El Salvador: Water Inc. and the Criminalization of Protest

Last year, when residents in Santa Eduviges entered their second month without running water, everyone knew something had to be done. A town assembly was called. Community members expressed outrage that the water company’s $7 per month bill always arrived on time, but taps barely flowed. When they did, the liquid that came out was an ugly brown.

September 4, 2007

Last year, when residents in Santa Eduviges entered their second month without running water, everyone knew something had to be done. A town assembly was called. Community members expressed outrage that the water company’s $7 per month bill always arrived on time, but taps barely flowed. When they did, the liquid that came out was an ugly brown.

In the assembly, anger quickly turned toward system operator Roberto Saprissa. He received the money, but was doing nothing to fix the system’s problems. They complained that service under Saprissa was deficient and polluted. Despite a number of meetings with government officials, the company simply did not respond.

The community discussed the issue and came to a decision. They demanded the de-privatization of the town water system and its management to be put under the control of the national water agency, ANDA (Administración Nacional de Acueductos y Alcantarillados).

Days later, residents of this small community near the San Salvador suburb of Soyapango, overtook the Gold Highway that leads into the capital. Young and old occupied the busy thoroughfare from the morning rush until 6 p.m. The community made their demand clear: "Give us clean water and put our system under government control." That evening, police fired tear gas to dislodge the crowd and arrested five people.

Eventually the government dropped the charges and released the five residents arrested during the protests. The community won a rare victory: the water system was put firmly under government control. But all that may soon change.

A banner at a water protest reads, "Fighting for water is a right, not a crime."

While dozens of communities in El Salvador have occupied roads demanding water service, the particular conflict that confronted this village of 300 people—and their unusual demand—stands to be repeated now that right-wing deputies in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly are threatening to pass a controversial General Water Law. The legislation calls for water administration to shift from the national to the municipal level and requires local governments to sign over water management through "concessions"—or contracts with private firms—for up to 50 years. The proposed law has become a lightning rod for opposition from community groups and social organizations who say it amounts to a privatization of the country’s water system.

Critics of privatization argue that keeping the water under state-management through the ANDA is the lesser among various evils. The national entity is mired in corruption and bribery scandals and has been the target of extreme budget cuts by Salvadoran President Antonio Saca. Its budget was slashed 15% in 2005, falling to its lowest level this decade—a perplexing reduction in a country where 40% of rural Salvadorans have no access to potable water.

While it is clear that the state-run ANDA isn’t the smoothest-sailing ship in the sea, many believe it remains the most accessible and accountable entity for communities with an urgent need for water. ANDA workers responsible for repairing water systems agree. They say they want to work, but accuse the government of engaging a plan to discredit the agency and thus, justify the privatization as a solution to poor service.

"People complain about ANDA’s slow response time," says Wilfredo Romero, General Secretary at SETA, the union of ANDA workers. "But delays don’t happen because workers don’t want to work; we do. But to make repairs, we need an assignment order from management."

SETA members show a copy of death threats received by the union for its anti-privatization activities.

Those orders, charges SETA’s International Relations Secretary Jorge René Cordoba, "are prioritized for systems that are planned to be concessioned off. The rest have to wait their turn." SETA members explain that municipalities who reject water concessions are put at the end of the line. As a result, service has slowed to a crawl in San Salvador, where Mayor Violeta Menjívar from the FMLN political party opposes concessioning the city’s water services.

SETA took out half-page ads in the nation’s two biggest daily newspapers opposing the General Water Law, which according to the ad, "would privatize water and condemn thousands of our compatriots to suffer thirst for the inability to pay."

SETA members point to the devastating results of the recent privatizations of the country’s telecommunications and electricity sectors, which led to the firing of thousands of workers. Many of these workers were forced to re-apply for the same jobs at half the pay with none of the state-provided benefits. The average ANDA worker currently makes about $300 month.

"If we take the electricity sector and telecommunications as guides, privatization has meant higher rates, lower quality, less access, and less sovereign control over public services," says Krista Hanson of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

Privately run water concessions in Latin America have a terrible track record. The most notorious example occurred with a project imposed by the World Bank in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The Bank made delivery of a loan conditional on the privatization of the country’s largest water systems. When the Cochabamba water services concession ran by the U.S.-based Bechtel Corporation raised household water bills by 200%, it sparked a civil uprising that forced the company to leave the country and the water system was put under public control. After Cochabamba, the World Bank retired the word “privatization” and replaced it with terms like "concessions" and "decentralization," or "private sector participation." But critics say whatever the euphemism, the end result is the same: higher rates, lower quality, and less access.

