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.

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.

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.”

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: 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.”

Duarte’s Secret Friends

Original article found here.

José Napoleón Duarte has completed the first half of his five-year term as President of El Salvador, and his position has never been weaker. In the past year Duarte has seen a serious erosion of his formerly solid peasant and working-class support. Once the strongest in Central America, Salvadoran labor unions were decimated by state repression in the early 1980s. But they have steadily regrouped and now confront Duarte’s U.S.-backed government with its fiercest political challenge yet.

Classified documents from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador reveal that the Reagan Administration has responded by trying to divide and destroy the new independent labor movement. The Administration’s main instrument has been the American Institute for Free Labor Development, a branch of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Created in 1962, in the wake of the Cuban revolution, AIFLD receives more than 90 percent of its funding from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Its 1986 budget for operations in El Salvador was $3.5 million, and documents obtained by The Nation show that some of that money was used to entice the Popular Democratic Union (U.P.D.), an important formerly pro-Duarte federation, away from an influential new grouping sympathetic to the guerrilla opposition. Reached for comment on March 2, AIFLD spokesman Jack Heberie denied that the organization has any role in the U.P.D.’s defection from the new coalition. He also denied AIFLD involvement in furthering any aspect of U.S. policy in El Salvador.

According to a memorandum dated November 22, 1986, classified “secret” and addressed from AMEMBASSY SAN SALVADOR to SECSTATE (Secretary of State George Shultz), U.S. officials were “overjoyed” by the success of their attack on the opposition labor movement and intend to continue to “pick off” further independent unions “one-by-one. ”

AIFLD claims that it is an independent labor organization created to promote the growth of democratic trade unions in Latin America. In fact, it regularly functions as a surreptitious tool of U.S. foreign policy. According to official sources, classified U.S. documents are routinely circulated to AIFLD’s offices in both San Salvador and Washington, and AIFLD regularly reports on its activities to U.S. government officials in San Salvador.

For the past year AIFLD’s country director for El Salvador, the Cuban-born Clemente Hernández, has collaborated with the U.S. labor attaché for El Salvador, Francis (Paco) Scanlan, to ruin the opposition trade union movement in El Salvador. Following a pattern that is typical of AIFLD tactics in Latin America, in November 1986 the organization lured U.P.D. Secretary General Ramon Mendoza away from the opposition camp with an initial payment of $3,000 and the promise of more.

The trade union organizations that AIFLD successfully bought off last fall are particularly crucial to the Reagan Administration’s plan. Although its membership has shrunk in recent years, the U.P.D. carries great symbolic weight, both inside the country and, crucially, in the international arena. The U.P.D. was originally a coalition of nine labor groups, five of which in 1983 signed a historic “social pact” with Duarte, then a presidential candidate. Drafted with the help and support of AIFLD, the social pact was considered a monumental step in the Reagan Administration’s strategy of “nation building” for El Salvador.

In return for electoral support from the U.P.D. in the May 1984 elections, Duarte promised to implement a series of programs and reforms designed to benefit the working class. He pledged to pursue negotiations with the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front-Democratic Revolutionary Front (F.M.L.N.-F.D.R.) and seek a political solution to the war; to prosecute human rights violators and enact judicial reforms; to appoint U.P.D. labor officials to prominent positions in the government; and to expand El Salvador’s political space to allow for the participation of opposition groups associated with the left.

According to Salvadoran labor activists, Duarte kept only one of those promises, naming several labor officials to government posts. The government has been unwilling to negotiate with the F.M.L.N.-F.D.R.; human rights violators have not been brought to trial; and parties to the left of Duarte’s Christian Democratic Party remain excluded from effective political participation. In addition, opposition trade union leaders are still regularly detained and harassed by security forces. Because of Duarte’s inability and unwillingness to make changes and pursue reform, the U.P.D. leadership grew disaffected with the President by mid-1985.

For most of El Salvador’s trade union leaders, however, the turning point came in January 1986, when Duarte abandoned the populist rhetoric of his earlier presidential campaign and introduced el paquetazo, or “the package” — a severe and far-reaching program of economic austerity. He had long been under pressure from the Reagan Administration to do so.

