Our Guys in Guatemala

The women wore white gúipils embroidered with pastel flowers and a thin brown trim. The men’s pants were of a matching design, cut off below the knee. The people of Santiago de Atitlán –more than 5,000 of them– marched the half mile out of town to the site of the former army garrison. “Here,” said one, “we are planting the peace.”

A year before, on December 2, 1990, Guatemalan soldiers opened fire on an unarmed crowd of about the same size. Thirteen villagers, including two children, eventually died; twenty-three others were wounded. But rather than retreat into fear, more villagers came forward. Within three days, the windows of the town hall were covered with hundreds of photographs, many cheap dime-store portraits, of men and women, young and old.

Please finish reading the article at a PDF file of the original here.

The Rebels’ Dirty Hands

Certain guerrilla tactics are reprehensible. In the last year, the rebels have taken to placing car bombs in front of movie theaters and restaurants in the wealthier sections of San Salvador. In October, a group identifying itself as Manuel Jose Arce Commandos detonated two such car bombs outside a shopping center and a fast-food restaurant. In a communiqué on Radio Venceremos, the rebels’ clandestine station, the FMLN indirectly endorsed the action.

In each of these cases, no one was seriously injured. But that seems more luck than intent. One bomb next to a movie theater exploded while patrons were inside. The one outside the fast-food restaurant went off during regular evening hours. Rebel commanders say such tactics are designed to make the upper classes share the burden of the war.

Summary execution of locally elected village mayors is another deplorable tactic. In El Salvador’s eastern provinces, eight mayors have been executed by the rebels since April. This underscores divisions within the rebel alliance, even after nine years of struggle. FMLN guerrillas in Chalatenango, for example, do not have a policy of assassinating mayors; guerrillas active in the eastern provinces do.

During my trip in Chalatenango, a rebel tried to explain to me why they kill civilians. The rebels assassinate people for committing rape, he said, for using a gun against the people as in a personal dispute, and for providing information to the enemy.

But the rebels do not seem to be limiting their violence to these selected targets. In October, four peasants in Apopa, about seven miles north of San Salvador, were dragged from their homes and killed at point-blank range. The killers identified themselves as members of the army’s First Brigade. But according to Tutela Legal, El Salvador’s Roman Catholic human-rights office, the massacre was carried out by FMLN guerrillas posing as army soldiers. Tutela has consistently reported abuse by government troops against civilians. Its reports are used by such organizations as Americas Watch and are considered to be the most reliable in the country.

If the Tutela report is true, it marks an ominous shift in guerrilla tactics. A few weeks after the incident, rebel leaders promised to investigate the case and said that if FMLN members were involved, the perpetrators would be punished.

Nonetheless, human-rights abuses by the government here have consistently outstripped those by the rebels. Using Catholic Church figures, for instance, the comparison of noncombatant killings by the army versus such killings by the rebels is well over ten-to-one since the beginning of the war, though in recent months it has dropped closer to two-to-one.

Behind the Lines with the Rebels

With an old straw hat, a soiled yellow shirt, ragged pants, and sandals, my weathered guide could easily have passed for the ignorant peasant he often claims to be. But he is far more sophisticated than he appears. Like most Salvadoran peasants in eastern Chalatenango province, he is intensely aware of the conflict at hand.

“How is the way ahead?” he asks a passerby. “Esta bien, no hay enemigo.” (“It’s O.K — there’s no sign of the enemy.”)

The enemigo is the U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran army. During my week-long tour with the rebels in Chalatenango, the Atlacatl battalion was on patrol. Peasants in the area were almost as knowledgeable as guerrilla patrols about the battalion’s movements through the zone.

“The majority of the people there want the guerrillas, not the armed forces,” says foot soldier Julio Ernesto Cabrera. Local residents agree. Many say they have had relatives killed by the army.

Some of the residents are former refugees who escaped army repression by fleeing to neighboring Honduras earlier in the war. But more than 6,000 have returned to Chalatenango over the past seventeen months.

The Salvadoran rebels have endured nine years of U.S.-backed counterinsurgency. They have emerged as one of the most formidable guerrilla movements in the world. According to U.S. and rebel officials, the key to the rebels’ success is the support of the local population in areas they control.

