As El Salvador enters a presidential election campaign that may well end in victory for the left, the government in power is relying on U.S. help to wield the weapon of repression once more.

During the 1980s, El Salvador was wracked by a civil war in which the right-wing government and government-allied death squads massacred tens of thousands of civilian men, women and children. This was done with U.S. supplied money, technical advisors, weapons and other support.

Eventually a peace settlement was reached in 1992 that led to a lessening of the violence and the opening of political space in which the left, grouped as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FLMN), was able to work openly in electoral and other mass spheres. Up until now, the government has been in the hands of the ultra-right ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance), whose leaders and activists were responsible for the worst atrocities of the civil war period, including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

It now appears that in the presidential election scheduled for March 2009, the FLMN candidate, radio journalist Mauricio Funes, has a good chance of winning. Knowing the history of ARENA and its supporters in the U.S. government, it is not surprising that there are alarming stories of new repression and even of an increase in death squad assassinations of opposition political activists.

The U.S. government has a lot at stake in the Salvadoran election, as El Salvador, Colombia and Mexico are the three remaining countries with right-wing governments opposed to the new left-wing trends in the hemisphere exemplified by Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Rafael Correa of Ecuador. The U.S. government and ARENA may stop at nothing to prevent a Funes victory.

This brings us to the case of the Suchitoto 13. These demonstrators were arrested on July 2, 2007 for protesting the projected “decentralization” of the town of Suchitoto’s water supply, which they believe – with reason – to be the foot in the door for the privatization of all of the water systems in El Salvador, as part of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

In other Latin American countries, free trade policies have led to efforts by major U.S. and European corporations to profit from local people’s need for water and have led to sharp increases in its cost. The Suchitoto protesters, the FMLN and people’s organizations in El Salvador aim to prevent this.

The Suchitoto protests were huge, and the government of President Antonio Saca of ARENA decided to make an example of 13 of the arrested protesters by prosecuting them under El Salvador’s 2006 anti-terrorism law, with potential 60-year jail sentences. This draconian law was inspired by our own USA PATRIOT ACT. The Bush Administration actively urged the Salvadoran legislature to pass it, and has been providing special anti-terrorism training to Salvadoran police forces.

The Bush Administration justifies its support for repressive action in El Salvador in terms of fighting “Salvadoran” criminal gangs and international terrorism. Ironically, the “gangs,” such as Mara Salvatrucha, did not originate in El Salvador but in Los Angeles among the offspring of impoverished Salvadoran refugees from the bloody civil war the U.S. itself fomented and encouraged in the 1980s. When the U.S. government cracked down and deported some of these gang members, it helped to spread the original L.A. phenomenon to El Salvador, and now it has become truly transnational.

As for the Suchitoto 13, solidarity organizations in the U.S. such as the U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities and the Committee in Support of the People of El Salvador (CISPES) organized solidarity actions, including getting more than 40 members of the U.S. Congress to write letters to the Salvadoran government. As a result, the Salvadoran Ministry of Justice has reduced the charges from terrorism to disorderly conduct and damage to property.

The protesters could still get jail terms of up to four years, however, so support groups vow to keep pushing for charges to be dropped entirely. They plan to increase political pressure to prevent the U.S. and Salvadoran governments from using even more repressive measures to head off an FMLN victory in 2009.