The austerity plan deeply affected El Salvador’s peasant and wage-earning class. Since Duarte came to office, the cost of living in El Salvador has more than doubled, and following the imposition of austerity measures, the cost of essential consumer services, such as bus transportation, went up 20 percent. Even more disturbing, the price of food staples almost tripled over the course of one year.

Soon after the announcement of el paquetazo, most of the groups affiliated with the formerly pro-Duarte and AIFLD-supported U.P.D. allied themselves with El Salvador’s more militant labor organizations to form the National Union of Salvadoran Workers (U.N.T.S.). It is the largest expression of above ground dissent in El Salvador since 1980, and on February 21, 1986, it organized the biggest demonstration since the outbreak of the civil war, bringing thousands into the streets of San Salvador to demand peace, reforms and an end to el paquetazo. Another U.S. Embassy memorandum, this one dated December 31, 1985, also classified “secret,” and signed by Ambassador Edwin Corr noted: “The worst in terms of labor unrest is probably still to come, and the developments on the labor front in the first quarter of 1986 could present the president with the most serious challenge to his power to date.”

Most analysts agree that Duarte’s political power waned significantly in the second year of his term and that the President has neither the will nor the power to pursue populist reforms. He is increasingly stymied by the Reagan Administration, which opposes a negotiated settlement of the seven-year civil war, and by a resurgent right, which controls the Supreme Court and has begun to boycott sessions of the National Assembly. In addition, most observers agree, Duarte is not willing to take the political risk entailed in seeking peace talks. Pressure from the labor movement to enact meaningful reforms, therefore, threatens to corner the already weakened President.

To preserve the rule of Duarte, whose continuation as President has so far been essential for annual Congressional approval of U.S. military aid, the Reagan Administration and AIFLD set out to undermine the threat represented by organized labor. In particular, they have aimed to separate Mendoza’s moderate labor groups from the militant organizations allied in the U.N.T.S.

Membership in the U.P.D. had been reduced from a peak of 150,000 in 1984 to only 1,500 in 1986. In the spring of 1985 the organization split to support two rival labor federations, one pro-Duarte, the other anti-Duarte. Ramon Mendoza kept control of the U.P.D.’s headquarters and brought the organization’s still important name to opposition labor, giving it considerable international prestige. “The vestiges of the U.P.D. (1,500 members) joined U.N.T.S.,” the embassy noted, “in effect, giving the Left a democratic facade to manipulate international labor and opinion.”

The uniting of centrist unions and radical ones sympathetic to the F.M.L.N.-F.D.R. alarmed Reagan Administration officials, who saw a revival of activities in urban areas as a key element of rebel strategy. Last September a secret C.I.A. report stated: “Even though their initial gains have fallen short of their objectives, the rebels have built a substantial foundation in the labor sector.”

Just two months later, however, the secret embassy memorandum to Secretary Shultz was hailing the U.P.D.’s withdrawal from the new coalition as a great U.S. success. The split was “especially timely,” the embassy said, “as it comes on the eve of the November 22-23 CISPES-U.N.T.S. ‘Conference for Peace’ which over 100 Americans are expected to attend.” The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, which the embassy identifies as “a U.S. F.M.L.N. support group,” says it had no role in organizing the event. The memorandum also complained that “strong support” from U.S. unions was helping to make U.N.T.S. “a threat to democratic labor,” and acknowledged frankly that the Administration’s goal was to “destroy” unions of the left:

U.N.T.S. unions have accused U.P.D. Secretary General Ramon Mendoza of “selling out,” and have charged AIFLD, the Embassy, and the P.D.C. [Christian Democratic Party] with attempting to destroy U.N.T.S. (a charge we accept).

