excerpted from the book
Latin America, the United States,
and the Rise of the New Imperialism
by Greg Grandin
Metropolitan/Owl, 2006, paper
Going Primitive: The Violence of the New Imperialism
With the United States failing to defeat
the rebels [Iraq] on its own, the Pentagon came to debate the
"Salvador option," that is, the use of local paramilitary
forces, otherwise known as death squads, to do the kind of dirty
work that it was either unwilling or unable to do. It turned to
men like James Steele, who in the 1980s led the Special Forces
mission in El Salvador and worked with Oliver North to run weapons
and supplies to the Nicaraguan Contras, to train a ruthless counterinsurgent
force made up of exBaathist thugs. The press reported that U.S.
and British aid was being diverted to paramilitaries accused of
assassinations and torture, including burnings, electric shock,
strangulation, sexual violence, and the use of electric drills
in victim's kneecaps. "Do you remember the right-wing execution
squads in El Salvador?" a former high-level intelligence
agent asked journalist Seymour Hersh. "We founded them and
we financed them," he said, and the "objective now is
to recruit locals in any area we want. And we aren't going to
tell Congress about it." Beyond Iraq, into Syria, Iran, wherever,
"we're going to be riding with the bad boys," said another
It was through support of counterinsurgent regimes in El Salvador
and Guatemala-two countries faced with powerful guerrilla movements-that
the United States relearned, after the disaster of direct involvement
in Vietnam, to farm out its imperial violence. This outsourcing,
in turn, again allowed U.S. leaders like Cheney to claim that
the achievements of the American empire in places like El Salvador
stemmed from the universal appeal of its values when in fact "success,"
as a former RAND Corporation analyst admitted, "was built
on a foundation of corpses." In Guatemala, the United States
went even further in its approval of violence in order to restore
American authority abroad, championing an evangelical zealot,
EfraIn RIos Montt, even as he was presiding over a military campaign
the United Nations later ruled to be genocidal.
Nicaragua, where the United States backed
not a counterinsurgent state but anti-Communist mercenaries, likewise
represented a disjuncture between the idealism used to justify
U.S. policy and its support for political terrorism. Here, militarists
seized on the opportunity provided by the 1979 Sandinista revolution
to go on the offensive. They set out, in the words of one strategist,
to "take the revolution out of the hands of revolutionaries"
and nudge the United States away from a policy of "containment"
toward one of "rollback." In so doing, conservative
cadres could imagine themselves as liberal revolutionaries engaged
in a global democratic crusade even as they trained and then unleashed
the most feverishly illiberal thugs imaginable.
The corollary to the idealism embraced
by the Republicans in the realm of diplomatic public policy debate
was thus political terror. In the dirtiest of Latin America's
dirty wars, their faith in America's mission justified atrocities
in the name of liberty.
Although equipped with state-of-the-art weaponry, U.S. allies
in El Salvador and Guatemala preferred to conduct their killing
with artisan expertise. The bodies of their prey regularly appeared
on early-morning city streets bearing the marks of unhurried,
meticulous cuts, amputations, and burns made while the victim
was still breathing. Whatever pathological satisfaction such old-fashioned
cruelty provided, it was also calculated to avoid leaving bullets
that could be traced to the military.
In the countryside, army detachments conducted
massacres in peasant communities with more primal ferocity but
with a similar exactitude. In December 1981, the American-trained
Atlacatl Battalion began its systematic execution of over 750
civilians in the Salvadoran village of El Mozote, including hundreds
of children under the age of twelve. The soldiers were thorough
and left only one survivor. At first they stabbed and decapitated
their victims, but they turned to machine guns when the hacking
grew too tiresome (a decade later, an exhumation team digging
through the mass graves found hundreds of bullets with head stamps
indicating that the ammunition was manufactured in Lake City,
Missouri, for the U.S. government).8 Between 1981 and 1983 in
Guatemala, the army executed roughly 100,000 Mayan peasants unlucky
enough to live in a region identified as the seedbed of a leftist
insurgency. In some towns, troops murdered children by beating
them on rocks or throwing them into rivers as their parents watched.
