“This is War”: How the CIA Justifies Torture

By Frank Smyth on December 10, 2014

Editor’s Note: This piece by Frank Smyth on the use of “negative incentive” methods in Central America was originally published in our August 1987 issue, under the title “El Salvador’s Forgotten War.” From Frank:

The Senate Intelligence Committee report released this week concluded that the CIA engaged in the torture of terrorist suspects in the years following 9/11 without obtaining any significant intelligence information, contrary to claims by former U.S. intelligence and Bush administration officials. The panel concluded that the CIA techniques included waterboarding or nearly drowning suspects, prolonged sleep deprivation, and other techniques including making suspects wear diapers, putting insects in their cells, and subjecting detainees to mock burials.

The revelations have cast the United States in a harsh light 25 years after the end of the Cold War. But such techniques have been employed by U.S. intelligence agencies, in fact, going back even longer. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration’s effort to repel Marxist guerrilla movements in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to ultimately help oust a leftist revolutionary government in Nicaragua, U.S. intelligence agencies agencies used similar tactics then against Marxist guerrilla suspects that they used two decades later against Islamist terrorist suspects.

U.S. intelligence officers coined such techniques as applying a “negative incentive,” using an Orwellian euphemism for torture that echoes that kind of double-speak like “enhanced interrogation techniques” employed by U.S. officials in the 2000s.

Below is my 1987 story in The Progressive about the use of torture by U.S. intelligence agencies in Central America. It has a personal resonance for me. I interviewed many torture victims in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s. In 1991, I found myself in an Iraqi prison run by intelligence agents from the regime led by President Saddam Hussein, and listened night after night as they tortured Iraqis suspected of having tried to overthrow his regime.

Torture knows no political bounds. No matter who the abuser is, it is employed more often for revenge and deterrence than to gather information. It is abhorrent in all forms. It must be called by its proper name. And it must be resisted always. Torture by U.S. officials has done much harm to many human beings. It has done irreparable harm to us.”

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.

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El Salvador’s Cold War Martyrs

The original article may be found here.

The curfew broke after dawn. But the massacre took place in the middle of the night. The high command of the Salvadoran armed forces, who were receiving a million dollars a day in U.S. aid, made their decision near midnight. They had been on the defensive over the past four days and nights, as Marxist guerrillas took over and held poor as well as wealthy neighborhoods throughout the capital city. The strength of the rebel offensive took Salvadoran and U.S. officials alike by surprise. El Salvador’s military leaders chose to strike back by bombing –not the wealthy– but the poor barrios being held by guerrillas, and by targeting civilians whom they accused of being guerrilla collaborators. They decided to start that night by murdering their most vocal critics.

The massacre made news worldwide. Six Jesuit university priests wearing their bloodied night clothes and lying dead on the campus grass, along with their housekeeper and her daughter who were also murdered nearby as they held each other. But it was only the second story of the day, as by then the main headline was the falling Berlin Wall.

East German authorities began letting their own citizens cross over into West Berlin in the evening of November 9, 1989. Two days later, leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo MartÍ National Liberation Front launched not only the largest rebel offensive of El Salvador’s long civil war, but what still stands as perhaps the most sizeable insurgent offensive in Latin America. Thousands of Marxist combatants infiltrated and took up positions in the largest cities across the small Central American nation, and held their ground in many cases including various parts of San Salvador for up to ten days.

The Cold War was visibly ending in Europe, but fighting in the name of ideology was still ongoing in much of the “periphery,” to use the euphemistic parlance of academic experts. The Jesuits were murdered twenty years ago on November 16, as Germans on both side of the Berlin Wall were still literally knocking it down. The Jesuits were Europeans, too, who had migrated from the Basque country of Spain to El Salvador in the early 1960s. There they founded a Jesuit university intending to educate the children of the nation’s Catholic elite but to also encourage them to embrace a sense of service.

The university rector, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., was a priest who sometimes made students chuckle when he would seemingly forget the words on the rare occasion, usually at a university event, when he would give mass. But he was also among Central America’s most influential liberation theologians whose philosophy might be summed up by his book of the same name, Converting the Church into the Kingdom of God, although reading it one thinks it could have subtitled, Making the Church Work for the Poor on Earth.

Ignacio Martín-Baró, S.J., who was also slain on the university lawn, was the head of the university’s psychology department. He was an accomplished theorist, but his main concern was to document and find ways to treat the trauma that was spreading through Salvadoran society as a result of the then-ongoing war. He also called the Army soldiers who were about to kill him and his colleagues a slang term for carrion, according to residents who overheard the murders from houses just over a fence from the Jesuit residence. Afterward, one soldier popped open a can of beer.

Segundo Montes, S.J., headed the university sociology department. He and his staff not only documented human rights abuses along with the refugees that were being created by the war, but he befriended one mountainous, rural community in Eastern El Salvadoran whose members renamed the town in his name after the murders. He also knew how to reach his more well-off, urban students and would even show Hollywood films like “Beaches,” which was translated as “Friends” in Spanish, starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey. “What is the meaning of friendship,” asked Montes, “in war?”

But the Salvadoran Army didn’t murder the university priests over what they taught their students. No, the nation’s U.S.-backed military commanders most likely killed them because the Jesuits led by Ellacuría had consistently advocated a negotiated end to the nation’s long civil war. While hardliners on both sides had long sought to completely eradicate the other, Ellacuría was among the first to point out that negotiations leading to a peace accord was not only the only way to end the fighting, but to also save the nation’s overwhelmingly poor population from more needless suffering.

Ellacuría, while he had been in danger before like many others, starting receiving a slew of threats along with insinuations singling him out as early as 1985. By then the war seemed to be at an impasse, and the political space for students, trade unionists, farm workers and others to demonstrate their grievances again seemed to be opening. Ellacuría began writing about “a third force” between the two warring sides that could help pave the road to negotiations.

