Death Squads in El Salvador:
A Pattern of U.S. Complicity
by David Kirsch
Covert Action Quarterly, Summer
In 1963, the U.S. government sent 10 Special
Forces personnel to El Salvador to help General Jose Alberto Medrano
set up the Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista (ORDEN)-the first
paramilitary death squad in that country. These Green Berets assisted
in the organization and indoctrination of rural "civic"
squads which gathered intelligence and carried out political assassinations
in coordination with the Salvadoran military.
Now, there is compelling evidence to show
that for over 30 years, members of the U.S. military and the CIA
have helped organize, train, and fund death squad activity in
In the last eight years, six Salvadoran
military deserters have publicly acknowledged their participation
in the death squads. Their stories are notable because they not
only confirm suspicions that the death squads are made up of members
of the Salvadoran military, but also because each one implicates
U.S. personnel in death squad activity.
The term "death squad" while
appropriately vivid, can be misleading because it obscures their
fundamental identity. Evidence shows that "death squads"
are primarily military or paramilitary units carrying out political
assassinations and intimidation as part of the Salvadoran government's
counterinsurgency strategy. Civilian death squads do exist but
have often been comprised of off-duty soldiers financed by wealthy
It is important to point out that the
use of death squads has been a strategy of U.S. counterinsurgency
doctrine. For example, the CIA's "Phoenix Program" was
responsible for the "neutralization" of over 40,000
Vietnamese suspected of working with the National Liberation Front.
Part of the U.S. counterinsurgency program
was run from the Office of Public Safety (OPS). OPS was part of
U.S. AID, and worked with the Defense Department and the CIA to
modernize and centralize the repressive capabilities of client
state police forces, including those in El Salvador. In 1974 Congress
ordered the discontinuation of OPS.
In spite of the official suspension of
police assistance between 1974 and 1985, CIA and other U.S . officials
worked with Salvadoran security forces throughout the restricted
period to centralize and modernize surveillance, to continue training,
and to fund key players in the death squad network.
Even though the U.S. government's police
training program had been thoroughly discredited, the Reagan administration
found other channels through which to reinstate police assistance
for El Salvador and Honduras. Attached to this assistance is the
requirement that the president certify that aid recipients do
not engage in torture, political persecution, or assassination.
Even so, certain members of Congress showed concern over the reinstatement
of police aid to repressive regimes. In a Senate Foreign Relations
Committee hearing, Senator Claiborne Pell (Dem.-Rhode Island)
asked, "I was talking about cattle prods specifically. Would
they be included or not?"
Undersecretary of State for Latin American
Affair Elliott Abrams replied, "Well, I would say that in
my view if the police of Costa Rica, with their democratic tradition,
say that for crowd control purposes they would like to have 50
shot [sic] batons, as they are called in a nonagricultural context,
I would personally want to give it to them. I think that government
has earned enough trust, as I think we have earned enough trust,
not to be questioned, frankly, about exporting torture equipment.
But I would certainly be in favor of giving it to them if they
Death Squad Members, Testimony
Cesar Vielman Joya Martinez, a soldier
in the First Infantry Brigade's Department 2 (Intelligence), is
the most recent Salvadoran to admit his involvement in death squad
activity. At a November 1, 1989 press conference Joya Martinez
stated that certain military units in Department 2 carried out
"heavy interrogation" (a euphemism for torture) after
which the victims were killed. The job of his unit was to execute
people by strangulation, slitting their throats, or injecting
them with poison. He admitted killing eight people and participating
in many more executions. He stated that the Brigade Commander
had sent written orders to carry out the killings and that the
use of bullets was forbidden because they might be traced to the
Joya Martinez also claims that one of
the U.S. advisers working with the First Brigade sat at a desk
next to his and received "all the reports from our agents
on clandestine captures, interrogations...but we did not provide
them with reports on the executions. They did not want to hear
of the actual killings." U.S. advisers authorized expenses
for such extras as black glass on squad vans to allow executions
to take place unobserved; provided $4,000 for the monthly budget;
and conducted classes in recruiting informants and conducting
Another Salvadoran soldier, Ricardo Castro,
is the first officer to come forward with information about death
squad activity. Castro graduated from West Point in 1973 and was
a company commander in the Salvadoran Army. He translated for
several U.S. advisers who taught, among other subjects, interrogation
techniques. Castro claims that one U.S. instructor worked out
of the Sheraton Hotel (taken over briefly during the November
1989 FMLN offensive) and emphasized psychological techniques.
Castro recalled a class where Salvadoran soldiers asked the adviser
about an impasse in their torture sessions:
He was obviously against torture a lot
of the time. He favored selective torture.... When they learned
some thing in class, they might go back to their fort that night
and practice.... I remember very distinctly some students talking
about the fact that people were conking out on them...as they
were administering electric shock. 'We keep giving him the electric
shock, and he just doesn't respond. What can we do?'.... The American
gave a broad smile and said, 'You've got to surprise him. We know
this from experience. Give him a jolt. Do something that will
just completely amaze him, and that should bring him out of it."
Castro revealed that he held monthly briefings
with then deputy CIA chief of station in El Salvador Frederic
Brugger who had recruited him for intelligence work after meeting
at an interrogation class. Castro also claimed to have knowledge
of the perpetration of large massacres of civilians by Army Department
In December 1981, he met in Morazan Province
with one of the officers that the U.S. instructor had advised.
"They had two towns of about 300 people each, and they were
interrogating them to see what they knew. Since I...knew something
about interrogations, he said he might want me to help. The Major
told me that after the interrogation, they were going to kill
them all." Castro was, however, reassigned and did not participate.
