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Difficult outlook for labor (Part II)

Proceso, No.647, 1 February 1995

The unrest generated by protests around possible or actual layoffs and resistance to negotiating collective contracts (cf. Part I, Proceso 645) pales in comparison to the protests generated by demobilized soldiers as well as employees of institutions on the verge of being privatized. Nationwide protest actions by these two groups has produced social agitation so strong that the entire political class is alarmed, and has issued calls to halt the actions and preserve the nation's institutions.

Given the magnitude of the latest actions taken by ADEFAES [organization representing demobilized army soldiers as well as members of the dismantled security forces and civil defense units], it is worthwhile to study their protest campaign. As we shall see, the way they were handled has begun to affect the way protests against privatization and other government economic measures are dealt with.

The demobilized soldiers

The demobilized soldiers were the first to take action this year. The actions were not all carried out by one single group, but ADEFAES has played the greatest role.

The press reported that on January 3, some 300 former members of the National Police (PN), National Guard (GN), Treasury Police (PH) and five immediate-reaction battalions marched from a downtown park to the legislative assembly, where they demanded the rest of the compensation due them (approximately $5,000 each), which they claimed was budgeted in foreign aid appropriations for their benefit. They armed themselves with sticks and stones, having resolved to act with violence if they were not received by the legislature. However, although the National Civilian Police (PNC) prevented the protesters from entering the building, they were met by members of the Treasury Commission of the legislature. In the meeting, the deputies explained that the compensation in question ought to be the equivalent of twelve months' wages, and not a flat $5,000; they also said that the delays in the payment of the compensation was due to administrative problems, and agreed that there would be further study on the issue of their eligibility for lands under the Land Transfer Program.

On January 10, ADEFAES publicly called on the government to meet the promises it made last September, during the last takeover of the legislature. The members of ADEFAES involved in the mobilizations are mostly former civil defensemen, and to a lesser degree, former members of the now-dismantled security forces. All of these were excluded by the government from consideration as "discharged soldiers under the peace accords," which was a prerequisite to obtaining benefits such as compensation, training and lands. These three benefits were demanded by ADEFAES in September, with the argument that they were eligible under the terms of the peace accords. However, in the negotiations with the government, ADEFAES was forced to give up hopes of obtaining compensation and lands for the former civil defensemen; the agreement stated that they would only be considered for social programs as a form of economic incentive.

In the public communique issued on January 10, ADEFAES threatened to seal off the nation's borders at key crossing-points if no realistic, prompt replies were forthcoming. The following week, on January 16, when the government was celebrating the third anniversary of the signing of the peace accords, ADEFAES took over some abandoned property in the department of La Paz, which belongs to the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE). Some 200 ex-military from last September's takeover participated in this one; just as before, they were armed with machetes and clubs. Their demands included economic compensation for their time of service and access to land, arguing that training was worthless in their case because they would get no loans without land. A peaceful eviction was possible only after 18-20 hours of negotiations with ONUSAL and the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, which managed to convince ADEFAES leaders to meet with a governmental commission in ONUSAL's San Salvador office. However, the meeting produced no substantive results, since the government only said it was studying proposals that it would present later. The ADEFAES leadership gave them 72 hours to do so.

On January 23, ADEFAES met again with the government commission, which came up with a package of measures. After ADEFAES refused to accept the measures, they were published in the press. The proposed measures included an option for 6,000 demobilized soldiers and police officers to have access to a variety of programs, such as small business loans (1,500 beneficiaries), agricultural credit (1,900 beneficiaries), loans to acquire commercial vehicles (100 beneficiaries), training in a number of construction skills (1,000 beneficiaries), and aid in purchasing or improving lands or housing (1,000 beneficiaries). However, the protesters felt that they were offered no solution to the problem of land; they announced a series of violent actions nationwide starting on January 24, and said they were not responsible for the consequences since they had already warned the government.