By the late 1980s, the new U.S. weaponry and training provided to government forces had improved the military’s performance, but the Marxist insurgency only seemed to be growing stronger as well. The issue seemed to be, how long might the war go on? The leftist guerrilla leadership clandestinely left El Salvador for the first time in nearly a decade in 1988. Visiting Mexico, Nicaragua, and nations in Western Europe, they learned that Marxism around the world was on the wane, and began listening to many sympathetic voices encouraging them to accept the idea of a negotiated settlement.

But the FMLN leaders, who each represented one of five distinct revolutionary parties, decided that they would need to fight first and launch an offensive to demonstrate their strength and try and compel the Salvadoran military to the negotiating table. Who knew that the rebels would end up launching one of the largest offensives by a Marxist insurgency the world had ever seen less than 48 hours after the Berlin Wall started falling?

The Salvadoran Army found itself surrounded by guerrillas dug into positions among the civilian population. The government then led by President Alfredo Cristiani of the right-wing and formerly death squad-linked ARENA party simply stopped talking to the press as the President and his spokesmen took cover. The U.S. embassy began holding daily press briefings to try and fill in the gap.

Early in the morning of November 16, members of the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion awoke the six Jesuits from their sleep, forced them outside and shot them with automatic weapons. Another of the leading priests, Jon Sobrino, S.J., survived as he happened to be away that night from the Jesuit residence. The soldiers killed the housekeeper and her daughter in order to try and eliminate any witnesses.

With the Salvadoran government unwilling to comment, U.S. Ambassador William Walker decided to provide a narrative to the press. He suggested that it was the guerrillas who had killed the Jesuits. Indeed there was no love lost between at least some of the rebel commanders and Ellacuría, as he was also critical of many guerrilla actions and abuses. But no motive Ambassador Walker suggested made sense. A U.N. truth commission later established that the decision to murder Ellacuría and other leading Jesuit priests had been made by consensus at a meeting of the high command presided over by Chief of Staff René Emilio Ponce.

On the first anniversary of the murders, dozens of Catholic cardinals from around the world came to a ceremony on El Salvador’s Jesuit university campus. Wearing their customary red caps, they participated in the mass that marked the martyrs’ deaths. This month on the twentieth anniversary campuses from Boston College to the University of Central America in El Salvador will mark their deaths.

Of course the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter hardly died alone. At least 70,000 people died in El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, many if not most at the hands of rightist death squads or military forces. El Salvador is only one of many so-called peripheral nations where the warm blood of many was shed in the Cold War.

Frank Smyth, who covered El Salvador for CBS News Radio, The Village Voice, The Economist and other outlets, is co-author of Dialogue and Armed Conflict: Negotiating the Civil War in El Salvador. He is an Adjunct Professor in the School of Communication at American University.

Salvadoran Rebels Anticipated Soviet Fall, Shifted Tack

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SAN SALVADOR – EL SALVADOR’S leftist guerrilla movement began moving away from Marxism-Leninism several years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, they and independent analysts say.

Since the FMLN was already in transition, the Soviet Union’s collapse “wasn’t like a bucket of cold water, but of water which was already warmed,” says William, a pseudonym for a high-ranking 15-year veteran of the Salvadoran Communist Party, one of five rebel organizations that make up the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) coalition.

On Feb. 1, El Salvador’s 12-year civil war came to an end as a result of UN-mediated negotiations. With the FMLN now a legal entity openly participating in the political process, its members are willing for the first time to discuss previous clandestine relations with the Soviet Union and other countries.

“We’ve studied all the texts, Marxism-Leninism, Mao, and social democracy,” says Chano Guevara, a peasant who rose to become a top FMLN comandante in the rebel stronghold of Guazapa volcano. “But if we had followed the socialist camp we wouldn’t exist now. We continue to exist [because of] the politically and economically rooted problems in this country.”

Despite their ongoing ties to Cuba, the FMLN is one of the largest leftist insurgencies in the world to accept democracy. The decision to make reforms in advance of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a main reason the FMLN remains a viable political force in El Salvador, Western experts say.

“The age of the romantic revolutionary linked with Marxist-Leninist ideology is finished,” said Wayne Smith, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who was the chief United States diplomat in Cuba in the early 1980s. “[But] movements such as the FMLN, who champion the poor but who do it through electoral means, are going to have a growing place in Latin America.”

The FMLN’s transition began as a direct result of changes in the Soviet Union. Although by the late 1980s, the FMLN was not dependent on the Soviet bloc to continue fighting, the insurgency would have needed direct foreign aid if they had ever taken power by force. But as early as 1986, the reform government of Mikhail Gorbachev communicated to the FMLN that it favored a negotiated settlement and would not finance a new leftist government, FMLN sources say.

Guerrilla leaders left secluded base camps in northern El Salvador to embark on a nine-country tour of Latin America in October 1988. FLMN leaders had always viewed themselves as within a broad vein of Latin American nationalism. But on this tour, they received criticism from many governments considered allies, such as Mexico, Argentina, and Peru, all of whom encouraged the rebels to consider a negotiated settlement.

THE rebel leadership was especially influenced by the dramatic decline of the Nicaraguan economy in the late 1980s, which signaled that no revolution in Central America could survive in isolation, FLMN sources say.

FMLN leaders were also swayed by changes in Eastern Europe. Most, including the FMLN’s top comandante and strategist, Joaquin Villalobos, supported popular reform movements there. Two months after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a January 1990 internal document was published, which praises the “social forces that demand more democracy and independence” in Eastern Europe and openly rejects a one-party state.

“The people are removing the authoritarian, inept, and corrupt governments,” notes the document. “The masses feel … they must sweep out the mistakes of the parties in power, as well as their old and closed formulas.”

More than 1,000 Salvadoran revolutionaries received political and military training in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Nicaragua, they and East German sources say.

“During the week we had classes in Spanish,” says William, who was in the Soviet Union for nine months in 1979-80. “On weekends, we all had military training.”

