El Salvador 1980-1994

Human rights, Washington style

excerpted from the book

Killing Hope

by William Blum


The United States was supporting the government of El Salvador, said President Ronald Reagan, because it was trying "to halt the infiltration into the Americas, by terrorists and by outside interference, and those who aren't just aiming at El Salvador but, I think, are aiming at the whole of Central and possibly later South America and, I'm sure, eventually North America."

Psychiatrists have a term for such perceptions of reality. Thev call it paranoid schizophrenia.

If the insurgents in El Salvador, the smallest country by far in all of Central and south America, were engaged in what Ronald Reagan perceived as a plot to capture the Western Hemisphere, others saw it as the quintessential revolution.

Viewed in the latter context, it cannot be asserted that the Salvadorean people rushed precipitously into revolution at the first painful sting of repression, or turned to the gun because of a proclivity towards violent solutions, or a refusal to "work within the system" or because of "outside agitators", or any of the other explanations of why people revolt, so dear to the hearts of Washington opinion makers. For as long as anyone could remember, the reins of El Salvador's government had resided in the hands of one military dictatorship or another, while the economy had been controlled by the celebrated 14 coffee and industrial families, with only the occasional, short-lived bursting of accumulated discontent to disturb the neat arrangement.

In December 1980, New York Times, reporter Raymond Bonner asked Jose Napoleon Duarte "why the guerrillas were in the hills". Duarte, who had just become president of the ruling junta, responded with an answer that surprised Bonner: "Fifty years of lies, fifty years of injustice, fifty years of frustration. This is a history of people starving to death, living in misery. For fifty years the same people had all the power, all the money, all the jobs all the education, all the opportunities."

In the decades following the famed peasant rebellion in l932, which was crushed by an unholy massacre, a reform government had occupied the political stage only twice: for nine months in 1944, then again in 1960. The latter instance was precipitated by several thousand students of the National University who staged a protest against the curtailment of civil liberties. The government responded by sending in the police, who systematically smashed offices, classrooms, and laboratories, beat up the school's president, killed a librarian, bayoneted students, and raped dozens of young women. Finally, when the students amassed anew, troops opened fire upon them point-blank.

The bloody incident was one of the turning points for a group of junior military officers. They staged a coup in October aimed at major social and political reforms, but the new government lasted only three months before being overthrown in a counter-coup which the United States was reportedly involved in. Dr. Fabio Castillo, a former president of the National University and a member of the ousted government, testified years later before the US Congress that in the process of overthrowing the reform government, the American Embassy immediately began to "intervene directly", and "members of the U.S. Military Mission openly intensified their invitation to conspiracy and rebellion".

Throughout the 1960s, multifarious American experts occupied themselves in El Salvador by enlarging and refining the state's security and counter-insurgency apparatus: the police, the National Guard, the military, the communications and intelligence networks, the co-ordination with their counterparts in other Central American countries ... as matters turned out, these were the forces and resources which were brought into action to impose widespread repression and wage war. Years later, the New York Times noted:

"In El Salvador, American aid was used for police training in the 1950's and 1960's and many officers in the three branches of the police later became leaders of the right-wing death squads that killed tens of thousands of people in the late 1970's and early 1980's."


Government political violence of this sort had been sporadic in the 1960s, but became commonplace in the 1970s as more and more Salvadoreans, frustrated by the futility of achieving social change through elections, resorted to other means. While some limited themselves to more militant demonstrations, strikes, and occupations of sites, an increasing number turned to acts of urban guerrilla warfare such as assassination of individuals seen as part of the repressive machinery, bombings, and kidnappings for ransom. The government and its paramilitary right-wing vigilante groups-"death squads" is the self-named modern genre- countered with a campaign centered upon leaders of labor unions, peasant organizations and political parties, as well as priests and lay religious workers. "Be Patriotic-Kill a Priest" was the slogan of one death squad. Church people were accused of teaching subversion to the peasants, what the church people themselves would call the word of God, in this the only country in the world named after Christ. The CIA and the US military played an essential role in the conception and organization of the security agencies from which the death squads emanated. CIA surveillance programs routinely supplied these agencies with information on, and the whereabouts of, various individuals who wound up as death squad victims.