“Tough, competent, highly motivated,” is how U.S. military officers describe the Salvadoran guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The civilian/military liaison for the U.S. embassy in San Salvador describes them as having grown “more committed and more effective” with experience.

Comparing the Salvadoran rebels to insurgent movements in the Philippines and Afghanistan, a top military analyst described the FMLN to me as “the most tenacious guerrilla [movement] in the world.” The FMLN is still not strong enough to take power, but the guerrillas and their civilian supporters are convinced time is on their side.

“This isn’t like Nicaragua, where [the guerrillas] won quickly,” says Israel, a former peasant who joined the guerrillas in 1979. “It’s more like Vietnam — a prolonged war.” As the sun casts shadows across the mountains of eastern Chalatenango, a small column of guerrillas climbs the rocky path into town. Each carries an M-16 rifle. The guerrillas range in age from fourteen to twenty-one. They represent the second generation of fighters for the FMLN.

Contrary to official U.S. pronouncements, the Salvadoran government is not winning the war. The FMLN has demonstrated an ability to strike major military targets, and the guerrillas are capable of draining the government with constant small-scale attacks.

Short of forced detainment of the peasantry or outright genocide — two options under consideration in El Salvador — the government will never wean committed civilian supporters away from the FMLN. Thus the central dilemma of U.S. policy in El Salvador: If human-rights abuses are to be kept within “acceptable levels,” the rebels cannot be defeated.

The alternative would be for the United States to recognize that the FMLN represents a legitimate political-military force, and to urge the Salvadoran government to negotiate. A small but growing number of members of the U.S. Congress take this view, but in El Salvador, the pendulum has swung much further to the Right.

The ultraconservative ARENA party enjoys considerable support not only among the upper classes but also among segments of the lower class and peasantry outside FMLN zones. Most Salvadorans seem to favor neither the government nor the FMLN, preferring to wait and see which side is likely to determine their future. Since President Jose Napoleon Duarte and his Christian Democratic Party have not managed to beat the rebels, the ARENA candidate Alfredo Cristiani is expected to win El Salvador’s presidential election next month.

Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, a leading deputy of ARENA, complains that U.S. policy in El Salvador has “no will to win.” He wants the army to pursue a strategy of “total war.” Ochoa says the nine-year civil war could be terminated in less than a year if the army were given a free hand to attack the civilian populations in FMLN zones. Human rights would not be a concern.

Official U.S. embassy spokesmen continue publicly to advocate small army patrols and civic-action projects, but hard-line U.S. officials are no longer convinced. They prefer the tactic of forcibly detaining civilians who sympathize with the rebels.

“El Salvador needs a population strategy,” says a U.S. official who has advised other Central American governments in counterinsurgency operations. He says the Salvadoran government must separate the guerrillas from the population if it is to win the war.

To some extent, the Salvadoran government has tried this before. In eastern Chalatenango, for example, the air force used saturation bombing through 1985 to drive out civilians. And in 1986, the army forcibly relocated residents on Guazapa volcano near San Salvador.

But the strategy being considered now is more comprehensive. It is based on “strategic hamlets” and “development poles” currently in use in Guatemala. These are defacto prison camps. A fence surrounds each camp, and an army watchtower dominates it. Civilians must pass an army checkpoint to enter or depart. The transport of food and other necessities is strictly monitored.

El Salvador could resort to such tactics, said the U.S. official. But unlike Guatemala, El Salvador receives almost $1.5 million a day from the United States. “Liberals in Congress” will never go along with such a strategy, he complains.

The drastic military options under consideration reflect the success the guerrillas have had in building civilian support in such areas as eastern Chalatenango. During my week-long trip with the guerrillas, they moved with ease and sophistication even as the Atlacatl battalion approached.

Two miles from the advancing Atlacatl, I traveled with a six-member FMLN patrol. We heard the staccato of machine guns as an army helicopter fired at suspected rebel targets. But none were hit.

Communicating with other guerrillas by radio, the rebel patrol knew the exact location of the Atlacatl. Rather than engage the superior force, the rebels pulled back. Once the army passed by, they reassumed their positions.