The Soviet Union, Cuba, and to a lesser degree Nicaragua provided funds, weapons, and training to the FMLN throughout the war, FMLN veterans here say. But the support was heaviest in the early 1980s, they say.

While Moscow began to distance itself from the FMLN in 1986, East Germany continued to train Salvadorans until the collapse of the Berlin Wall, according to an East German who worked with the FMLN there.

In order to make up the aid shortfall, the FLMN developed new sources of weapons and funds from radical third-world countries including Vietnam and North Korea, and won substantial funding from church groups in the US and Western Europe, FMLN veterans say.

The Cubans, however, were the FMLN’s most consistent backers, providing specialized military training, as well as materiel and other support to the Salvadoran insurgency throughout the war, FLMN veterans say.

“We still have relations with Cuba, Vietnam and others,” says Ramon Medrano, a member of the FMLN’s top political commission, “and we have a right to.”

The insurgency also received substantial funds from several social democratic Scandinavian countries, especially in the early 1980s, according to FMLN veterans.

This eclectic base of support boosted the insurgency, FMLN leaders say. Nonetheless, they insist that the insurgency itself was domestically rooted, and that degree of foreign support was always exaggerated by the US.Some Western experts agree. “I don’t think there’s any question the Cubans helped the FMLN,” said Dr. Smith. “[But] the movement would have continued without any outside help at all.”

FMLN units extorted war taxes — running as high as $60,000 from individual coffee growers during harvest season, rebel and coffee-producing sources here say.

Throughout the war, these and other funds were used to buy weapons from the Salvadoran military, which ran a ubiquitous business in sales of US-provided weapons, according to FMLN operatives and civilians involved in arms transactions with Salvadoran military officers.

Caught With Their Pants Down: Why U.S. Policy – and Intelligence – Failed in Salvador

Original story can be found here.

“I DON’T THINK THEY HAVE the capability,” said a U.S. Embassy official as he sipped coffee one Saturday morning in the tropical setting of his patio. I asked him if he thought rumors of an upcoming rebel offensive were true. “We’ve heard some things,” he said. “But ESAF’s [El Salvador Armed Forces] taken measures to prevent it.”

Seven and a half hours later, heavy gunfire had made his pleasant, suburban street impassable. He was forced to barricade his family inside his home for hours as the battle raged.

Ever since Vietnam, U.S. policymakers have underestimated Third World guerilla movements. Although the Salvadoran military twice detected concrete evidence of planned rebel attacks the week before they occurred, both the army and their U.S. advisors preferred to believe their own propaganda. For years, U.S. officials had said the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was losing this war. They never expected the FMLN to launch the most spectacular military offensive in the history of the 10-year civil war.

IN HINDSIGHT, it’s hard to see how anyone could have missed it. The grassroots guerilla activity amounted to a national conspiracy; tens of thousands of people participated in preparations for the offensive. Truckloads of rice, beans, bullets, and medicine were stockpiled in poor barrios.

The night before the offensive, U.S. Embassy personnel indulged in their annual Marine Corps ball. Most U.S. officials rarely get out of Escalon and the other affluent suburbs on the western side of the capital. Most of the staff press corps live out there as well. On the night the offensive began, the resident correspondents for Newsweek, Associated Press, and The New York Times were out of the country.

“They were caught with their pants down,” said one Western diplomat. Considering the level of U.S. commitment here–after 10 years and nearly $4 billion in aid–the failure to even remotely estimate the rebel strength amounts to the worst intelligence blunder since the fall of the Shah.

And then there’s President Alfredo Cristiani’s startled, unglued eyes after the reverberating crump of several bombs exploding outside his headquarters disrupting his press conference last week. They normally unflappable squash champion had just finished telling the cameras that the Salvadoran army had regained control of the capital.

The rebel offensive has forever changed the face of Salvadoran politics. On one hand, the FMLN has demonstrated that it can stand up to the greatest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort since Vietnam. On the other, the rebel drive has generated a rightist backlash of killing and repression not seen since the slaughter of the Archbishop Oscar Romero, four American nuns, and thousands of others in the early 1980s.

Thousands more are now likely to be killed. A military-impose, dusk-to-dawn curfew will provide cover for dragging targeted victims out of their homes. Trade unions, student, and other popular organizations have already become inactive or gone underground. But it’s the above-ground church activists, especially those who work with the poor, who have the most to fear.

Once more, the same old policy debate in Washington has also begun to round up the usual suspects. Critics are pointing to the slaying of six Jesuit priests by uniformed men (nearly every non-U.S. Western diplomat in town will tell you that the Salvadoran military was, at the very least, complicit in the crime) to argue against military and economic assistant. The State Department, on the other hand, is rattling its sabers after a plane loaded with sophisticated, Russian-made surface-to-air missiles was discovered apparently en route to the rebels from Managua.

The cold choice between human rights and “national security” was what both Reagan and Bush administration officials had long tried to avoid. But rather than admit that U.S. policy has run aground, American officials continue to engage in spin-control diplomacy, blaming the press and not the policy. During a press conference, Ambassador Walker tried to argue that the fighting in El Salvador is not a war. When I pointed out that was just what U.S. officials had said in Vietnam, U.S. Information Officer Barry Jacobs stepped forward, pointed his index finger and them at me as if it were a pistol, and jerked it upward in imaginary recoil.

“WE’RE ALL SCARED,” said a young heavyset Salvadoran woman, “because we’ve never seen anything like this before.” She was standing with about a dozen local residents at a recently built rebel barricade. Most said they had never seen a real guerilla before.

Like many other poor barrios around the country, popular organization in Santa Marta is a strong but mostly clandestine. Both rebel operatives and government oreja–informants–live close together here; on one street; unbeknownst to the oreja, the guerillas even live next door.

