Israel and El Salvador
excerpted from the book
Israel Foreign Policy
excerpts from a book by
South End Press, 1987
From its earliest attempts to establish
itself as an arms exporter, Israel had enjoyed the patronage of
the military of El Salvador, which ruled that small, densely-populated
country on the Pacific side of the Central American isthmus on
behalf of a powerful plantation oligarchy.
In 1973 Israel took orders from El Salvador
for 18 Dassault Ouragan jet fighter aircraft. Israel had obtained
these planes from France for its own use. Refurbished and delivered
to El Salvador in 1975, they were the first jet fighters in Central
America, representing a significant jump in the level of military
sophistication in a region where war had flared between Honduras
and El Salvador in 1969.
Other aircraft ordered from Israel by
El Salvador in 1973 included six French-made Fouga Magister trainers
and 25 Arava short-take-off-and-landing aircraft. The Arava is
produced by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and is advertised
for a variety of uses from hauling cargo, to medical evacuation,
to transporting troops in counterinsurgency warfare. The Salvadorans
also bought a quantity of small arms, ammunition and rocket launchers.
Military links with El Salvador actually
began around 1972, when the Israeli Defense Ministry carried out
a youth movement development program there. Alongside their arms
sales, the Israelis also sent advisers to El Salvador. Former
Salvadoran Army Col. and Undersecretary of the Interior Rene Francisco
Guerra y Guerra recalled that during the 1970s ANSESAL, the Salvadoran
secret police, had security advisers from Israel. According to
Guerra, as a low-ranking ANSESAL officer, Roberto D'Aubuisson,
who would later rise to prominence as leader of a far-right faction
linked to death squads, was a student of the Israeli instructors.
At least one Salvadoran officer, Col.
Sigifredo Ochoa was taught by Israeli trainers in El Salvador
and also went to Israel for training in the mid- 1970s. Ochoa,
who was credited with a massacre of civilians in 1981 i° made
no secret of his preference for his Israeli mentors over the U.S.
advisers who came to El Salvador after 1981. The Americans, he
noted scornfully, "lost the war in Vietnam." During
the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, Ochoa proffered an "Israeli
solution" for Central America: a combined assault by El Salvador,
Honduras, Guatemala and the anti-Nicaragua contras against Nicaragua.
When the Carter Administration took office
in 1977 it wasted little time putting into practice a principle
enunciated during the presidential campaign and by Congress in
1976: U.S. aid would be cut off to recipients who were gross and
persistent abusers of human rights. The idea was to encourage
dictatorial regimes to modify their behavior and reinstate themselves
in Washington's good graces.
It was a fairly reasonable assumption;
after all, many of these tyrants had been through U.S. military
programs and had adopted the anticommunist line that a succession
of U.S. governments had encouraged. Washington had sired both
the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan regimes, and ~ was not without profound
influence in El Salvador.
In the 1960s, the U.S. had presided over
the foundation of CONDECA, a regional military council intended
"to coordinate and centralize military command of the region
under U.S. military supervision." In El Salvador, the Kennedy
Administration set in motion a series of meetings among Central
American leaders that led to the establishment of the feared ANSESAL
secret police and its "parallel domestic security agencies
in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, and Costa Rica."
Years later the CIA connections of ANSESAL would come to light
in close connection with the death squads which have terrorized
El Salvador since the 1970s. Also in the 1960's AIFLD, (the American
Institute for Free Labor Development, the AFL-CIO's foreign operation
dedicated to foiling the formation of left wing unions) tried
to organize a "tame" network of rural cooperatives in
El Salvador. According to one report the project was budgeted
at $ I .6 million and had the assistance of the Israeli Histadrut
Even the prideful way that El Salvador
and Guatemala responded when their aid was terminated-both preempted
the U.S. move by cutting military ties with the U.S.-might have
been expected to blow over. That was without reckoning on Israel,
which was quick to fill the gap. Indeed, one analyst believes
the "surprisingly defiant position" of the Central American
clients was based on their advance knowledge that they could maintain
their military capacity by dealing with Israel.
El Salvador simply began to buy its weapons
from Israel. Between the 1977 U.S. cutoff and the resumption of
U.S. aid in 1981, El Salvador obtained over 80 percent of its
weapons from Israel. The balance came from France and Brazil.
The earlier aircraft orders still in the pipeline were delivered
and small arms and ammunition from Israel undercut the intent
of the Carter policy. By 1979 came the first report that Israeli
advisers had been giving the Salvadoran military counterinsurgency
training both in Israel and El Salvador.