The Atlacatli battalion traveled through a number of refugee communities. On one trail between the villages of San Jose Las Flores and Guadila, hundreds of FMLN leaflets were strewn in the path of the on-coming troops. They were marked by a series of crude sketches. One depicted a rebel ambush; another a recent FMLN attack on a National Guard post in San Salvador. The drawings included figures of dead soldiers. “THIS IS WHAT AWAITS YOU!” read the caption below the sketch.

Large battalions such as the Atlacatl are able to move through rebel-held terrain, but they rarely find any guerrillas. Most military engagements are carried out on rebel terms, and the vast majority of army casualties come from guerrilla ambushes or mines.

In a guerrilla war, it is usually the rebels who must move under cover. But here, the army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols are mostly a threat during the rainy season, when the foliage is thicker. And, unlike FMLN guerrillas who rely on their local infrastructure for supplies, the army patrols depend on helicopter drops for extra food and ammunition.

Similarly, the army suffers from poor intelligence. The patrols can’t count on information from local residents, so they depend upon aerial reconnaissance and other technology to other intelligence. This information is often dated and incomplete.

Since U.S. involvement in the war began, the Salvadoran government has enjoyed a huge technological advantage over the rebels. But according to U.S. military advisers, the point has been reached when additional U.S assistance will produce decreasing marginal gains.

A pig scrounges the ground for food, while children play in the dirt. Behind them, wet clothes hang on a line strung between a wooden awning and a tree.

A nude eighteen-year-old male lies on an old plank table. His left upper thigh is grossly disfigured. Guerrilla doctors are preparing to perform surgery.

The patient has a multiple-fractured femur bone. A bullet from an automatic rifle of the type used by the National Guard had pierced his leg. He has been crippled for the past year, waiting for this operation.

The operation is almost canceled when doctors receive word by radio that elite army troops are on the move nearby. By evening, the doctors say it is safe.

In this hospital with no walls and a dirt floor, the operation is expected to last two hours. But complications arise. Without proper equipment except for such items as liquid anesthesia, it takes more than five.

The surgeon uses a carpenter’s drill to make holes for metal rods in the patient’s leg. Reaching into a mess cup of boiled water, he removes a Swiss Army knife with its saw blade exposed.

“The equipment is not optimal,” he says. As I look on with a crowd of children and armed guerrillas, the doctor uses the camping knife to remove a large piece of femur. About ten metal rods, used to immobilize the bone, remain protruding from the patient’s thigh after the wound is closed. Rather than put the leg in a conventional cast, the doctor’s use split bamboo and plaster wrap to keep them in place.

The next day, the patient is put into hiding. “If the army finds him like this,” says one of the doctors, “they’ll kill him or take him away.”

“The worst thing is not the conditions as you see it,” says the chief surgeon, “but that we have to move all the time.” The doctor has been with the rebels for more than seven years. He is one of many medical volunteers who have joined the FMLN. In addition to his medical equipment, he carries an M-16 rifle.

The FMLN also provides health care for civilians living in guerrilla zones. In one case, I travelled with a physician to the home of a young woman who had a severely distended belly. The doctor drained two liters of abdominal fluid. In another case, a child cut his wrist with a machete. Rebel doctors sewed his severed tendons back together.

The Salvadoran government considers rebel medical facilities to be legitimate military targets. A mobile unit, the five-member medical team is constantly avoiding helicopters and army patrols. Medicine and medical instruments must be carried on the doctors’ and nurses’ backs.

An A-37 gunship buzzes the parade ground as army troops stand at attention in full battle gear. Behind the troops, several hundred peasants stand in formation. Representing ninety-eight rural villages, they have been invited to a ceremony at the army’s Third Brigade in San Miguel. The ceremony is part of a U.S.-inspired effort to win “hearts and minds.”

Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce, newly appointed armed forces chief of staff, is the main speaker. U.S. military advisers and officials are also present. They hope that by building better relations with the population, Ponce will be able to turn the war around.

The villagers hold placards indicating which town they come from. At one point, an army lieutenant directs the entire group to march past the podium for review. During Ponce’s speech, the lieutenant paces up and down in front of the peasants. With his back turned to the podium, he orders the peasants to stay in line and tells them when to cheer.