The FMLN tried to judge potential support when choosing areas to occupy. Once the offensive began, thousands of rebels too fixed positions in the east, south, and north of the capital city. When the muchachos appeared, some civilians joined the struggle. But depending on whom you talked to and when, the rebels’ presence brought a mixture of hope, resentment, and fear.

“What we’re afraid of is the plans will come and massacre everyone,” said a mother standing at a barricade of bricks and overturned cars in the street.

“A fear we have,” explained an older woman in an apron. “It’s natural. But for me, more than anything, I have hope that there will be change.”

The 28-year-old urban commando in charge of the barricade, Izabel, represents a second generation of committed guerillas. She sat cross-legged on the floor, and asked a group of journalists for identification.
Izabel looked slightly surreal in the shell-pocked barrio wearing a bright turquoise bandanna and a dark blue polo shirt, cradling her AK-47. Her red nail polish was fading, like the bruises between her cheekbones and eyes.

She explained she had been captured by the Treasury Police the week before. “But I didn’t give information– not a thing,” she said, smiling. “So they beat me.”

Izabel directed the rebel occupation from a second-story window while other rebels prepared homemade contact bombs on the floor below. Barricades were being erected on nearly every street. The guerillas had about 10 square blocks under their control. Other guerilla unites were positioned a few miles away.

In these northern sectors, the rebels moved among apartment buildings and shantytowns. Taking cover in a cement stairway during a firefight, I encountered someone I recognized from the national university. His day pack was filled with ammunition. Like hundreds of students, trade unionists, and other activists, he had abandoned his legal life for the FMLN.

In this new urban context, the revels intentionally mixed experienced fighters with new recruits. Roberto, a commander and a veteran fighter from the countryside, climbed up the stairs. Moises, a 16-year-old recruit, held a position in the corner balcony on the upper floor. The sound of the gunfire was deafening; we both took cover as bullets ricocheted off the walls. Cringing slightly with each blast, Moises told me this was his first time in combat.

The FMLN’s success in switching from rural to urban warfare surprised even themselves. They demonstrated more military capability in seven days than Nicaraguan contras had demonstrated in that many years. Their immediate objective was to take hold parts of the city in a vivid demonstration of strength: they held most urban areas for about a week.

But some guerilla commanders I talked to said their ultimate goal was to take power. “Here we are and we will defend [our position] until freedom has arrived,” predicted Izabel. She and the 40 rebels under her command successfully repelled three government advances that week.

Later that day, a photographer saw Izabel’s body among the pile of 13 dead guerillas. She still wore her bright turquoise bandanna. Her pants were ripped, leaving the business card I had given her exposed in her leg. Several years ago, a similar mistake resulted in the assassinations of four Dutch journalists. By the time I arrived to retrieve it, soldiers had doused the corpse with gasoline. Izabel and her companions were left burning in the street.

THE HELICOPTER CIRCLED slowly overhead. I was in the northern sector of Zacamil, interviewing a woman in a shantytown among several thousand mud-and-split bamboo shacks. On the third approach, the pilot fired a single rocket in my direction, exploding about a hundred yards away.

There was gunfire on two sides, but none coming from the ridge where the rocket had landed. I approached a man whose face and arm were covered in blood. “They’ve just killed my family,” he said. The rocket had hit his home; his wife and two daughters were inside.

The severe reaction of the Salvadoran military to the rebel offensive surprised even its most ardent critics. The strafing, rocketing, and later bombing of heavily populated civilian areas was more than indiscriminate. Unlike in wealthy suburbs to the west, the Salvadoran military demonstrated a total disregard for the safety and well-being of its indigent residents.

Señor periodista, señor periodista [Mr. journalist], please tell them to stop firing on our home,” said one many fleeing with about 50 others. “This isn’t the countryside. We live here.” Scores of families, carrying bundles of belongings and white flags, fled en masse from San Salvador’s poorer neighborhoods. At least a thousand people are known to have been killed since the fighting began; countless others have been wounded.

“Look at the beds,” said one elderly woman pointing to a pile of ashes. Following government airstrikes, row upon row of makeshift shacks were either demolished or burned. In Soyapango, entire blocks were destroyed. Reporters saw massive craters from what appear to have been 500-pound bombs.

“We don’t have anything left,” said a mother surveying the rubble that was once her home. “They just fired and fired.”

Military attitudes notwithstanding, the political cost to the government for the air war on the city will be tremendous. “Why don’t they negotiate” with the rebels, screamed one woman after her family in Zacamil was rocketed and killed.

They’re destroying the country,” said another woman fleeing from bombing raids in Soyapango.

“Who?” I asked.

“The same people who did that,” she said, referring to the brutal slaying of six Jesuit priests and academics.

FATHERS IGNACIO ELLACURIA, Ignacio Martin-Baro, and Segundo Montes were the country’s leading intellectuals, as well as El Salvador’s most articulate and compelling critics of both the Salvadoran government and U.S. policy. Their killings were only the beginning.

Religious activities across the country have been targeted. More than 41 church volunteers, including 20 foreigners, have been captured. U.S.-born Catholic priest Jim Barnet and Lutheran minister Bill Dexheimer received death threats and left the country.

U.S. volunteer Jennifer Casolo also received a death threat by telephone. At 10:30 Saturday night, soldiers entered her home. They claimed to have found one of the largest guerilla arms caches since the offensive began buried in her backyard.

Casolo organized visiting religious and congressional delegations. Anyone who knows her would say the accusation is preposterous. But privately U.S. officials say they expect her to be tried, convicted and send to a Salvadoran jail.

Casolo, like the Jesuits, is being made an example. Independent criticism is no longer acceptable. And meddling by foreigners in Salvadoran affairs will no longer be tolerated.

AFTER THE AIRSTRIKES here first started, Ambassador Walker said he had “no knowledge” of government bombing. But other U.S. officials had already admitted the government was bombing urban areas of the city. Once religious volunteer who lives in a targeted area was told the situation was out of the embassy’s control.

