No Passage

American officials and others say the United States learned vital lessons in El Salvador that policymakers are now applying in Colombia. The gist of this argument is that like in El Salvador, the United States support of the Colombia military will eventually force its rival guerillas to the negotiating table. Last week in IC, Benjamin Ryder Howe quoted the Colombian academic, Eduardo Pizarro, who said: “[T]he strategy [in El Salvador] was very successful. The guerrillas got nothing. In the end, they had to negotiate because of what United States did for the Salvadoran army.”

Remember 1989

America’s record in El Salvador suggests something else, however. In November 1989, two days after the Brandenberg Gate in the Berlin Wall was finally opened, the largest Cold War military battle in this hemisphere began in the tiny Central American republic.

By then, U.S. intelligence agencies had dismissed El Salvador’s leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as a waning force. “Although they have not been decisively beaten, the guerrillas, in our view, no longer have the capability to launch and sustain major offensives,” reported the CIA in 1986 in a SECRET assessment. But Langley was wrong. Although U.S. officials received various indications by 1989 that the FMLN was planning a major offensive, they chose to ignore their own intelligence and told Washington not to worry about the expected guerrilla action. The result put many of the same officials at risk.

It began loudly at 8 p.m. on Nov. 11. My favorite story is of the State Department official who, while huddled on the white tile floor of a San Salvador Pizza Hut, proposed to his girlfriend minutes after gunfire broke out on Avenida Escalon. Although he had planned on waiting until after dinner to offer her the ring, he decided he had no time to waste as FMLN guerrillas and government forces exchanged gunfire outside. Just up the street, the U.S. military attache, Col. Wayne Wheeler, found himself barricaded inside his home with his family as guerrillas and government forces fought over Escalon Circle. A little farther north, CIA Station Chief Robert W. Hultslander briefly saw his residence on Avenida Capilla in the San Benito neighborhood taken over by the guerrillas who spared his life after learning his identity. (Hultslander is now a private consultant who publicizes his past CIA positions on the Web to attract clients for the Washington-based firm, Global Business Access, Ltd.)

The calm before the storm

One U.S. official who missed the 1989 offensive was David Passage, who helped run the U.S Embassy in El Salvador in the mid-1980s. This spring he wrote a paper for the U.S. Army War College about Colombia in which he claims to draw lessons from America’s counterinsurgency experiences in both El Salvador and Vietnam. Ambassador Passage rightly explains the lesson of Vietnam that America applied in El Salvador: “The United States made clear [to Salvadoran authorities] that it was El Salvador’s war, not ours, to be won or lost by Salvadorans.”

But he attempts to draw a far less solid lesson from America’s experience in El Salvador for Colombia. Like Pizarro, the Colombian political scientist, Passage argues in his paper: “El Salvador’s armed forces improved their military performance to the point that the guerrillas ultimately concluded that they needed to negotiate a peace or risk being wiped out.”

Passage left El Salvador in 1986 — the same year as the aforementioned CIA SECRET assessment. The mid-1980s was the height of U.S. aid to El Salvador, made possible by the election of President Jose Napoleon Duarte. (Duarte is the only serving head of state who ever wrote his autobiography in a language foreign to his own nation.) Duarte was a consensus-building figure in the U.S. Congress where he provided a humanist face to an anti-communist cause. During Duarte’s administration, the United States encouraged the Salvadoran military to stop killing suspected civilian supporters of the guerrillas and instead to target armed guerrillas themselves.

The success of the Duarte period, however, faded as quickly as his book did. Although crimes of war decreased at the same that the U.S.-backed military made some battlefield gains, the advantages of U.S. firepower began to diminish once the FMLN adjusted to the new situation by breaking down their rebel concentrations into smaller, more mobile squads. In response, first the CIA and then U.S. Special Forces tried to train the Salvadoran military to also break down their large units into smaller, more mobile patrols. But the Salvadoran military never made an effective transition to small unit operations. The main reason was the lack of morale among Salvadoran soldiers, most of whom came from peasant families like most of the guerrillas.