In October 1979, a cabal of younger military officers, repelled by the frequent government massacres of groups of protesters and strikers, and wishing to restore the military's "good name", ousted General Carlos Romero from the presidency and took power in a bloodless coup. A number of prominent civilian political figures were given positions in the new administration, which proclaimed an impressive program of reforms. But it was not to be. The young and politically inexperienced officers were easily co-opted by older, conservative officers, and by pressure exerted by the United States, to install certain military men into key positions. The civilian members of the government found themselves unable to exercise any control over the armed forces and were left to function only as reformist camouflage.

Washington had supported the removal of the brutal Romero because only three months earlier the Sandinistas had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, and the Carter administration did not wish to risk the loss of a second client state in Central America in so short a space of time, but brakes had to be applied to keep the process within manageable bounds.

Meanwhile, the security forces did not miss a beat as they continued to fire into crowds: the body count in the first month of the "reformist" government was greater than in the first nine months of the year. By January 1980, almost all the civilian members had resigned in disgust over government-as-usual. The experience was the straw which broke the backs of many moderates and liberals, as well as members of the Salvadorean Communist Party, who still clung to hopes of peaceful reforms. The Communist Party had supported the new government, even contributed the Minister of Labor, "because we believe It is going to comply with its promises and open the possibility of democratizing the country." The party was the last group on the left to join the guerrilla forces.

One of the civilians, Minister of Education Salvador Samayoa, in front of the TV cameras, simultaneously announced his resignation and his enlistment with a guerrilla group. For those who continued to harbor illusions, a steady drumbeat of terrorism soon brought them into the fold. A demonstration march by a coalition of popular organizations on 22 January was first sprayed with DDT by crop-duster planes along the route of the march; then when the demonstrators reached San Salvador's central plaza, snipers fired at them from surrounding government buildings; at least 21 dead and 120 seriously wounded was the toll some of which reportedly resulted from the demonstrators' undisciplined return of fire.

On 17 March, a general strike was met by retaliatory violence-54 people killed in the capital alone.

A week later, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Romero, an outspoken critic of the government's human-rights violations, who had called upon President Carter "Christian to Christian", to cease providing military aid, was assassinated. In his last sermon, he had addressed the security forces with these words: "I beseech you, I beg you, I order you, in the name of God: stop the repression." The next day he became the eleventh l priest murdered in El Salvador in three years.


Military Escalation

El Salvador did not turn into another Vietnam quicksand for the United States as many critics of the left and center warned. But for the Salvadorean people the war and its horror dragged on as interminably as it did for the Vietnamese, and for the same reason: American support of a regime-one even more loathsome than in Vietnam-which would have crumbled dismally if left to its own resources. Despite overwhelmingly superior military might, the government could hold the insurgents to no more than a stalemate.
The amount of American military aid to El Salvador from 1980 to the early 1990s, for the hardware alone, ran into the billions of dollars. Six billion is the figure commonly used in the press, but the true figure will never be known. The Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus, a bipartisan congressional group, accused the Reagan administration in the mid ]980s of supplying "insufficient, misleading and in some cases false information" concerning aid to El Salvador. The administration, concluded the Caucus study, categorized most military aid as "development" aid, and undervalued the real cost of the hardware even when it was properly categorized as military aid."

To this must be added the cost of training Salvadorean military personnel by the thousands in the United States, and the Panama Canal Zone, as well as in El Salvador; the further training which was provided in the earlier years by Argentina, Chile and Uruguay at US behest; and the substantial military aid routed through Israel, a maneuver employed by the United States elsewhere in Central America as well.


Officially, the US military presence in El Salvador was limited to an advisory capacity. In actuality, military and CIA personnel played a more active role on a continuous basis from as early as 1980. About 20 Americans were killed or wounded in helicopter and plane crashes while flying reconnaissance or other missions over combat areas. Moreover, the American program for training Salvadorean pilots, bombardiers and gunners could easily serve to conceal the advisers direct participation in these operations while accompanying their trainees.