“The army helps us,” says one peasant. “‘But there are still many things we need.”

Some of the peasants say they have received food and basic supplies from the army. They are participating in the ceremony, they say, because they hope to receive more.

But in the past, the army has found it hard to deliver. A nationwide civic-action program that began two years ago has failed. Support for the army lasts only as long as the flow of free provisions continues.

The FMLN, by contrast, builds its support from the bottom up. The guerrillas encourage peasants to organize themselves. The method is similar to that developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and adopted by Christian “base communities” of the Catholic Church. During my trip, I observed two such “dynamic exercises” — one led by “popular” teachers, the other by a young Jesuit priest.

Participants in these exercises are matched in pairs. They speak to each other for about fifteen minutes and then they rejoin the larger group, introducing the partner and relaying key facts about his or her life to the others present. Then the group takes up issues of basic needs and problems. As a result, the level of community organization is greatly enhanced, and peasants learn to take control of their lives.

In one village, residents discuss methods of payment for supplies at the modest dental clinic they have built. In another meeting, they discuss which fields to plant and how to cope with a shortage of seeds. Land in the area is now cultivated collectively after having been seized from absentee owners.

Peasants in these communities do not merely sympathize with the guerrillas. They see the armed and the unarmed struggle as two sides of the same coin. In the words of the young Jesuit, “the struggle of the guerrillas is the struggle of the poor.”

The guerrillas are attracting new volunteers. The rebels once relied partly on forced conscription, but even U.S. officials now admit that this practice has been abandoned.

A shy teen-age girl says she is being trained as a radio operator at a secret mountain location. “You have to fight for the people,” she says.

By the end of my week-long trip, I had found a better appreciation of the FMLN’s popular support in eastern Chalatenango. In one small town, the locally elected town council sponsored a dance. Government planes flew overhead, even as FMLN fighters, their M-16s slung over their shoulders, danced to La Bamba with their girlfriends from town.

Quagmire in the Making

Only last year,” said the U.S. official, was the army “willing to move more than nine to five. “I’d heard those same words two years before in the same room deep within the walls of the heavily guarded embassy in San Salvador.

Transforming the Salvadoran armed forces into an effective counterinsurgency force has been a perennial problem for U.S. officials. After seven years of training and more than $3 billion in U.S. aid to El Salvador, American policy is in shambles.

Army commanders have learned to mimic the rhetoric of “low-intensity warfare” but not the execution, and the U.S.-advocated strategy of winning hearts and minds has been abandoned for more primitive methods.

When the forces of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) took the initiative this year, a growing movement within the Salvadoran officers’ corps demanded a ruthless response. El Salvador’s lame-duck Christian Democratic government of Jose Napoleon Duarte was in no position to object. The newly ascendant right-wing ARENA party, which, took over the legislature in March, gave the green light for a crackdown”

The military command has warned that organizations, which “try to exploit the basic needs of people”, will be equated with the armed combatants of the FMLN. Since October, killings and disappearances of civilian activists have doubled.

El Salvador is returning to the days when civilian sectors of the population were the primary targets of the war. More carnage is to come.

Civic-action programs have been an integral part of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy since Vietnam. Pentagon advisers describe the task of getting the Salvadoran military to rethink its notorious policy toward civilians as the most important aspect of the counterinsurgency campaign.

Writing in a U.S. Army War College report dated January 1, 1985, Colonel John D. Waghelstein outlined three objectives for El Salvador “balanced development to negate the causes of the insurgency; neutralization to destroy the guerrillas armed element; and mobilization of the national resources (human and material) for popular involvement in progress.”

But even Waghelstein was less than sanguine about the prospects. “Whether El Salvador and the United States have the vision and stamina to pursue this difficult task remains to be seen,” he wrote.

By mid-1986, the Salvadoran military seemed to be following the U.S. blueprint. Not surprisingly, its strong suit was “neutralization.” The Salvadoran army and air force completed a series of massive ground sweeps and aerial bombings designed to penetrate and destroy the FMLN’s traditional zones of control — at much cost to civilian lives. The population in and around these zones was forcibly resettled.

