Protests over water policy met with rubber bullets and tear gas

Demonstrations to protest the water privatization policy of El Salvador's current government resulted in clashes with riot police outside of the city of Suchitoto on Monday. On Monday, president Tony Saca was scheduled to travel to Suchitoto to give a speech and initiate a project for "decentralization" of water systems, which many understand as the piecemeal selling off of water systems to private businesses to run. According to coverage in La Prensa Grafica, demonstrators blocked access on the roads leading into the city. Various units of then anti-riot police (Unit for the Maintenance of Order "UMO") arrived to clear the roads. Tear gas and rubber bullets were launched at demonstrators, and press photographs show demonstrators throwing rocks and buring rubbish in the streets. Two kilometers from the city, president Saca gave up his attempt to proceed into the city and returned to San Salvador by helicopter where he gave his speech from the Presidential residence.

Diario CoLatino reported that 8 persons were captured by police in what demonstration leaders called a peaceful protest on the road towards Suchitoto. According to a CRIPDES leader quoted in the story, there were some 300 people engaged in a peaceful protest of president Saca's water legislation. Tear gas was used by anti-riot police to break up the protest, and protesters reported being beaten by police.

El Diario de Hoy, in its usual right-wing slant, quoted the right-wing president, Tony Saca, irresponsibly asserting that the protests in Suchitoto were all part of plans of Mario Belloso, the alleged shooter who killed two policemen on July 5, 2006. Yet the photograph El Diario used to accompany the story, which shows a peaceful group of women and youth holding a banner asking for rights to water and participation in decision-making, shows the false light of Saca's fear-mongering propaganda.

There is an extensive gallery of photos from the protests here.

The following is a condensed version of two action alerts sent out yesterday by the protests organizers at CRIPDES to the international solidarity community:

A non-violent protest had been organized in Suchitoto this morning by the Association for the Development of El Salvador, CRIPDES, along with its regional branch in Suchitoto, PROGRESO, and the people of the organized rural communities in that municipality.

This protest coincides with with the visit of President Elias Antonio Saca and his cabinet to Suchitoto to inaugurate the public water system in the municipality and with it a “Plan for the Decentralization of Public Services.” The communities, organized and accompanied by CRIPDES have staged a demonstration and other public protest activities around the visit of President Saca and in opposition to the movement toward privatization of the public water system.

The arrests occurred when National Civilian Police (PNC) stopped the vehicle in which CRIPDES leaders were travelling to the protest, on the road several kilometres before they arrived in Suchitoto, outside the community of Milingo. There a police car pulled in front of them and blocked their path, and officers forcefully arrested the following people:

o Marta Lorena Araujo, President of the CRIPDES National Directive Council
o Rosa Valle Centeno, Vice-President CRIPDES National Directive Council
o María Haydee Chicas, CRIPDES journalist and photographer
o Manuel Antonio Rodriguez, who was driving the CRIPDES vehicle

The CRIPDES leaders were handcuffed and thrown into an army vehicle, and taken through back-roads to the police station in Suchitoto. When news of the arrest reached the protesters in Suchitoto, the people moved from the central park protest site to the police station to demand information and the liberation of those arrested.

The police found themselves surrounded, and called in the “UMO” (Unit for Maintenance of Order) Riot Police, who forcefully dispersed the crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets and wooden batons. The CRIPDES detainees were then reportedly moved to an undisclosed location.

The CRIPDES leaders arrested were taken from Suchitoto police station to Cojutepeque, the capitol of the Cuscatlán Province. From there they were then taken to the police station in Santa Cruz Analquitos, to the south of Cojutepeque. At the time this update was sent, the several of the detainees were still in Analquitos, while others were reported to have been moved to Suchitoto or back to Cojutepeque. We expect they will remain separated and be moved again in a clear attempt to keep them out of sight and out of contact with members of the Salvadoran social movement demanding their release.

Those arrested have been charged with “Creating Public Disorder,” and lawyers who have been in contact with the police headquarters in Cojutepeque confirm that their case will be designated under those charges to the Cojutepeque departmental attorneys and court system. Under Salvadoran law the departmental prosecutors have 72 hours to present charges at a hearing, which will most likely be held in Suchitoto.

Despite the charges of “Creating Public Disorder,” the CRIPDES leaders arrested never came close to the protest activities being carried out in Suchitoto. News footage shown on the Salvadoran Tele-Corporation (TCS) channels clearly show a the police vehicle overtaking the CRIPDES truck on the paved road between Suchitoto and San Martín, swerving in front and stopping the CRIPDES leaders. The video also shows the police forcefully removing the passengers from the pick-up truck, and taking them away in handcuffs, several kilometres away from where the protest was staged.

We can share extra-official numbers from the confrontation between police and protesters when the CRIPDES detainees were originally held in Suchitoto: the Unit for Maintenance of Order (UMO) forcefully dispersed protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets and wooden batons, and arrested 13 protesters from the local rural communities, while another reported 75 people were injured.

As well we have reports from the community of Guillermo Ungo, several kilometres south of Suchitoto, where the UMO riot police attacked community members on the road on their way to the Suchitoto protests, again using rubber bullets and tear gas, forcing the community members to flee into the hills. They were followed by the UMO riot police and the Police Reaction Groups (GRPs) by land and by air for more than 4 hours, with several arrests made. School classes in the nearby community were suspended because of the effects of the tear gas.

