The School of the Americas and Terror in El Salvador

excerpted from the book

State Terrorism and the United States

From Counterinsurgency to the War on Terrorism

by Frederick H. Gareau

Clarity Press, 2004, paper


Terrorism consists of deliberate acts of a physical and/or psychological nature perpetrated on select groups of victims. Its intent is to mold the thinking and behavior not only of these targeted groups, but more importantly, of larger sections of society that identify or share the views and aspirations of the targeted groups or who might easily be led to do so. The intent of the terrorists is to intimidate or coerce both groups by causing them intense fear, anxiety, apprehension, panic, dread, and/or horror. Obviously, the groups that have been directly targeted experience these emotions to a much higher degree than the larger sections of society that the terrorism is also intended to intimidate and coerce. The overall purpose of terrorism is to intimidate and coerce, not to eliminate a group physically or socially. The latter is called genocide.

Washington publishes an annual list of governments that it alleges terrorists. Typically, this list contains a majority of governments of Arab states - Iran, Cuba, and North Korea. This highlights the importance of how terrorism defined. If state terrorism were included in the definition, Washington would halve to include itself on the list!

A guide to terrorism published in 1988 asserted that proving "state terrorism is usually more difficult than proving insurgent (private) terrorism." The guide went on to explain that except in unusual circumstances such as the Nuremburg and Tokyo trials there are no courts collecting evidence that prove that a regime is guilty of state terror. But the situation has changed. International criminal courts have been set up for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, and one with general jurisdiction, the International Criminal Court, has been established as well. More significantly, this evidentiary deficiency has been filled by truth commission reports--extensive studies, each based on thousands of interviews conducted under the auspices of post-terrorist governments, the United Nations, or the Catholic Church.

At least one of these reports has been completed for each of the following countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, Chile, Argentina, and South Africa.

Archbishop Tutu ... winner of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1984 and Chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa ... had no difficulty in distinguishing between the moral and legal position of the apartheid regime that ruled South Africa and those who fought against it: those who fought against this unjust apartheid regime clearly were fighting for a just cause while the government was "an illegal, oppressive, and inhuman system imposed on the majority without their consent . This moral and legal superiority was interpreted to mean that in principle the state terrorism and other acts of oppression committed by the government were immoral and illegal, whereas the bellicose acts by the guerrillas were not.


The School of the Americas and Terror in El Salvador

The School of the Americas was opened in 1946 under the name of the Latin American Training Center-Ground Division. It assumed its most persistent name in 1963, and it moved from the Canal Zone to its present location in Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984. The school officially closed on December 15, 2000, perhaps solely in an effort to escape its widely-circulated epithet as the School of Assassins-for it swiftly reopened the next January 17 with a new name: the Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation. It is located on the same premises and-according to its critics-teaches essentially the same courses to the same clientele. Its original purpose was to promote closer ties with the militaries of Latin America and to assist the military and police forces in the region better to maintain control of their environment. Over time the main focus of the training became counterinsurgency and low intensity warfare, and its graduates, and others similarly trained, became notorious for their suppression of human rights and worse. More recently, the school has introduced a course in human rights, but the impact of the course is problematical. Indeed, its critics question the motive for its introduction. The school is the most famous of more than 150 facilities in the United States and abroad used to train foreign soldiers. The school has trained upward of 59,000 Latin American military personnel, policemen, and civilians. Ten of the graduates of the school became the president/dictators of their countries, 23 became ministers of defense, and 15 ministers of other departments.

Serving as the head of Guatemalan Intelligence, General Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas was responsible for the disappearances and deaths of thousands of Guatemalans. He was not only a graduate of the school, but his portrait hangs on the wall at the school's headquarters along with that of General Banzar and other distinguished alumni who have been selected for the Hall of Fame. Over two-thirds of the more than sixty officers cited for the worst human rights abuses in the United Nations report on the repression in El Salvador graduated from the school. It "has graduated over 500 of the worst human rights abusers in the hemisphere, who are implicated in the murder and torture of countless Latin Americans." General Hector Gramajo Morales, a graduate of the school and formerly Guatemalan Defense Minister, has been honored in a different way. His term as Defense Minister was up in 1989, and the following year he became a Fellow of the Edward Mason Program at the Kennedy School of Government of Harvard University. In 1993 he delivered the commencement address to the graduating class of the officers of the Command and General Staff College of the School of the Americas.

The Reception of the UN Report

The report of the commission was presented to the Secretary General of the United Nations on March 15, 1993. This gave Boutros Boutros-Ghali the opportunity to express his view of the document, a view vigorously contested by those found to be the chief perpetrators of the crimes described in the report. He declared that in order to put the war behind them, the Salvadorans would have to go through the catharsis of facing the truth. He went on to assert that bringing the truth to light is part and parcel of the process of reconciling Salvadoran society. There can be no reconciliation without the public knowing the truth. Since the armed conflict left no one untouched, all citizens must be made aware of the truth contained in the report. It should become a part of their culture and their history, so that they can better face the future. He concluded that once the truth came to light, they could contemplate forgiveness.

