On October 27, 1987, the president of El Salvador’s Human Rights Commission, Herbert Ananya, was assassinated in broad daylight on the streets of the capital. He was the seventh official of the group to be murdered or disappear in the 1980s. The story didn’t make the front page of The New York Times or the Washington Post. On day two it faded from the network news.
The New York Times (10/28/87) framed the issue this way: “Killing in Salvador Imperils Peace Talks.” A more telling headline–undercutting years of the Times‘ coverage–would have been: “Killing in Salvador Raises Doubts About ‘Democracy.'” The most prominent explanation for the murder in Lindsey Gruson’s article (10/29/87) was President Duarte’s theory that leftists had killed Anaya.
By day three, the assassination was overshadowed by another development in the Times–Salvador’s new amnesty law. The main thrust of the “amnesty” was the pardoning of rightwing death squads responsible for civilian massacres. Gruson noted that the law would also free 750 “leftist guerrillas”–a mischaracterization of hundreds of political prisoners jailed without trial for non-violent activity.
During a week when El Salvador witnessed a major assassination, street riots and clemency for right-wing army officers, the Times‘ Sunday “Week in Review” (11/1/87) devoted nearly a page (66 inches with photo and chart) to Nicaragua, while El Salvador was reduced to an addendum (9 inches).
Detainees in El Salvador were referred to as “leftist guerrillas,” while those in Nicaragua were called “political prisoners.” The Times did not point out that many of Nicaragua’s prisoners are former Somoza National Guardsmen convicted and sentenced for brutal crimes by the Sandinista government which had abolished the death penalty.
Undoubtedly Nicaragua has more political detainees than El Salvador. That’s because Salvadoran captives are routinely murdered. Amnesty International and Americas Watch both found that torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings were “systemically practiced” in El Salvador and Guatemala, but not in Nicaragua.
When Reagan singled out Nicaragua as Central America’s “totalitarian dungeon,” he somehow failed to notice that over 40,o00 civilians have been killed by security forces or government-allied death squads in El Salvador since 1979, and 50,000 murdered in Guatemala. The Sandinistas have never been accused of such massacres.
Nicaragua has a record of prosecuting its armed forces for human rights abuses. According to the Catholic Institute for International Relations, “[Nicaraguan] Army officers and security officials have received exemplary punishment for violating human rights.” By contrast, no Salvadoran military officer has been convicted of abuses, and the new amnesty will pardon all past crimes and free seven low-ranking soldiers convicted of murdering U.S. citizens. According to Americas Watch, the Guatemalan armed forces “remain a law unto themselves…. No headway at all has been made in accounting for the gross abuses of the past or in punishing those responsible.”