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A Diva Defends the Law

Times Staff Writer

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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.”

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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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Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who calls Alamanni a friend, dismisses her most serious allegations against the country’s judicial system and police force, as do many in law enforcement.

Members of Saca’s Cabinet, however, rarely ignore her public censures. Social Security Director Jorge Mariano Pinto recently endured a grilling in her office from senior citizens angered over the state of healthcare provided to them. No top bureaucrat can afford to deny her an audience.

Any citizen can go to the ombudswoman’s office to file a complaint. The office can then launch a formal investigation, which may result in the office contacting the bureaucracy in question, issuing recommendations or publishing a public censure.

“I am outspoken against the government because it’s my job,” Alamanni said.

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She has interpreted her role broadly, transforming herself into an outspoken advocate for all manner of legal and political rights. She broadcasts spots on trade union rights and the right to healthcare, and questioned the government’s response to Hurricane Adrian in 2005.

When hundreds of inmates rioted at one of El Salvador’s most notorious prisons in 2002, taking several policemen hostage in the process, Alamanni arrived with a team of attorneys. She helped negotiate a surrender, but only after two policemen were killed. Some blamed her for delaying a planned rescue operation.

The road that brought Alamanni from Italy to this impoverished Central American country winds through several chapters of El Salvador’s turbulent recent history.

The only child of a well-off Italian diplomat, Alamanni met her future husband, Juan Antonio Carrillo, in Turin in the 1960s. He was a Salvadoran expatriate, studying electrical engineering at the University of Turin. She would eventually earn a doctorate in law.

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They married in Italy in 1968 and settled permanently in El Salvador a decade later, just as the country’s leftist revolution and civil war were beginning.

In 1980, Alamanni founded the law school at the prestigious, Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador at the behest of Father Ignacio Ellacuria, a philosopher and social activist.

When Ellacuria and other priests and university workers were killed by Salvadoran soldiers on the campus in 1989, Alamanni briefly left the country. She returned three months later and ran the law school for another decade.

Two of her three children -- including Eleonora, Miss El Salvador 1995 -- have earned law degrees from Italian universities. The third is, like his father, an engineer. Alamanni recently became a grandmother.

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She was appointed by El Salvador’s legislature in 2001, thanks in part to the fact that many leading members of the ruling right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party, known as Arena, had been her law students.

Alamanni says her love for the law led her to take on much of the Salvadoran establishment. She still gives the occasional university lecture, and it pains her that no Salvadoran institution offers a doctorate in law. Her old university offers only bachelor’s and master’s degrees in law.

“We started the law school with the intention of building democracy, of achieving academic excellence, of teaching young people that only with the law, and the rule of law ... could we advance as a country,” she said.

“People who study law today do it out of self-interest, because it’s a career that pays well. There is a total ignorance of recent history.... The youth of El Salvador don’t know what happened here 10 or 15 years ago.”

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Today, many of the top judges and government ministers in El Salvador are Alamanni’s former students: Most take care to say her first name with the correct Italian pronunciation -- Beh-ah-TRI-che.

Doctora Beatrice, a pleasure to see you as always,” Walter Araujo, president of El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Court, called out when Alamanni visited his offices recently.

Alamanni had arrived, with half a dozen reporters, to talk about the upcoming municipal and congressional elections. Araujo, a member of the Arena party, was one of her critics.

“This young man was one of my students when he was a cipote,” Alamanni said with a smile, using Salvadoran slang for youngster.

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Araujo promised that El Salvador would have a clean election. After the meeting, Alamanni addressed the media. In the preceding days, she had been listening to the opening round of campaign speeches. The rhetoric did not please her.

“The speeches are too strident,” she said. “The rank-and-file are influenced by the discourse of confrontation and combat. I don’t see any programs being put forward.”

The scenes of Alamanni were broadcast that evening, the ombudswoman impeccably dressed in a gray pinstripe suit.

To some, la doctora Beatrice is an angelic television presence. Many among El Salvador’s poor see her as a protector.

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“We had an event scheduled in a small town, and everyone came out to greet her,” said Ecaterina Canjura, Alamanni’s spokeswoman. “At the last moment, we had to cancel her appearance. The priest in the town started to cry when we told him. He was saying, ‘What am I going to tell the people? They will be devastated.’ ”

One day recently, Francisco Martinez went to the ombudswoman’s office seeking escape from a Kafkaesque nightmare involving El Salvador’s creaky justice system.

Months earlier, he said, he had been carjacked by a band of criminals who forced him to be their getaway man. He watched them assassinate a man on the street. “They were going to kill me too,” he said. “But their gun jammed.”

One of the gunmen was later arrested. Martinez wanted to testify for the prosecution, but was afraid he’d be killed first.

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“The prosecutor told me they don’t have a budget for protecting people,” Martinez said. He had been hiding out for weeks, afraid to go home.

After listening to Martinez, a young attorney at the office promised to investigate. It was a common complaint, she said. She would call the prosecutor and remind him of his legal obligation to protect all witnesses. The ombudswoman’s office could do no more.

Still, Martinez gave a faint smile and pronounced himself satisfied. He wasn’t ready to go home yet, however.

Yes, he now knew his rights. But for the time being, he was still a crime victim who had to live like a fugitive.

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