Was American policy in El Salvador a failure?

The United States also backed civic action programs in El Salvador to help the military win popular support. But Army dentists fixing teeth in villages along with clowns handing balloons to children could never undo the damage done by previous military massacres. In the late 1980s, while the military was trying to gain ground in the countryside, the guerrillas were expanding their support bases among poor urban communities in San Salvador and other cities that they would later use as staging grounds for the November offensive.

After the fall

The seizure of San Salvador along with every other city in the country in 1989 took Salvadoran military officers along with their U.S. advisers by surprise. U.S. Army Major Eric Warren Buckland was a psychological operations specialist within the Salvadoran High Command. He said the offensive “was like the fall of Saigon.” The strength and scope of the siege was so overwhelming that for the first four days of the offensive the Salvadoran High Command also feared that the country might fall.

The November offensive broke at a time of great debate within the High Command. Officers including the former military intelligence chief, Army Col. Juan Orlando Zepeda, were arguing that the military needed to reject American exhortations about human rights to once again repress suspected civilian supporters of the guerrillas. Late the evening of Nov. 15, the Salvadoran High Command, in a meeting presided over by Chief of Staff Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, decided to kill civilians, according to a U.N. Truth Commission report released four years later. Early the next morning, the Salvadoran military executed six Jesuit University priests, along with their housekeeper and her daughter. The offensive continued for more than another week.

Images of Jesuit corpses wearing pajamas on the bloodied campus grass resonated in Washington. The events of the time killed several myths that revisionists like Passage seem to have forgotten. One was that the Salvadoran High Command had allegedly grown above ordering the murders of civilians. Another busted myth was that rather than nearly “being wiped out,” the guerrillas reached their peak of military strength in 1989, and they remained strong until a lasting cease-fire was signed in 1992.

A third denuded myth was that rather than being marginal, the guerrillas had considerable support. While the rebel offensive had failed to spark a popular insurrection as many guerrillas and a few of their leaders had hoped, it nonetheless showed that the rebels enjoyed enough sympathy among poor communities to smuggle food, arms and combatants into the capital along with every other city without being detected in most cases.

Long-term risk

The lesson of El Salvador is that the guerrillas could not be so easily wiped out, and that in the end the United States needed to pressure not them, but America’s own allies in the Salvadoran military to reach a peace settlement. Washington favored a gradual military victory over the FMLN before its November 1989 offensive. After it and the Jesuit murders, Congress and President Bush together cut the Salvadoran military’s aid in half, forcing the military to finally accept real negotiations with the FMLN.

Today, the United States is training and arming the Colombian armed forces with the hope they will eventually be in a better position to negotiate with their country’s FARC guerrillas. That could take years and cause untold carnage. There is a better way.

One critic of the Colombia plan is the Bush administration’s former Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Bernard Aronson. Writing recently in The Washington Post, Aronson warns that Colombia’s guerrillas need to be brought to the table sooner instead of later, and he addresses the example of El Salvador along with two other cases: [A]s successive administrations have done with the PLO, the FMLN (in El Salvador) and the IRA, the United States needs to find a formula to talk with the Colombian guerrillas, and a cease-fire in our domestic political wars would make that possible.

America’s domestic political warfare continues although the perceived foreign enemy has switched from communism to drugs. When shaping U.S. Colombia policy, no one should forget El Salvador’s 1989 offensive or the U.S. officials who — believing their own myths — found themselves and their loved ones in danger. The lesson of El Salvador suggests that the United States should change policy to really support a negotiated settlement in Colombia now, not later.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who covered El Salvador for CBS News Radio, The Economist and the Village Voice. He is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador, Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute(1988), and El Salvador: Is Peace Possible? Prospects for Negotiations and U.S. Policy, The Washington Office on Latin America (1990). He is a contributing editor at, and his website is at