But that hardly meant that Americans were not involved in the terror bombing of San Salvador’s people. On November 15 at approximately 10:15 in the morning, a conversation between a U.S. military advisor in a “Blackhawk” observation helicopter and “retelo,” the U.S. military command center in San Salvador, was intercepted by radio. The observer told retelo the Salvadoran air force needed to “hit” an area several blocks “north of the church.”

U.S. advisors in El Salvador are prohibited from participating in or directing government raids. Shortly after this transmission, a senior U.S. military official monitoring the conversation broke in ordering all such communications to be done “on push 5”–-a scrambling system installed last February after U.S. military advisors became aware that journalists were monitoring their communications.

After years of self-deception, American policy had finally been unveiled. “That’s why they’re here” said a diplomat from a U.S.-allied country, “to keep the place in order–-to keep the place from turning commie.”

“Why would they kill Jesuits?” asked the diplomat, referring to the army. “It’s another Romero,” he said. “It’s starting again.”

A Blood-spattered Stalemate

Eastern Chalatenango, El Salvador — A helicopter gunship riddled the landscape with heavy machine-gun fire as a battalion of 200 elite army soldiers trailed on the ground behind.

Two miles away, a patrol of six guerrillas kept track on the oncoming battalion, communicating with fellow rebels by radio. They knew the exact location of the troops, but rather than engage the superior force they prudently pulled back. Once the soldiers passed, the rebels reassumed positions they had held before.

The army’s counterinsurgency deployment and the guerrillas’ game of cat and mouse was typical of the 9-year-old conflict between the U.S.-backed government of this Central American nation and the leftist rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

It is one reason the Salvadoran army has been unable to defeat the rebels. The army is larger and better equipped, but the rebels are quick and elusive and rely on the support of the populace.

A top U.S. military analyst described the civil war as a “strategic stalemate.” The rebels are not strong enough to take power. But the army is not effective enough to “liquidate the guerrillas,” he said.

The U.S. Embassy rarely comments on military tactics. But privately U.S. officials say that the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency is not going well.

The stakes for U.S. policy are high. Since civil war broke out in 1980, El Salvador has received more than $3.3 billion in U.S. aid. Once barely known to policy-makers, this small Central American republic of five million has become the fifth largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid.

No regular U.S. ground troops have been deployed in El Salvador. But four U.S. Army lieutenant colonels who studied the level of training, material assistance and technical support provided by the United States described U.S. participation in the Salvadoran conflict as “the most significant sustained military enterprise since Vietnam.”

And the outcome remains uncertain. Former U.S. Ambassador Edwin Corr has estimated it would take at least until 1994 to beat down the guerrillas. Other U.S. officials say it may take longer. And in an interview, a senior State Department analyst said that the government of El Salvador remains vulnerable to the guerrilla threat.
Some U.S. military advisers blame the Salvadoran government for the prolonged stalemate.

The U.S.-backed Salvadoran army is reluctant to break down into the kind of small units that advisers say are essential to counter the insurgency. And government troops, they say, have become too dependent on their U.S.-supplied firepower, which they use more to, defend themselves than to attack. “It’s like chasing a mosquito with a hammer,” one military analyst said.

Most army casualties result from guerrilla ambushes or mines, said military sources, not from coordinated guerrilla offensives.

The guerrillas — including about 6,000 full-time combatants — are outnumbered more than 9 to 1 by the army. But they are attracting recruits. And a U.S. official who monitors the war says the rebels are “more committed and more effective” now than before.

The key to the rebels’ success is the civilian population in areas they control, said a top U.S. military analyst who has advised other Central American countries in counterinsurgency operations.

Army troops who have patrolled in Chalatenango province say that the population collaborates with the rebels.
“The majority of the people there want the guerrillas, not the armed forces,” said foot soldier Julio Ernesto Cabrera.

A guerrilla commander said the rebels have indeed organized a “clandestine power (base) within the population.”

In one village recently, the town council sponsored a dance, Government planes flew overhead as rebels, their M-16 rifles slung over their shoulders, danced La Bamba with girlfriends.

Although the terrain is rugged and mostly accessible only by foot, eastern Chalatenango is heavily populated. Many residents are war refugees who have been repatriated from neighboring Honduras in the last year.

Col. Lopez Roque, commander of the army’s 4th Brigade in Chalatenango, said the rebels have coordinated the repatriations.

The elite Atlacatl battalion passed through a number of refugee communities during its weeklong trek earlier this month and got a reminder of the rebels’ presence. On one trail, between the villages of San Jose Las Flores and Guarjila, guerrillas had disseminated hundreds of fliers just before the army arrived.

Crude sketches were scrawled on the handouts. One depicted a rebel ambush. Another showed a Nov. 1 rebel attack on a National Guard post in the capital city, San Salvador. The drawings included dead soldiers. “This is what awaits you!” read the caption below the sketch.

Such tactics can be particularly frightening to army troops. The rebels could as easily have littered the mountain trail with land mines as with propaganda, the soldiers say.

Large battalions such as the Atlacatl are able to move through rebel-held terrain. But rarely do they encounter guerrillas. And most military engagements that do occur are carried out on the rebels’ terms.

“We (engage the army) when we want to,” said a 25-year-old rebel.”

The rebels still are far from taking power. But in interviews, both the guerrillas and their civilian supporters said they were convinced that time was on their side.

“The struggle is long,” said one guerrilla. “But (we’re) not tired. We’ll fight until we win.”

Said a rebel named Israel: “This isn’t like Nicaragua, where (the guerrillas) won quickly. It’s more like Vietnam – a prolonged war.”

A former peasant, Israel has been with the guerrillas since 1979. The most difficult time, he said, was the early 1980s. Army massacres in eastern Chalatenango were common. Civilians regularly fled from oncoming government troops, rather than stay behind as they do now. The guerrillas, he said, lacked weapons as well as communications equipment.