At the same time, the Salvadoran military launched a civic-action program to win popular support. It was called “United to Reconstruct.”

“Especially important to the campaign,” the Salvadoran army said, “are psychological operations, the organization and training of civil-defense units, civic/military programs, and the active participation of the local population.”

Echoing the words of the Waghelstein report, “United to Reconstruct” was to unfold in three stages: clean-up operations, consolidation, and reconstruction. The government, private business, trade unions, the Church, and the general population would all participate — under military supervision — in the last two stages of the plan.

“United to Reconstruct” was heavily supported by both the U.S. embassy and the U.S. Agency for International Development, which diverted funds designated for such private voluntary organizations as, Save the Children.

U.S. officials wholeheartedly endorsed the program, boasting that the Salvadoran military had finally come around to their way of thinking. The embassy pointed to the prominent role of young Salvadoran army officers in the plan as evidence that U.S. training and assistance had finally made a difference.

But neither U.S. advisers nor Salvadoran army commanders were able to explain how civic-action programs were supposed to work. They failed to demonstrate that psychological operations, civil-defense units, and “the participation of the local population” would offset joblessness, inequitable land tenure, infant mortality, or malnutrition.

The government was to provide social services, and the private sector was to provide jobs. Yet two years have passed, and no progress has been made. Besides constructing a dozen ill-equipped and under-staffed health clinics, “United to Reconstruct” has little to show for itself.

“United to Reconstruct” is still “the factor to attack the crisis,” says Colonel Mauricio Ernesto Vargas, chief of operations for El Salvador’s military command. But U.S. officials admit that except on paper, the plan no longer exists. This is a tremendously embarrassing concession: The most comprehensive attempt to implement U.S. counterinsurgency in the Americas is a failure

The reasons are not hard to come by. In theory, “United to Reconstruct” purported to recognize the “structural” roots of the crisis. But it did not address the link between poverty and high concentrations of economic and political power. The much-heralded 1980 land reform, for instance, remains stalled; fewer than 18 per cent of peasant families have been affected.

The ultimate goal of civic action, however, is not social reform but the improvement of civilian-military relations. In this regard, the architects of “United to Reconstruct” were hopelessly naive. It is hard to imagine how an army clown passing out balloons in a small pueblo in war-torn Chalatenango would be able to make up for a century of institutionalized violence.

While the plan has failed to win support from the civilian population, it has swelled resentment in the ranks of the military. The Salvadoran armed forces have watched uneasily as the guerrillas succeeded in organizing a wider rural and urban base. Predictably, as the army has found U.S.-advocated civic action to be ineffective, soldiers have increased their abuses of civilians.

Many of the same officers who initially supported “United to Reconstruct” are now demanding more independence from U.S. military strategists. Bolstered by the overwhelming victory of the ultraconservative ARENA party in March, the hard-liners within the military may soon have their way. Most of these officers are associated with La Tandona, the Salvadoran War College class of 1966, the largest ever to graduate from the military school. Members of the class now command 90 percent of El Salvador’s field brigades. Within the past year, the Tandona has moved farther away from U.S. policy and the Duarte government.

The turning point came Monday, September 28, 1987. In an all-day meeting at the National Palace, members of the, Tandona threatened President Duarte with a military coup. The hardliners were unhappy with a proposed amnesty for leftist political prisoners and upset about an impending trial against two military officers implicated in the massacre of nineteen peasants in 1983. The Salvadoran President was not deposed, in part because he pardoned (with only two exceptions) military officers and members of El Salvador’s rightist death squads for more than 40,000 documented killings of noncombatants since 1979.

“We no longer need a coup because we already have power,” said Juan Orlanda Zepeda, chief of intelligence for the military command and a Tandona member.

The influence of the hardliners is now completely unchallenged. Still, a crude military approach to the insurgency is unlikely to succeed. From January 1986 to October 1987, the Salvadoran military launched wave after wave of counterinsurgency sweeps. With such reminiscent names as “Operation Phoenix” and
“Operation Concord,” these offensives involved up to 40,000 troops — 80 percent of armed-forces personnel. But except for breaking the FMLN base camp on Guazapa Volcano near the capital city, these operations have failed.