During this period as well, Israeli technicians
began installing a computer system able to monitor utilities usage,
thus giving the military the ability to pinpoint houses where
the telephone is heavily used, presumably signifying that political
organizing is going on. (A similar system provided by Israel to
Guatemala does the same with water and electricity use. According
to former Col. Guerra, the Israelis began work on the system in
1978. As an electronic engineer familiar with El Salvador's telecommunications
installations, he did not believe that another company would be
brought in to finish the work, despite two changes of government
and the reentry of the U.S., following the installation of the
It is quite certain that installation
was completed. A CIA source described a telephone-monitoring computer
system to a journalist in El Salvador, and Arnaldo Ramos of the
FDR (the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the political grouping
fighting against the U.S.-backed government) has spoken of another
use to which the Salvadoran regime puts the computer equipment:
They periodically block several downtown
areas and take the ID's of people, just to check who they are.
If they find the person happens to be downtown in an area where
he's not supposed to be too often during the week, that right
away makes him a suspect.
Once the new human rights policy was implemented,
little attention was paid in the U.S. to what was going on in
El Salvador. The Carter policy had the virtue of slackening the
long embrace between Washington and Central American dictatorships;
it had the obvious fault of not offering redress for the century
of manipulation of Central American governments by the U.S. government
and corporations. And it had the predictable ground-level threshold
for tolerating a strengthening of the left-which in El Salvador
would bring Washington running to the assistance of the old order
in 1980. But in the early years of the Carter Administration there
was little fretting over El Salvador and even less over the fact
that Israel had quickly filled the traditional U.S. shoes.
In March 1985, El Salvador's Deputy Minister
of Defense and Public Security Col. Reynaldo Lopez Nuila visited
Israel. Lopez was the strongest advocate in the Duarte cabinet
of "citizens defense committees" to guard plantations
and businesses against insurgent attacks. By July 1984, the Salvadoran
Assembly had passed a law approving the creation of such units.
In 1985 an enthusiastic Col. Sigifredo Ochoa began establishing
"self-defense" committees in Chalatenango province,
in towns which the military had succeeded in occupying. In May,
Ochoa boasted that his troops had organized 30 such committees.
These forces, argued Lopez Nuila, "have worked in many other
countries." Later Lopez Nuila and the director of the Salvadoran
police academy visited Guatemala for advice on counterinsurgency;
while there they set up permanent links with their counterparts.
Israel has long advised the Guatemalan military and police. It
is more likely, however, that Nuila's mission was related to the
"self-defense" forces which the Salvadoran government
was trying to set up.
These attempts came in the context of
efforts the U.S. had been making to establish the same kind of
rural "pacification" program that it had employed in
Vietnam, the well-remembered Phoenix Program of winning hearts
and minds with a combination of civic amenities and murder. In
El Salvador it was called the National Plan. Begun in 1983, the
program in San Vicente province was a monumental failure. "Guerrillas
stole medicines from National Plan hospitals and held night classes
at National Plan schools." Corruption in the ranks of Salvadoran
officials accomplished what the insurgents could not.
The military then began an intensified
bombing campaign to depopulate areas whose residents were thought
to support the rebels. It developed its own pacification plan,
and it was probably inevitable that Israel would become involved.
On New Years Day in 1986, El Salvador's
ambassador to Jerusalem presented his credentials to the Israelis.
(Ambassador Enrique Guttfreund Hanchel was a former president
of the Jewish community in El Salvador and also of the Central
American Confederation of Jewish Communities. The following month
Israel's ambassador in El Salvador said, "We will be reinforcing
our technical cooperation in the agricultural and community development
fields, in which we are considered specialists." By that
mouthful of euphemisms the ambassador meant that Israel would
help El Salvador strip the last shreds of dignity and hope from
thousands of civilian victims.
Harking back to the scorched earth military
pacification plan which Israel had helped Guatemala implement
a non-governmental community development worker spelled out the
nature of Israel's specialization: "Once you have Israeli
technicians coming into the country, you can have military trainers
coming in under the guise of agricultural technicians. That is
what they did in Guatemala." An adviser to President Duarte
said the government hoped that Israel's agricultural assistance
would prop up the agrarian reform program and "keep thousands
of peasants from joining rebel ranks out of frustration."
The Israeli ambassador said that his country's aid would be channeled
through the government agency supporting the military's relocation