El Salvador 1980-1994
Human rights, Washington style
excerpted from the book
by William Blum
The United States was supporting the government of El Salvador,
said President Ronald Reagan, because it was trying "to halt
the infiltration into the Americas, by terrorists and by outside
interference, and those who aren't just aiming at El Salvador
but, I think, are aiming at the whole of Central and possibly
later South America and, I'm sure, eventually North America."
Psychiatrists have a term for such perceptions of reality.
Thev call it paranoid schizophrenia.
If the insurgents in El Salvador, the smallest country by
far in all of Central and south America, were engaged in what
Ronald Reagan perceived as a plot to capture the Western Hemisphere,
others saw it as the quintessential revolution.
Viewed in the latter context, it cannot be asserted that the
Salvadorean people rushed precipitously into revolution at the
first painful sting of repression, or turned to the gun because
of a proclivity towards violent solutions, or a refusal to "work
within the system" or because of "outside agitators",
or any of the other explanations of why people revolt, so dear
to the hearts of Washington opinion makers. For as long as anyone
could remember, the reins of El Salvador's government had resided
in the hands of one military dictatorship or another, while the
economy had been controlled by the celebrated 14 coffee and industrial
families, with only the occasional, short-lived bursting of accumulated
discontent to disturb the neat arrangement.
In December 1980, New York Times, reporter Raymond Bonner
asked Jose Napoleon Duarte "why the guerrillas were in the
hills". Duarte, who had just become president of the ruling
junta, responded with an answer that surprised Bonner: "Fifty
years of lies, fifty years of injustice, fifty years of frustration.
This is a history of people starving to death, living in misery.
For fifty years the same people had all the power, all the money,
all the jobs all the education, all the opportunities."
In the decades following the famed peasant rebellion in l932,
which was crushed by an unholy massacre, a reform government had
occupied the political stage only twice: for nine months in 1944,
then again in 1960. The latter instance was precipitated by several
thousand students of the National University who staged a protest
against the curtailment of civil liberties. The government responded
by sending in the police, who systematically smashed offices,
classrooms, and laboratories, beat up the school's president,
killed a librarian, bayoneted students, and raped dozens of young
women. Finally, when the students amassed anew, troops opened
fire upon them point-blank.
The bloody incident was one of the turning points for a group
of junior military officers. They staged a coup in October aimed
at major social and political reforms, but the new government
lasted only three months before being overthrown in a counter-coup
which the United States was reportedly involved in. Dr. Fabio
Castillo, a former president of the National University and a
member of the ousted government, testified years later before
the US Congress that in the process of overthrowing the reform
government, the American Embassy immediately began to "intervene
directly", and "members of the U.S. Military Mission
openly intensified their invitation to conspiracy and rebellion".
Throughout the 1960s, multifarious American experts occupied
themselves in El Salvador by enlarging and refining the state's
security and counter-insurgency apparatus: the police, the National
Guard, the military, the communications and intelligence networks,
the co-ordination with their counterparts in other Central American
countries ... as matters turned out, these were the forces and
resources which were brought into action to impose widespread
repression and wage war. Years later, the New York Times noted:
"In El Salvador, American aid was used for police training
in the 1950's and 1960's and many officers in the three branches
of the police later became leaders of the right-wing death squads
that killed tens of thousands of people in the late 1970's and
Government political violence of this sort had been sporadic
in the 1960s, but became commonplace in the 1970s as more and
more Salvadoreans, frustrated by the futility of achieving social
change through elections, resorted to other means. While some
limited themselves to more militant demonstrations, strikes, and
occupations of sites, an increasing number turned to acts of urban
guerrilla warfare such as assassination of individuals seen as
part of the repressive machinery, bombings, and kidnappings for
ransom. The government and its paramilitary right-wing vigilante
groups-"death squads" is the self-named modern genre-
countered with a campaign centered upon leaders of labor unions,
peasant organizations and political parties, as well as priests
and lay religious workers. "Be Patriotic-Kill a Priest"
was the slogan of one death squad. Church people were accused
of teaching subversion to the peasants, what the church people
themselves would call the word of God, in this the only country
in the world named after Christ. The CIA and the US military played
an essential role in the conception and organization of the security
agencies from which the death squads emanated. CIA surveillance
programs routinely supplied these agencies with information on,
and the whereabouts of, various individuals who wound up as death
In October 1979, a cabal of younger military officers, repelled
by the frequent government massacres of groups of protesters and
strikers, and wishing to restore the military's "good name",
ousted General Carlos Romero from the presidency and took power
in a bloodless coup. A number of prominent civilian political
figures were given positions in the new administration, which
proclaimed an impressive program of reforms. But it was not to
be. The young and politically inexperienced officers were easily
co-opted by older, conservative officers, and by pressure exerted
by the United States, to install certain military men into key
positions. The civilian members of the government found themselves
unable to exercise any control over the armed forces and were
left to function only as reformist camouflage.
