The Miami Herald
June 29, 2001

Salvadoran Congress poised to reinstate death penalty


 SAN SALVADOR -- Reacting to spiraling violence and supported by furor over the recent murder of a kidnapped 9-year-old boy, El Salvador's Congress is expected by next week to reinstate the death penalty.

 Almost 30 years since its last execution, the Salvadoran Legislature began debate Thursday night on a bill that would punish rape, murder and kidnapping with the death
 penalty. The move follows Chile's decision to do away with the practice.

 ``They are bucking a trend,'' said Ajamu Baraka, director of Amnesty International's Project to Abolish the Death Penalty. ``The trend the last decade has been toward
 abolition. I know they'd clearly be out of step with international trends in Central or South America.''

 El Salvador last altered its death penalty in 1983, when it eliminated capital punishment for all crimes except acts of treason. The last execution was in 1973, when a
 murderer of a 7-year-old girl was put to death.

 The debate raging now was prompted by last week's kidnapping and murder of Gerardo Villeda, a boy snatched from his house as he left for school. The boy and two
 police officers were killed an hour later in a police rescue effort.

 The boy's father, Miguel Villeda, began a national crusade appealing to the nation to urge legislators to threaten the ultimate punishment for such kidnappers. Villeda was
 supported by powerful private enterprise associations, conservative political parties and the news media.

 ``I hope they touch their hearts and implement the death penalty,'' Villeda said.

 The bill was submitted by the ruling ARENA party, which says it believes it has the 43 votes needed to pass.

 ``I think that's what kidnappers and rapists deserve,'' said Rodrigo Avila, the deputy leader of the ARENA representatives in Congress.

 But the country's former guerrillas -- now a legal political party called the FMLN -- oppose the bill and accused ARENA of looking for a ``propagandistic effect'' in voters.

 ``The death penalty has not solved the problems in any country where it is applied,'' said Manuel Melgar, a FMLN representative.

 While most Caribbean countries impose the death penalty, many in Latin America do not. Some, Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Mexico and Peru, have death penalty statutes
 for ``exceptional'' cases, such as war crimes.

 Nicaragua abolished the death penalty after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution. Honduras had already done so in 1956.

 ``Some Latin American countries, including Costa Rica, were among the first to get rid of the death penalty a century ago,'' said Richard Dieter, executive director of the
 Death Penalty Information Center. ``What you see now is countries with internal strife trying to restore order, so there is a tendency to revert to the death penalty.''

 Among the death penalty supporters in Latin America is Guatemala, which even televises its executions. Critics say public broadcastings only fuel the vigilante justice
 that occurs frequently in the countryside.

 Ratification of the law could face difficulties, because the law involves a revision to the constitution, which requires another vote by the next legislature in 2003. A similar effort failed in 1996 when it was voted down by the new Congress a year later.

 Whether the law would be used against the boy's killers is moot: The suspect was hanged by fellow inmates in a maximum security prison Wednesday morning.

                                    © 2001