NGO that promotes human rights in Latin America, about last month’s incident. “This is a violence that hasn’t been seen in El Salvador since the peace accords.”

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, Bukele insinuated that the attack was orchestrated by members of the FMLN party to garner sympathy before the elections on February 28, despite no evidence to support his claim.

“He is creating an environment with more tension and the probability of violent responses from all sides rises, which puts us in a situation of collective anxiety,” said Manuel Escalante, lawyer and sub-director of the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America (IDHUCA).

He said the president violated his duty to ensure the right to peace and social harmony. “The most complicated part of this is that it’s a signal of what’s to come in the future,” said Escalante.

Three suspects, who say they are innocent, have been arrested in connection to the murders of the two victims. Bukele has promised that the crime will not go unpunished. “This government has fought to defend life,” he tweeted. “But it seems that there are those who want to cling to the past of death.”

The president also has continued to share his interpretation of the recent deadly events on Twitter, which experts said is outside the scope of his authority and should be left to investigators.

Al Jazeera could not reach Bukele’s office for comment before publication.

‘It wasn’t a farce’

Bukele, who took office in 2019 as the youngest Latin American president at age 38, has repeatedly minimised the importance of the 1992 peace accords, which were negotiated between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN rebellion to put down arms, strengthen the justice system, and guarantee respect for human rights.

He has encouraged his supporters to direct their frustrations with the country’s widespread violence and inequality at the two main post-war political parties: FMLN, born from the rebellion, and the right-wing ARENA party.

During an official state event in December in the town of El Mozote, the site of a 1981 massacre by United States-backed Salvadoran armed forces, Bukele called the peace accords a “farce”, outraging many Salvadorans whose family members were lost or disappeared during the war.

People put flowers on the Monument to Memory and Truth during a rally to commemorate the 29th anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that ended El Salvador’s civil war [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

“It wasn’t a farce. It was an end that was very esteemed by all of us who lived the war and whose families were massacred,” said Dorila Marquez, a survivor of the El Mozote massacre. “Knowing that they signed an agreement that there wouldn’t be a war and that they were going to put down their arms, it was a joy.”

Shortly after Bukele’s comments, around the 29th anniversary of the peace accords on January 16, the hashtag #ProhibidoOlvidarSV (Prohibited from Forgetting) began trending on social media, with Salvadorans sharing their experiences to promote historical memory.

Human rights organisations have pointed to the importance of the peace accords in establishing a democratic transition in the country, including rules to keep the military out of politics, create a government office to monitor human rights, and form an independent body to oversee elections.

Instead of recognising these achievements, Bukele has backtracked, his critics said, turning to the military to support his agenda instead of keeping a clear separation of powers.

In February 2020, he sparked a constitutional crisis when he sent military officers into the legislative chamber to pressure legislators to approve a loan for his security plan. More recently, the defence minister requested that the constitution be revised to allow the armed forces to take a more active political role.

This was the norm during the civil war and led to an authoritarian style of leadership. Returning to that norm would be a mistake, according to Arteaga.

Peace accords, but no peace

The high levels of violence and impunity in recent years have led many Salvadorans to grow frustrated with the shortcomings of the peace accords, which did not bring all the changes that they hoped.

In 2015, El Salvador had one of the world’s highest homicide rates, with more than 6,600 murders mainly related to gang violence in a country of just more than 6.5 million people.

Since then, the murder rate has dropped each year, with about 1,300 homicides in 2020. Bukele has credited his security plan for the decrease, but security experts have argued clandestine negotiations between the government and gangs could be the real reason – and could mean the illusion of peace is fragile.

Escalante said Bukele should resolve differences with opposition politicians to come up with solutions to confront the nation’s problems together, instead of publicly criticising anyone who disagrees with his approach.

In the past, Bukele has pushed back against critics who say he is undemocratic. In August, he said that if he was really a dictator, “he would have shot everyone already”.

But the president’s popularity has remained high, with more than 65 percent of citizens saying they believe he is doing a good job, according to a recent study – though that is down from 85 percent the year before.

Arteaga, the lawyer, urged Bukele to do more to bridge differences, however, especially amid rising political tensions. “He should be sending a message of unity, collaboration, and working together, that the country needs to build bridges, and not a message of creating enemies.”

Source: Al Jazeera