At this time, lawyers are still searching for information and dialoguing with police and provincial authorities. CRIPDES leadership, along with a host of other social movement organizations are meeting to discuss a strategy to push for the liberation of these detainees. CRIPDES Directive Council Member Bernardo Belloso Osorio said that the matter was clearly political, and should be treated as such, and asked human rights and solidarity networks to be alert to a call for help in the coming hours, once the players and positions were clearly identified.

CRIPDES and other social movement organizations have denounced these events to the Attorney General’s Office for Human Rights, and demand the immediate liberation of its captured leaders, as well as respect for their physical and moral wellbeing.
They are calling for support from human rights and solidarity organizations in response to these actions that are a clear step backwards from the Peace Accords and in the ongoing process of building lasting peace and democracy.


Jorge Ávalos said…
Tim, there is one piece that doesn't fit in this story. In Suchitoto, water is in the hands of the municipal government, which has been in the hands of the FMLN for quite some time. It cannot be privatized by the Government because the community owns the service. In fact, Suchitoto is one of only three municipal governments in El Salvador which not only distributes potable water but also has a treatment plant that cleans the used water before it's dumped into the river. I just wrote a story about it. Suchitoto created a municipal corporation (grassroots based) which manages the service locally.
Anonymous said…
wow. very interesting. it should be key what happens from here on. if suchitoto already has a potable water system, including a treatment plant, and administered by the local govt. then it should be treated as its own entity. i say if suchitoto already has its water needs met, the govt. should leave them alone and move on to improve areas that don't have access to water yet. as always, it is just to darn fishy!
Anonymous said…
There have been some important developments in this case.

CRIPDES has told Amnesty International, the UN, and the IAHRC that police agents threatened to throw the handcuffed detainees out of a helicopter.

An article in CoLatino says that those arrested may be charged under the anti-terrorist law.
Jorge Ávalos said…
Now, the use of an "anti-terrorist law" against protesters should be of great international concern in terms of human rights and, more specifically, in terms of freedom of expression. Every country has anti-terrorist laws. They have to in order to protect their own citizens. But using them against protesters is wrong because it's unconstitutional.

On a previous comment I also mentioned that Suchitoto manages its own service of potable water distribution and treatment. This is something we call "decentralization" in El Salvador, and it has nothing to do with "privatization" of the water service. Decentralization was originally proposed by the Santa Tecla mayor Oscar Ortiz, of the FMLN, because ANDA, the government water service, was too slow to reach many low income communities; in fact, they have stated that their priority is to provide the service to the most populated areas. The decentralization initiative, which calls for municipal governments to manage their own potable water service, was eventually approved by the association of mayors of El Salvador, Comures. When Saca visited Suchitoto it was to accept the decentralization of water. Suchitoto was a good place to do it because it's a municipal government that has shown that decentralization works, and it happens to have an FMLN mayor.

Now, in my opinion, decentralization (giving communities the power to develop and control their own resources) is a good thing. It worked wonders in Nejapa, for instance, which will bring potable water service to the most isolated communities 100%, a first in El Salvador. And, by the way, the mayor of Nejapa is also a leftist. So, what's going on? Whay was CRIPDES protesting against decentralization in Suchitoto. This is not a rhetorical question. I really would like to know. Perhaps somebody here has a different take or additional information. What is the missing link here that justifies protesting against a local development initiative that is actually working? Could anybody enlighten me?
Anonymous said…
Nice put Solava!

I agree with you!
Mandy said…
From what I have learned so far in El Salvador, decentralization is always seen (by less educated communities) as the first step toward privatization. This is because in the past when the government decentralized banks, electricity, pension system, etc. it always led to the purchase of those municipal-run companies by the private sector. This raised prices/tariffs for consumers. However, as many people do not understand, desentralization is simply a way to empower the community - and also to take the responsiblity away from ANDA for providing water(which saves ANDA money, especially in communities who cannot pay them for water and where they would lose money putting in systems). I am pretty sure that a well-functioning system like Suchitoto will not go private as long as it can cover its own costs, and it seems like it can. Saca was apparently using Suchitoto as a good example of a well-run decentralized water system. So although his desire to privatize rural water should not impact on Suchitoto, it will have disasterous effects on other rural areas that will be forced to privatize.
Tim said…

You have stated things pretty accurately. Yet doesn't that lead to the conclusion that civil society organizations ought to be advocating for decentralization with sufficient funding and subsidies from the national government to run the system, rather than opposing decentralization? That's where I have been confused about some of the protests in El Salvador.
wesley said…
i don't condone the us of anti-terror laws against simple protestors. i'm not familiar with the language of how the law is written either.. however, what if the government can prove that these people weren't simple protestors? what if them people got their funding from an a foreign agent (castro or chavez) and were causing problems in an attempt to influence the coming elections. it is possible. cuba has had its hands in ES before.
Anonymous said…
I think I am going to have to second what Wesley has said. The problem is that many times here in El Salvador the anti development groups, many sponsored by money from the states and Canada, push their political agenda by trucking in shock troops, paying them a few bucks plus lunch to yell scream and make a stink or create violence. The ring leaders whip the troops into a lather, hand them them the rocks and molotiv coktails and fade back and watch the fireworks pretending their hands aren't dirty. It would be my guess that the gov't had some good intel and took the opportunity to lay the blame on those that deserved the credit for the problems. I am not in favor of violence but sometimes these "activists" bring it on themselves. It would be really cool to see the PDDH look after the rights of the common citizen to enjoy a well ordered society instead of always looking out for the rabble rousers doing their best to halt progress and foment violence here.