“I started with a pistol and a homemade rifle,” said another rebel, Pickiri, who takes his nom de guerre from a revolutionary Salvadoran leader. He now is equipped with a U.S.-made M-1 6 automatic rifle.

The guerrillas also use battery-powered two, way radios in the field. The rebels say they captured the equipment from the Salvadoran army. But reliable U.S. intelligence sources say Nicaragua is the more likely source.

Since 1983, however, the flow of arms from Managua has dried up. The rebels’ M-16s in eastern Chalatenango appeared old. Although they functioned, almost half the weapons’ hard plastic stocks had broken off – replaced by homemade wooden versions.

In the last year, the rebels increasingly have manufactured their own mortars and land mines. They make them with readily available materials such as masking tape, tin cans, gunpowder and flashlight batteries. The rebels employed such “popular arms” in the surprise attack on the National Guard post in San Salvador last month, a rebel said.

The guerrillas also have tried to build troop strength and are attracting volunteers. The rebels once relied partly on forced recruitment. But even informed U.S. officials now admit that this practice has been abandoned.

The Salvadoran army, by contrast, rarely accepts volunteers. Military officials fear that those volunteering may be guerrillas trying to infiltrate the army.

Combatants on both sides are strikingly young. The army recruits males as young as 16. And a “class” of about 10 rebel volunteers ranged in age from 14 to 21 — some of them female.

A shy teen-age girl said she was being trained to be a radio operator at a secret mountain location. When asked why she joined the guerrillas, she replied, “You have to fight for the people.”

El Salvador: People Have Reason to Be Afraid

The grandmother cupped her palm under Goyito’s chin and pressed down hard with her fingers on his upper jaw. “Look, this is how we did it,” she said, demonstrating how she kept the baby from crying when government troops passed by.

“They wanted me to kill him,” said the mother, because he wouldn’t stop his sobs. “But how can you take away the life of an innocent child?”

The closest that most US citizens have ever come to such a dilemma is a television rerun of M*A*S*H. But people from Chalatenango, Morazán, Guazapa, and other war-torn areas of El Salvador pay the price of U.S. intervention every day.

Few US taxpayers could locate the country on a map. Yet, El Salvador receives more per capita U.S. assistance than any nation but Israel. These tax dollars finance what U.S. Army officers describe as “this country’s most significant sustained military enterprise since Vietnam.”

As in the Indochina War, insurgent guerrillas have organized whole sectors of the population to support their cause. Unable to defeat the guerrillas, U.S.-backed government troops make civilians targets in the war.

At least 70,000 people — more than one percent of El Salvador’s population — have died. According to America’s Watch, most were civilian non-combatants killed by the military or right-wing paramilitary groups. Maria Julia Hernandez of Tutela Legal, the official human rights office of the Catholic Church, says the U.S.-backed Salvadoran armed forces are responsible for 85 percent of human rights-related crimes.

Nonetheless, the government has failed to quell the resistance. Leaders of the death squad-linked Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party argue that a new state of siege is required. Already in control of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly and scheduled to assume the Presidency June 1, 1989, they advocate a strategy of “total war.”

A mother held up pictures of three handsome boys. “The truth, they were organized” she said. In the photos, each wore a jacket and tie and has neatly combed black hair. They were killed, she said, by the Army.

Despite the loss, the mother and her surviving daughters still have hope. “The people are going to win,” said the oldest. She is the community organizer for the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Such carnage has left the country scarred. “There’s a thing here of fear,” said a Maryknoll priest living in a poor barrio in San Salvador, “people have reason to be afraid.”

In another marginal neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital, a group of women and children sing. “When the poor believe in the poor, then we’ll sing freely, then we’ll create brotherhood.”

“We’re here because of the violence,” said Alejandra, a 33-year-old mother of two. She lives in a mud and split bamboo shack along the Pan-American highway near Santa Tecla. Like the rest of her community, she is a peasant displaced from the fighting.

The barrio is featured in a glossy new brochure from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). The Agency says it provides economic aid to offset the impact of the war. But according to both Alejandra and her neighbors, their community receives no help from either the Salvadoran or U.S. government.

Sometimes we don’t have money for food, she said. Alejandra usually earns money when coffee or other cash crops are in season. On a good day she can make about $2; she earns 65 cents for every 25 pounds of picked beans.

Fifteen-year-old Leticia is another displaced peasant. “Well, they send money and food,” she said, “but no se baja — it doesn’t trickle down.”

The only thing that trickles down to Leticia and her family is filth. She lives off Avenida Masferrer where the sewage from the surrounding wealthy suburb of Escalon empties out.

“It’s very dangerous,” said Leticia, “because of the floods.” The outflow from the sewer pipe is heavy during the rainy season which begins in May. Pointing to the open-air clearing where the family cooks. “Last time,” she said, “it washed away the kitchen.”

Both economic and social conditions have deteriorated since the war began. The combination of under-and unemployment for example, is over 65 percent. The country’s infant mortality rate is now one of the highest in Latin America. And rural health care is so poor that more than 100 children died of a measles epidemic in the first three months of this year.

Our greatest hope is that “there will be peace,” said Virginia. “But not a peace where one person is eating and another is dying of hunger.”

Virginia is from the recently rebuilt community of Guarjila, Chalatenango. She is one of 6,000 Salvadorans repatriated from refugee camps in Honduras over the past two years.

Guarjila lies within area controlled by FMLN guerrillas. But government battalions and patrols frequently pass through the zone. “They do it just to scare us,” said Virginia. “We don’t want any more rivers of blood.”

The image is only part metaphor. On May 14, 1980 several thousand fleeing refugees, mostly women and children, tried to cross the Sumpul River into Honduras. They were turned back by gunfire from Honduran soldiers, and then attacked in midstream by Salvadoran helicopters and troops. At least 600 people were killed.