The military did succeed in inflicting 7,879 casualties by its count. Nearly all of those involved civilians living in contested zones.

Massive forced displacement of civilians was the only other “success” of the 1986-1987 counterinsurgency operations. The army subsequently could not understand why the population did not embrace “United to Reconstruct.”

When government troops cross into FMLN-dominated territory in the northeastern province of Morazán, they enter as an occupying force. The rebels’ civilian support network is extensive and well organized, although it is disguised to avoid detection. Government battalions rarely find or engage the enemy, and the guerrillas have learned to leave deadly minefields in their wake.

In the north central province of Chalatenango, the FMLN has followed the Morazán model. It cannot stop the army from penetrating into rebel-controlled territory, but it prevents the army from maintaining a stationary presence.

East of the province capital in Chalatenango, the massive military presence which permeates much of the rest of the country suddenly disappears. I encountered only one heavily armed government patrol on a two-hour hike into the interior. The only other sign of war was an occasional white flag tied to a bamboo pole flapping in the breeze.

Eight kilometers east of the town of Chalatenango is the village of Los Ranchos, home of 585 settlers. They are part of a group of 4,200 Salvadorans repatriated from the U.N. refugee camp in Mesa Grande, Honduras, last October, after fleeing military repression in 1980. Villagers explain that the white flags flying above Los Ranchos are intended to impress the government.

Yet the residents of Los Ranchos refuse to accept aid distributed by the armed forces, and they receive no help from the government. Officials of the Duarte government are busy, however, trying to document the settlers. Jorge Alberto Caraventes from the Ministry of the Interior was present in March, preparing to issue identity cards to every resident. “If they don’t have their card,” he said, “they will be taken for guerrillas.”

The residents at Los Ranchos are afraid of the armed forces. An elderly woman said that soldiers frequently enter the camp and planes fly overhead once in a while. “They haven’t dropped any bombs yet,” she added, “but we’re scared.”

El Salvador’s Forgotten War

El Salvador’s Forgotten War, by Frank Smyth, The Progressive, August 1987.

This story that appeared in print was put republished online 27 years later by The Progressive on its website in December 2014 after the launch of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture during the administration led by President George H.W. Bush after 9/11 in the 2000s.

The U.S. Congress, like the American mass media, seem notoriously in­ capable of focusing on more than one international troublespot at a time. A few years ago, all eyes were on El Salvador, its infamous Death Squads, and the U.S. Government’s role in sustaining a brutally repressive regime. Today the spotlight is on Nicaragua and El Salvador is all but forgotten, despite a resurgence of political violence and new evidence of U.S. com­ plicity in assaults on human rights.

“The democratic revolution has just begun,” President Jose Napoleon Duarte told the Salvadoran people in his third an­nual state-of-the-union address on June 1. But one day earlier, labor leader Julio Portillo was shot at an anti-government dem­onstration near San Salvador. Three days before that, the offices of the Co-Madres (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners Disappeared) were de­molished by a bomb. And earlier in May, the tortured, headless body of peasant leader Antonio Hernandez Martinez was found in San Miguel.

Hernandez, Portillo, and the Co-Madres were active participants in a labor-led op­position coalition that has been challeng­ing the Salvadoran government to pursue genuine reforms and negotiate an end to years of insurgent warfare. Instead, the Duarte government has chosen to dismiss the opposition as a subversive communist front.

The murdered Hernandez Martinez was last seen being led off by government sol­diers on April 16. He had been on his way to arrange for a loan to his peasant co­ operative.

Julio Portillo, who heads a high-school teachers’ union, was leading a peaceful anti-government protest outside Mariona prison when he was struck by one of the shots directed at the protesters from the direction of the Salvadoran army’s First Infantry Brigade.

Duarte ignored these developments when he traveled in a heavily armored eighty-car convoy to deliver his state-of-the-union address in the small northern town of Sensuntepeque. He unveiled fifty- four new proposals to rebuild El Salvador and promised to open a dialogue with left­ist guerrillas, provided they first laid down their arms.