"Adios, niño" - good-bye, child-said one soldier,
before pitching an infant to drown. They gutted living victims,
amputated genitalia, arms, and legs, committed mass rapes, and
burned victims alive. According to a surviving witness of one
massacre, soldiers "grabbed pregnant women, cut open their
stomachs, and pulled the fetus out." It was not easy to compel
conscripts to commit such acts. Guatemala's basic training, therefore,
put cadets through a curriculum designed to purge civilization
out of them: they were beaten, degraded, made to bathe in sewage
and then forbidden to wash the feces off their bodies. Some were
required to raise puppies, only to be ordered to kill them and
drink their blood. In Nicaragua, the U.S.-backed Contras decapitated,
castrated, and otherwise mutilated civilians and foreign aid workers.
Some earned a reputation for using spoons to gorge their victims'
eyes out. In one raid, Contras cut the breasts of a civilian defender
to pieces and ripped the flesh off the bones of another.
... the Reagan Doctrine revitalized nonconventional warfare in
the third world-a revitalization that stood at odds with the high
command's attempt to erect a firewall between war and politics.
Leading this revival was a cohort of special-warfare
operatives from either the military or the CIA ... bound together
by the common experience of clandestine, often violent, and usually
extralegal operations in Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
... after Vietnam, aside from clandestine
operations in Angola and Mozambique, there were few opportunities
to apply their experience. Then came Central America.
Uniting behind Ronald Reagan's presidential
campaign, they provided civilian defense intellectuals with important
muscle in the struggle to revive the Cold War, particularly in
the third world.
[El Salvador's] history was one of almost unbroken military and
oligarchic rule, in which a small coterie of landowners held the
country's political institutions, workforce, and land in an iron
grip, while the vast majority of people lived in wretched poverty.
The economy rested on the exportation of a single product, coffee,
and the political system was built on corruption, privilege, and
cruelty... Beginning in 1974, the government responded to demands
for political and economic reform by ratcheting up death-squad
executions... Government repression united and radicalized the
opposition, made up of peasant organizations, unions, social democratic
parties, and, most notably, large sectors of the Catholic Church.
In 1980, following the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero,
a leading spokesperson for the poor and persecuted, a number of
the most important oppositional organizations decided that they
were left with no option other than armed revolution, joining
together to form a united insurgent front. Within a year, the
Frente Faribundo MartI para la Liberación Nacional, or
FMLN, was mounting frontal offensives against the Salvadoran armed
forces that threatened to bring the rebels to victory.
But what was not apparent in most analyses
of the Salvadoran crisis was Washington's role in generating it.
There was not even a whiff of a rural
insurrection when in the early 1960s agents from the State Department,
Green Berets, CIA, and USAID organized two paramilitary groups
that would become the backbone of that country's death-squad system:
the Agencia Nacional de Servicios Especiales, or ANSESAL, an intelligence
agency designed to coordinate Salvador's security forces, and
Organizacion Democrática Nacionalista, ORDEN, a rural militia
charged with carrying out not only surveillance and infiltration
of political organizations but propaganda work as well."
The creation of ANSESAL and ORDEN was
part of Kennedy's campaign to respond preemptively to potential
Communist subversion in the third world. In the wake of Castro's
victory in Cuba, Washington committed itself to preventing similar
revolutions elsewhere in Latin America. To that end, the United
States set out to professionalize and expand Latin America's security
They instructed their apprentices in the
latest riot control, record keeping, surveillance, and mass-arrest
techniques. Such training and fortification directly led to the
emergence of a dense, Central America-wide network of death-squad
... The United States ... publicly denied
its support of paramilitarism, but in Latin America the first
sustained campaign of death-squad-executed "disappearances"
of political dissidents occurred in Guatemala in 1966, carried
out by a it created and directly supervised by American security
The support of death squads was part of what counterinsurgents
liked to call "counterterror"-a concept hard to define
since it so closely mirrored the practices it sought to contest."