Later, his pro-government mother told him, "You know, son,
these guerrillas, they invent the wildest lies. They say that
in December, 600 civilians were killed in Morazan." "Oh,
shit, I was hoping I'd been dreaming it," he thought. "I
later found out, they did go in and kill them after all."
Rene Hurtado worked as intelligence agent
for the Treasury Police, one of the three Salvadoran paramilitary
forces. After a falling out with an officer, he fled to Minnesota,
took refuge with a Presbyterian Church congregation, and began
describing routine torture methods used by paramilitary forces.
These included beatings, electric shock, suffocation, and mutilation.
He described techniques such as tearing the skin from " interrogation"
subjects, sticking needles into them, or beating them in such
a manner that lasting internal injuries but no telltale external
marks would be sustained. According to Hurtado, CIA employees
and Green Berets taught some of these torture techniques to the
Treasury Police in Army staff headquarters.
General John Vessey, chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, was particularly disturbed by the implication
of the Green Berets and initiated an investigation. The investigator
from the Army Criminal Investigation Division stated, "My
job was to clear the Army's name and I was going to do whatever
[was] necessary to do that." Hurtado refused to cooperate
with the investigator on the advice of a member of Congress whom
the church parishioners had called upon. When the investigator
was told this by the minister, he responded, "Tell Mr. Hurtado
that the Congressman has given him very costly advice. When I
went to El Salvador to investigate his allegations, at the advice
of the U.S. Ambassador, I did not talk to members of the Salvadoran
military. If I go again and talk to the military, we don't know
who will be hurt, do we?''
Following revelations of U.S. involvement
in death squad activities, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees
reported on allegations of U.S. complicity in death squad activity.
The Republican-dominated Senate panel confirmed that Salvadoran
officials were involved, but denied any direct U.S. role, keeping
certain portions of its report classified. The House Committee
stated that, "U.S. intelligence agencies have not conducted
any of their activities in such a way as to directly encourage
or support death-squad activities." Rep. James Shannon (Dem.-Mass.),
who requested the inquiry, commented that the report was "certainly
not as conclusive as the committee makes it sound.''
Varelli, Carranza, Montano, and others
Frank Varelli is the son of a former Salvadoran
Minister of Defense and National Police commander. When Varelli's
family came to the U.S. in 1980, Varelli started working as an
FBI informant. Years later, he publicly revealed his role in FBI
covert operations against domestic organizations opposing Reagan's
Central American policy. He has also asserted that the Salvadoran
National Guard gave him death lists which he compared to lists
of Salvadorans in the U.S. awaiting deportation back to El Salvador.
Varelli believes some may have been killed on their return to
El Salvador. He reported these contacts with the National Guard
to the FBI.
Former Colonel Roberto Santivanez claimed
that the then chief of the Salvadoran Treasury Police, Nicolas
Carranza, was the officer most active with the death squads. Colonel
Carranza is also alleged to have received $90,000 annually from
the CIA. Carranza has confirmed the close working relationship
of the paramilitary forces with U.S. intelligence. "[They]
have collaborated with us in a certain technical manner, providing
us with advice. They receive information from everywhere in the
world, and they have sophisticated equipment that enables them
to better inform or at least confirm the information we have.
It's very helpful.''
Carlos Antonio Gomez Montano was a paratrooper
stationed at Ilopango Air Force Base. He claimed to have seen
eight Green Beret advisers watching two "torture classes"
during which a 17-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl were tortured.
Montano claimed that his unit and the Green Berets were joined
by Salvadoran Air Force Commander Rafael Bustillo and other Salvadoran
officers during these two sessions in January 1981. A Salvadoran
officer told the assembled soldiers, "[watching] will make
you feel more like a man.''
Above are the accounts of the death squad
deserters. Non military sources have also reported the participation
of U.S. personnel. For example, another (highly placed anonymous
civilian) source maintained that Armed Forces General Staff Departments
2 and 5 (organized with help from U.S. Army Colonel David Rodriguez,
a Cuban-American) used tortures such as beating, burning and electric
shock. U.S. involvement has also been asserted in sworn accounts
by some victims of torture. Jose Ruben Carrillo Cubas, a student,
gave testimony that during his detention by the Long Distance
Reconnaissance Patrol (PRAL) in 1986, a U.S. Army Major tortured
him by applying electric shocks to his back and ears.
Various sources have reported the use
of U.S.-manufactured torture equipment. Rene Hurtado, for example,
explained, "There re some very sophisticated methods...of
torture..[like the machine] that looks like a radio, like a transformer;
it s about 15 centimeters across, with connecting wires. It says
General Electric on it...."
Many other documented accounts of brutality
by U.S. trained and advised military units exist. Indeed, the
elite Atlacatl Battalion has been implicated in several massacres
over the past ten years and members of the battalion have been
indicted for the November slayings of the six Jesuit priests and
It is widely accepted, in the mainstream
media and among human rights organizations, that the Salvadoran
government is responsible for most of the 70,000 deaths which
are the result of ten years of civil war. The debate, however,
has dwelled on whether the death squads are strictly renegade
military factions or a part of the larger apparatus. The evidence
indicates that the death squads are simply components of the Salvadoran
military. And that their activities are not only common knowledge
to U.S. agencies, but that U.S. personnel have been integral in
organizing these units and continue to support their dally functioning.
David Kirsh is author of the booklet,
"Central America Without Crying Uncle." It is available
from Primer Project, 107 Mosswood Court, Chapel Hill, NC 27516.
Policy and Pentagon
Central America watch