The Salvadoran government maintains that the Farabundo Marti National Lib­eration Front (FMLN) is prolonging the conflict. But classified CIA documents re­veal that it is Duarte’s U.S.-backed government that has no interest in ending the civil war. In fact, these documents—pre­pared by the Office of African and Latin American Analysis in coordination with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations—dis­miss Duarte’s previous call for peace, is­ sued last year, as a meaningless “public-relations gesture.” Salvadoran govern­ment officials “see little to be gained in a dialogue with the rebels while the Salva­doran military has the initiative in the war,” says a CIA report dated September 2, 1986.

The Salvadoran military say they can win the war, and U.S. authorities believe the government has taken the upper hand. “Although they have not been decisively beaten,” the September CIA report states, “the guerrillas, in our view, no longer have the capacity to launch and sustain major offensives.”

Such assessments have often been made in the course of the eight-year-old conflict, and they have always turned out to be un­founded. Early this spring, at a time when the insurgents were believed to be in de­cline, the FMLN mounted a surprise at­tack on an army garrison at El Paraiso, killing sixty-nine government soldiers and one U.S. Army Special Forces adviser.

The FMLN has expanded its opera­tions to all fourteen provinces of El Sal­vador, increasing the likelihood that the struggle may continue for many years. The conflict has already claimed some 60,000 lives—more than 1 percent of the Salva­doran population.

Duarte, who has neither the will nor the power to oversee an end to the war, did offer two symbolic concessions in his June 1 speech: He said that he would allow sev­enty-eight wounded rebels to leave the country for medical treatment and that he might grant amnesty to 400 political pris­oners. At the same time, however, he re­jected out of hand a bold new FMLN peace initiative.

Three days before Duarte’s speech at Sensuntepeque, the FMLN had proposed to enter into direct negotiations with the government on July 15. Their offer in­cluded pledges to stop using land mines and to suspend their campaign of eco­nomic sabotage in exchange for an end to aerial bombing by the government and a halt of summary executions by both sides.

Guerrilla-planted mines cause up to 70 percent of government casualties and are, along with the economic-sabotage cam­paign, the insurgents’ most effective weap­ons. Government bombing missions are targeted on areas of high rebel activity, but most casualties are inflicted on civilians rather than FMLN fighters. The steps pro­posed by the FMLN would, therefore, go a long way toward reducing civilian cas­ualties.

But the Salvadoran government, backed by the United States, is interested only in a military solution. The Reagan Admin­istration has tried to make El Salvador a showcase for containment of communism in the Hemisphere, and has undertaken highly publicized steps to “professional­ize” the Salvadoran military.

In 1981, when unarmed civilians were being murdered at the rate of thirty-five a day, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Brigadier General Fred Woerner to con­duct a survey of the Salvadoran armed forces. His report, which called for the ex­pansion, equipping, training, and modern­ization of the Salvadoran military, set the tone for Reagan Administration policy toward El Salvador.

However, State Department sources confirm there was considerable friction within the Administration over its indif­ference to human-rights considerations. Under mounting pressure from church and human-rights groups, the Administration began in 1983 to express concern over the operations of the Salvadoran Death Squads.

“The idea,” says a former State Department official, “was to play by their rules”—”their” meaning such human-rights organizations as Amnesty International and Americas Watch, which had long crit­icized U.S. policy. Congress, mindful of El Salvador’s blatant disregard for human rights, had blocked or reduced Adminis­tration requests for an escalation of mili­tary aid. However, the new training effort undertaken by the U.S. Government was directed less at restoring human rights than at developing more sophisticated forms of interrogation.

The first group of 470 Salvadoran of­ficer cadets received training in a three-month course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1982. Another 600 arrived in 1983, fol­lowed by even more in 1984. Additional units, particularly elite battalions, were trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and smaller units received special instruction at the U.S. Southern Command in Pan­ama. In 1985, 250 Salvadoran military personnel were sent to the Pentagon’s Re­gional Training Center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Last year, training shifted to a new center in La Union, El Salvador.

A Defense Department spokesman, Marine Captain Jay C. Farrar, said it is “highly doubtful” that these courses of­fered instruction in abusive interrogation techniques. But according to U.S. Army Special Forces advisers formerly stationed in the region, small courses for selected Salvadoran soldiers regularly included training in “negative-incentive” methods.

