Columnas / Transparency

Violating the Constitution, the Real News within the Armed Forces

Friday, August 21, 2020
Ruth Eleonora López


For the first time in Salvadoran history, the military broke into the main chamber of Congress at 4:25 p.m. The armed troops surrounded the hall where only 31 out of 84 legislators had gathered. Bukele showed up thirty minutes later and prayed. Photo by: Víctor Peña. 
For the first time in Salvadoran history, the military broke into the main chamber of Congress at 4:25 p.m. The armed troops surrounded the hall where only 31 out of 84 legislators had gathered. Bukele showed up thirty minutes later and prayed. Photo by: Víctor Peña. 

Over the past few days, the Presidency has been running a campaign to characterize the Armed Forces as a renewed institution far removed from that which fought guerillas during the civil war. This is not the first post-war government to make use of the military beyond the strictures it is legally mandated to follow. It has, however, been the first in El Salvador’s history to use the defense institution to usurp another government agency and later admit that the action was a means of applying political pressure.

In 2013, I had the honor of participating in the Armed Forces Strategic Advanced Education Center’s (CAEE) 22nd Security and National Development Course. For 28 weeks, alongside other civilians and members of the military, I assumed a rigorous course of study that included the conceptualization of national security, analysis and evaluation of the international context, and the Salvadoran state’s national security and development operations. It was a great academic experience that happened the same year as the debate about the truce between the gangs and the government, but it was above all a valuable experience during which I met members of the military who demonstrated a more open facet of the Armed Forces.

It would seem that what I learned at the CAEE, judging from the events of February 9, was never absorbed by the Armed Forces. I am sure, however, of the theoretical effort and high-level debate among professors and soldiers about the role of the defense institution, which allows me to affirm that within the military there are those dissatisfied with the utilitarian turn it has taken in the past year.

The debate has not just been academic, but also political, considering the Constitutional Court has thoroughly examined the topic. In a sentence passed on May 17, 2013 it declared the appointments of both general Munguía Payés (as Minister of Security) and general Salinas (as Director of the National Civil Police) to be unconstitutional. The judges recognized that the military depends on its essential qualities of discipline, institutional integrity, and a deeply hierarchical organizational structure which responds to the President of the Republic as its Commander in Chief. 

With the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992, the Armed Forces’ role was redesigned, with the zeal of sustaining an unrestricted respect for fundamental rights. According to the aforementioned ruling, the foundation of “a new democracy in freedom” implies demilitarizing the preservation of order and reformulating the military.

The Armed Forces’ new constitutional role evolved, in theory, into a democratic system that respects human dignity, human rights, and social reunification. The Court addressed the matter this past January, establishing that the military’s role “is to safeguard state sovereignty, maintain internal security and external defense,” without straying from democratic values and respect for the Constitution. This process also declared as unconstitutional the last part of Article 164 of the Military Justice Code, which empowered superiors to define, without any external criteria, offenses against discipline and military service. This resolution was especially relevant to those subordinates who for years could have been pressured to carry out wrongful orders. 

Additionally, in this case the Court established the “obedient” nature of the Armed Forces and its discipline, making clear that this discipline “does not imply a discretionary clause that permits someone higher up in the hierarchy to order lower ranking soldiers to carry out any sort of behavior.” Likewise, the Court established that orders originating in the military institution have limits “and one of those limits is the principle of subordination to the Law and, especially, the Constitution.”

According to the Court, following orders does not represent a kind of reverent and unthinking submission, and it recognizes that subordinates have the right to reject a superior’s order if execution of the order would violate fundamental rights or go against the legal code. In this process, I would like to highlight a point that is very important for me: one of the plaintiffs was Hugo Ernesto Fonseca, naval captain, my classmate in the 22nd CAEE Course.

This whole precedent was gravely ignored on February 9, 2020, when the Council of Ministers called a session of the Legislative Assembly to approve a loan request, which was quickly interrupted by the military occupying the Blue Room, the official congressional chambers, under orders of President Bukele. Once again, the Court expressed, through a resolution on February 10, regarding that meeting and related events (heard by the Constitutional Court), that even when the president is Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces “this does not mean he can use the military for any sort of objective beyond what is permitted by the Constitution. He also cannot order the Armed Forces to be the president’s private security.”

Six months after this important moment marking a new course for the government’s actions, the Armed Forces and its Commander in Chief still have not complied with the new role redefined by the Court. Therefore, I find it both useful and pressing to discuss this redesign within our recent democratic progress—which has, in addition, cost us many lost lives. This disobedience is not a minor issue to be treated circumstantially, since there are still those who hold persistent and harmful interpretations of the military’s role. We may need to look to other examples, such as Costa Rica, and seriously consider if the time has come to dissolve the Armed Forces, as discussed during the negotiations of the Peace Accords. 

With the change in government, I sincerely thought the time had come for a civilian—even better, a civilian woman—to assume the role of Minister of Defense. I also celebrated the removal of the name Domingo Monterrosa from the San Miguel Third Infantry Brigade, as a sign that this administration would do away with the war hero narrative. This was all just propaganda, just like the recently advertised “New Armed Forces.”

I believe there is no new Armed Forces, but rather an Armed Forces I no longer recognize based on the officials and other soldiers who I know. I see an Armed Forces anxious to regain prominence and power, one that genuflects before the strongman and remains closed to history, refusing to open the archives and allowing the victims of crimes perpetrated by its members to know the truth. All of this despite the president’s “forceful” commitment to open the archives, from A to Z, on November 1st of last year.

The public face of the “New Armed Forces,” the result of thousands of dollars invested in publicity, is just a wolf in sheep’s clothing that showed its teeth on February 9, and today attempts to hide behind its faults a minister who is being investigated for violating the Constitution.

Translated by Brendan Fields

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