El Salvador 1980-1994: Human Rights, Washington Style
Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions since WWII
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 E1 Salvador but, I think, are aiming at the whole of Central and possibly later South America and, I'm sure, eventually North America." 1

Psychiatrists have a term for such perceptions of reality. They 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 E1 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 José Napoleón 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.''2

In the decades following the famed peasant rebellion in 1932, 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.3 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 ....4

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 E1 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.5

If during the 1960s, the apparatus could not be charged with the level of murder or torture or disappearance of political opponents reached in Guatemala and elsewhere in Latin America, it had more to do with the modest degree of outspoken dissent and violent unrest it faced than with greater respect for human rights; those opposition groups which were not outlawed were those regarded as unthreatening; the bloated stomachs of malnourished peasant children were not regarded as threatening at all.

For apparently no better reason than the fact that even militarists cherish a veneer of legitimacy, during the 1960s certain political organizations of generally urban middle-class membership were allowed to run candidates for municipal and legislative office. They did well, though the government-calculated returns consistently left the opposition as a minority in the legislature; i.e., without real power. In 1967, the government went through the motions of the first contested election for the presidency since 1931. After declaring its party, PCN, the winner, the government promptly banned one of the major contending parties, PAR, on the grounds that it supported principles "contrary to the Constitution." According to a PAR spokesperson, the "principle" involved was support for agrarian reform. Another source reports that the party was declared illegal "allegedly for dispensing Communist ideologies," which, within the government's frame of reference, may well have been one and the same.6

Undeterred, a center-left coalition, UNO by acronym, was formed and put forth Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte as its presidential candidate in 1972. Though UNO was confronted by violence against its candidates and campaigners, including the murder of an aide of Duarte, and the sabotaging of the coalition's radio broadcasts, it arrived at election day with high expectations. Two days after the polling, the Central Election Board, after first announcing a victory for PCN, shocked everyone by declaring that a recount had shown UNO to be the winner instead. The government quickly imposed a news blackout and for the next two days nothing was heard concerning the election results. On the third day, the Election Board announced that PCN was indeed the winner after all.

In the 1974 and 1976 legislative elections, and again in the 1977 presidential election, the government employed similar creative counting along with gross physical intimidation of candidates, voters, and poll watchers, to assure its continuance in office.7

A mass demonstration following the 1977 polling, protesting against electoral fraud, was surrounded by government security forces who opened fire. The result was nothing less than a bloodbath, the death toll measurable in the hundreds. In the immediate aftermath, top leaders of UNO were exiled and the party's followers became liable to arrest, torture and murder.8 The country's president, Col. Arturo Molina, blamed the protests on "foreign Communists". His response to charges of electoral fraud was: "Only God is perfect.''9

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.10

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.11 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.12 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.13

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.TM 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 priest murdered in El Salvador in three years.

At the funeral of the martyred Archbishop--who had been a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize the year before, 23 members of the US House of Representatives being among his nominators--a bomb was thrown amongst the mourners in the plaza, followed by rifle and automatic fire, all emanating from the National Palace and some of the office buildings flanking the plaza, just as in January. At least 40 people were reported killed and hundreds injured.15

Junta president Duarte tried to put the blame for the funeral carnage on the left. His case rested apparently on bald statement and nothing else, for all eyewitness reports stated that the bomb and gunfire came from the National Palace and the other government buildings. A statement issued by eight bishops and 16 other foreign church visitors who had been present denied the government's version.16

Seven years were to pass before Duarte, elected to the presidency in 1984, accused former army Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, the prominent leader of the country's right wing, with having ordered Romero's murder. Though this was a belief already widely held, the public accusation created a stir in El Salvador and the United States. The CIA, it turned out, knew the facts no later than one year after the assassination. (D'Aubuisson, it should be noted, was a man who once told three European reporters: "You Germans are very intelligent. You realized that the Jews were responsible for the spread of communism, and you began to kill them.") The American-trained former intelligence officer was never arrested because of immunity arising from his being a deputy in the National Assembly. He died in 1992.17

