The Crucifixion of EL SALVADOR
For many years, repression, torture and murder were carried
on in El Salvador by dictators installed and supported by our
government, a matter of no interest here. The story was virtually
never covered. By the late 1970s, however, the US government began
to be concerned about a couple of things.
One was that Somoza, the dictator of Nicaragua, was losing control
. The US was losing a major base for its exercise of force in
the region. A second danger was even more threatening. In El Salvador
in the 1970s, there was a growth of what were called "popular
organizations"-peasant associations, cooperatives, unions,
Church-based Bible study groups that evolved into self-help groups,
etc. That raised the threat of democracy.
In February 1980, the Archbishop of EI Salvador, Oscar Romero,
sent a letter to President Carter in which he begged him not to
send military aid to the junta that ran the country. He said such
aid would be used to "sharpen injustice and repression against
the people's organizations" which were struggling "for
respect for their most basic human rights" (hardly news to
Washington, needless to say).
A few weeks later, Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying
a mass. The neo-Nazi
Roberto d'Aubuisson is generally assumed to be responsible for
this assassination (among countless other atrocities). D'Aubuisson
was "leader for-life" of the ARENA party, which now
governs El Salvador; members of the party, like current Salvadoran
president Alfredo Cristiani, had to take a blood oath of loyalty
Thousands of peasants and urban poor took part in a commemorative
mass a decade later, along with many foreign bishops, but the
US was notable by its absence. The Salvadoran Church formally
proposed Romero for sainthood.
All of this passed with scarcely a mention in the country that
funded and trained Romero's assassins. The New York Times, the
"newspaper of record," published no editorial on the
assassination when it occurred or in the years that followed,
and no editorial or news report on the commemoration.
On March 7, 1980, two weeks before the assassination, a state
of siege had been instituted in El Salvador, and the war against
the population began in force (with continued US support and involvement).
The first major attack was a big massacre at the Rio Sumpul, a
coordinated military operation of the Honduran and Salvadoran
armies in which at least 600 people were butchered. Infants were
cut to pieces with machetes, and women were tortured and drowned.
Pieces of bodies were found in the river for days afterwards.
There were church observers, so the information came out immediately,
but the mainstream US media didn't think it was worth reporting.
Peasants were the main victims of this war, along with labor organizers,
students, priests or anyone suspected of working for the interests
of the people. In Carter's last year, 1980, the death toll reached
about 10,000, rising to about 13,000 for 1981 as the Reaganites
In October 1980, the new archbishop condemned the "war of
extermination and genocide against a defenseless civilian population"
waged by the security forces. Two months later they were hailed
for their "valiant service alongside the people against subversion"
by the favorite US "moderate," Jose Napoleon Duarte,
as he was appointed civilian president of the junta.
The role of the "moderate" Duarte was to provide a fig
leaf for the military rulers and ensure them a continuing flow
of US funding after the armed forces had raped and murdered four
churchwomen from the US. That had aroused some protest here; slaughtering
Salvadorans is one thing, but raping and killing American nuns
is a definite PR mistake. The media evaded and downplayed the
story, following the lead of the Carter Administration and its
The incoming Reaganites went much further, seeking to justify
the atrocity, notably Secretary of State Alexander Haig and UN
Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick. But it was still deemed worthwhile
to have a show trial a few years later, while exculpating the
murderous junta-and, of course, the paymaster.
The independent newspapers in El Salvador, which might have reported
these atrocities, had
been destroyed. Although they were mainstream and pro-business,
they were still too undisciplined for the military's taste. The
problem was taken care of in 1980-81, when the editor of one was
murdered by the security forces; the other fled into exile. As
usual, these events were considered too insignificant to merit
more than a few words in US newspapers.
In November 1989, six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter,
were murdered by the army. That same week, at least 28 other Salvadoran
civilians were murdered, including the head of a major union,
the leader of the organization of university women, nine members
of an Indian farming cooperative and ten university students.