Field manuals, journal articles, and whole books were dedicated
to debating the correct proportion of violence needed to defeat
a rural insurgency. In a sense, counterterror was merely an extension
of tactics used decades earlier by the United States in the Philippines
and ... Guatemala, where the CIA set out to induce fear and terror-not
win political allegiance.
As the war dragged on, El Salvador became Washington's most ambitious
nation-building project since South Vietnam. And much as in that
earlier conflict, the United States found few acceptable allies
to work with. There were not many civic-minded reformers left
alive, and most of those who had survived opted to join the insurgency.
For their part, the Salvadoran military and the oligarchy were
preternaturally violent. Their solution to the crisis, according
to Reagan's own ambassador, Robert White, was apocalyptic: the
country must be "destroyed totally, the economy must be wrecked,
unemployment must be massive," and a "cleansing"
of some "3 or 4 or 500,000 people" must be carried out.
Their interests were represented by the National Republican Alliance
(ARENA), a political party that was in effect the public face
of the death squads, a "violent fascist party modeled after
the Nazis," according to Ambassador White.
Washington therefore worked with a faction
of the Christian Democratic Party-a reformist party decimated
by the repression - that didn't opt to join the insurgency, backing
its leader, José Napoleon Duarte, in the much-publicized
1984 presidential election.
By 1983, the United States had all but abandoned its celebrated
land reform-by that point planters and their military allies had
already executed hundreds of individuals who tried to take advantage
of its provisions, rendering the reform dead in all but name.
Far from promoting industrialization and a more equitable distribution
of the nation's wealth, the Reagan administration insisted that
Duarte orient the economy toward free trade while at the same
time cutting back on social spending, which only served to estrange
the Christian Democrats further from their working-class supporters.
By 1986, the Salvadoran government was spending less on schools
and health care than it had a decade earlier.
The Reagan White House also limited Duarte's
options by prohibiting him from entering into serious negotiations
with the FMLN to end the war through some sort of power-sharing
deal. The one effective political action taken by the United States
was to threaten to cut off funding if the military overthrew Duarte.
Yet this did little to fortify civil society, for as one Salvadoran
officer put it in 1986, "we no longer need a coup because
we already have power. 1141 By 1989, the rebels were once again
mounting impressive military operations. With no end in sight,
the war had claimed the lives of well over fifty thousand Salvadorans,
the vast majority victims of government forces.
The Reagan administration began to distance
itself from the ineffectual Duarte. It turned instead to ARENA-the
party it had just spent the last five years and millions of dollars
to prevent from
coming to power. With the Christian Democrats
in disarray and the left out of the running, ARENA won the 1989
presidential elections handily.
So, for all the hype about fighting what
counterinsurgent theorists call the "other war" and
for all the talk of fortifying "frail government institutions"
and eliminating poverty, U.S. policy at the end of the 1980s,
after billions of dollars and tens of thousands of homicides,
found itself where it started, resting on the twin pillars of
a Jurassic oligarchy and a vengeful yet greatly fortified military-a
"bunch of murderous thugs," as one U.S. diplomat described
Washington's Salvadoran allies.
After eleven years of war, a 1991 report commissioned by the undersecretary
of defense for policy concluded that the "FMLN's infrastructure
[remains] so dense" that "only a massacre could uproot
it." Not one massacre but many.
... The White House insisted that its
political initiatives were responsible for the containment of
the insurgency, but a U.S. expert posted in El Salvador concluded
that the "horrible lesson of the early 1980s is that terrorism
works." Benjamin Schwarz, the RAND analyst who produced the
1991 Defense report, today writes that all the "US military
advisers and intelligence officers" whom he knew who were
involved in the war understood that the containment of the rebels
was "not the result of reform but the consequence of the
murder of thousands of people."
In Guatemala, the bloodshed was even worse than it was in El Salvador.
