Reports of death squad-style threats in Los Angeles have "no credence" and should be seen largely as an "orchestrated PR campaign" by the religious sanctuary movement, Harold Ezell, Western regional commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, charged Monday.
His remarks were immediately criticized as "outrageously insensitive . . . and totally inaccurate" by a spokeswoman for the Southern California Ecumenical Council's Interfaith Taskforce on Central America, which has coordinated the movement to give Central Americans sanctuary here.
Ezell, known for his outspoken manner, did not directly accuse religious groups of fabricating the spate of telephoned and written death threats received by Salvadorans and other activists in the last three weeks.
Two Central American activists have been abducted. One was seriously injured and molested in what she said was an interrogation-by-torture by two Salvadoran men. Names of more than 30 others have appeared on "death lists" placed in mail boxes. Others have received death threats by telephone.
"One was molested . . . but that happens all over the state," Ezell said in an interview. "There were 40 murders in Santa Ana last year, but do we blame those on death squads?"
Apart from questioning the motives of the sanctuary workers, Ezell said he also gave little credence to the allegations because INS had never heard of any Salvadoran death squads operating in the Los Angeles area.
Asked if he thought religious groups had fabricated the threats, Ezell said, "I'm saying I think the timing is strange. I'm saying it's an orchestrated PR campaign tied into (a congressional) debate today."
The debate he was referring to concerns legislation by Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.) and Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) that would allow Nicaraguans and Salvadorans to remain in the United States for two years while federal authorities study conditions in their countries.
Ezell also accused the groups of using the reported threats "to hang their political star on" because the "the sanctuary movement is dead."
He singled out Father Luis Olivares, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church at Olvera Street, as a leader of the "PR campaign."
'Lack of Discretion'
Olivares, whose parish has declared itself a sanctuary for legal and illegal Central American refugees, received a letter two weeks ago in which the initials "EM" were written in block letters. Those are the initials of Escuadron de la Muerte, or Squadron of Death, which is a name used by right-wing military and paramilitary groups in El Salvador.
"I'm truly amazed at Mr. Ezell's lack of discretion," Olivares said. "The FBI and the Los Angeles Police Department have taken a very serious attitude toward the reported incidents. . . . It's absolutely foolish for any person who is as public as I am to almost bait some crazy person to take a pot shot at me."
Olivares is active in two local immigration committees that give aid to Central American immigrants.
"I find this the most outrageously insensitive response I could imagine from anyone," said Mary Brent Wehrli, executive director of the Southern California Ecumenical Council's Interfaith Taskforce on Central America, which represents sanctuary churches in Southern California.
"It's hard to imagine that this is the man who is directing the affairs for all immigrants here on behalf of Americans. And, as far as his comments on sanctuary being dead go, that's totally inaccurate," she said.
Wehrli said there are 42 declared sanctuaries for Central American refugees in Southern California. She added that the sanctuary movement recently held a national convention in Chicago.
Last year, eight sanctuary workers, including two priests, were convicted of felony charges, including conspiracy to smuggle illegal aliens into the United States. The charges grew out of an undercover INS investigation that included infiltration of church meetings. Those convicted received probation.
Also Monday, about 300 demonstrators picketed in front of Los Angeles City Hall, denouncing the death threats and calling for an end to U.S. military aid to El Salvador. The demonstrators vowed not to be intimidated.
"We will not take one step backwards," said Marta Alicia Rivera, a Salvadoran refugee and political activist who reported that her life was threatened earlier this month.