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A Diva Defends the Law

The ombudswoman for human rights has a flashy look but is plain about her mission to clean up El Salvador's judicial institutions.

April 03, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

SAN SALVADOR — Beatrice Alamanni de Carrillo has a weakness for gaudy jewelry: rings with stones only slightly smaller than marbles, crucifixes encrusted with a blinding array of diamonds.

A native of Turin, Italy, she speaks Spanish with a thick Italian accent, and is the proud mother of Miss El Salvador 1995.

With her abundant Cleopatra-esque eyeliner and exquisitely tailored suits, she might not be the first person who comes to mind when envisioning a steely defender of the rule of law in a country where the law often doesn't seem to matter.

Alamanni is El Salvador's ombudswoman for human rights, a position created by the 1992 peace treaty that ended this nation's civil war. She runs a government ministry staffed largely by young, and underpaid, female lawyers. They are official government watchdogs, intended as a buffer to the arbitrary exercise of state power that helped lead to the war.

"There are people who think that since I am a bourgeois lady, from a high social circle, I must be crazy to be mixed up with human rights," said the 62-year-old, who has been the target of death threats. "They think it's a kind of betrayal."

Every day, crime victims, mothers of prison inmates and others cast adrift by El Salvador's teetering justice system and dysfunctional bureaucracies wander into the ombudswoman's office to relate tales of woe.

They tell about bodies of suspected criminals turning up in the city dump, their thumbs tied together by some self-appointed vigilante, just like El Salvador's right-wing death squads used to do. They talk of witnesses to killings who are themselves threatened by criminal gangs that operate with seeming impunity.

What Alamanni and her attorneys offer, in return, is mainly the power to embarrass the government by publicizing their findings. Alamanni wields this power freely, and the Salvadoran television cameras love her for it: La doctora Beatrice is a regular on the nightly news.

But her unabashed defense of civil liberties and good jurisprudence has earned her many detractors among the conservative circles that dominate civic life here.

Popular radio commentator Raul Beltran has dubbed Alamanni "the Godmother of the Gangs." On his broadcasts, he portrays her as a vain foreigner hungry for media attention.

"She defends the rights of the inmates and gang members, but she's quiet about the acts of savagery committed by these criminals," Beltran said in an interview. Then he launched into the kind of unsubstantiated attacks he uses repeatedly on the radio. "The lady has a problem with alcohol."

More than a decade after its civil war ended, El Salvador remains a sharply divided country where violence defines daily life for many. Guerrilla warfare and death squads have given way to a crime wave fed by drug dealers and the notorious "maras," gangs imported from the streets of Los Angeles.

In 2004, the center-right government approved an anti-gang law -- the "Super Mano Dura," Super Iron Fist -- that gave police new arrest powers and increased penalties for youths convicted of "illicit association."

Alamanni is only the most vocal of a small number of lawyers and jurists here, many of them women, who say the war on crime is endangering El Salvador's judicial institutions.

"The institutions created by the peace process are in crisis," Supreme Court Justice Mirna Perla said. The country's penal system is a national shame, Perla says, and the highest levels of the National Civil Police, a force created by the 1992 peace accords, are controlled by former military men with tainted pasts.

"Corruption is widespread in the police, and there are many ties between the police and organized crime," Alamanni agreed. Although Salvadorans see official corruption all around them, Alamanni said, "no one is ever punished, and this creates a climate of fear."

Alamanni's office is locked in a continuous war of wills with El Salvador's police forces. In 2004, police arrested two of her attorneys who were trying to stop the deportation of a union activist with joint Salvadoran-Ecuadorean citizenship.

"When we go to the [police] Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime, we never go alone," said Grisela Victoria Gonzalez, a 28-year-old attorney whose monthly salary is $550, a third what attorneys in the government prosecutor's office make. "There always has to be at least two of us, because they might do something to harm us."

Alamanni said she believed the police officers assigned as her bodyguards report on her activities to their superiors. The officers don't make her feel any safer. Even with the police presence, threats come.

"Last night, at 1 in the morning, one of the national television networks called my home to ask if I was alive or dead," Alamanni said. "They had received an anonymous call that I had been killed in a serious car accident.... The threat of death by car accident is very common here."

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