After the CIA overthrew Arbenz in 1954, Washington promised that
it would turn the country into a "showcase for democracy"
It instead created a laboratory of repression. Decades of counterinsurgent
funding and training produced in Guatemala a highly skilled military,
one that by the time of Reagan's inauguration was hurtling toward
the most brutal phase of Central America's most brutal war. Between
November 1981 and early 1983, the military swept through indigenous
communities, committing over six hundred massacres and turning
the rural highlands into a slaughterhouse.
Even as the genocide proceeded, Reagan
and his advisers pushed hard to restore complete military aid,
which had been partly cut by the Carter administration. In December
1979, before his campaign got fully under way, a delegation from
the private American Security Council, which included men, such
as John Singlaub, who would play a prominent role in Reagan's
campaign and administration, had made contact with the military
to reassure them that aid would be resumed once Carter was voted
out. The message the team brought to Guatemala was: "Mr.
Reagan recognizes that a good deal of dirty work has to be done."
Once in office, Reagan lobbied to make
good on his promise but there was no real urgency. Despite Carter's
cutoff of military aid, American funding and training continued
to flow to Guatemala, either through preexisting contracts not
affected by the ban or through Agency for International Development
money directed to support the military's effort to gain control
of the countryside. By late 1982, it was clear that the killing
had succeeded in containing the insurgency, so the White House
felt it didn't have to push Congress to restore aid to Guatemala
with the same enthusiasm with which it advanced its Nicaraguan
and Salvadoran policy.
Reagan still took every opportunity he
could to laud the Guatemalan regime, even though his administration
had full knowledge that troops had orders to "eliminate all
sources of resistance" and were engaged in "large-scale
killing of Indian men, women and children." Just a day before
the Guatemalan army committed a particularly gruesome massacre
(over the course of three days soldiers in a small village called
Dos Erres killed more than 160 people, including 65 children who
were swung by their feet so their heads were smashed on rocks),
Reagan met with EfraIn RIos Montt, the president of Guatemala
and one of the principal architects of the genocide. Reagan complained
to the press that his Central American counterpart, an evangelical
Christian with strong ties to the fundamentalist movement in the
United States, was getting a "bad deal" from his critics
and assured reporters that RIos Montt was "totally committed
Genocide may not have been an option in
1966 when strategists gamed for war in Central America, but by
the early 1980s it had become an acceptable solution.
The 1979 revolution in Nicaragua proved to be tailor-made for
those who wanted to transform America's foreign policy from containment
to rollback. For over a year prior to the 1980 presidential elections,
defense activists gathering around Reagan's candidacy used the
revolution to assail Carter, attacking his human rights policy
and tolerance for "ideological pluralism" as leading
to the downfall of Somoza, who for decades served the United States
as a loyal backstop against Communism. Beyond the "appeasers"
in the White House, the Sandinistas themselves made useful foils.
Rather than comprising hard-line Stalinists, as groups such as
the Committee of Santa Fe claimed, the Sandinista front was made
up of a coalition of progressive capitalists, socialists, Marxists,
and Catholics. Its leaders were pragmatic, fully aware of the
realities of hemispheric power. But they were also adamant nationalists
who took seriously the principle of sovereignty, having observed
Nicaragua's long and unfortunate dealings with the United States.
They stood their ground, unwilling to forsake Cuba's friendship
or reject its aid. While they had no desire to replicate Castro's
sclerotic economy or polity, they were dedicated to making Nicaragua
more humane through the creation of a mixed economy in which the
state directed capital investment and redistributed wealth by
providing health care and education.
Between 1982, when Argentina's disastrous Falklands war took them
out of the game in Central America and left the CIA the principal
sponsor of the Contras, and 1986, when the Iran-Contra story exploded
in the press, Casey and North presided over the construction of
an elaborate transnational support network designed to bypass
congressional and public scrutiny. The network remobilized many
of the clandestine operatives laid off at the end of the 1970s,
insinuating them "back into newly revived covert operations,
whether in governmental, private, or mixed roles." It also
included states such as Saudi Arabia, Taiwan, Panama, and Israel,
conservative religious organizations like Pat Robertson's 700
Club and Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, private security
firms and arms merchants, retired military personnel, mercenaries,
businessmen, ex-agents of the Iranian shah's secret police, and
international drug traffickers. Grassroots organizations in America
raised money to ship humanitarian aid to Contra bases in Honduras
and Costa Rica, and foreign governments and mercenaries provided
training and arms. Most infamously, North created an elaborate
circuit of exchange that, with the help of Israeli arms traders,
sold U.S. missiles to Iran at inflated prices, with the profits
from the deal used to supply the Contras. There is ample evidence,
not the least of which comes from North's handwritten notes, that
the CIA employed Latin American cocaine and marijuana dealers
as middlemen, using their planes to ship arms to the Contras in
exchange for easy access to American markets.
... an enormous chasm existed between
the idealism used by Reagan to justify support for the Contras
and the actions his charges took on the ground. They were the
"strangest national liberation organization in the world,"
remarked an adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "just a
bunch of killers." One high-level Contra official who worked
closely with the CIA said that brigades would "arrive at
an undefended village, assemble all the residents in the town
square and then proceed to kill-in full view of the others-all
persons suspected of working" for the government or the Sandinista
party. They "slaughter[ed] people like hogs," reported
a member of a private mercenary outfit that provided support for
the Contras after Congress cut off aid. Other Contra leaders confessed
to "damnable atrocities" and "hundreds of civilian
murders, mutilations, tortures, and rapes," of which "CIA
superiors were well aware." Sexual violence was a favorite
sport of Contra forces, who, according to a U.S. official, had
a "tendency to kidnap young girls." By 1985, the Contras
had executed close to four thousand civilians, wounded an equal
number, and kidnapped roughly another five thousand. Human rights
organizations accused them of "indiscriminate attacks, torture,
and other outrages," while the CIA acknowledged that the
"freedom fighters" had killed "civilians and Sandinista
officials in the provinces, as well as heads of cooperatives,
nurses, doctors, and judges.
... Hoping to show a wavering rural population
that the Sandinistas could not establish effective sovereignty,
the Contras razed cooperatives, schools, health clinics, and power
stations and tortured, raped, and murdered civilians, including
foreigners who were helping to rebuild Nicaragua. It was also
hoped that the Contras would, at the very least, force the Sandinistas
to devote scarce resources to the war and to impose draconian
measures that would eat away at their legitimacy and, with luck,
provoke them into attacking Honduras, which would then justify
a U.S. response.
Such terror succeeded not just in destroying
the hopes for a more humane society raised by Nicaragua's 1979
revolution-the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990-but
in helping to justify rollback as a legitimate, and feasible,
objective of American diplomacy. The Contras were by no means
the first anti-Communist insurgency sponsored by the United States.
Similar policies had already been attempted in Guatemala in 1954,
Cuba in 1961, and in Southeast Asia, Africa, and Afghanistan.
But no other insurgency was championed for such a sustained period
of time in such idealistic terms.
Central America(also) marked an important threshold in the moral
evolution of U.S. foreign policy militarism. In coming to see
themselves as revolutionaries, militarists justified any and all
means in relation to ends. Yet their "revolution" offered
little but freemarket absolutism, which turned out to be a poor
program for winning "hearts and minds." They became
dependent nearly exclusively on intimidation. Washington did indeed
take that "step toward the primitive" when in Central
America it cast its lot with the most feverish end of the anti-Communist
spectrum, men who slaughtered hundreds of thousands in the name
of political liberalism. It moved even farther along in its journey
in Afghanistan, when in order to force the Cold 'War to a conclusion
the United States "unapologetically," according to George
Criles sympathetic history of the anti-Soviet jihad, equipped
and trained "cadres of high tech holy warriors"-allies
who wanted to roll back not just the USSR but the Enlightenment