Considerable evidence surfaced of a US role in the ground fighting as well. There were numerous reports of armed Americans spotted in combat areas, a report by CBS News of US advisers "fighting side by side" with government troops, and reports of other Americans, some ostensibly mercenaries, killed in action. The extent of American mercenary involvement in El Salvador is not known, but Lawrence Bailey, a former US Marine, has stated that he was part of a team of 40 American soldiers of fortune paid by wealthy Salvadorean families living in Miami to protect their plantations from takeover by the rebels.

During the Iran-Contra hearings in 1987, it was disclosed that at least until 1985, CIA paramilitary personnel had been organizing and leading special Salvadorean army units into combat areas to track down guerrillas and call in air strikes.

These bit-by-bit disclosures pointed to a frequent, if not routine, American involvement in the ongoing combat. In September 1988 another news item related that US military advisers were caught in a gun battle between Salvadorean army forces and guerrillas and that, in "self-defense", they opened fire on the rebels.

The degree of overall control of the military operation by the United States is perhaps best captured by an excerpt from an interview given to Playboy magazine in 1984 by President Duarte, one of the few Christian Democrat leaders of the earlier days still working within the government.

Playboy: Do the American military advisers also tell you how to run the war?

Duarte: This is the problem, no? The root of this problem is that the aid is given under such conditions that its use is really decided by the Americans and not by us. Decisions like how many planes or helicopters we buy, how we spend our money, how many trucks we need, how many bullets and of what caliber, how many pairs of boots and where our priorities should be-all of that ... And all the money is spent over there. We never even see a penny of it, because everything arrives here already paid for.

In Duarte's previous incarnation as a government opponent, his view of the Yanquis was even harsher. US policy in Latin America, he said in 1969, was designed to "maintain the Ibero-American countries in a condition of direct dependence upon the international political decisions most beneficial to the United States, both at the hemisphere and world levels. Thus [the North Americans] preach to us of democracy while everywhere they support dictatorships."


On some days during the 1980s, Washington officials issued warnings to the Salvadorean government to improve its human rights record, or told Congress that the record was improving, or told the world how much worse that record would be if not for American influence. On most other days, the United States continued to build up each and every component of the military and paramilitary forces engaged in the atrocities. In 1984, in an interview with the New York Times, Col. Roberto Eulalio Santibanez, a former Salvadorean military official who had served at the highest level of the security police, confirmed-for those who may still have entertained doubts-that the network of death squads had been shaped by leading Salvadorean officials and was still directed by them. He also revealed that one of these officials, Col. Nicolas Carranza, the head of the Treasury Police, which "have long been considered the least disciplined and most brutal of the Salvadorean security forces", had been receiving more than ~90,0()0 a year during the previous five or six years from the CIA. Although some members of the Treasury Police were linked by the Reagan administration itself to death-squad activities, the United States continued to train and equip them.


In early 1992, the war came to an official end when a United Nations commission, after a year-and-a-half effort, finally got the warring sides to agree to a cease fire and a peace agreement. A major offensive launched by the guerrillas in late 1989-in which they "brought the war home" to wealthy neighborhoods and Americans in the capital-had made clear to Washington and its Salvadorean allies, once again, finally, that the war was unwinnable. In February 1990, Gen. Maxwell Thurman, the head of the US Southern Command, told Congress that the El Salvador government was not able to defeat the rebels and that the only way to end the fighting was through negotiation. Moreover, the ostensible end of the cold war had undermined the United States' professed rationale for-and may have relaxed its obsession with-defeating "communism" in El Salvador. At the same time, Congress was balking more and more about continuing military aid to the Salvadorean government, an attitude that had been growing ever since the November 1989 murder of the Jesuit priests.

One of the many provisions of the complex peace agreement was the establishment of a UN Commission of the Truth "to investigate the worst acts of violence since 1980". In March of 1993 the Commission presented its report. Among its findings and conclusions were the following:

"The military forces, supported by the government and the civilian establishment, were plainly the main perpetrators of massacres, executions, torture and kidnappings during the civil war. These acts could not be blamed on the excesses of war but on premeditated and ideologically inspired decisions to kill."

The commission called for the dismissal of more than 40 high-ranking military personnel-including Defense Minister Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, a long-time favorite of US officials-whom it found had given the orders that led to the murders of the priests, and stipulated that none should ever be allowed to return to military or security duty and should be banned from other public and political life for 10 years.

