issue 263 - January 1995
Faltering start for ‘civil’ police in El Salvador
SEAN SPRAGUE / PANOS PICTURES
Lightning flashes over the San Salvador slum of San Ramon. The rains are dangerously late this year, as is justice. Pigs and children still forage for food in the local garbage dump. Life for the poor in El Salvador has not greatly improved with the end of the 12-year civil war.
But at least these days there are no tortured corpses among the rubbish. El Salvador has a new police force, the National Civil Police (PNC). And civil they appear to be. They have been trained by some 260 Spanish, Norwegian and Chilean police officers, working under the auspices of the United Nations Mission to El Salvador. Their cream-coloured shirts and tidy white Toyota trucks contrast with the country’s remaining military police, who swagger through San Salvador’s markets in black jump-suits or cruise the dirt lanes of San Ramon in fat Ford Pickups with M-16s at the ready.
According to the 1992 peace accords PNC officers should be 20 per cent former guerrillas, 20 per cent former military police and 60 per cent civilians. Each side has accused the other of smuggling in more officers than it is allowed.
Nonetheless, relations within the PNC are reported to be good. According to former rebel Macario Fuentes, who recently quit his job as a sergeant because he prefers repairing radios to intervening in domestic violence: ‘Very few wartime resentments remain. People try to forget the past and not hold it against one another.’
‘This is the first time we’ve had police who investigate crimes rather than commit them,’ says one young man in San Ramon.
But a closer look reveals that all is not entirely well. The ‘old security forces’ are represented by the new Policia Nacional (PN). Without any retraining the 430-member Special Anti-Narcotics Unit and 140-member Special Investigations Unit have both been incorporated into the PN.
‘These two units are a disaster,’ laments Maria Julia Hernandez of the human-rights office of San Salvador’s Archdiocese. ‘Their track records are so bad the UN Truth Commission said they should be abolished and none of their members should ever be police again.’
Even so, many Salvadorans were beginning to believe that the PN could reform. Then a spectacular midmorning bank heist taught them differently. Nine gunmen, some of them in PN uniforms, raked the Banco Comercio with automatic fire. One of them sprayed the inside of the bank with an M-16, killing two. Four security guards were killed, at least one executed by a coup-de-grace shot as the raiders fled.
Quite by chance, however, a passing TV crew caught the whole robbery on video. The tape revealed that among the raiders was José Coreas Orellana, chief of criminal investigation for the PN. Orellana would have been the very officer in charge of investigating the robbery – and doubtless would have picked up some innocent ‘culprit’ from the streets. Even far-right President Caldoron Sol admitted that the PN had to go.
But what next? ‘The real political test will come when the last of the PN are gone and the PNC has to deal with a new round of labour unrest,’ says Macario Fuentes. ‘That’ll be a difficult day.’
Source: Paul Donovan
Source: Pacific News Bulletin, vol 9 no 10
Much to be done
Lessons from the Maharashtra earthquake
November, midnight. I sat facing 700 eager faces awaiting the election of the ‘Social Service Society’. Wanita, the village school mistress, addressed the crowd. ‘It is up to us to direct our own development,’ she said.
I arrived in Nandurga, Maharashtra, seven weeks after the earthquake struck on 30 September 1993. Sixty-five villages lay destroyed. The official death toll stood at 12,682. An equal number probably lay unaccounted for beneath the rubble. In the shortcomings of the relief effort I discovered a new disaster.
Relief supplies had flooded the local market. Farmers waited for emergency rations rather than work for a crop they couldn’t sell. Land prices had rocketed, stimulated by building contractors and aid agencies. The Government wanted to relocate the villagers 14 kilometres away from their fields. Nobody wanted to live in the temporary shelters. Cramped living conditions led to widespread illness. People with ‘body-ache’ – a clear symptom of post–traumatic stress – were pumped full of painkillers which gave them gastroenteritis. The Government still hadn’t built a single house.
So the ‘Social Service Society’ made proposals to buy seeds, fertilizer, a community-owned tractor; to set up women’s groups, youth groups. Street players and puppet shows on health and alcoholism now provide village entertainment. Nursery schools have been formed. Savings schemes have been set up for income-generating activity centres – tailoring, handicrafts, welding, masonry, carpentry – freeing the villagers to build their own homes in their own way.
Only when the official relief programme came to an end could the real reconstruction effort begin.
T CHARLIER / CAMERA PRESS
Bad for business
Recent democratic experiments in French-speaking Africa – in Congo, Gabon and Niger
– have apparently made some Frenchmen conclude that democracy does not suit French business and strategic interests. This view has gained ground since conservatives won a majority in the French parliament last year. Evidence of the shift came when France invited Mobutu Sese Seco, the dictator of Zaire, to a Franco-African summit in Paris in November 1994, enhancing his chances of survival. They had been strengthened in any case when Mr Kengo became prime minister of Zaire last June: half-Polish, half-Rwandan, Mr Kengo is not eligible to run for the presidency and challenge Mobutu himself.
The Economist, vol 333 no 7885
In response to increasing concern in the biotechnology industry that consumers will not buy genetically-engineered foods if they are labelled as such, the US delegation to a recent meeting in Ottawa of the regulatory body Codex Alimentarius proposed that they should not be. The move was opposed by some sections of the food industry itself which have no vested interest in selling genetically-engineered foods and claimed they were being asked to deceive their customers.
Source: The Splice of Life, vol 1 no 5
Zoo animals’ distress in Baghdad
The director of Baghdad’s famous zoo, Dr Ardil Salman Musa, is a man with a slowly breaking heart.
