Salvadoran Judges Oppose Terrorist Label for Gangsters
SAN SALVADOR – Salvadoranjudges are reacting negatively to policeauthorities’ latest innovation in their largelyineffective battle against soaring crime:charging perpetrators of especially horrificmurders with crimes of terrorism.Martín Zepeda, a veteran magistrateand member of the Association ofDemocratic Judges, argues that the moveby police to invoke anti-terror legislationagainst gang members and other commoncriminals “has no legal basis.”Acts of terrorism, he said, “areplanned and carried out by organizationswith political, ideological, religious orracial ends to generate social crises inorder to replace a constitutionally establishedsystem, and the gangs don’t havethat aim, though they commit crimes thatcause terror.”What El Salvador needs is a “congruent,clear and effective policy for publicsafety,” according to Zepeda, who dismissedthe latest police initiative as “one more projectintended to give the impression thatthey’re working and doing something.”AUTHORITIES here estimate thatsome 10,500 youths belong to gangs such asthe Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Mara18, two particularly violent criminal organizationscreated on the streets of Los Angeles,California, during the 1980s by youngSalvadoran immigrants who had fled the warin their country.Since many of the gangsters wereborn in El Salvador, they were subject todeportation when rounded up duringcrackdowns in California in the 1990s.Sent back “home” to a land they barelyknew, they re-formed the gangs in SanSalvador. They quickly spread throughoutthe small nation and to neighboring countriesin Central America, where membershipis now counted in the tens or evenhundreds of thousands.JUDGE Zepeda said June 24 that hisnation’s pervasive violence – reflected inan average of nine murders per day, someinvolving decapitation or dismemberment– should be addressed by attacking its rootcauses.He also took exception to recentstatements made by National Police ChiefRicardo Meneses, who last week urgedjudges to cooperate with efforts to pin terrorismcharges on common gang members.Zepeda called Meneses’ attitude“dangerous.” He accused the police commanderof seeking to shirk his own force’sresponsibility for protecting public safetyby implying that uncooperative or lenientjudges are the problem.EDGARDO Amaya, of theFoundation for Applied Law Studies,claims that the terrorism label “is quitearbitrary,” since “one cannot charge a personwho has committed robbery or othercommon offenses with deeds he did notcarry out, such as terrorism.”Amaya said the terror charges mostlikely won’t hold up in court, adding: “Ican tell you in advance that this is notgoing to produce results.“A person can kill with blows from amachete, with gunshots, and can even dismemberanother, but that’s still (just) ahomicide,” Amaya explained.Article 343 of the Salvadoran CriminalCode defines a terrorist as “One whoindividually or in collective form commitsacts that could produce alarm, fear or terror,utilizing explosive or flammable substances,arms or devices that could harmthe life or well-being of persons.”The attempt to label gang members asterrorists, Amaya said, suggests that police“are going to attribute any problem theycan’t handle to a situation of terrorism.”THE chairman of the El SalvadorHuman Rights Commission, MiguelMontenegro, commented that “we cannotarbitrarily link criminal acts to terrorism,especially when the Attorney General’sOffice has said many times that no cases ofthat (terrorist) nature have been identifiedin the country.”Rumors have circulated in ElSalvador of possible reprisals against thecountry for sending troops to aid the U.S.effort in Iraq, but authorities have repeatedlyassured Salvadorans there is no evidenceof terrorist activity here.Montenegro, who said the move byMeneses would lead to “a bigger confrontationbetween the police and the judicialsystem,” suggested that the answer liesin holding a “broad social forum to onceand for all define a security policy.”IN 2004, authorities registered 2,754homicides in El Salvador, a nation of 6million. By way of comparison, New YorkCity, with a population of 7.4 million, hadslightly more than 550 murders last year.The latest police gambit comes on theheels of a succession of crackdowns ongangs, beginning with then-PresidentFrancisco Flores’ “Firm Hand” plan in2003, and continuing with the “Super FirmHand” initiative that current chief executiveTony Saca launched in August 2004.Since the first plan went into effect,police have made 19,000 gang-relatedarrests, far exceeding their own estimate oftotal gang membership. They explain thediscrepancy by saying that some individualgang members have been arrested as manyas 10 different times, only to be released byjudges.For their part, Salvadoran jurists saypolice often detain people simply for sportingthe tattoos favored by gang memberswithout any evidence of a crime havingbeen committed.
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