The news wires carried a story by AP correspondent Douglas Grant
Mine, reporting how soldiers had entered a working-class neighborhood
in the capital city of San Salvador, captured six men, added a
14-year-old boy for good measure, then lined them all up against
a wall and shot them. They "were not priests or human rights
campaigners," Mine wrote, "so their deaths have gone
largely unnoticed"-as did his story.
The Jesuits were murdered by the Atlacatl Battalion, an elite
unit created, trained and equipped by the United States. It was
formed in March 1981, when fifteen specialists in counterinsurgency
were sent to El Salvador from the US Army School of Special Forces.
From the start, the Battalion was engaged in mass murder. A US
trainer described its soldiers as "particularly ferocious....We've
always had a hard time getting them to take prisoners instead
In December 1981, the Battalion took part in an operation in which
over a thousand civilians were killed in an orgy of murder, rape
and burning. Later it was involved in the bombing of villages
and murder of hundreds of civilians by shooting, drowning and
other methods. The vast majority of victims were women, children
and the elderly.
The Atlacatl Battalion was being trained by US Special Forces
shortly before murdering the Jesuits. This has been a pattern
throughout the Battalion's existence-some of its worst massacres
have occurred when it was fresh from US training.
In the "fledgling democracy" that was El Salvador, teenagers
as young as 13 were scooped up in sweeps of slums and refugee
camps and forced to become soldiers. They were indoctrinated with
rituals adopted from the Nazi SS, including brutalization and
rape, to prepare them for killings that often have sexual and
The nature of Salvadoran army training was described by a deserter
who received political asylum in Texas in 1990, despite the State
Department's request that he be sent back to El Salvador. (His
name was withheld by the court to protect him from Salvadoran
According to this deserter, draftees were made to kill dogs and
vultures by biting their throats and twisting off their heads,
and had to watch as soldiers tortured and killed suspected dissidents-tearing
out their fingernails, cutting off their heads, chopping their
bodies to pieces and playing with the dismembered arms for fun.
In another case, an admitted member of a Salvadoran death squad
associated with the Atlacatl Battalion, Cesar Vielman Joya Martinez,
detailed the involvement of US advisers and the Salvadoran government
in death-squad activity. The Bush administration has made every
effort to silence him and ship him back to probable death in El
Salvador, despite the pleas of human rights organizations and
requests from Congress that his testimony be heard. (The treatment
of the main witness to the assassination of the Jesuits was similar.)
The results of Salvadoran military training are graphically described
in the Jesuit journal America by Daniel Santiago, a Catholic priest
working in El Salvador. He tells of a peasant woman who returned
home one day to find her three children, her mother and her sister
sitting around a table, each with its own decapitated head placed
carefully on the table in front of the body, the hands arranged
on top "as if each body was stroking its own head."
The assassins, from the Salvadoran National Guard, had found it
hard to keep the head of an 18-month-old baby in place, so they
nailed the hands onto it. A large plastic bowl filled with blood
was tastefully displayed in the center of the table.
According to Rev. Santiago, macabre scenes of this kind aren't
uncommon. People are not just killed by death squads in El Salvador-they
are decapitated and then their heads are placed on pikes and used
to dot the landscape. Men are not just disemboweled by the Salvadoran
Treasury Police; their severed genitalia are stuffed into their
mouths. Salvadoran women are not just raped by the National Guard;
their wombs are cut from their bodies and used to cover their
faces. It is not enough to kill children; they are dragged over
barbed wire until the flesh falls from their bones, while parents
are forced to watch.
Rev. Santiago goes on to point out that violence of this sort
greatly increased when the Church began forming peasant associations
and self help groups in an attempt to organize the poor.
By and large, our approach in El Salvador has been successful.
The popular organizations have been decimated, just as Archbishop
Romero predicted. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered and
more than a million have become refugees. This is one of the most
sordid episodes in US history-and it's got a lot of competition.
from the book What Uncle Sam Really Wants, published in 1993
Tucson, AZ 85751
tel 602-296-4056 or 800-REALSTORY
other Noam Chomsky books published by Odonian Press
Secrets, Lies, and Democracy
The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many
Uncle Sam Really Wants