Sources in the embassy say that the U.P.D.’s departure came after months of secret negotiations between the U.P.D. and U.S. officials. In late 1985 and early 1986, before Mendoza helped found the opposition labor coalition, the disaffected U.P.D. leader had been quietly trying to cut a deal with the U.S. camp. On January 11, a month before the U.N.T.S. was established, Mendoza’s personal representatives met with U.S. Ambassador Corr. A letter written to Corr by a close associate of Mendoza indicates that the U.P.D. was seeking to establish a rapprochement with AIFLD “in accordance with the Embassy’s wishes.”

Much to the U.S. Embassy’s chagrin, however, relations between AIFLD and Mendoza turned sour. The U.P.D. leader played his trump card in February, when he allied himself with the militant anti-Duarte forces in the U.N.T.S. In turn, AIFLD, and in particular its hard-line leadership in Washington, embarked on a full-scale propaganda campaign to discredit the U.P.D.’s dissident leadership. Published AIFLD “briefs” described the formerly “democratic” union as having been infiltrated by the Marxist-Leninists and having been steered away from the Duarte camp.

In June, official U.S. sources say, labor attaché Paco Scanlan initiated a new series of meetings, this time between Mendoza and AIFLD. According to these sources, Scanlan was personally committed to drawing Mendoza and his union away from the opposition camp and was supported in that endeavor by Hernández, AIFLD’s El Salvador country director. The talks between Hernández and Mendoza bore fruit when the U.P.D. pulled out of the U.N.T.S., on November 16.

The classified U.S. Embassy memorandums show that there were sharp disagreements between U.S. officials in San Salvador and AIFLD’s Washington headquarters. The December 1985 memorandum laid part of the blame for the U.P.D.’s declining numbers on AIFLD:

By the end of 1985, the U.P.D. had been reduced to an emaciated shadow of its former organization. Internal power struggles and personality clashes together with deliberate AIFLD policy to supplant the U.P.D. with a non-political labor central … were the main reasons for the U.P.D.’s decline.

The November 1986 memorandum reported that Scanlan had become initiated by the apparent vendetta being conducted against the U.P.D. by AIFLD’s Washington office. It commented sharply:

AIFLD, which had great misgivings in Washington about the U.P.D. strategy, should direct its policy at holding our side together, while continuing to pick off U.N.T.S. member unions one-by-one.

The documents reveal that in exchange for his formal departure from the U.N.T.S., Mendoza received “initial assistance” of $3,000 from AIFLD. The secret agreement stipulated that neither AIFLD nor the other Salvadoran labor groups that the institute supports would attempt to steal union members from the U.P.D. At the same time it left open the possibility that by working closely with AIFLD and El Salvador’s ruling Christian Democratic Party, Mendoza might be able to poach on other member unions from the opposition labor camp.

AIFLD lavishes money on unions other than the U.P.D. in El Salvador. The largest recipient is the peasant-based Salvadoran Communal Union (U.C.S.), to which Mendoza himself once belonged. The U.C.S. receives $30,000 a month from the institute, and its leaders have often been accused of pocketing AIFLD funds. According to reliable union sources, after Mendoza broke from the united opposition, he told other labor leaders that if they followed his lead in breaking from U.N.T.S. he could secure payments for their organizations equivalent to $160 per member.

The embassy appears well pleased by its efforts. “The bottom line of this process is that things are going our way,” the memorandum to Shultz concluded:

In the past 12 months U.S. interests have been greatly served by the overall trends in Salvadoran labor. U.N.T.S. now stands denuded of its democratic facade and we have about as clean and neat a division between democratic and communist labor as we are ever likely to get in El Salvador. We have 250,000… on our side, they have 55,000 or Isici theirs. In the past 12 months, U.S. interests have been greatly served by the overall trends in Salvadoran labor. U.N.T.S. now stands denuded of its democratic facade and we have about as clean and neat a division between democratic and communist labor as we are ever likely to get in El Salvador. We have 250,000 … on our side, they have 55,000 or [sic] theirs.

The embassy documents make it clear that AIFLD and the U.S. labor attaché have now targeted other labor leaders to be lured away from the opposition camp. To protect President Duarte’s eroding position and “U.S. interests,” they appear ready to do whatever is necessary to rend El Salvador’s organized labor movement.