“Torture in El Salvador,” Americas Watch reported last year, “consists in­creasingly of physical abuse that does not leave physical marks, such as the capucha (hood to suffocate) and immersion in filthy water. . . . The most prevalent forms of abuse of detainees at present are sleep dep­rivation, food deprivation, and threats against family members. These practices, like the capucha and immersion, leave no physical marks.” State Department sources say abuse of this kind now occurs in about 20 percent of all prisoner interrogations.

A Pentagon intelligence officer who spoke on condition that his name not be published said such techniques “are ex­actly the kind of thing that the Special Forces are teaching in El Salvador.” He added that methods inappropriate for use by the police in the United States can be justified in El Salvador because “this is a war and a different situation.”

Even as the use of “negative-incentive” techniques has increased, blatant physical abuse continues. Few armed guerrillas have ever been taken prisoner, and it is gener­ally assumed that they are executed when captured in the field. According to former U.S. advisers, Salvadoran officers com­plain that they don’t have time for lengthy interrogations on patrol.

Military intelligence documents sent from El Salvador to Washington give an indication of how interrogations are con­ducted in the field. In mid-1985, three combatants of the FAL—a guerrilla group led by the Salvadoran Communist Party—were captured coming off the Guazapa Volcano near the capital. The interroga­tors were able to learn the pseudonyms of about thirty members of that guerrilla unit, their titles and functions, and the pseu­donyms of the three clandestine operatives who had recruited the prisoners.

The documents explain, in euphemistic terms, the interrogation of one combatant: “In the beginning he didn’t say much, due to his companeros who had told him that the FAL would beat or kill him [if he talked]. But once he saw that this was false, he opened up a little more.” The prisoner, it seems clear, was persuaded that his cap­tors would inflict greater harm if he didn’t talk than his comrades would if he did.

One goal of Reagan Administration policy is to avoid the kind of wholesale slaughter that used to lead to questions in Congress and public protests. But if the Duarte government’s current policy of selective repression were to fail to keep the domestic opposition un­der control, the military might resort to more obvious methods. Indeed, five un­armed alleged “FMLN collaborators” were murdered by the army’s Arce Battalion on May 22, their bodies thrown into a well.

CIA analysts fear the FMLN is trying to provoke violence between civilians and security forces, and have expressed con­cern that in the future the military may exercise less restraint: “Increasing violence will fuel the insurgency by alienating Duarte’s primary constituencies in the lower middle classes and the urban poor, or by provoking a coup and military crack­down.”

The extreme Right continues to play an active role in Salvadoran politics. Ultra-conservative parties, backed by the coun­try’s intransigent private sector, control El Salvador’s supreme court. For four months earlier this year, they boycotted the legis­lative assembly, which is dominated by Duarte’s Christian Democrats. A new rightist organization, the Movement for National Action, has entered the fray, call­ing for Duarte’s resignation and berating the military for failing to crush the insur­gents.

In the past, such rhetoric has preceded the unleashing of new Death Squad offen­sives. In fact, one of El Salvador’s notor­ious right-wing Death Squads resurfaced on June 16. The Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade accused fourteen teach­ers and students at the National Univer­sity of having guerrilla links, and gave them forty-eight hours to leave the country.

The ultraconservatives enjoy backing within the armed forces, especially among U.S.-trained oficiales de la guerra (war of­ ficers), including Colonel Sigfrido Ochoa, former commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade in Chalatenango, and Colonel Mauricio Staben of the Arce Battalion. For these officers, there is no distinction be­tween the insurgents and the domestic po­litical opposition.

That may explain why opposition po­litical figures have come under violent po­litical attack in recent months, and why Duarte’s effectiveness has been markedly reduced. In the past few months, the mil­itary has grown increasingly independent in El Salvador, and another round of po­litical violence may be in the offing.

Frank Smyth, a freelance writer in Wash­ington, D.C., has reported from El Salva­dor.

– See more at: http://www.progressive.org/news/2014/12/187936/war-how-cia-justifies-torture#sthash.MQpg3p8Q.dpuf