This is indeed what happened. In fact, on January 23, when ADEFAES met again with the government, some 70 of its members, together with their families, had already taken over 125 unoccupied houses located on the outskirts of San Salvador. On the 24th, ADEFAES mobilized its former civil defensemen and police officers throughout the nation, all of them armed with rocks, sticks and machetes. They blocked access highways to San Salvador, Morazan and San Miguel; the most serious actions, however, took place in the capital, where they began marching from different points and converged on the buildings housing the legislature, the Ministry of the Treasury and the Armed Forces' Social Security Institute (IPSFA). They managed to gain total control over the first and third, taking the employees hostage; several top-ranking officials of IPSFA were also taken hostage, along with 12 deputies who had been in a meeting and were not warned by the others that the building was being taken over by ADEFAES. The employees were all released by the end of the day, while the 12 deputies and the IPSFA officials were held overnight.

Negotiations with the government only began after intense actions by ONUSAL chief Enrique Ter Horst, who carried proposals and counterproposals back and forth between the two sides. Early on the 25th, commissions representing the two sides began meeting in ONUSAL headquarters, with ONUSAL mediation. It took until almost midnight for ADEFAES to agree to a package of proposals from the government, which promised to resolve the problem of access to land for demobilized military who met certain requirements. Although ADEFAES signed an agreement to refrain from taking any violent action to meet its goals, it gave the government a two-month deadline to meet its promises, and vowed to take more strong action if they were not met.

On January 23, and for different reasons than those of ADEFAES, the entire anti-drug division of the National Civilian Police (PNC), which is made up of the former Executive Anti-Drug Unit of the dismantled National Police, called a strike to protest the firing of 70 of its members, including three subcommissioners, four inspectors and six sergeants, following ONUSAL recommendations based on their human rights performance. The striking policemen demanded the reinstatement of their co-workers or else they would resign en masse. The conflict was foreseen already last January 11, when members of the division demanded to be paid compensation as demobilized National Police members, with twelve months' pay and the freedom to decide whether or not to join the PNC [the entire unit of the now-defunct PN was simply transferred over to the PNC]. This time the policemen were protesting the loss of their Armed Forces benefits once their unit was no longer part of the military. They also threatened to burn the entire unit's files if they resigned. The conflict was yet to be resolved at presstime.

Finally, there was another action by demobilized soldiers during the third week of January. Some 300 demanded compensation, because they had thus far only received vouchers which could not be cashed. These were apparently the same former policemen and soldiers who rallied at the Legislative Assembly on January 3, and who do not belong to ADEFAES. Their latest action was a march on January 27 from downtown to the Presidential Palace, where they provoked violent disturbances by burning tires, firing mortar shells and taking two police officers hostage. With mediation by ONUSAL and the Human Rights Ombudsman's Office, the hostages were released and the government promised to address their demands within five days.


As we can see, the impressive and well-coordinated actions taken by demobilized military during January might lead one to the facile conclusion that their actions respond exclusively to a conspiracy, as the government quickly claimed after the ADEFAES takeovers. It would also probably be too simplistic to say that they are propelled exclusively by hunger to commit such violent acts; it is quite probable that many of the demobilized protesters feel that membership in ADEFAES and similar groups is a way to gain access to some land, without necessarily feeling a compelling need to do so. However, one cannot make such a generalization for all, since those who were inducted into the army and the civil defense corps (except for the death-squad members of the Patriotic Civil Defense organized in an exclusive neighborhood in 1988) came mostly from the poorest sectors; despite forced recruitment, their time in the army meant access to a salary. It is also true that the former civil defensemen, whose demands are being advanced by ADEFAES, were not explicitly recognized as beneficiaries under the peace accords; it could also be true that their demands are outside the financial capabilities of the government.

In the final analysis, it is undeniable that a solution to the demands of the demobilized soldiers, civil defensemen and police would help defuse a powerful social bomb which might otherwise spark unacceptable levels of violence in the medium and long run.

Proceso is published weekly in Spanish by the Center for Information, Documentation and Research Support (CIDAI) of the Central American University (UCA) of El Salvador. Portions are sent in English to the *reg.elsalvador* conference of PeaceNet in the USA and may be forwarded or copied to other networks and electronic mailing lists. Please make sure to mention Proceso when quoting from this publication.

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