These lofty and noble terms contrast with what another United Nations report characterized as an "outcry" sparked by the release of the report of the truth commission. Immediately after the publication of the report, the Christiani government rushed through the Salvadoran legislature an across the board amnesty for all charged with serious acts of violence. The outcry originated with the High Command of the Armed Forces, the President of the Supreme Court, and other highly placed government officials. Indeed, tension mounted as these political figures, joined by segments of the media, rejected the commission's findings and recommendations. They charged that the commission had exceeded its terms of reference and had arrogated to itself the judicial function. Heightened criticism of the world organization followed, as did threats to the United Nations personnel stationed in the country. In contrast to this, the FMLN, the guerrilla organization, accepted the report, including its recommendations to reform the government.

That the armed forces, the supreme court, and much of the government reacted this way is understandable in view of their indictment by the report. The indictment of the judicial system was such that the commission did not recommend that those found guilty be prosecuted. It found the judicial system compromised beyond the point at which it could conduct fair trials. The commission put the blame for most of the crimes at the door of the armed forces, including those committed by the death squads. Governmental officials were often found to have participated in the work of these squads and their structure was found to be still in place. Indeed, the three members of the Ad Hoc Commission that had drawn up a report critical of the officer corps "delivered their report in New York and, fearing or their lives, remained outside El Salvador for some time .1113 The sub-committee report charged over 100 officers, including the Minister of Defense and the Chief of the General Staff, with serious violations of human rights and called for their dismissal. This report of the sub-committee was intended to be secret, but was leaked to the press before the publication of the committee's report, From Madness to Hope.

Another outcry, but this for a vastly different reason, came from the Honorable Robert G. Torricelli, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs. The chairman began the hearings on the report of the truth commission in the standard and traditional way, this time by echoing some of the noble and upbeat sentiments voiced by the Secretary General indicated above. He congratulated the parties to the dispute and the peacemakers for having successfully concluded a peace agreement. But then he added that the report of the truth commission was of concern not only to El Salvador, nor would his comments be limited to that country only. Nor would his comments be limited and mild, the usual characteristics of the opening remarks of the chairman of a committee. Mr. Torricelli's "outcry" began with the affirmation that rarely as a member of "this institution" had he been more "personally offended or betrayed" than when he learned of the findings of the truth commission. This was the case because for years he had listened to the testimony of so many witnesses of different administrations informing the committee about what they reputably knew about the crimes committed in El Salvador. He next turned to the process established by the Congress, whereby President Reagan would periodically certify that El Salvador was making progress in respect to human rights. As a reaction to positive certifications, Congress provided military assistance to the government to fight the war there. The chairman gave an example of this, Presidential Determination 82-4, dated January 28, 1982. It was worded as follows:

I hereby determine that the government of El Salvador is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights. I hereby determine that the government of El Salvador is achieving substantial control over all elements of its own armed forces. I hereby determine that the government of El Salvador has made a good-faith effort to investigate the murders of the six U.S. citizens in El Salvador in December 1980 and January 1981.

Mr. Torricelli commented by charging that:

It is now abundantly clear that Ronald Reagan made these certifications not only in disregard of the truth but in defiance of it. Members of his administration came forward to this Congress and swore that they had no knowledge of acts of violence. Peace was being restored and rights respected. It was a lie.

He continued his indictment by arguing that the process of certification "has been poisoned" and concluded that based on what was then known about the credibility of certification, no future Congress could ever establish such a process again. On this point he has not proved to be an accurate forecaster of Congressional behavior. He was back on track when he referred to the "deceit and betrayal" that induced the Congress to invest the nation's fortune and honor in a conflict "in the blind belief that we were being told the truth." This he found to be "a shameful chapter in American foreign policy."

Congress was not as innocent as Torrcelli's remarks suggest, but it did set up a system that ostensibly was designed to restrain the executive from aiding governments engaged in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights. Presidential certification was required under certain conditions. None of this, however, seemed to deter either Reagan or subsequent executives from continuing to aid governments they were determined to help.

Rape and Killing of Nuns

Shortly after 7 P.M. on December 2,1980 members of the National Guard of El Salvador arrested three American nuns and one American lay missionary as they were leaving the Comalapa International Airport. Two of the nuns, members of the Maryknoll Order, were returning from Nicaragua, and the other two women were picking them up at the airport. The four women were beaten, raped, and murdered. Their bodies were thrown in a ditch. The truth commission concluded that this atrocity was planned ahead of time, that the sergeant in charge of the actual executions was acting on orders from higher up, that the head of the National Guard, then Colonel Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, among others, had facilitated the cover up of the crime, and that General Jose Guillermo Garcia, the Minister of Defense, made no serious effort to determine who was responsible for the murders. General Garcia had taken the counterinsurgency course at the School of the Americas in 1962, and Colonel Vides Casanova (later promoted to general) was a guest speaker there five years after the rape and assassination of the religious women.

