El Salvador: 50 Days Later, No Answers in Murder of Alegría Mayor

Written by Upside Down World
Wednesday, 27 February 2008
On the morning of January 9th, leaders from the rural community of Las Casitas in the municipality of Alegría, Usulután waited for the arrival of their mayor and his staff to discuss the construction of a soccer field in their community. But Moises Funes, the 31-year-old mayor from the FMLN party, never arrived.

Just before reaching the community, a man in a truck waved for help, explaining that he was lost. Upon stopping the car, Funes was shot and killed along with his companion in the mayor’s office, Zulma Rivera, 22, chief of the Institutional Purchasing and Hiring Unit for the city. According to the testimony of a single witness, the assassin then escaped in his vehicle through the coffee fields. He has yet to be identified.

In following days, the atmosphere in this small town was one of mourning and sadness. Over 5,000 people came out for his funeral. A mayor who had been truly loved was now lost forever. One month later, the sadness has turned to anger, fear, and suspicion.

Upon confirming the assassination, the district attorney’s office began an investigation, announcing that they could not say whether the motive may have been political or personal, but that they would investigate the crime as they would any other. In El Salvador, where between 80% and 85% of crimes remain unresolved, these words didn’t breed optimism. Indeed, the district attorney’s office has not detained any suspects, and the case has, so far, remained in impunity.

Sigfrido Reyes, FMLN Senator and Chief of Communications explained that “while those responsible remain free, the people are in fear because there exists a threat that continues to be relevant: the assassins are free and they can therefore think about assassinating anybody.”

“People will be afraid unless the suspects are captured…but while this does not happen, the generalized state is a state of fear.”

This fear materialized on Sunday afternoon, February 3rd when Lorenzo Campos, the only witness to the double-assassination was gravely injured by gunshot. On January 9th, Campos was the first person at the site of the crime and tried to rescue the mayor, bringing him to the hospital in his own vehicle. Campos works as a trip driver and had recently been contracted by a woman to drive for a Sunday trip, but upon arriving with his vehicle he was shot twice in the throat and once in the neck, leaving him badly wounded. He has now been hospitalized and is in stable condition.

Moises Funes and Alegría
In sharp contrast to the brutality of the recent events, Alegría is known for its beauty and its safety. Nestled into the side of an inactive volcano, it is miles from the smog and crowds of Usulután, the state capital, and other busy cities. Even in the summer months of January and February a cool, clean breeze gives the visitor a rich break from the sticky heat of many areas of the country, and the tidy center of town is lined with gardens and cafés. Petty crimes such as street robberies are almost unheard of here.

The people of Alegría also remember Moises as he grew up in this town. When he was approached by the FMLN to run in the May 2006 elections he hesitated. Moises came from a humble family; he had graduated from high school with a focus on accounting, and enrolled at the University of the Orient in the nearby city of San Miguel.

With growing family responsibilities and wanting to support his mother and sister, he stopped studying several years before finishing his degree and went to work at FUNDASAL, a Salvadoran non-profit organization that focuses on providing basic housing and resources to poor families, and offers social consciousness workshops to the same beneficiaries. Working in the eastern states of La Unión and Morazán, he visited rural communities often walking 10 kilometers a day between communities.

Wanting to work closer to home, Moises left FUNDASAL and worked a time at a bank in a town near Alegría, then found a position at the non-profit Intervida supporting children’s education, development projects for schools, health campaigns and parent education. When the FMLN requested that he run for mayor, it was because of this connection with the local rural communities and his dedication to their development and education.

Upon winning the election in early 2006, it quickly became clear that not everybody thought the change was for the best. Moises’ mother, María Auxiliadora Ramirez, remembers that the once the results were known on evening of the election, ARENA party loyalists came to the family house to throw rocks. As she remembers “some of them were so frustrated that they actually died of anger on that day.”

Carlos Antonio Luna, the previous mayor who was from the ARENA party and had ruled for 12 years in Alegría was furious. The FMLN’s Reyes remembers, “the municipal government of ARENA that lost the elections carried out completely illegal acts that amounted to giving away the fundamental wealth of the city, which is an ecological park, a lagoon.”

Between election day and the day that Moises became mayor, the Alegría lagoon was leased to a private company for 15 years, along with a tourist center, which was rented to the company ADESCAM. The town’s sports stadium was rented to a privately-owned soccer team. On May 1st, when Moises and his staff opened the small three-room mayor’s office, they were surprised to see what else had been given away: over half of the computers, the city car. The city’s bank account was nearly empty. Funes immediately ordered an audit and began to seek a legal solution to the losses, a process which is still on-going and which had been developing against the former mayor.

Though mayors hold their position for 3 year terms, Luna’s secretary had threatened Moises, telling him to remember that “we will lend you the mayor’s office for 2 years, no more.” Then, soon after Moises took responsibility of the city the death threats started arriving to his cellular phone from an anonymous computer address. Unlike the mayor who until his death did not denounce the threats, his close friend and local priest received threats as well and requested a transfer to a different parish. Soon after his transfer was granted, the violence started.