The beat of rotary blades brings such images to mind. A mile outside the village a helicopter hovering high in the air fires at a small rebel patrol.

Earlier in the conflict, residents in the area fled and hid in secret underground shelters when the army passed by. But now, as a result, of increased world attention on human rights, they stay.

But repression, although more selective, continues. Earlier this year, for instance, the army’s elite Atlacatl Battalion captured four locally-elected leaders from the remote village of Arcatao. With the ARENA party in power, more such abuse is expected. Already in April, riot police raided the office of CRIPDES, a Christian organization of displaced refugees, detaining 75. Most of these were women, children, and wounded. A mother with a three-day-old infant was among the prisoners of war.

At one point, riot police tried to separate one young wounded male from the rest. When he and others resisted, the police clubbed detainees into submission. Behind the closed doors of interrogation cells, both physical and psychological abuse is common. But according to Americas Watch and other human rights groups, the techniques, such as immersing one’s head repeatedly in filthy water, have been refined so as not to leave telltale marks behind.

“This is the suffering of this war,” said Jose from the town of San Jose Las Flores. He lost his wife and four children to the Army. “I was angry,” he said. “You know, that was my own blood.”

“This doesn’t seem right to me,” added Soila, whose weather-beaten face bore the pain of many years of conflict. “What they’re doing is against a population that is struggling against the system in which we live.”

Some boys played soccer in the square, as a pair of teenage women guerrillas walked by.

“We’re going to sing in Liberty Park [in San Salvador],” said Jose, smiling as he nodded his head, “when we have the triumph in our hands.”

Secret Warriors: U.S. Advisers Have Taken Up Arms in El Salvador

Original story found here.

MR. NIELDS: Well, you put in some blanks. You said “blank” in two places. There’s nothing classified about either of these words. One of them is CIA—
MR. NIELDS: —and the other is Southern Command. “Delicate state of transition from CIA run op to Southern Command run op.”
LT. COL. NORTH: That’s referring to the country in which FR [Felix Rodriguez] was living, and I though that was a classified program. It has nothing to do with the Nicaraguan resistence.

El Salvador was the country in question, not Nicaragua. Chief House Counsel John Nields was quoting from notes that North had taken on a conversation with then U.S. Southern Command head General Paul Gorman; the brief exchange between Nields and North, on the afternoon of July 8, went largely unnoticed in the voluminous Iran-contra press coverage. But they shed dirst light on the participation of U.S. military and paramilitary personnel in combat in El Salvador.

Fighting in El Salvador has been more intense and claimed more lives than the better-known “contra war” in nearby Nicaragua. El Salvador has been a laboratory for the post-Vietnam Pentagon, which has been trying to figure out how to run a massive counterinsurgency program without committing U.S. troops. Judging from death tolls, the Pentagon’s efforts have been quite “successful.” But in another sense, the plan has gone awry. A military counterinsurgency specialist notes that the U.S. never intended to implement some “Machiavellian plan.” That, however, is exactly what the Salvador counterinsurgency has turned out to be.

The U.S. has backed the Salvadoran government in its war against leftist insurgents for the past seven years. The Reagan administration has provided El Salvador with over $1.5 billion in war-related aid since 1981, and has assigned a group of U.S. military advisers to the country. The advisers, limited by a White House-Congress agreement to no more than 55 at a time, are prohibited from entering combat.

Yet U.S. advisers have engaged in combat in El Salvador, according to interviews with military sources.

The exchange between Nields and North refers to a secret military operations involving both the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces of the Southern Command. Following the initial exposure of this operation during the July 8 hearings, CIA officials quoted in The Los Angeles Times admitted that the agency’s operatives had trained and led military teams in El Salvador. These officials would not say whether the units sough out the enemy or willingly engaged in combat. The purpose of these missions, CIA officials said, was to collect intelligence information on guerilla movements in order to call in air strikes.

Documents obtained from the War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, however, indicate that “Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols,” trained and led by the CIA with assistance from the U.S. Army Special Forces, were heavily engaged in combat. The documents, dated January 1, 1985, state: “One of the more gratifying improvements was the establishment of a Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (PRAL) capability….This unit, operating in small teams, has accounted for hundreds of guerilla casualties and has been instrumental in disrupting guerrilla combat operations, logistical nets and base camps.”

These teams consist of two to seven specially trained Salvadoran troops, led by a CIA paramilitary operative. It is inconceivable that the CIA operatives who accompanies and led these united did not engage in combat. The War College report, for example, which is entitled “El Salvador: Observations and Experiences in Counterinsurgency,” describted the PRAL teams as one of the most effective components of the government’s counterinsurgency. “The unit has proven that El Salvadoran troops, with the proper training and leadership, can operate effectively in small groups and they have set a standard of valor for the rest of the [Armed Forces]” (emphasis added).

The War College documents state that PRAL units were first trained by the Third Battalion of the U.S. 7th Special Forces in Panama. Former 7th Special Forces advisers with experience in El Salvador and Central America reveal that U.S. military advisers, in addition to CIA paramilitary operatives, engaged in combat operations in El Salvador and neighboring countries.

Many of these advisers are from Puerto Rico, where the U.S. military recruits heavily with an eye towards Central America operations. A former Special Forces operative from Puerto Rico, who participated in the 1968 Bolivian campaign that resulted in the death of Che Guevera, was called back from retirement to aid in counterinsurgency training.

The bulk of this covert involvement, former Special Forces operatives say, occurred from 1982 to 1984, when U.S. military aid and assistance to El Salvador was highly controversial .

When the Reagan administration first came to power in 1981, El Salvador, not Nicaragua, was its primary concern in Central America. Leftist guerilla forces of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was growing and by 1982 controlled up to one-third of the country’s terrain. There was great fear in Washington of a leftist takeover, and the administration was and still is committed to preventing the “loss” of a second Central American nation after Nicaragua.