Washington had supported the removal of the brutal Romero
because only three months earlier the Sandinistas had overthrown
the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and the Carter administration
did not wish to risk the loss of a second client state in Central
America in so short a space of time, but brakes had to be applied
to keep the process within manageable bounds.
Meanwhile, the security forces did not miss a beat as they
continued to fire into crowds: the body count in the first month
of the "reformist" government was greater than in the
first nine months of the year. By January 1980, almost all the
civilian members had resigned in disgust over government-as-usual.
The experience was the straw which broke the backs of many moderates
and liberals, as well as members of the Salvadorean Communist
Party, who still clung to hopes of peaceful reforms. The Communist
Party had supported the new government, even contributed the Minister
of Labor, "because we believe It is going to comply with
its promises and open the possibility of democratizing the country."
The party was the last group on the left to join the guerrilla
One of the civilians, Minister of Education Salvador Samayoa,
in front of the TV cameras, simultaneously announced his resignation
and his enlistment with a guerrilla group. For those who continued
to harbor illusions, a steady drumbeat of terrorism soon brought
them into the fold. A demonstration march by a coalition of popular
organizations on 22 January was first sprayed with DDT by crop-duster
planes along the route of the march; then when the demonstrators
reached San Salvador's central plaza, snipers fired at them from
surrounding government buildings; at least 21 dead and 120 seriously
wounded was the toll some of which reportedly resulted from the
demonstrators' undisciplined return of fire.
On 17 March, a general strike was met by retaliatory violence-54
people killed in the capital alone.
A week later, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero,
an outspoken critic of the government's human-rights violations,
who had called upon President Carter "Christian to Christian",
to cease providing military aid, was assassinated. In his last
sermon, he had addressed the security forces with these words:
"I beseech you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God:
stop the repression." The next day he became the eleventh
l priest murdered in El Salvador in three years.
El Salvador did not turn into another Vietnam quicksand for
the United States as many critics of the left and center warned.
But for the Salvadorean people the war and its horror dragged
on as interminably as it did for the Vietnamese, and for the same
reason: American support of a regime-one even more loathsome than
in Vietnam-which would have crumbled dismally if left to its own
resources. Despite overwhelmingly superior military might, the
government could hold the insurgents to no more than a stalemate.
The amount of American military aid to El Salvador from 1980 to
the early 1990s, for the hardware alone, ran into the billions
of dollars. Six billion is the figure commonly used in the press,
but the true figure will never be known. The Arms Control and
Foreign Policy Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group, accused
the Reagan administration in the mid ]980s of supplying "insufficient,
misleading and in some cases false information" concerning
aid to El Salvador. The administration, concluded the Caucus study,
categorized most military aid as "development" aid,
and undervalued the real cost of the hardware even when it was
properly categorized as military aid."
To this must be added the cost of training Salvadorean military
personnel by the thousands in the United States, and the Panama
Canal Zone, as well as in El Salvador; the further training which
was provided in the earlier years by Argentina, Chile and Uruguay
at US behest; and the substantial military aid routed through
Israel, a maneuver employed by the United States elsewhere in
Central America as well.
Officially, the US military presence in El Salvador was limited
to an advisory capacity. In actuality, military and CIA personnel
played a more active role on a continuous basis from as early
as 1980. About 20 Americans were killed or wounded in helicopter
and plane crashes while flying reconnaissance or other missions
over combat areas. Moreover, the American program for training
Salvadorean pilots, bombardiers and gunners could easily serve
to conceal the advisers direct participation in these operations
while accompanying their trainees.
