Political Violence or Common Violence?

The Bishop of the Lutheran Church in El Salvador, Medardo Gomez, stated yesterday that the murder of the night watchman of the Salvadoran Lutheran University on January 30 could have political motives. The Bishop's statements at his Monday morning press conference were reported in the left-leaning Diario Co Latino. According to the Bishop, the murder was in a style reminiscent of the death squads which had operated in El Salvador in the past. He stated that the murder could have been directed at the Lutheran church and its university because of its criticism of the structures of Salvadoran society and its engagement on behalf of the most unprotected members of the society.

Bishop Gomez certainly has a basis from which to speak about signs of the death squads. In 1984, during the Salvadoran civil war, he was kidnapped by a right wing death squad and tortured before international pressure resulted in his release. His fellow Lutheran pastor, David Fernandez was kidnapped and murdered by a death squad that same year. On the day the Jesuits were murdered in 1989 a Lutheran missionary in El Salvador was picked up by armed forces and held. Still those threats and dangers did not stop Bishop Gomez from continuing his work in serving the poor of El Salvador.

Threats against the Lutheran church in El Salvador did not end with the conclusion of the civil war. In the month before the 2004 presidential election, for example, a bomb threat was received by the Bishop's church. And currently certain pastors in the Lutheran church are outspoken voices in the Popular Social Bloc, BPS, the social activist organization which has denounced the ARENA government on such issues as CAFTA and privatization. With such a background, one can understand how the discovery of the innocent nightwatchman's body, hanging from a tree, would suggest a political threat.

But certainly this could simply be another economic crime. A significant quantity of computers, televisions, sound equipment and cash was stolen. Gang slayings in El Salvador have certainly been as gruesome. It may be difficult to ever know what happened that night, which will lead persons to place multiple interpretations on the same tragic crime.
The slaying of Gilberto Soto raises many of the same questions. The police assert that the slaying was a family quarrel in which the mother-in-law of Soto hired assassins, including gang members to kill her daughter's husband. Soto's family and his fellow union activists have grave doubts about this. They continue to press for an additional investigation into the possibility that Soto was murdered for his organizing activities among container truck drivers. The Human Rights Procurator in El Salvador, Beatrice de Carrillo, issued a report describing what she asserted were significant irregularities in the investigation of the Soto murder. Today's Diario del Hoy reports that the Procurator has received a growing number of death threats by telephone and fax ever since she reported her criticims of the police handling of the Soto murder.

So what are we to make of this? Are the slayings of Gilberto Soto and the Lutheran University watchman an ominous echo of the political violence which wracked El Salvador in the years prior to and during the civil war? Are persons who are outspoken in their denunciations of the current economic order in El Salvador once again in physical jeopardy? I hope and pray that this is not the case.

But if it is not the case, we should still not feel comfortable. The level of homicides and gang violence took a turn upward in 2004. A wave of homicides has continued unabated through the first month of 2005. The Salvadoran government has not yet found a way to combat this violence, although its proposals for new gun control laws and "Plan Mano Amiga" may be a step in the right direction. Until the level of economic inequality and the root causes of crime in El Salvador begin to be addressed, the violence, political or not, is likely to continue.