Salvadorans commemorate Peace Accords anniversary with protests
On January 15, 2023, two major social movement coalitions in El Salvador - the Popular Resistance and Rebellion Bloc (BRP) and the National Alliance for a Peaceful El Salvador - together with many other convening groups and organizations, marched to commemorate the 31st anniversary of the signing of the country’s 1992 Peace Accords, a historic event that marked the end of the armed conflict that had resulted in the forced disappearance, death and mass exodus of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans.
The mobilization was massive, and beyond commemorating the anniversary of the signing of the accords, also centered around denouncing the ongoing attacks against them from the Bukele government. Thousands of people participated in the march, despite the government’s recurrent attempts to prevent the arrival of protesters at the march’s meeting point. Police and military road blockades throughout the country in the evenings before and mornings of marches have become a tactic characteristic of the Bukele administration, and the January 15 mobilization was no exception.
The Popular Resistance and Rebellion Bloc, together with other organizations, started off with a rally in the Cuscatlán park, while the National Alliance for a Peaceful El Salvador rallied outside the National Sports Institute before the two contingencies marched together towards the civic square, where the main protest was held.
Demonstrators denounced the arbitrary detentions that have continued under the country’s State of Exception, which has been enforced for more than 10 months, and strongly rejected the constant physical violence towards and violations of the human rights of its victims. The groups also decried a number of labor rights violations and mass firings that have taken place at different public institutions as well as the recent arrests of union leaders and municipal workers for demanding their rights.
This mobilization was also strongly marked by opposition to the arrests of five historic leaders of the Santa Marta community, in the northern department of Cabañas, who are being accused of alleged crimes committed over 30 years ago in the context of the armed conflict. The community of Santa Marta, leaders of the social movement and the international community have spoken out strongly, especially given that the people detained have survived persecution, massacres, and violence committed by members of the army. While state violence and crimes against humanity during El Salvador’s civil war remain in impunity, the leaders of Santa Marta, who are also well known for their leadership in the struggle against metallic mining, are being criminalized despite lack of evidence of any of the prosecution's claims.
In a statement to Common Dreams, CISPES program Director Yesenia Portillo shared the following about the Santa Marta arrests: "Last week's arrests of historic leaders of the Santa Marta community should alarm us all. Under ordinary circumstances, the arrests of internationally recognized Water Defenders would be major cause for concern. But in El Salvador today, where torture and deadly prison conditions reign under the current State of Exception, this quickly becomes a matter of life and death.
"[Though] the allegations against them have major holes and contradictions, President Bukele's near-total control over both the judiciary and the prosecution casts serious doubt on whether a fair trial is even possible. Since Attorney General Delgado was illegally appointed in May 2021, virtually all cases he has brought have been sent to trial – whether there is evidence or not – and even the most compelling petitions for alternative measures to avoid a lengthy pre-trial detention get denied.
"We are deeply concerned for the well-being of these men and the dangerous precedent this sets in El Salvador. With these arrests, the Bukele administration is indicating to the world that their idea of 'justice' is to allow the atrocities carried out by U.S.- backed state forces during the 1980s to remain in impunity, while punishing the leaders of communities, like Santa Marta, who bore the brunt of that very violence."
The arrests in Santa Marta in the lead up to the January 15 commemorations were just the latest in a series of attack on community leaders that has escalated in recent weeks. As Bukele closed out 2022 with military sieges in several communities under the nationwide State of Exception, 2023 opened with the arrests of municipal workers in San Marcos and later in Soyapango who were protesting months of unpaid salaries. These arrests, which appear politically targeted, and the increased militarization of Salvadoran society are prime examples of what social movement leaders point to when denouncing the Bukele governments’ attacks on the democratic advancements enshrined within the Peace Accords.
As has been the case in various mass mobilizations over the past year in El Salvador, the demands and denunciations are in response to a serious setback with respect to what was achieved with the signing of the accords and the rollbacks that have taken place during the Bukele administration. People from different regions of the country and with their own particular struggles are joining together to demonstrate their repudiation of a government that has broken with the constitutional and legal order, rolled back transparency in the management of public funds and is advancing at a galloping speed towards militarization, predicting an uncertain future and possibly an even greater confrontation for the defense of the rights of the people.
The Salvadoran diaspora and the international community also raised their voices in several cities in the United States and other countries. CISPES was present at the Salvadoran Embassy in Washington, DC, with a banner reading "Peace without repression! No more militarization!" in accompaniment of the protests on the 15th in El Salvador along with migrants and refugees from Santa Marta who now live in the DC area and allies. CISPES members in Boston, MA delivered a letter to the Attorney General signed by Massachusetts residents and organizations to the Salvadoran Consulate there, calling for the immediate release of the environmental defenders in Santa Marta and an end to the State of Exception. Meanwhile, CISPES committees in Los Angeles, Seattle and the Bay Area coordinated local educational events to discuss the gains made through the 1992 Peace Accords and the attacks coming from the current government, and took to social media to let their solidarity be known in El Salvador with the hashtag #El15Marchamos.