The Salvadoran armed forces were plagued by incompetence, corruption, and poor leadership. In the early stage of the conflict, the military and the extreme right committed some of the worst human rights atrocities in the region’s history. More than 28,000 people were killed by 1982, according to the San Salvador archdiocese’s human rights office, most of them at the hands of Salvadoran armed forces.

The U.S. began to equip and train the Salvadoran military in 1981, at a time when their repressive activities were most out of control. The U.S. Army’s Mobile Training Team began by creating Atlacatl Immediate Action Battalion. A second Immediate Action Battalion, Atonal, was trained in 1982. A third battalion, Ramon Belloso, was trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, in the same year. Brought to the U.S. to overcome the limitations imposed by the 55-adviser limit, the Belloso battalion cost $8 million to train.

In a similar effort to overcome the 55-man limit, small marine-commando units were trained by elite U.S. Navy SEAL unites in Panama, Additional marine commandos were trained in El Salvador. In 1983, the very successful and feared Arce Cazador or “hunter” patrols, were trained in El Salvador and Honduras by the U.S.

Eventually, these elite units and battalions began to make a difference in the war, but a chronic shortage of competent and specifically trained battle officers contined to complicate operations in the field. “Souble or tripple hatting,” for example, where a company commander might also take on the duties of an operations officer or an intelligence officer, was common.

As a result, military sources say, U.S. advisers were forced to take a more active role in the filed. The air force representative of the U.S. Military Group, for example, was moved from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to the air base in Ilopango. The U.S. Military Group consists of about 13 midranking officers, whom the Department of Defense does not clarify as advisers. According to the January 1985 War College report, the senior air force representtive became a “full-time advisor” to Salvadoran Air Force commander Colonel Bustillo.

Former Special Forces advisers say tht U.S. advisers were also assigned as Combat Brigade Officers to advise and assist Salvadoran battle operations in the field. Providing full-time advice to Salvadoran colonels, these Special Forces advisers functioned as intelligence or operations officers for infantry brigades. Intelligence officers attempt to predict enemy movements; operations officers plan and coordinate attacks.

U.S. advisers are, of course, prohibited from participation in combat manuevers and are told not to discuss the nature of their assignments with these brigades. A brigade consists of two to four battalions, which are the principal combat units in countering a guerilla war. A former Special Forces adviser says these assignments were spontaneous and erratic, due to the highly secretive nature of this operation and the U.S. government’s attempt to keep it concealed.

Smaller team-size units of independent Special Forces troops, a U.S. military officer says, were also deployed in Honduras along the Salvadoran border in 1982 and 1983. It is not clear that they engaged in combat. The Reagan administration hoped these teams could stop the overland arms flow from Nicaragua through Honduras to El Salvador. But another goal of this operation, military sources say, was to find and produce evidence of such a flow to further the administration’s overall policy aims. The administration has repeatedly accused the Sandinistas of aiding the leftist rebels in El Salvador and has advanced this argument to justify military aid to both the contras in Nicaragua and the government in El Salvador. Reliable U.S. military intelligence sources say the FMLN does receive weapons from abroad, but the flow has decreased substantially since 1982. The guerillas are generally able to get what they need on the Salvadoran black market, including U.S.-supplied M-16s. A year ago, I was quoted a prie of $2000 for an M-16 in San Salvador; bulk prices would presumably be lower.

Overall, the counterinsurgency effort in El Salvador represents the largest commitment of U.S. resources to a developing country since the Vietnam War. Unlike Vietnam, the Pentagon has been unable to run this war without using large numbers of troops; the assigning of CIA operatives and Special Forces advisers to patrol behind enemy lines has been crucial to the new, scaled-down strategy. Nevertheless, though direct participation by U.S. resouces has been markedly low, in the past few months a number of Special Forces personnel have been wounded or killed.

Many Salvadoran officers and units singled out by the War College for their effectiveness, such as former lieutenant colonel Sigfrido Ochoa, are some of the worst known violators of human rights. Elite U.S.-trained battalions such as Arce, Atonal, and Atlacatl are favorite sons of the U.S. Department of Defense. But these same battalions have been responsible for a host of massacres since 1981.

For example, the Atlacal battalion massacred 700 people in a “search and destroy” mission in El Mozote in northeast Morazán in 1981. More recently, the Arce Battalion killed five suspected “subversives” last May. The victims, who were peasants, were shot and dumped in a well at Los Palitos in the eastern province of San Miguel. Colonel Mauricio Staben, the commander of Arce battalion, is believed to have overseen the killing of hundreds of suspected leftists or sympathizers. Last sprin, the U.S.-trained colonel was also implicated in a kidnapping-for-profit ring, but no charges were brought after fellow officers came to his defense.
Although the conflict in Nicaragua has domintated U.S. attention in the past six months, measured in terms of resource commitment the war in El Salvador is the Reagan administration’s primary concern. The administration claims that most of its assistance is development-related. But three-fourths of U.S. aid to El Salvador goes either directly or indirectly to the war.

The Salvadoran armed forces have expanded from 14,000 in 1981, when the U.S. began to play an active role, to 54,000 troops last year. El Salvador’s leftist guerillas , on the other hand, have decreased from 10,000 to less than 6000 combatants, many of whom have been fighting throughout the last seven years. The War College documents state that one goal of the adminstration’s policy is “neutralization of the guerillas.” As a result, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Edwin Corr predicts that war will drag on another seven to 10 years. Already 60,000 people have died; 25 per cent of the popuation is displaced.

The CIA no longer leads PRAL missions in El Salvador, as coordination of that and other Salvadoran military efforts have been handed over to the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces of the Panama-based Southern Command. The Special Forces’ goal is to “professionalize” the Salvadoran military, and according to the War College documents, “sensitize” them to the issue of human rights. Even the Pentagon realizes the war will not be won by “simply killing guerillas.” Yet, despite administration claims to the contrary, killing is the only thing the Salvadoran military does well.