In El Salvador the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), a division of the World Bank, approved loan 0068-ES, "Reform Program For the Water Sector and the Potable Water and Sanitation Sub-sector" in 1998. The main function of the loan was to transfer state-run water companies "under a decentralization of services with private sector participation." The IDB directed $36 million of the loan for the "promotion of such private sector participation (PSP) using specialized consultants to give support and financial advice to the government towards the effective organization of PSP schemes."

It was one of these new “schemes” President Saca planned to announce on July 2 in Suchitoto 28 miles northeast of San Salvador. The speech was meant to inaugurate a “national decentralization policy,” including water administration. Saca arrived by helicopter and was quickly shuffled off in a limo to an elite resort area on Lake Suchitoto to make his announcement, but hundreds of invited dignitaries, including the Japanese Ambassador never got there. Road blockades guarded by unionists, grassroots organizations and community residents against the plan prevented their arrival.

Salvadoran news cast (in Spanish) about the protest.

Militarized police swat teams attacked the peaceful protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets. Among the 14 people arrested, were Marta Lorena Araujo and Rosa María Centeno the president and vice-president, respectively, of the Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES), a widely respected grassroots organization.

Araujo, Centeno and two other CRIPDES representatives rode in a red pick-up truck toward the protest in Suchitoto when police pulled them over and arrested them near the community of Milingo.

Footage of CRIPDES members' arrest.

The driver was accused with assaulting a police officer, though footage of his arrest proves he put up no resistance to the needlessly aggressive officers. "More than anything, this was a kidnapping," charged Julio César Portillo, husband of the jailed Araujo. "With it, the government is sending a political message: 'Don't protest.'”

Charges of “Acts of Terrorism” will stand against thirteen of the fourteen defendants. Judge Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz of the Special Tribunal of San Salvador also denied bail for the jailed activists, who will have to wait up to 90 days in El Salvador’s notoriously harsh and crowded jails while prosecutors gather evidence for trial.

Fuentes de Paz threw out “Public Disorder” and “Illicit Association” charges against all the defendants, because prosecutors failed to provide evidence. A fourteenth defendant, Facundo García, had all charges dropped. Fuentes said García had only sought to aid those being arrested, which did not constitute a crime. After more than two weeks in jail, a review panel of judges allowed the conditional release of four more defendants on July 20, but the charges against them still stand.

The “Suchitoto 13” are being charged with “terrorism” through the draconian “Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism” (SLAAT) passed after a sniper killed two police officers during a protest in July of last year. Activists say the application of the SLAAT confirms their warnings that the law would be used to criminalize protest and silence dissent. Amnesty International decisively condemned the detentions: “[Amnesty] fears the detentions were carried out to punish people for participating in the legitimate protests and to inhibit similar acts in the future.”

"We demand the liberation of all political prisoners."

Demonstrations erupted against the detentions with protesters calling the 13 detainees El Salvador’s first political prisoners since Peace Accords were signed in 1992. A July 4 statement signed by more than 60 Salvadoran social organizations demanded an immediate release of all detainees. Barring that, they exhorted respect for the physical integrity of the accused by state authorities. The demands were made in the wake of reports police had threatened to throw some detainees out of a transport helicopter as it hung over Lake Suchitoto the day of the arrests. Such threats resonate deeply here, with state-sponsored human rights atrocities of the civil war still fresh in people’s minds.

Meanwhile, U.S. solidarity organizations backed a wide range of Salvadoran groups demanding guarantees for the physical integrity of the arrestees, and for their immediate release. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) added a call for the repeal of the anti-terrorism law.

Interview with Krista Hanson, CISPES program director, conducted by Melinda Tuhus for Between the Lines radio show.

"If the U.S. government publicly supported the approval of the anti-terrorism law, as they did, then they should denounce it when it is being applied for political purposes," said Hanson, who is Program Director for the New York-based CISPES. Representatives from the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities organization announced that efforts to launch a “Dear Colleague” letter in the U.S. Congress had netted two co-sponsors. They said final wording of the letter was finished and that the group would start trying to enlist Congressional co-signers in the coming weeks.

Jason Wallach is an editor at UpsideDownWorld.org, a website uncovering activism and politics in Latin America. This article is a joint NACLA-Upside Down World production.
To Take Action and for Ongoing Updates:

The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador - CISPES

U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities

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