Considerable evidence surfaced of a US role in the ground
fighting as well. There were numerous reports of armed Americans
spotted in combat areas, a report by CBS News of US advisers "fighting
side by side" with government troops, and reports of other
Americans, some ostensibly mercenaries, killed in action. The
extent of American mercenary involvement in El Salvador is not
known, but Lawrence Bailey, a former US Marine, has stated that
he was part of a team of 40 American soldiers of fortune paid
by wealthy Salvadorean families living in Miami to protect their
plantations from takeover by the rebels.
During the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, it was disclosed
that at least until 1985, CIA paramilitary personnel had been
organizing and leading special Salvadorean army units into combat
areas to track down guerrillas and call in air strikes.
These bit-by-bit disclosures pointed to a frequent, if not
routine, American involvement in the ongoing combat. In September
1988 another news item related that US military advisers were
caught in a gun battle between Salvadorean army forces and guerrillas
and that, in "self-defense", they opened fire on the
The degree of overall control of the military operation by
the United States is perhaps best captured by an excerpt from
an interview given to Playboy magazine in 1984 by President Duarte,
one of the few Christian Democrat leaders of the earlier days
still working within the government.
Playboy: Do the American military advisers also tell you how
to run the war?
Duarte: This is the problem, no? The root of this problem
is that the aid is given under such conditions that its use is
really decided by the Americans and not by us. Decisions like
how many planes or helicopters we buy, how we spend our money,
how many trucks we need, how many bullets and of what caliber,
how many pairs of boots and where our priorities should be-all
of that ... And all the money is spent over there. We never even
see a penny of it, because everything arrives here already paid
In Duarte's previous incarnation as a government opponent,
his view of the Yanquis was even harsher. US policy in Latin America,
he said in 1969, was designed to "maintain the Ibero-American
countries in a condition of direct dependence upon the international
political decisions most beneficial to the United States, both
at the hemisphere and world levels. Thus [the North Americans]
preach to us of democracy while everywhere they support dictatorships."
On some days during the 1980s, Washington officials issued
warnings to the Salvadorean government to improve its human rights
record, or told Congress that the record was improving, or told
the world how much worse that record would be if not for American
influence. On most other days, the United States continued to
build up each and every component of the military and paramilitary
forces engaged in the atrocities. In 1984, in an interview with
the New York Times, Col. Roberto Eulalio Santibanez, a former
Salvadorean military official who had served at the highest level
of the security police, confirmed-for those who may still have
entertained doubts-that the network of death squads had been shaped
by leading Salvadorean officials and was still directed by them.
He also revealed that one of these officials, Col. Nicolas Carranza,
the head of the Treasury Police, which "have long been considered
the least disciplined and most brutal of the Salvadorean security
forces", had been receiving more than ~90,0()0 a year during
the previous five or six years from the CIA. Although some members
of the Treasury Police were linked by the Reagan administration
itself to death-squad activities, the United States continued
to train and equip them.
In early 1992, the war came to an official end when a United
Nations commission, after a year-and-a-half effort, finally got
the warring sides to agree to a cease fire and a peace agreement.
A major offensive launched by the guerrillas in late 1989-in which
they "brought the war home" to wealthy neighborhoods
and Americans in the capital-had made clear to Washington and
its Salvadorean allies, once again, finally, that the war was
unwinnable. In February 1990, Gen. Maxwell Thurman, the head of
the US Southern Command, told Congress that the El Salvador government
was not able to defeat the rebels and that the only way to end
the fighting was through negotiation. Moreover, the ostensible
end of the cold war had undermined the United States' professed
rationale for-and may have relaxed its obsession with-defeating
"communism" in El Salvador. At the same time, Congress
was balking more and more about continuing military aid to the
Salvadorean government, an attitude that had been growing ever
since the November 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests.
One of the many provisions of the complex peace agreement
was the establishment of a UN Commission of the Truth "to
investigate the worst acts of violence since 1980". In March
of 1993 the Commission presented its report. Among its findings
and conclusions were the following:
"The military forces, supported by the government and
the civilian establishment, were plainly the main perpetrators
of massacres, executions, torture and kidnappings during the civil
war. These acts could not be blamed on the excesses of war but
on premeditated and ideologically inspired decisions to kill."
The commission called for the dismissal of more than 40 high-ranking
military personnel-including Defense Minister Gen. Rene Emilio
Ponce, a long-time favorite of US officials-whom it found had
given the orders that led to the murders of the priests, and stipulated
that none should ever be allowed to return to military or security
duty and should be banned from other public and political life
for 10 years.