During the early months of 1980, the government, with direct American influence and input, enacted a program of agrarian reform, the sine qua non of social change in El Salvador. Its key provision--tenant farmers gaining title to the plots they worked--was similar to programs the US had advocated in a number of other Third World hot spots since the 1950s, and for the same reasons: as a counter-insurgency tactic--stealing the guerrillas' thunder; and to make the government receiving US military aid appear more deserving, in the eyes of Congress and the world. A memorandum from the Agency for International Development (AID) in mid-1980, commenting on reaction in El Salvador to the program of "Land to the Tiller," says in part:

Many believe it is a "symbolic" and "cosmetic" measure which was proposed because it would look good to certain American politicians and not necessarily because it would be beneficial or significant in the Salvadorean context.18

The reaction of the Salvadorean agrarian elite could have been predicted. They expelled many thousands of peasants from their meager plots to preclude land being turned over to them. This was not the worst ...

The testimony of a technician of the Instituto Salvadoreno de Transformación Agraria, established to oversee the program:

The troops came and told the workers the land was theirs now. They could elect their own leaders and run it themselves. The peasants couldn't believe their ears, but they held elections that very night. The next morning the troops came back and I watched as they shot every one of the elected leaders.19

This was not an isolated case. The Assistant Minister of Agriculture, Jorge Alberto Villacorta, in his resignation letter in March 1980, stated that "During the first days of the reform--to cite one case--5 directors and 2 presidents of new campesino organizations were assassinated and I am informed that this repressive practice continues to increase.''20

"Force," wrote Karl Marx, "is the midwife of every old society pregnant with a new one" Revolution was now the only item of importance on the political agenda of the opposition, united as never before--united more by a common enemy than by a common ideology, but many saw this pluralism as strength rather than weakness. Leftists would now be fighting alongside (former) Christian Democrats whom, only shortly before, they had accused of serving US imperialism.

If Jimmy Carter's trumpeted devotion to human rights was to be taken seriously, his administration clearly had no alternative but to side with the Salvadorean opposition, or at least keep its hands strictly out of the fighting. The Carter administration, however, with only an occasional backward glance at its professed principles, continued its military support of the government. Within days before his term ended in January 1981, Carter ordered a total of $10 million in military aid along with additional American advisers to be sent to E1 Salvador, an action characterized by one observer as "President Carter's foreign policy establishment's last convulsive effort to evade responsibility for having been 'too soft' in dealing with the Salvadorean rebels." (Two years later, private citizen Carter stated: "I think the government in E1 Salvador is one of the bloodthirstiest in [the] hemisphere now.")21

The Reagan administration, to whom "human rights" was a suspect term invented by leftists, had little fear of the too-soft label. Its approach to the conflict was threefold: (a) a sharp escalation, both quantitatively and qualitatively, in the American military involvement in El Salvador; (b) a public relations campaign to put a human face on the military junta; (c) a concurrent exercise in news management to convince the American public and the world that the Salvadorean opposition had no legitimate cause for revolution; which was to say that what the Salvadoreans had experienced during the previous two decades, indeed for half a century, had little or nothing to do with their uprising--this, it turned out, was the inspiration of (unprovoked, mindless) "left-wing terrorists" abetted by the Soviet Union, by Nicaragua, by Cuba. The Red Devils were at it again.

Military Escalation

E1 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-1980s of supplying "insufficient, misleading and in some cases false information" concerning aid to E1 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.22

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.23

One telling result of this massive provision of weapons and training, as well as the money to pay higher salaries, was the sizeable expansion of the Salvadorean armed forces and other security services. From an estimated seven to twelve thousand men in 1979, the army alone jumped to more than 22,000 by 1983, with an additional 11,000 civilian security forces; three years later, the total of these two forces had spiraled to 53,000.24 The equipment available to them flowed endlessly; when, for example, in January 1982, the rebels destroyed 16 to 18 aircraft in a raid upon an airport, the United States replaced them in a matter of weeks with 28 new aircraft.25 Part of the air power available to the government were US reconnaissance planes fitted with sophisticated surveillance equipment which could provide almost instant intelligence on guerrilla movements before and after combat operations, and designate bombing targets.26 The guerrillas had neither air power nor a practical anti-aircraft capability until November 1990 when they used a Soviet-made sur-face-to-air missile for the first time.

