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
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".
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
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
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
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
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
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
Seven years were to pass before
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
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
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.
E1 Salvador did not turn into another
The amount of American military aid to
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.
Considerable evidence surfaced of a
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
Playboy: Do the American military advisers also tell you how to run the war?
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
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
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
Officers of the National Guard were also
trained in the
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
In July 1987, a Salvadorean
woman named Yanira Corea
who had received threatening phone calls and letters was kidnapped outside the
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,
In a visit to
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
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
A few weeks after Joya
Martinez went public in the
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
In January 1981, US diplomats disclosed that
five boats had landed in
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
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
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:
of armament shipments into
It was not merely the
accuracy of the White Paper that was questioned, but the authenticity of the
documents themselves. Apropos of this, former
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
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
Salvador Samayoa, speaking in 1981, asserted that US
charges that the Soviet bloc was directing the guerrilla movement "reveals
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
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
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
Various of the more than 12,000 once-secret documents
released by the
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
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
Why had more than half the people of
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
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
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
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