Dismissal and a 10-year ban was also specified for government
officials and bureaucrats who abused human rights or took part
in a cover-up of the abuses, including the President of the Supreme
Court. (Right-wing parties in the Salvadorean National Assembly
quickly pushed through an amnesty law barring prosecution for
any crimes committed during the war.)
Several leaders of the left were singled out for the assassinations
of 11 mayors during the war.
A special investigation of death squads was called for. These
squads, said the report, were "often operated by the military
and supported by powerful businessmen, landowners and some leading
politicians." (The peace accords did not put an end to this:
dozens of leaders and members of the FMLN were assassinated during
1992 and 1993, as well as a few from the right.)
Cited as the most notorious of the death squad leaders by
the report was Roberto d'Aubuisson, the principal founder of the
Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party, the party of the
country's current president, Alfredo Cristiani. D'Aubuisson, the
report confirmed, hired the sharpshooter who killed Archbishop
Other sins laid at the doorstep of the government were the
rapes and killings of three American nuns and a female religious
worker in 1980, the murder of two American labor advisers in 1981,
and the assassination, in 1982, of four Dutch journalists, whose
reports were evidently considered favorable to the guerrillas.
The Commission did not focus on any American role in the abuses
and cover-up. "The role of the United States in El Salvador
is a role more effectively studied by the U.S. Congress,"
said Commission member Thomas Buergenthal, an American jurist,
at a news conference. However, the Commission did chastise the
United States for failing to rein in Salvadorean exiles in Miami
who "helped administer death squad activities between 1980
and 1983, with apparently little attention from the U.S. government.
Such use of American territory for acts of terrorism abroad should
be investigated and never allowed to be repeat ed." (Cuban
exiles, of course, have been using Miami as a base for terrorism
abroad, as well as in the US, for 30 years.)
Members of Congress, outraged by the findings of the Commission
of the Truth, called for the declassification of State Department,
Defense Department, and CIA files on El Salvador to help determine
whether the Reagan and Bush administrations had concealed evidence
from Congress about widespread human rights abuses by their Salvadorean
allies. "It [the Commission's report] simply verifies what
a number of us knew all through the '80s," said Rep. David
Obey, "that our own government was Iying like hell to us."
The report proves that the Reagan administration was willing to
"lie ... and ... certify to any thing ... to get the money
Various of the more than 12,000 once-secret documents released
by the Clinton administration unequivocally confirmed Obey's charge.
Other papers revealed that ...
"The current Vice President Francisco Merino, had organized
death squads. "
The CIA referred to Roberto d'Aubuisson as "egocentric,
reckless and perhaps mentally unstable"; he trafficked in
drugs and smuggled arms; his paramilitary unit was responsible
for thousands of murders; and in 1983 he and his advisers were
invited by American Ambassador Deane Hinton to have lunch with
the visiting US representative to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick.
Six years later, shortly before the CIA reported that d'Aubuisson's
inner circle had plotted to assassinate President Cristiani, Ambassador
William G. Walker invited him to the embassy's Fourth of July
American military advisers trained a militia of some 50 wealthy
Salvadoreans, ostensibly for them to be able to defend their own
lavish homes against a rebel attack, but the group was actually
linked to d'Aubuisson and their militia was a "cover for
the recruitment, training and possible dispatch of paramilitary
civilian death squads".
For the benefit of which Salvadoreans did Arena remain in
power? For which of them had 75,000 civilians been killed? For
whom was the US Treasury reduced by $6 billion. Two reports from
the New York Times ...
'Over canapés served by hovering waiters at a party,
a guest said she was convinced that God had created two distinct
classes of people the rich and people to serve them. She described
herself as charitable for allowing the poor to work as her servants.
"It's the best you can do," she said.
The woman s outspokenness was unusual, but her attitude is
shared by a large segment of the Salvadoran upper class.
The separation between classes is so rigid that even small
expressions of kindness across the divide are viewed with suspicion.
When an American, visiting an ice cream store, remarked that he
was shopping for a birthday party for his maid's child, other
store patrons immediately stopped talking and began staring at
the American. Finally, an astonished woman in the check out line
spoke out. "You must be kidding," she said.'
One of their class, who had had enough and was leaving, commented
to the Times: I can't accept the fact that if you're born a peasant
here, you die a peasant and your children are going to be peasants.
There's no vision that kids of farmhands should be going Harvard
and running this country one day. There's no vision of a modern