Predictably, the bombing, as well as the strafing and napalming, took the lives of many more civilians than guerrillas who had better learned how to avoid the attacks; countless dwellings were leveled in the process, villages destroyed, a nation of refugees created. Civilian deaths, whether from air or ground raids, were not necessarily accidental, as the many massacre stories make evident. It is a basic tenet of counter-insurgency: kill the sympathizers and you win the war.

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.27 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,28 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.3° 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.31

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.32

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.33

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.34

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 Iberoamerican 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." 35

Duarte's ideology, however, appears to have been a flexible and marketable commodity. At some point in the 1970s, if not earlier, he began to covertly supply the CIA with intelligence.36

A Human Face

On 28 January 1982, President Reagan certified to Congress that the El Salvador government was "making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights" and that it was "achieving substantial control over all elements of its own armed forces, so as to bring to an end the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadorean citizens by these forces." The language was that imposed by Congress upon the administration if the flow of arms and American military personnel was to continue.

Two days earlier, the American and foreign press had carried the story of how government troops had engaged in a massacre of the people of the village of El Mozote in December. From 700 to 1,000 persons were reported killed, mostly the elderly, women and children. When a very long, detailed account of this incident appeared eventually, in 1993, it became more apparent than ever that this was one of the most repulsive and cruelest massacres of the 20th century carried out by ground troops face-to-face with their victims--people hacked to death by machetes, many beheaded, a child thrown in the air and caught on a bayonet, an orgy of rapes of very young girls before they were killed ... "If we don't kill them [the children] now, they'll just grow up to be guerrillas," barked an army officer to a reluctant soldier ... anti-communism at its zenith.

Both immediately and thereafter, the massacre was attended by denials and a coverup by the State Department, with abundant media complicity.37 The State Department's defense of its position before a congressional committee left the committee members conspicuously underwhelmed, even though the congressmen did not yet know the full story.38

Two days after the president's certification, the world could read how Salvadorean soldiers had pulled about 20 people out of their beds in the middle of the night, tortured them, and then killed them, meanwhile finding the time to rape several teenage girls.39

Earlier the same month, the New York Times had published an interview with a deserter from the Salvadorean Army who described a class where severe methods of torture were demonstrated on teenage prisoners. He stated that eight US military advisers, apparently Green Berets, were present. Watching "will make you feel more like a man," a Salvadorean officer apprised the recruits, adding that they should "not feel pity of anyone" but only "hate for those who are enemies of our country.''40

Another Salvadorean, a former member of the National Guard, later testified: "I belonged to a squad of twelve. We devoted ourselves to torture, and to finding people whom we were told were guerrillas. I was trained in Panama for nine months by the [unintelligible] of the United States for anti-guerrilla warfare. Part of the time we were instructed about torture. ,,41

Officers of the National Guard were also trained in the United States. In August 1986, CBS Television reported that three senior Guard officers who had been linked to rightwing death squads received training at a police academy in Phoenix.42

In 1984, Amnesty International reported that it had received:

regular, often daily, reports identifying E1 Salvador's regular security and military units as responsible for the torture, "disappearance" and killing of non-combatant civilians from all sectors of Salvadorean society ... A number of patients have allegedly been removed from their beds or operating theaters and tortured and murdered ... Types of torture reported ... by those who have survived arrest and interrogation included beatings, sexual abuse, use of chemicals to disorient, mock executions, and the burning of flesh with sulphuric acid.43

In light of the above, and many other reports of a similar nature,44 it can be appreciated that the Reagan administration had to exercise some creativity in getting around congressional hesitation about continued military aid to the government of E1 Salvador. Thus it was that in March 1984 the administration tacked on a request for additional military aid to legislation to send US food supplies to starving Africans.45 (A few days later, it tacked on a request for support of the Nicaraguan contras to a bill to provide emergency fuel spending for the poor in parts of the United States which were suffering a severe winter.)46

Death squad executions ... military massacres ... the legion of the disappeared ... the numbers reached well into the tens of thousands. And the death squads may have reached their arm into the United States. A number of Americans and Salvadoreans living in Los Angeles and working with refugees or actively opposing US military aid to E1 Salvador received death threats in 1987. Rev. Luis Olivares, a Catholic priest whose church is part of the "sanctuary" movement, was sent an anonymous letter bearing the letters "EM", which were often found on the doors or buildings of people who were targeted in El Salvador. The letters stand for Escuadr6n Muerto [death squad].47

In July 1987, a Salvadorean woman named Yanira Corea who had received threatening phone calls and letters was kidnapped outside the Los Angeles office of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). Two men, speaking with what she described as Salvadorean accents, forced her at knifepoint into a van, interrogated her about her political activities and colleagues, cut her hands with a knife, burnt her fingers with cigarettes, sexually assaulted her with a stick, then raped her. A month earlier, she had narrowly escaped being abducted, along with her three-year-old son. Other activists had their cars smashed or vandalized.48

For several years under the Reagan administration, the FBI conducted a nationwide investigation of CISPES. During this period, some of the organization's offices were broken into with nothing of value taken except files. "It is imperative at this time to formulate some plan of attack against CISPES ... ", reads one FBI teletype later made public?

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 Santibánez, a former Salvadorean military official who had served at the highest level of the security police, con-firmed--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 $90,000 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.50

In a visit to San Salvador in February 1989, Vice President Dan Quayle told army leaders that death squad killings and other human rights violations attributed to the military had to be ended. Ten days later, the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion--which was believed to have a US trainer assigned to it at all times--attacked a guerrilla field hospital, killing at least ten people, including five patients, a doctor and a nurse, and raping at least two of the female victims before shooting them. Sources close to the El Salvador military said afterward that Quayle's warning was not taken seriously, but as rhetoric aimed at the US Congress and the American public.51

In October 1989, former Salvadorean Army commando Cesar Vielman Joya Martinez, in an interview on the CBS Evening News, related that he and others in his unit--the intelligence section of the army's First Brigade--had acted as a clandestine death squad, that the two US military advisers attached to the unit were aware of the assassinations, although they refused to hear the details, and that the advisers supplied money to his unit that helped maintain two civilian vehicles used for death-squad operations and a safehouse that served as a secret base of operations and storage of weapons. In subsequent interviews with the American press, Joya Martinez stated that the advisers had used the names Mauricio Torres and Raul Antonio Lazo, that his unit had carried out 74 assassinations of Salvadorean dissidents between April and July of 1989, and that he himself had been personally involved in eight torture murders. Apropos of deadly bombings in E1 Salvador in November of dissident organizations (a union hall and an organization of mothers of the disappeared), he added that his unit had received explosives training from US advisers. The Salvadorean Embassy in Washington, while denying any government involvement in death-squad activities, did confirm that "Joya Martinez was a member of the intelligence unit of the First Brigade'.S2

In July 1990, an aide to Rep. Joseph Moakley (D-Mass.), chairman of the Speaker's Task Force on E1 Salvador, declared: "The fact that Joya Martinez has been in the U.S. since last August, given all kinds of interviews, been arrested, and no one from the government has bothered to question him, seems pretty strange, unless people don't want to find the answers." 53

On the twelfth of that month Joya Martinez had been arrested for having illegally entered the United States after being deported six years earlier. After a lengthy legal battle, he was ordered deported back to El Salvador in October 1992. His supporters in the United States expressed their concern about his safety in E1 Salvador, to which a State Department official responded, presumably with a straight face, that Joya Martinez "has admitted to killings and torture and it would be callous to the victims to prevent him from standing trial.''4

A few weeks after Joya Martinez went public in the United States, one of the most shocking atrocities in this war of shocking atrocities occurred. Six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in San Salvador were shot to death in cold blood at their campus residence, along with their housekeeper and her young daughter. A witness, whom the killers failed to observe, Lucia Barrera de Cema, said she saw five armed men in uniform carry out the murders. The Salvadorean military--whom the Roman Catholic order had often criticized for human rights violations--were the immediate and logical suspects. Because of an extraordinary outcry against the crime, in the United States and internationally, including the creation of the special congressional task force referred to above, two months later nine officers and enlisted men were arrested--a platoon from the Atlacatl Battalion, seven of whom, it turned out, had only two days before the murders participated in combat training exercises supervised by the U.S. Special Forces (Green Berets) in El Salvador.

Almost two years passed before any of those arrested were convicted of the crime--two relatively low-level officers; their higher-ups who gave the order were not touched. Yet, this was an achievement in a country where thousands of people had been killed by military death squads, and no officer had ever before been tried, let alone convicted, for murder or other human-rights abuse. The Salvadorean military tolerated the trial of the officers because Congress had made prosecution of the killers a condition for continuing military aid.

During the two-year period, as well as after the convictions, officials of the Bush administration appeared to be trying to thwart the investigation and aid in a coverup, by such tactics as the following:

a) grossly intimidating Cerna and labeling her a liar;

b) refusing on grounds of national security to provide a Salvadorean court with classified documents that dealt with the case; withholding, on the same grounds, substantive material from journalists making Freedom of Information Act requests;

c) refusing for a long time to allow questioning, by the investigating judge, of US Army Major Eric Buckland, stationed in El Salvador, who had learned of the Salvadorean military's culpability shortly after the murders from Salvadorean Col. Carlos Aviles; then imposing a series of conditions on Buckland's questioning that served to conceal much of his story;

d) putting Buckland through such horrendous interrogation that he underwent an apparent nervous breakdown;

e) immediately informing the Salvadorean high command about what Aviles had revealed to Buckland (which caused Aviles much grief).

Father Charles Beirne, vice rector of the Jesuit university, declared in 1991 that "the Americans were helping to protect the [Salvadorean army] high command all along. They were afraid the whole house of cards would fall if the investigation went any further." A year later, United Nations investigators were still complaining that the United States was slow in turning over vital information about the case.55

The cruelty level of the guerrillas' military and political campaign generally stood in sharp contrast to that of the government. Newsweek reported in 1983 that when the rebels "capture a town, they treat the civilians well, paying for food and holding destruction to a minimum. And they have begun to free most of the government troops they capture, which helps to persuade other soldiers to surrender rather than fight to the death.''$6 Eventually, however, the guerrillas began to treat civilians more harshly, in particular those suspected of informing or of other collaboration with the government, or those refusing to collaborate with rebel forces; some peasants reportedly were forced to leave their villages and farms as punishment; several village mayors were killed; young men were forcibly recruited to join the rebels.

However, given the numerous instances of disinformation disseminated by the Salvadorean government about the rebels, reports of guerrilla ruthlessness must be approached with caution. The following case is instructive (see the notes for reference to other examples):

In February 1988, the New York Times, reported that:

Villagers say guerrillas publicly executed two peasants ... because they had applied for and received new voter registration cards. According to the villagers, the guerrillas placed the voting cards of [the two men] in their mouths after executing them as a warning to others not to take part in the elections.57

The story was included in a State Department booklet to highlight the guerrillas' "campaign of intimidation and terrorism". The booklet was mailed to Congress, newspaper editors, and other opinion makers. But the story, it turned out, was the invention of a Salvadorean Army propaganda specialist who had placed it in the San Salvador newspaper El Mundo. From there it was picked up by the New York Times reporter who gave the impression that he had interviewed villagers with firsthand knowledge of the incident, instead of attributing the story to the military as had El Mundo. The Times later recanted the story.58

Outside Agitators

"Sometimes I feel like Sisyphus," said a senior Reagan administration official involved in developing US Latin America policy in March 1982. "Every time we head up the hill to explain or justify our policy, the stone comes crashing down on top of us.''59

Two weeks earlier, Secretary of State Alexander Haig had asserted that the United States had "overwhelming and irrefutable" evidence that the insurgents were controlled from outside by non-Salvadoreans. Haig, however, declined to provide any details of the evidence, saying it would jeopardize intelligence sources. Challenged to prove his charges two days later, the good general insisted that the United States had "unchallengeable" evidence of Nicaraguan and Cuban involvement in the command and control of the operation in El Salvador and, oddly enough, only the day before a Nicaraguan military man had been captured there. As it turned out, according to the Mexican Embassy in San Salvador, the man was a student on his way back to school in Mexico from Nicaragua, traveling overland because he couldn't afford to fly.60

The following week, a Nicaraguan was captured fighting with the guerrillas. He told US Embassy and Salvadorean Army officials that he had been trained in Cuba and Ethiopia, then sent to El Salvador by the Nicaraguan government. The State Department was understandably excited. It presented the young man at a press conference in Washington, at which time he declared that he had never been to Cuba or Ethiopia, had joined the guerrillas on his own, and had made his previous statements under torture by his Salvadorean captors. He added that he had never seen another Nicaraguan or Cuban in El Salvador and denied that Nicaragua had provided aid to the guerrillas.61

"Then there were two Nicaraguan air force defectors," reported Time magazine during the same period, "who were scheduled to bear witness to their country's involvement in E1 Salvador but by week's end were judged 'not ready' to face the press." Time entitled its story: "A Lot of Show, but No Tell: The U.S. bungles its evidence of foreign subversion in El Salvador.''62

In January 1981, US diplomats disclosed that five boats had landed in El Salvador containing 100 "well-armed, well-trained guerrillas", allegedly from Nicaragua. They knew the boats had come from Nicaragua because "they were made from wood of trees not native to E1 Salvador.''63 No sign, dead or alive, of any of the hundred invaders was ever found, however.

One hundred seemed to be the number of choice for the Reagan administration. That was the count of Cuban combat troops, said a senior State Department policy maker, who were sent to El Salvador in the fall of 1981 by way of Nicaragua. "They were brought in clandestinely and given operational responsibilities in El Salvador," he asserted.64 The later whereabouts and actions of the Cubans likewise remained a mystery.

The world was also informed that Soviet and Chinese weapons had been seized from rebels and this was cited as further proof of outside Communist aid.65 The weapons capture may have been real--although the CIA has long had warehouses full of Communist weapons of all kinds, suitable for all occasions--but then what were we to make of the US, Israeli, Belgian and German weapons which, by Washington's admission a month later, were also to be found amongst the rebels?66 The world arms traffic is indeed wide open and fluid. (In neighboring Honduras, the US-supported contras were using Soviet-made missiles to shoot down Soviet-made helicopters of Nicaragua.)67 Moreover, the Salvadorean rebels captured weapons from government forces and they claimed that they also purchased arms from corrupt Salvadorean Army officers, a practice common to other Latin American guerrilla wars. A source cited by the New York Times corroborated the rebels' claim.68

The centerpiece of the Reagan administration's campaign to prove the international-conspiracy nature of the revolution in E1 Salvador was its White Paper issued a month after taking office and based largely on purported "captured guerrilla documents", some of which were included in the report. Amongst the various analyses of the White Paper which cast grave doubts upon its claims was the one in the Wall Street Journal by Jonathan Kwitny. This included an interview with a State Department official, Jon D. Glassman, who was given the major credit for the White Paper. Admitted Mr Glassman: parts of the paper were possibly "misleading" and "over-embellished" ... it contained "mistakes" and "guessing''. Said the Wall Street Journal: "A close examination ... indicates that, if anything, Mr. Glassman may be understating the case in his concession that the White Paper contains mistakes and guessing."

Amongst the many specific shortcomings of the paper pointed out in the article was that:

Statistics of armament shipments into El Salvador, supposedly drawn directly from the documents, were extrapolated, Mr. Glassman concedes. And in questionable ways, it seems. Much information in the White Paper can't be found in the documents at all.69

It was not merely the accuracy of the White Paper that was questioned, but the authenticity of the documents themselves. Apropos of this, former US Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White (sacked by Reagan because of excessive commitment to human rights and reforms), commented: "The only thing that even makes me think that these documents were genuine was that they proved so little." 70

When pressed to state what proof his government had of Nicaraguan intervention, President Duarte declined to answer on the grounds that the world would not believe him anyway.TM But President Reagan had some evidence to offer. He saw the hand of foreign masters pulling strings in the fact that demonstrators in Canada carried "the same signs" as demonstrators in the United States: "U. S. Out of El Salvador."72

But all of this was essentially besides the point. Revolutions are not exported like so many cartons of soap. We have seen what the circumstances were in El Salvador for decades which finally provoked people to take up the gun. Ambassador White, no champion of the rebels' cause, observed that "The revolution situation came about in El Salvador because you had what was one of the most selfish oligarchies the world has ever seen, cornbined with a corrupt security force ... Whether Cuba existed or not, you would still have a revolutionary situation in El Salvador.''73

Education-minister-turned-guerrilla, Salvador Samayoa, speaking in 1981, asserted that US charges that the Soviet bloc was directing the guerrilla movement "reveals Washington's deep ignorance of our movement". He pointed out that three of the five guerrilla groups that made up the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) were "strongly anti-Soviet". Samayoa added: "To say we are run by Cuba because we have a relationship with Cuba is like saying we're a Christian movement because we have received enormous help from the church .... Instead of seeing us as Communist subversives, the U.S. should see us as a people struggling to survive."74

Despite American patrol boats in the Gulf of Fonseca (which separates E1 Salvador from Nicaragua), AWAC surveillance planes in the skies over the Caribbean, and an abundance of aerial photographs, despite a large US radar installation in Honduras manned by 50 American military technicians, the finest electronic monitoring equipment modern technology had to offer, and all the informers that CIA money could buy75.., despite it all, the Reagan administration singularly failed to support its case that the fires of the Salvadorean revolution were stoked by Nicaraguan and Cuban coals; nor by the Soviet Union, Vietnam, the PLO, Ethiopia, or any of the other countries indicted at one time or another as important suppliers of military aid.

In any case, whatever military support the Salvadorean insurgents actually received from abroad--necessarily limited to what could be carried by the occasional clandestine small truck or boat--plainly did not belong in the same league, nor on the same planet, as the huge transport-planefuls and shipfuls of American aid, in all its forms, to the Salvadorean government. The United States had waged ruthless war against the Salvadorean revolution, and threatened worse--in April 1991, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Colin Powell, announced that "if necessary, [the civil war in El Salvador] can be resolved the way it was in the Persian Gulf." 76

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.77 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 E1 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 repeated.''78 (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 lying like hell to us." The report proves that the Reagan administration was willing to "lie ... and ... certify to anything ... to get the money it wanted.''79

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.80

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". Ambassador Walker halted the training as soon as he learned of it, despite protests from the chief of the US military advisory mission. (Another memo, written by a Defense Department official, argued that the wealthy Salvadoreans might fund death squads, but would not get blood on their own hands.)81

On 20 March 1994, the ruling party Arena and its main ally scored a victory in elections held to choose a new president, National Assembly, and hundreds of municipal governments. With the exception of a few reforms touching upon civil liberties, whose significance remains to be seen, the outcome left the society at essentially the same place it was in 1980 when the war had just begun and José Napoleón Duarte had said: "For fifty years the same people had all the power, all the money, all the jobs, all the education ..." One could now say: "For more than sixty years ..."

Why had more than half the people of El Salvador, most of them very poor, voted for parties intimately connected with not only the wealthy, but with death squads? The new president, Armando Calderon Sol, had long and close ties to death-squad godfather Roberto D'Aubuisson, a large portrait of whom hung in his office. The declassified documents referred to above raised questions about Calderon Sol himself--connections to a kidnapping and to a group of young Arena militants who bombed the Ministry of Agriculture and wreaked other havoc in the early 1980s in an attempt to destabilize the government whose new agrarian reform was supposed to take land from the wealthy.

Arena's sophisticated multimillion-dollar campaign relied heavily on nurturing two kinds of fears: the traditional fear of "communism", inculcated by decades of authoritarian rule; and the supposed economic incompetence of the left, as typified by the Sandinista rule in Nicaragua. Further, ignoring their own violent history, Arena portrayed the left as terrorists who were exclusively responsible for the war's death and destruction.

How honest and fair had the actual voting been? Was the right willing to end a half-century of political exclusion of the left? Besides having a great deal more money at its disposal than its opponents, the Arena party in power had controlled the press in E1 Salvador for many years--the one daily paper, Diario Latino, which had dared to show a brief independence, was destroyed by bombs.82 Moreover, the makeup of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which supervised the election, was based on the election of 1991 which the FMLN had boycotted; it was thus dominated by Arena, with no one from the FMLN.

Many points of contention were raised about the voting, such as the following:

A large number of people who registered to vote were unable to do so because they didn't receive their voting card. According to United Nations monitors, as of I February these cases came to more than half a million, equal to 20 percent of the electorate. After the election, the FMLN estimated the number of such non-voters at 340,000.

74,000 other applicants were rejected because they couldn't produce a birth certificate; often this was because the local office of records had been destroyed in the war.

Another large block of people held valid voting cards but couldn't vote because they had no transportation to a distant polling station. This was exacerbated, reportedly, by a slowdown in bus service by bus companies owned by Arena supporters and the Arena-controlled bus drivers' union.

Many made it to the polling stations with their voting cards only to be kept from voting because their names did not appear on the voter-registration lists, or were spelled incorrectly (at least 25,000 such cases according to the UN; several times that, said the FMLN).

Other potential voters left the stations without casting their ballots because very long lines and an extremely cumbersome and snail-paced processing system left them still waiting when the polls closed.

These problems of course affected the poor, the rural, the less educated, and the first-time voters the most, the base of the FMLN's support.

The TSE refused international advice, declined to spend money to transport voters to the polls, and made voting unnecessarily complicated, UN observers said. "There was frightening mismanagement of the election beyond our worst expectations," said a senior UN official. "There was widespread lack of trust by the electorate before the voting, [and] now it's much worse. The [TSE] is completely discredited and has therefore tarnished the election."

The FMLN claimed the irregularities cheated the party out of several municipal and legislative seats, a contention lent credence by the UN observers who stated that thousands of people were denied voting cards in 30 towns where the FMLN was strong. The party challenged the results in 37 cities and towns, but the TSE rejected all the claims--a decision that Rafael Lopez Pintor, who headed the UN electoral division, called "shocking."

A team of observers representing the US government also said it was "troubled" that "many of the procedures cited as administrative defects" in previous elections continued to be practiced.

In the days immediately following the vote, election authorities delayed the release of official results. Then on the third day, they abruptly cut off access to party monitors to computerized tabulations. The FMLN said that initial tabulations showed that many ballot boxes contained more votes than the legal maximum of 400, some of them two to three times as many. They also claimed that in San Miguel, one of the country's largest cities, a group of Arena militants had absconded with 15 ballot boxes.

As it turned out, in the announced result for the presidency, Arena got 641,000 votes, 49 percent of the total, while the Democratic Coalition, which included the FMLN, was credited with 326,000 votes, or 25 percent. Failure of any party to win a majority necessitated a run-off election a month later, at which time Arena won 68 percent of the vote to the Coalition's 32 percent. Because the winner of the run-off was a completely foregone conclusion, there were undoubtedly many poor people who didn't vote because they were unwilling to go through the great inconvenience and uncertainty a second time.

There was also the matter of intimidation. According to observers from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES):

Meanwhile, army helicopters buzzed cities where the opposition was strong. Soldiers set up checkpoints and machine-gun nests in towns traumatized by army massacres during the war. The government did its best to instill fear in the electorate, and must have scared many voters into staying home.

Before the election, some workers were warned that if the FMLN won, heads would roll, or they would be fired. Inasmuch as a polling official tore off the corner of each ballot, containing the same number as on the ballot, a voter could see that someone could save his number and check how he voted later.

The Los Angeles Times reported the story of the master of ceremonies at a rally staged by Arena, attended by a number of peasants, farmers and market vendors.

            "All those who support Arena, raise your hats!" the emcee implored the crowd.

A few people lifted their hats.

"All those who support Arena, raise your hats!" he tried again. "And those who don't raise their hats are terengos!" he added, invoking a slang word for "terrorists" used by the army throughout this country's brutal civil war.

A lot of people took their hats off.83

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 canapes 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 checkout 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 to Harvard and running this country one day. There's no vision of a modern society.''84

After taking part in Washington's decade-long effort to train and reform the Salvadoran Army, many American military advisers have left here angry over the Salvadorans' resistance to change ... [they] say they feel manipulated and betrayed by the Salvadoran officers .... the advisers described Salvadoran officers as being mainly interested in amassing wealth and power, as willing to deprive troops of equipment to further the officers' own ends and as allowing the regular killing or mistreatment of prisoners .... None went so far as to say the effort to help the Salvadoran armed forces in their war against a leftist insurgency had been futile. They thought human rights abuses would have been worse or that the guerrillas might have won the war without their presence.85

The Times apparently did not ask the advisers whether they believed that the United States government had in some way been forced to take sides in the civil war. And if not, what had their government's ultimate motive been? And if so, why had they not taken the side of the insurgents? And how bad would the human rights abuses have been if the armed forces had not been provided by Washington with a never-ending supply of every weapon and implement and training known to man to bring destruction, pain and suffering to the greatest number of people?


William Blum’s Homepage: http://members.aol.com/bblum6/American_holocaust.htm