Dismissal and a 10-year ban was also specified for government officials and bureaucrats who abused human rights or took part in a cover-up of the abuses, including the President of the Supreme Court. (Right-wing parties in the Salvadorean National Assembly quickly pushed through an amnesty law barring prosecution for any crimes committed during the war.)

Several leaders of the left were singled out for the assassinations of 11 mayors during the war.

A special investigation of death squads was called for. These squads, said the report, were "often operated by the military and supported by powerful businessmen, landowners and some leading politicians." (The peace accords did not put an end to this: dozens of leaders and members of the FMLN were assassinated during 1992 and 1993, as well as a few from the right.)

Cited as the most notorious of the death squad leaders by the report was Roberto d'Aubuisson, the principal founder of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party, the party of the country's current president, Alfredo Cristiani. D'Aubuisson, the report confirmed, hired the sharpshooter who killed Archbishop Romero.

Other sins laid at the doorstep of the government were the rapes and killings of three American nuns and a female religious worker in 1980, the murder of two American labor advisers in 1981, and the assassination, in 1982, of four Dutch journalists, whose reports were evidently considered favorable to the guerrillas.

The Commission did not focus on any American role in the abuses and cover-up. "The role of the United States in El Salvador is a role more effectively studied by the U.S. Congress," said Commission member Thomas Buergenthal, an American jurist, at a news conference. However, the Commission did chastise the United States for failing to rein in Salvadorean exiles in Miami who "helped administer death squad activities between 1980 and 1983, with apparently little attention from the U.S. government. Such use of American territory for acts of terrorism abroad should be investigated and never allowed to be repeat ed." (Cuban exiles, of course, have been using Miami as a base for terrorism abroad, as well as in the US, for 30 years.)

Members of Congress, outraged by the findings of the Commission of the Truth, called for the declassification of State Department, Defense Department, and CIA files on El Salvador to help determine whether the Reagan and Bush administrations had concealed evidence from Congress about widespread human rights abuses by their Salvadorean allies. "It [the Commission's report] simply verifies what a number of us knew all through the '80s," said Rep. David Obey, "that our own government was Iying like hell to us." The report proves that the Reagan administration was willing to "lie ... and ... certify to any thing ... to get the money it wanted."

Various of the more than 12,000 once-secret documents released by the Clinton administration unequivocally confirmed Obey's charge. Other papers revealed that ...

"The current Vice President Francisco Merino, had organized death squads. "

The CIA referred to Roberto d'Aubuisson as "egocentric, reckless and perhaps mentally unstable"; he trafficked in drugs and smuggled arms; his paramilitary unit was responsible for thousands of murders; and in 1983 he and his advisers were invited by American Ambassador Deane Hinton to have lunch with the visiting US representative to the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Six years later, shortly before the CIA reported that d'Aubuisson's inner circle had plotted to assassinate President Cristiani, Ambassador William G. Walker invited him to the embassy's Fourth of July party.

American military advisers trained a militia of some 50 wealthy Salvadoreans, ostensibly for them to be able to defend their own lavish homes against a rebel attack, but the group was actually linked to d'Aubuisson and their militia was a "cover for the recruitment, training and possible dispatch of paramilitary civilian death squads".


For the benefit of which Salvadoreans did Arena remain in power? For which of them had 75,000 civilians been killed? For whom was the US Treasury reduced by $6 billion. Two reports from the New York Times ...

'Over canapés served by hovering waiters at a party, a guest said she was convinced that God had created two distinct classes of people the rich and people to serve them. She described herself as charitable for allowing the poor to work as her servants. "It's the best you can do," she said.

The woman s outspokenness was unusual, but her attitude is shared by a large segment of the Salvadoran upper class.

The separation between classes is so rigid that even small expressions of kindness across the divide are viewed with suspicion. When an American, visiting an ice cream store, remarked that he was shopping for a birthday party for his maid's child, other store patrons immediately stopped talking and began staring at the American. Finally, an astonished woman in the check out line spoke out. "You must be kidding," she said.'

One of their class, who had had enough and was leaving, commented to the Times: I can't accept the fact that if you're born a peasant here, you die a peasant and your children are going to be peasants. There's no vision that kids of farmhands should be going Harvard and running this country one day. There's no vision of a modern society."

Killing Hope