The report contains several incidents that suggest cover-ups. These included judicial instances of cover-ups and the refusal of a group of forensic doctors to perform autopsies, because they said they had no surgical masks. In this instance, indicative of what would indeed be possible if Washington were to seriously desire to prevent state terrorism or the cover-up in its aftermath, the day after the murders, the Carter administration suspended aid to El Salvador. On April 26 of the following year embassy officials met with Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova to inform them that the failure to investigate the murders was jeopardizing American aid. Just three days after the meeting five enlisted members of the National Guard were arrested, and the following day $25 million in aid was approved.

And then something unique in the history of the country occurred. For the first time, members of the armed forces were convicted by a judge. To be sure, they were enlisted personnel. The higher ups who had ordered the murders were not made to face judicial proceedings, despite the fact that four of the convicted enlisted men later admitted that they were acting under orders. Three have since been freed from custody. The day after the convictions, the U.S. Congress approved $62 million of emergency aid for El Salvador.

Two weeks after the murders, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who was to serve as the Reagan Administration's Ambassador to the United Nations, offered her opinion about the murders. She exclaimed:

I don't think the government (of El Salvador) was responsible. The nuns were not just nuns; the nuns were political activists. We ought to be a little more clear-cut about this than we usually are. They were political activists on behalf of the Frente (the guerrillas) and somebody who is using violence to oppose the Frente killed them.

Sometime later Secretary of State Alexander Haig declared before the House Foreign Affairs Committee:

I would like to suggest to you that some of the investigations would lead one to believe that perhaps the vehicle that the nuns were riding in had tried to run a road block or may have accidentally been perceived to have been doing so, and there may have been an exchange of fire.

Congressman Torricelli questioned Professor Buergenthal, the American member of the truth commission, about these statements. After having read these statements to him, Torricelli asked if he had received any testimony from anyone suggesting how Haig had come to this conclusion.

Buergenthal answered "no."

Torricelli persisted, "Among the hundreds of people you talked to, no one suggested that this was a possibility?"

Buergenthal insisted, "No. The statement is outrageous .1136 With respect to Kirkpatrick's statement, he advised that one might have concluded that the nuns and the lay missionary were sympathetic to the FMLN, but not that they were involved in the conflict. He went on to say that there was no doubt that there was no basis for Kirkpatrick's statement as a justification for the killing of the churchwomen. They may have been sympathetic to the FMLN, but to Buergenthal and to the commission, this was totally irrelevant. They were unarmed, and they

Rewards and Punishments

In October 2000 those who read the inside pages of the New York Times were able to keep up with the lives of Generals Vides Casanova and Garcia. They had retired, and they lived in South Florida. They had been living there since 1989, and as the lawyers for the plaintiff alleged in a lawsuit soon to be described, they lived there "surrounded by relatives." They had been granted "green cards," permanent residence, by the United States government. In addition, they received awards from the United States military, as well as the United States Legion of Merit award from President Ronald Reagan in 1984 .

As is usually the case with truth commissions, the one for El Salvador did not focus on Washington's support for the government despite this, the chapter provides sufficient evidence to prove this support for San Salvador along with the other two central questions that the evidence is asked to resolve)That terror was committed in El Salvador is not disputed. Those who doubt this should reread the above and realize that an estimated 75,000 were killed in this small country in the period 1980 to 1991. The truth commission found that the terrorism that was committed in the country was overwhelmingly governmental terrorism, committed by the Salvadoran army, the National Guard, and their death squads and affiliated agencies. They were responsible for 95 percent of the deaths, the guerrillas for only five percent.

These were the same institutions that were the concern and the favorites of Washington-receiving its indoctrination and training and profiting from its largess. El Salvador received six billion dollars in aid from Washington in the period 1979 to 1992. This subsidy to the tiny country during the government repression and terrorism came to average out at $100,000 for each member of its armed forces. This subsidy allowed the government to pay for the terrorist activities committed by the security forces. By virtue of this largess and the military training, notably in counterinsurgency warfare, Washington emerges (In this chapter)as an accessory before and during the fact. By covering up for San Salvador after it had committed terror, Washington was an accessory after the fact. It gave diplomatic support to state terrorism. By training and equipping the Salvadoran security forces in, and for, counterinsurgency warfare, Washington served as an accessory before and during the fact. This may sound like blaming the teacher for what the student does.

The situation existing in El Salvador in 1980 has now been re-established, complete with massive social injustice and a considerable amount of violence. ARENA won the runoff elections in 1994 and also the 1999 elections. It implemented none of the reforms recommended by the truth commission, nor has it advertised its findings. The government is under the control of ARENA, a party founded by D'Aubuisson, who was supported by the elites, founded many death squads, and was charged by the truth commission with many atrocities, including ordering and planning the assassination of Archbishop Romero. With only 40 percent of the vote, Francisco Flores was victorious in the 1999 election. A strange and contradictory ideological mix and the heir to a cattle ranch, he praises D'Aubuisson, the founder of his party. But he is said to follow a guru who teaches non-violence. The present situation in El Salvador is grim, providing more of the same, perhaps moderated, internal violence without social justice. The future does seem brighter because of the recent electoral gains of the FMLN, now reconstituted as a legitimate political party.

State Terrorism and the United States

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