In an event written off by mainstream media as a political discussion gone sour, José Angel Funes the father of Moises Funes was shot twice and badly wounded on April 26th, 2006, just days before Moises would take control of the mayor’s office.

José Angel had finished work at his restaurant in Alegría around 10pm when he went to the parking lot to leave, and was shot twice in the stomach by a would-be assassin. He was brought to the local hospital in critical condition, but survived to be transferred to the main Surgical Hospital in San Salvador where he underwent a successful operation.

Despite the timing of this event, the attempt on José Angel’s life could have been written off for any of a number of reasons. But even mainstream media admitted that the identity of the man responsible pointed to political motives. The man was ARENA activist José Monterrosa, blood brother of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, responsible for the deaths of over 900 innocent people in 1981 in the most infamous massacre of the Civil War, the El Mozote Massacre.

History Leans Towards 2009
“We are not in the pre-campaign anymore, the election season has now begun,” says Alegría councilwoman Lilian Astrid Cortez. In El Salvador, politics goes hand in hand with violence and insecurity, and democracy is just a small part of the political process. The assassination of Moises Funes is an important landmark for the selection of the next president of the nation. In order to put these violent events into context, it is necessary to understand something of the political history of El Salvador.

The brutal civil war officially ended in a stalemate with the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992 by both sides: the government and the armed FMLN. Since that year there have been two main political parties contending for power. The left wing party, the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) continues bears the name of the original organization that brought together diverse armed movements of the pre-war era, and holds 38% of seats in the National Legislative Assembly.

The right wing Alianza Republicana Nacional (ARENA) was founded by Roberto D'Aubuisson in the midst of the civil war and has nearly eclipsed the former hegemony of the right wing PCN. D'Aubuisson is widely accepted as the intellectual author of Salvadoran-style death squads, as well as of the assassination of the Archbishop Monseñor Romero in 1980, although these facts continue to be denied by the government in power. ARENA currently holds the most seats of any party in the National Assembly, with 40%.

Since the Peace Accords, ARENA has won the presidency in every election, though the FMLN has fluctuated with more or less national and local seats. In the mayoral elections of 2006 the party won the mayors seat in San Salvador, the country's capital and largest city, and the country is now seeing the very real possibility that in 2009 the FMLN could win the presidency. Recent political campaigns in El Salvador have proved them to be a combination of tactics, with the creation of a climate of fear and instability, both economic and physical, always used as the fallback.

Senator Reyes has said that “each time that a campaign draws near in which the anxieties of the right wing grow, we see how their attitude becomes more violent, more aggressive. We in El Salvador have a right wing that is very radical in ideological and political terms, a right wing with a tradition of violence and disrespect for life, and a right wing that does not accept, mentally they do not accept that an opposition party could come to govern.”

The former right wing ruling party, the Partido de Conciliación Nacional (PCN) did not lose a presidential election for nearly 20 years between 1960 and 1979. Similarly, in 16 years of peace, the ARENA party has never lost one and they are not interested in starting now.

A History of Violence and Impunity
Despite President Antonio Saca’s attempts to address the security crisis, crime continues to be a major concern for most Salvadorans. Throughout Saca’s presidency the amount of violent deaths has ranged between 2,933 in 2004 when he assumed power and 3,928 in 2006. Murders for 2005 and 2007 were within that range. The number of homicides was higher than it had been in any year since the Peace Accords in 1992. The national police seem to be unable to do anything about the gang violence and robberies that plague all of the larger cities in the country, and in many urban communities deaths are almost weekly. In the end, many Salvadorans continue to see politics as dangerous and ineffective in solving their problems.

Political crimes are also not a thing of the past, as disappearances, assassinations, and unjustified incarcerations which characterized El Salvador in the 1980s continue present. In the last several years there have been many well-known disappearances and political assassinations of activist youth, along with labor and movement leaders.

One notable case is that of the Manzanares couple, a husband and wife who were tortured for hours in their home, then assassinated and left while the assassins attempted to light their house on fire to destroy the evidence. Francisco Antonio Manzanares and Juana Monjarás were the parents of the journalist Rosa Marina Manzanares Monjarás who received wide recognition as a voice against repression and impunity since the time of the war and her work with the FMLN-run “Radio Venceremos.”

Until now, there have been no arrests. The only information the Attorney General has offered in recent history was in November 2007 when he announced in an absurd accusation that he was considering the possibility of Rosa Marina’s involvement in the crime. To Salvadorans and to the international community, incidents like these recall wartime when impunity was rampant. But this is not wartime. This crime took place less than two years ago, in June 2006.

Underscoring the conflict between the attorney general’s office and justice, on January 24th of this year, 400 judges took to the streets in protest. The judges marched to express their disagreement with a disciplinary action against 4 fellow judges who have ostensibly been charged with refusing to rule in agreement with the Attorney General's office on a number of cases. They expressed that they will rule their cases in accordance with the law as they understand it and not the political interests of the party in power.

Against the precedent set by the Attorney General, however, social organizations and the FMLN continue to demand justice in the case of Moises Funes and Zulma Rivera, and have said that they will continue to do so until the truth is known.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey