Israel and El Salvador
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
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
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 labor federation.
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
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 projects, Dideco.