The "Salvador Boys"

by Mark Cook

CovertAction Quarterly, Fall / Winter 1999


The Colombian weekly Semana took note in its August 23,1999, edition of the remarkable number of U.S. veterans of the war in El Salvador in the 1980s who have turned their attention to Colombia. Among them:

U S Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, who, as ambassador to El Salvador in 1984, justified the widespread killing of civilians by the Salvadoran army on the grounds that the civilians were masas (i e, part of the mass social base of the insurgent FMLN) and were therefore "somewhat more than innocent civilian bystanders."

Even the establishment human rights organization Americas Watch was flabbergasted, and pointed out that the U.S. State Department had condemned the bombing of civilian populations in the strongest terms only a few months earlier. However, Americas Watch noted, the State Department was speaking of Afghanistan, not El Salvador.

"When it comes to El Salvador, the State Department has an entire]y different attitude," the Watch committee noted, and quoted from Pickering's February 25, 1984, cable, which was widely circulated in Congress and among right-wing columnists.

Pickering went on to jobs as ambassador to Israel, the United Nations and Russia, where he was serving when President Boris Yeltsin's military supporters drew up tanks to open fire on the democratically elected parliament, with parliamentarians and staff inside. Deaths were reported in the hundreds (according to some reports, over 1,000). U.S. authorities and the transnational media applauded the action as another advance for democracy.

Assistant Secretary of State Peter Romero, who worked on the "peace process" in El Salvador. Like Pickering, he believes that the "Salvador solution" can be the model for Colombia.

Romero was most recently in the news for proposing to the Organization of American States the establishment of a "group of friendly countries" linked economically and politically which could intervene in internal conflicts in Latin American countries as they saw fit. Romero called the proposal "preventive diplomacy" The OAS rejected the U.S. bid, calling it paternalistic and questioning who would decide if a crisis was serious enough to warrant intervention. U.S. diplomats intend to reintroduce the proposal next year.

General Charles Wilhelm, former military attaché in the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, now head of the U.S. military Southern Command, or SouthCom, which has responsibility for the Caribbean and all of Latin America. As Nikolas Kozloff has noted in a report on SouthCom, Wilhelm has acquired a reputation for associating with the most murderous elements of the Colombian army high command. One of them, General Harold Bedoya, was even forced to resign by the Colombian government because of such extreme human rights violations. "We took Bedoya out because of human rights," former Colombian President Ernesto Samper told Human Rights Watch.

As Kozloff reports, General Wilhelm has been leading efforts to "protect" Panama from Colombian guerrillas and drug traffickers. According to the June 24, 1999, Miami Herald, the Panamanian government rejected U.S. intervention along the Panama-Colombia border to guarantee the security of the Panama Canal, qualifying as "inadmissible" a suggestion made to that effect by General Wilhelm. (Canal protection is the only grounds for intervention in Panama by U.S. troops, according to the Canal Treaty ) Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter told reporters that his country rejects as "unacceptable" statements made before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which Wilhelm suggested that the threat of drug trafficking and incursions by Colombian guerrillas could warrant U.S. intervention in Panama. It is "inadmissible" to cite the drug trade and problems along Panama's border with Colombia to suggest that the Canal is in danger, Ritter said.

Andrew Messing, former commander of Green Beret Special Forces in El Salvador, is now director of the National Defense Council, an NGO pressing for more military aid and which, according to Semana, advises right-wing Republican Congress members Dan Burton and Benjamin Gilman on helicopters for Colombia.

Douglas Farah, Washington Post correspondent in Colombia, previously worked in El Salvador and Nicaragua. His work in Nicaragua, after the Sandinistas handed over power to the Chamorro government, concentrated on depicting the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran FMLN as international terrorists. He sought to imply, with deliberate dishonesty that the Sandinistas were involved in the World Trade Center bombing. He also gave sympathetic treatment to the idea of overthrowing Violeta Chamorro, normally lauded as a savior in the U.S. imperial media, because she was failing to live up to what Washington expected of her.

James LeMoyne, former reporter for the New York Times, whose record of disinformation was so extreme that it finally discredited him as a journalist. LeMoyne is now a U.N. official advising that organization on the Colombian peace process.

While at the Times, LeMoyne attempted to turn an unsuccessful contra attack on the Nicaraguan mining town of Siuna into a spectacular contra victory (thereby depicting the contras as capable of taking a town; their failure to do so had been jeopardizing their funding from Congressmembers unconcerned about the morality of arming the contras but worried that they were throwing money down a rathole).

LeMoyne also ran a fabricated story of Salvadorans found murdered, with their voter registration cards stuffed in their mouths; this was presented as evidence that the FMLN was terrorizing people to keep them from voting. The story had come from a San Salvador newspaper connected to the Salvadoran army and turned out to be baseless.

In another murder case, this time a real one, LeMoyne conducted an interview with a prisoner being held incommunicado by the Salvadoran authorities, who "admitted" that he had killed Herbert Anaya, a prominent human rights activist, on orders from the FMLN. The prisoner repudiated his confession, which Anaya's family quickly had declared to be absurd, but which LeMoyne had treated as credible. Anaya's family noted that they had seen a group of National Police 200 meters from the family's house, and that the FMLN would not have attacked so close to the police. In his own defense, LeMoyne later protested that the Washington Post had also conducted the incommunicado interview with the prisoner.

Among these civil servants of the Empire, bitter divisions continue over Colombia policy, not over ends but means. Both the White House and the small group of Republicans in the Congress with close ties to the Colombian military are agreed on what they want: a Salvadoran solution.

In that arrangement, the military and its allied death squads would cease their slaughter of people judged to be on the left, but the economic structure would remain the same and the left would be denied any real access to political power, control over economic policy, or any real control over foreign affairs or military matters.


But the "Salvador Solution" has already been tried in Colombia. In l985 the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) made an agreement with the government of then-President Romulo Betancur to lay down their arms and form the Patriotic Union Party (UP). UP candidates enjoyed spectacular success in the ensuing elections, winning thousands of local and regional posts with a progressive political platform.

The victorious candidates were systematically hunted down and murdered in the following years by army and paramilitary death squads, to the point where today almost 5,000 have lost their lives. Among those killed are the party's most viable presidential candidates.

The FARC is unlikely to accept such a deal again. In the view of the U.S. right, Colombia may have to go through another ten years of death-squad violence and aerial bombing of civilian populations, as the U.S. did with El Salvador, in order to get the settlement the U.S. wants.

Opponents of that strategy in Washington argue that the current "Salvadoran solution" could have been had at the start of the 1980s, without a decade of murder, and that the ensuing decade will eventually come back to haunt the U.S. empire in Latin America.

Neither side raises the point that the current economic and political arrangement in El Salvador and the rest of Central America is no solution at all, given the staggering levels of unemployment and the IMF-dictated destruction of health and education. Both continue to espouse the view that U.S. business enterprises and South Korean and Taiwanese maquiladora starvation-wage assembly plants will eventually show success.

The truth is that the war against the left in Colombia has already taken the form of a war against the Colombian labor movement. One-third of all labor organizers killed worldwide over the past few years have been killed in Colombia. The U.S. Embassy has excused this type of behavior by coining the term "narco-guerrilla" and implying that the labor movement is an extension of that "narco-guerrilla," as Thomas Pickering did in El Salvador.

Central America watch