Peace held captive

Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador
Christine J Wade
2016, Ohio University Press
281 pages, paperback

IF YOU want to understand why so few of those responsible for human rights violations carried out during El Salvador’s long and bloody civil war have faced justice, Christine Wade offers a convincing explanation.

Casual murder – perhaps most notoriously that of Archbishop Óscar Romero – was a characteristic feature of the conflict that claimed at least 75,000 lives between 1979–92 in a country with a population of just 6 million and half the size of Denmark. But an official amnesty approved in 1993 has until very recently shielded the killers from prosecution.

The death of Romero, a trenchant critic of the country’s abusive military who was shot by a sniper while performing mass in 1980, resides implicitly at the heart of Wade’s proposition.

For Romero’s death, and subsequent atrocities, were allegedly planned by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a major in the Salvadoran army who would go on to establish the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the rightwing political party representing the country’s elite that held power from 1989–2009 throughout the era of “peacebuilding” – and Wade’s book is about ARENA.

The amnesty law was approved by a legislature dominated by ARENA, and superseded previous agreements reached during peace negotiations to end the civil war between the Salvadoran government and the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) guerrilla movement that had fought it to a standstill.

While in principle the amnesty respected these agreements absolving guilty members of both sides in the conflict, and was thereby aimed at reconciliation, in practice it was a travesty of justice that has protected the Salvadoran elite and their US-trained army from being prosecuted for the most brutal crimes imaginable. The UN Truth Commission investigating the war documented in 1992 that at least 85 per cent of the 75,000 people tortured, raped, killed, and disappeared that it had recorded were victims of the army and its associated paramilitary groups. Just 5 per cent were victims of the FMLN.

Moreover, the 1993 law granting amnesty to all of the human rights violators extended this coverage far beyond the norms of international law by including those who had committed “genocide and crimes against humanity”.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of soldiers literally got away with murder.

This immoral distortion of the peacebuilding process behind the facade of democratic transition by ARENA has had a visibly damaging effect upon the quality of the peace in El Salvador.

In Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador, Wade explains how the country offers a unique opportunity to explore the role of elites in internationally-sponsored peacebuilding efforts. She argues that ARENA’s political incumbency gave it significant advantages in negotiating and then implementing the UN-sponsored peacebuilding process – the first involving a civil war in which the UN agreed to act as mediator – thereby enabling elites to shape the country’s transition in ways that did not upturn the apple cart. In effect, they “captured” the peacebuilding process.

Drawing on literature about “elite capture” – which in turn is informed by and informs scholarship on regulatory capture – Wade argues that while they may adopt the language of peacebuilding and liberalism, elites may retain a political culture of patronage and clientelism, to the clear detriment of meaningful reform.

She writes: “El Salvador is a cautionary tale of the prospects for peacebuilding, even under the most favourable of circumstances … Salvadoran elites, through their governing political party, ARENA, were not only able to limit the scope of the negotiations largely to institutional reform that they would oversee, they were also able to minimize their losses by manipulating various aspects of implementation.” [pp. 186–87]

Wade argues that the consequences of this pose a question that cuts to the very heart of democratization and peacebuilding in Latin America.

She writes: “The belief that democracy is a means by which to achieve lasting peace should prompt us to ask serious questions about the quality of democracy that sustains peace. The dual processes of democratization and peacebuilding have rarely delivered both peace and liberal democracy. Low-intensity democracies, such as El Salvador, are not uncommon in postwar settings.” [p 187]

Perceptively, she notes how the absence of any meaningful transitional justice in the country has had, in particular, profound consequences.

Relentless international pressure, hard work by prominent NGOs, endless grassroots protests, and cracks in the wall of silence that has prevailed among former military criminals, finally paid off in 2016 when after three years of deliberations El Salvador’s Supreme Court overturned the 1993 amnesty law, a landmark achievement in a country that continues to suffer the violent after-effects of such a traumatic conflict.

Yet as in every other aspect of the captured peace that has distinguished El Salvador’s post-conflict transition, there is a bitter twist to this tale.

For sure, the first arrest warrants have been issued in recent months following the law’s repeal – but for former members of the FMLN wanted by Washington for shooting down a US helicopter. Prosecutors are yet to act on the multiple, egregious, and unforgivable violations of human rights by El Salvador’s US-backed army that have been purposefully kept off the casebooks for three decades.