‘Before the UN blockade we imported specialist food from the UK, the US and Russia and we had expert advice from London Zoo,’ he tells me. ‘Now we have very little food and medical problems too are insurmountable, with no veterinary medicines, vaccinations, antibiotics, stun-guns or tranquilizers.’
The lioness has died from a viral infection. Her mate pines in his spacious den amid the palm groves. He emits echoing roars of distress from the fever and pneumonia he has suffered for the last six months – and, says Dr Musa, from his grief. The tormented, grieving lion seems doomed.
In July the Bengal tiger had three cubs. Two survive, hanging on despite malnourishment. Another female died. ‘When we treated her,’ says Dr Musa with weary understatement, ‘I had to hang on to her tail, whilst my colleague quickly injected her – this is a very dangerous practice.’
An engaging honey-coloured bear lies in a foetal position, paws cupping soulful eyes. It has been lying thus for two years, says Dr Musa, refusing to venture into the sun. It is, he feels, acutely depressed.
Ancient donkeys wander through the palms, bougainvillea and hibiscus, unaware of their fate – as meat for the animals. Most of the joyful, chattering, recklessly acrobatic monkeys have died. One tame and gentle favourite with the children severed a child’s hand, probably driven by hunger.
Pet dogs look pitifully through the bars of cages that once housed endangered species – their owners have brought them to the zoo in desperation, unable to feed their families, let alone their pets. They vow to collect them when the blockade ends – but no-one in Iraq believes it ever will. The people, like the animals, are helpless, the victims of events over which they have no control.
As we leave the zoo the gatekeeper hands out tickets blindly. He is a diabetic. With insulin virtually unobtainable and no corrective diet he has lost his sight.
‘We are so tired,’ says Dr Musa, ‘but what can we do? We are in the hands of God...’ It is a refrain one hears reiterated wherever one goes in Iraq.
Camcorder joins the activist’s arsenal
You can, of course, use a camcorder to capture the moment when dad breaks wind at the dinner table – and send in the tape to one of those hugely popular TV compilations of ‘home videos’. But you can also use the camcorder to fight for social and environmental justice. It has now joined the fax machine and the word processor as an essential item in any good activist’s tool-kit.
Sales of camcorders have exploded. Something like 10 per cent of households in the UK and 20 per cent in the US own one. Almost anyone can film a polluting sewer or anti-fascist rally, then play it back to friends, journalists or politicians.
The most sensational example so far has been the beating of Rodney King by police in Los Angeles, captured on video by a stranger in a nearby apartment block and then broadcast around the world.
But there are plenty of others. The Ogoni in Nigeria filmed massacres of their people. Thai students filmed a military crackdown. Film shot last September showed a campaigner dangling from a crane in downtown Sydney to denounce the fiftieth anniversary of the World Bank. Activists blocking operations in Clayoquot Sound, Canada, use camcorders to ensure arrests are ‘friendly’ and avoid false charges. In the UK anti-road protesters say that when a camcorder is present security guards are noticeably less violent.
Even established groups regularly provide footage for news organizations. In the US the Reebok Foundation has set up a ‘Witness’ programme to supply human-rights groups around the world with camcorders to chronicle injustices.
But TV stations regularly reject footage shot by activists. And there is now a glut of campaigners’ material. Effective editing and distribution networks are needed. Camnet in Los Angeles allows footage to be swapped, while Deep Dish rents cheap air time on local cable TV around the US. Exploding Cinema in the UK has projected films onto the walls of abandoned swimming pools. Small World’s ‘Undercurrents’ distributes edited footage quarterly through mail-order and book shops.
As the media are controlled by a smaller and smaller number of people, the camcorder is blowing a slightly blurry but passionate and democratic wind across the world. Viva las Camcordistas!
For more information contact Small World Media, 1a Waterlow Road, London N19 5NJ
Back to work
The US once led the world in cutting the average working week – from 70 hours in 1850 to less than 40 hours by the 1950s. Since the 1970s, however, the hours clocked up by US workers have risen, to an average in the manufacturing sector of 42 hours in 1994. The length of the average working week continues to fall in Europe and Japan. But surveys suggest that, given a choice, Americans actually prefer to work more not fewer hours. Explanations vary – from the appeal of shopping (which costs a lot of money) as a pastime, to boring TV and even, according to recent surveys, the small amount of time taken up by sex.
Source: The Economist, volume 333 no 7886
A scheme to increase affirmative action to overcome the rigid social hierarchy of India’s ancient caste system has sparked violence in a number of states. In a bid to win votes in recent elections the governments in states like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu unveiled policies aimed at reserving up to 70 per cent of public-sector jobs for lower castes. At least 20 people were killed in Uttar Pradesh when police opened fire on agitators protesting against ‘bias’ towards groups known as ‘Other Backward Communities’. Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao still plans to make 27 per cent of public-sector jobs available for Indians belonging to around 1,200 different groups.
Source: Rahul Bedi/Gemini
PETER GRANT /
A foreign-funded natural-gas pipeline from the Andaman Sea across Burma to Thailand involves forest destruction and forced labour. A consortium composed of Premier, Nippon Oil and Texaco is developing the Yetagun gas concession, and in the Yadana field the French company Total has been joined by Unocal from the US. Environmental and human-rights groups are calling upon the oil companies to abandon the scheme and are demanding an international boycott of Burma’s military regime.
Source: Pamela Wellner/The Ecologist, vol 24 no 5
‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies a final sense of theft from those who hunger and are not fed, from those who are cold and are not clothed.’
General Dwight D Eisenhower,
former President of the United States