Preliminary Hearing for 9 Trinidad Murder Suspects Postponed… Again

On July 1, 2010, Salvadoran Police and government prosecutors announced that they had arrested nine people for the murders of Ramiro Rivera, Dora Alicia Sorto, Felícita Echeverría, Horacio Menjívar, and Esperanza Velasco.

At the time, they claimed that Ramiro Rivera and Santos Rodriguez had paid gang members to kill Horacio Menjívar (April 2009) and Esperanza Velasco (October 2009), and that Oscar Menjívar and his sister Naomi hired the same gang members to kill Ramiro Rivera and Santos Rodriguez in revenge in December 2009. Felícita Echeverría was an innocent bystander who was killed while riding in Ramiro’s truck when assassins struck. Authorities presume that a few days later, assassins were searching for Santos Rodriguez, but when they came across his wife Dora Alicia, they killed her instead. She was 8 months pregnant at the time and carrying her two-year old son. The two-year old was wounded but survived. The unborn child did not.

The police and prosecutors claimed at the time that the violence was a family feud between members of the Menjívar family and leaders of the CAC, which is a local anti-mining organization. In one press release, the state prosecutor’s office states that the violence was an escalation of the debate over mining. In previous and subsequent statements, they have denied any link to mining.

Though the nine suspects being held for the murders were arrested over 13 months ago, they still have not had a preliminary hearing to determine whether the prosecutors and police have enough evidence to move forward with a trial. The preliminary hearings have been scheduled and cancelled four times in the past year – the most recent was last Friday, July 29th.  According to a press release from the Environmental Committee of Cabañas (CAC), the hearings were cancelled due to poor planning and logistics on the part of the prosecutor’s office.

According to a report by Sydney Blanco and Francisco Díaz, El Salvador has an impunity rate of 96.2%, meaning that of all murders committed in the country, only 3.8% result in a suspect being tried and convicted of the crime. Though police make arrests in 15% of all murders, the prosecutors only convict in 3.8% of them. The report places the blame for such a high impunity rate on the police, which they found were responsible for 26% of murders going unprosecuted, and the state prosecutor, which they found responsible for 54% of the murders going unprosecuted. The report says that the police and prosecutor’s office are jointly responsible the other 20% of the murder going unprosecuted.

In their recent press release, the CAC urges international organizations to take action to spur on the trial of the accused. They make the following demands:

–       We urge the Attorney General’s Office to expedite this process once and for all so that the hearing, which has been suspended four times, may be held and that no more excuses are put forward further delaying the procedure;

–       We demand that the investigations of the murders of Ramiro Rivera Gómez and Dora Alicia Sorto are comprehensive and coherent without trying to hide the truth;

–       The prosecutors must investigate all leads, which have already been discussed publically, instead of being fixed upon a single hypothesis that we (the CAC) do not agree with;

–       They (the CAC) will hold the authorities in charge of the investigation responsible if their negligence results in the suspects going free with impunity, and anything else happens to members of the CAC and the families of the victims;

–       We have called on international organizations and friends to watch out for the results of this trial, and we have asked them to demand that the authorities take these cases more seriously so that we don’t have to mourn the loss of another person, since three people from the CAC have already been killed for their involvement in the organization;

–       As an association defending the environment and human rights we also express that we will fight to defend life at the expense of losing our own.

While it is unclear why the prosecutors are delaying the hearings, there are real consequences. Though they are accused of murder, the suspects have a right to a trial. They were arrested over a year ago and the prosecuting attorneys have been unable to get their case to the point where they are even ready for a preliminary hearing.  In addition, the family and friends of the victims have a right to see justice done. If the suspects are indeed guilty, they should be held accountable for their crimes.

The preliminary hearings and trials are also important because it is an opportunity for the public to learn more about the facts about the case. Currently, there is little known about what happened in 2009 that led to the murders. Locals believe that there are intellectual authors involved that have not yet been arrested, and the preliminary hearing is an opportunity to gain access to information that may help others continue to investigate.

Time is also essential to these cases. The more time goes by, the greater the chance that the memories of witnesses become foggy and skewed. And the more time passes the greater the likelihood that something could happen to witnesses. The most recent murder involving a member of the CAC occurred in June 2011. Though the victim was not a witness to these crimes, there are potentially others whose lives are in danger. An example of this is the August 2009 shooting of Ramiro Rivera. Oscar Menjívar had been charged from trying to kill Ramiro Rivera in August 2009, but before Rivera could testify he was killed. The judge dismissed the charges against Mr. Menjívar because that the key witness, Mr. Rivera, was dead.

The violence in Cabañas continues and there are people guilty of murder who still enjoy impunity. With every passing day, the chances that they will be brought to justice diminish. We join the CAC in calling upon El Salvador’s state prosecutors to bring those accused to trial, while continuing to consider all other lines of investigation, including the possibility that there are intellectual authors to these crimes and that the violence was more than just a family feud.

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