Young people in El Salvador protested last July 5th against a wave of price increases of electricity, public transportation, and gas. The protest ended in blood, and, as a consequence, 26 year-old trade union leader, Daniel Ernesto Morales Rivera, was beaten and thrown in jail. The following is an interview of his experience.
JA: What’s your name and what do you do?
DM: Daniel Ernesto Morales Rivera and I work in a factory that makes snack food here in El Salvador.
JA: Do you have a union?
DM: Yes, we’re in SIDPA [Sindicato Industrial de Dulces y Pastas Alimenticias], which is the Industrial Union of Candy and Snacks.
JA: So what happened on July 5th (2006)?
DM: To understand what happened, we have to start with the neo-liberal policies that our government is implementing. The cost for electricity has just gone up and so has public transportation. Gas has also gone up in price, just like it has in the rest of the world. Here in El Salvador, it’s almost 4 dollars a gallon for regular gas, which is what I think it is in the US. But the economy in the US has an asymmetrical relationship with our economy in the sense that we pay the same amount for the same goods. This sparked students from the National University to protest these economic measures.
JA: In this context, what is the average wage in the factory that you work in?
DM: We get 5 dollars and 4 cents a day for 8 hours of work, but at times they make you work overtime, to 12 hours a day, and you still only get 5 dollars and 4 cents a day.
JA: So how did the resistance begin against these neo-liberal measures?
DM: Well young people are always on the vanguard of popular struggles and of class struggles. And they always come from the University. Now we have a phenomenon of radical and even revolutionary high school students. One of the groups that embodies this development is called MERS [Movimiento de Estudiantes Revolucionarios de El Salvador], the Movement of Revolutionary Students of El Salvador. This is usually the group that heads up student protest here in El Salvador.
And every July 5th we have a protest in memory of a massacre that took place in 1989, during the [FMLN’s] final offensive, where the police came into the National University and killed 70 students on July 5th. That’s why every year there is a march to commemorate and remember that massacre. This year, MERS organized a passive march but as you know every action has its reaction. Every time young people march, the government always looks at them like rebels, guerillas, and subversives. And we in the labor movement always see the struggles of the students as being very just, and we try to support them in one way or another.
And so what happened at the march, logistically speaking, was that multiple marches were supposed to converge at the National University. Several unions were present at the march including the union of workers who pirate DVDs and CDs. This is a new union that is very militant and strong. Also a group of organized women were present who are called Las Dignas. The problem was that, when the marches were supposed to converge together, the police launched their own offensive. The UMO [Unidad de Mantenimiento del Orden — riot police] was also there at the protests, who are the ones who release teargas and shoot rubber bullets at crowds. Even though this march was passive, the UMO began attacking the crowd with teargas. So the students reacted by throwing rocks at the police, and, in turn, the police started shooting rubber bullets at the crowd. At this point, two helicopters were hovering over the protest with armed soldiers. The anger of the crowd grew, and one person from the crowd, who was not a student but some random FMLN supporter — someone we didn’t know — pulled out an M-16 and started shooting at the police and one of the helicopters. As a result, two police officers died, and one student was seriously injured.
JA: So how did the day end?
DM: With a lot of uncertainty. The Confederation of Unions of El Salvador [Confederación Sindical de Trabajadores Salvadoreños — CSTS] immediately organized a press conference to denounce the attacks against the police because we know how the government works. We knew that the authorities were going to blame the union movement for the officers killed. So we invited everyone here for that press conference, everyone that is part of the social movement. We had representatives from all the different unions, from the different national organizations, MPR 12, the Church, and high school students.
When the mainstream media covered our press conference and saw how many people and organizations were united with the union movement, they attacked the CSTS and accused us of storing and hiding weapons in our offices. At the same time, there was a huge wave of repression against the youth of El Salvador. There were random arrests. Young people were arrested for wearing red shirts or any type of leftist shirt. The charges against these youth were all bogus. The police used charges like resisting arrest, acts of terrorism, disturbing the public, and illegal associations. Young people were repressed by the police, and when I say repressed, I mean these young people were severely beaten by the police, with the police asking no questions in the process. They captured and then beat these young people and then, afterwards, they would ask questions. This is how the police function here in El Salvador.
Here in the offices of CSTS, I was working late because I am CSTS’s Press Secretary. I was working on a document, and at 10:30 at night, 45 fully armed police officers rushed into the office. They immediately arrested me. But they weren’t like, “Let me see your ID.” No! They threw me on the floor and started hitting me for about three hours and threw me in jail for six days for committing acts of terrorism and resisting arrest.
Here in the union office, there is a security guard with a licensed gun. He stores his gun, a 45 colt, in the office. So when the police rushed the office, they found the gun and said that it was mine and that the gun was recently fired and it was used during the protest. So they arrested me for illegal possession of firearms. Immediately they started blaming me for the violence that occurred on July 5th.
I was beaten until I was unconscious from blows to my cerebrum. They would ask me a question, and when I wouldn’t answer, they would hit me. For five hours I had my hands handcuffed behind my back. It was cutting off my circulation, and I asked one of the police officers to loosen the handcuffs a little bit. Instead they made it a lot tighter.
Also, we have the legal right to take down the badge number of a police officer. None of them had their badge numbers present. They were telling me to look the other way so I couldn’t see their faces, and every time I turned my head to see if I could see a badge number, they would hit me. One of them told to me lay down on my stomach and look at the floor. When I did, they stomped my head into the floor with their heavy boots. Afterwards, people found blood marks on the wall and ground.
SOURCE: UITA (Unión Internacional de los Trabadores de la Alimentación, Agrícolas, Hoteles, Restaurantes, Tabaco y Afines) – Secretaría Regional Latinoamericana
JA: Then you went to jail?
DM: Yes, the first night in jail, they put me in five different jails, so I couldn’t be with my compañeros, who were also in jail for political reasons. All night, they interrogated me and said if I didn’t tell them everything they wanted to know, they would create more charges. But I didn’t tell them anything.
JA: And how was your experience in jail? Did the gangsters mess with you?
DM: No, they know they’re being used by the state. When the government assassinates a trade unionist, they just blame it on a gangster. The gangsters are very conscious of this. I was telling them, why are we killing each other and why don’t we unite against the government? And flip the tortilla, as we call it, to make some real change.
JA: And what do you think is necessary for the situation to change here in El Salvador?
DM: To unite all the different tendencies, which are committed to fighting the injustices here in El Salvador. Here it is proven that we cannot have a dialogue with our government. So we have to organize a resistance that is a lot stronger and broad. We are tired of these neo-liberal policies and tired of this civil dictatorship that has been in power for 20 years who won’t leave Salvadorans in peace. Poverty is everywhere, real wages are very low, and the government doesn’t do anything about it besides making matters worse. Our government brags about having the best freeways and infrastructure in Central America, but the people don’t benefit from any of this.
We need real solutions. The left in this country is very poor, but it is very combative and has a lot of heart. We can’t predict the future, but if these neo-liberal policies persist, people here will begin to really fight against such policies.
JA: What is your message to Americans?
DM: Americans have an important role to play in supporting change in El Salvador. To those organizations that are committed to being against neo-liberal policies, unite and support our struggles. We need your help. We are brothers and sisters in an international struggle.