EXCLUSIVE: Unmasking the NRA’s Inner Circle

EXCLUSIVE: Unmasking the NRA’s Inner Circle

The NRA’s shadowy leaders include the CEO who sells Bushmaster assault rifles and a top director who lives in Newtown.


| Wed Jan. 16, 2013 3:06 AM PST
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The resurgent debate over gun control has put a spotlight on the hardline leaders of the National Rifle Association. In the wake of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, executive vice president Wayne LaPierre delivered a full-throated rejection of gun control and called for more firearms in schools, while David Keene, the group’s president, predicted the failure of any new assault weapons ban introduced in Congress. The two NRA figureheads purported to speak for more than 4 million American gun owners, though the group’s membership may in fact be smaller.

But whatever its true size, today’s NRA, widely considered to be disproportionately influential in politics, Its 76 board directors and 10 executive officers keep a grip on power through elections in which ordinary grassroots members appear to have little say.The NRA leadership is known as much for its organizational secrecy as its absolutist interpretation of the Second Amendment. That may be why, until now, little has been known about some of its most powerful insiders. They sit on the NRA board of directors’ nine-member Nominating Committee, which, despite ballots distributed annually to legions of NRA members, closely controls who can be elected to the NRA board. Mother Jones has uncovered key details about the current Nominating Committee*:

  • George K. Kollitides II, the chief executive of Freedom Group—which made theBushmaster military-style assault rifle used in the Newtown massacre—was appointed as a member of the current committee, despite his failed attempts to be elected to the NRA board.
  • The current head of the Nominating Committee, Patricia A. Clark, lives in Newtown, just a couple of miles from the school where 20 young children and six adults were massacred.
  • While longtime NRA members and election watchers have reported that the Nominating Committee consists entirely of elected board members, the organization’s bylaws allow for three members to be appointed from outside the NRA board—as three of its current members were.
  • Two additional outsiders appointed to the current Nominating Committee include Roger K. Bain, a licensed federal firearms dealer in Pennsylvania, and Riley B. Smith, a timber company executive in Alabama.

Long before Newtown, and even before the bloodbath at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, a survey conducted in May 2012 by Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that most gun owners, including current and former members of the NRA, favor tighter gun regulations such as universal criminal background checks. And according to an ABC/Washington Post pollpublished on Tuesday, 86 percent of gun-owning households support a law requiring background checks at gun shows to close the so-called “loophole.” So what motivates NRA leaders to remain so out of step with their constituency, flatly rejecting any discussion of legal reform?

One answer may be their ties to the $11.7 billion gun industry. Freedom Group’s Kollitides ran for the NRA board in 2009 but lost, despite an endorsement from gun manufacturer Remington. “His campaign didn’t sit well with some gun bloggers, who viewed him as an industry interloper,” according to a 2011 report in the New York Times.

George Kollitides

From George Kollitides’ 2009 campaign for the NRA board.

It remains unclear who among the NRA leadership tapped Kollitides, Bain, and Smith, to be on the current Nominating Committee.

“I was appointed,” Bain confirmed in a brief phone call. “I am not a board member,” he said, declining to say who appointed him. “This conversation is over.”

Calls to Kollitides and Smith seeking comment were not returned. The NRA declined to respond to multiple requests for comment regarding its board members and other organizational details. However, one NRA official, who declined to be named, said that Kollitides “has never been on the board, although he has run several times.”

But that need not stand in the way. “You’ve got a good friend you want to get more involved, and you nominate him,” a current long-serving NRA board member told Mother Jones.

According to this document obtained by Mother Jones, outsiders appointed to the current Nominating Committee include George K. Kollitides, Roger K. Bain, and Riley B. Smith.

Back in August 2011, the NRA Nominating Committee elected Clark, a board member since 1999, as its chair. Clark, a competitive sport shooter and an instructor in the Eddie Eagle GunSafe program heralded by LaPierre in his recent media blitz, is a longtime resident of Newtown. Her home is about a 10-minute drive by car from Sandy Hook Elementary School and about a 15-minute drive from the former home of Nancy Lanza, who was also murdered by her son on December 14 after he got possession of her semiautomatic assault rifle and other legally registered weapons.

Reached by phone on December 29 in nearby Bridgeport, Connecticut, where she works in the health care industry, Clark confirmed her NRA leadership role. When asked if she knew any of the victims or their families in Newtown, she replied, “This is a hard time for me. I am not really interested in giving an interview at this time.”

Unlike the NRA’s paid executive officers, who earn big money for their work, Clark’s directorship is unpaid. (LaPierre took home $960,000 from the NRA and related organizations in 2010; Kayne B. Robinson, the executive director of general operations, earned more than $1 million.)

Elections for the NRA board, which oversees the organization’s nearly 800 employees and more than $200 million in annual revenues, occur annually for 25 directors, who serve three-year terms. The vote typically involves less than 7 percent of NRA members, according to past NRA ballot results and pro-NRA bloggers. A low election turnout among members is not uncommon among nonprofit groups, but how a candidate gets his or her name on the ballot is key. According to an NRA supporter and self-proclaimed Second Amendment activist in Pennsylvania who blogs under the handle “Sebastian,” this occurs one of two ways: It requires a grassroots petition by members, which rarely gets a candidate on the ballot, or a candidate must be included on the official slate endorsed by the Nominating Committee.

“Read the bios in your ballot and you’ll see that almost all were nominated by the nominating committee,” complained “Pecos Bill” from Illinois last January in one pro-gun-rights forum. “Seems the NRA, fine organization that it is, is being run like a modern corporation and the ‘good ol’ boys’ are keeping themselves in power.”

In fact, 10 women currently serve on the board, but few people had access to that information until very recently, when the NRA posted a complete list on its website. (In the past, the NRA cloaked its board in secrecy; incomplete and outdated lists were published by outside groups using press clips and legally required NRA financial disclosures.) According to a search using, the current board page was published sometime after December 6.

The Nominating Committee now led by Clark handpicked nearly all of the candidates on the 2012 ballot. As John Richardson, an NRA “Life Member” in North Carolina explained on his blog, No Lawyers – Only Guns and Money, in January 2012, “This year there are 31 candidates running for 25 positions. Of these 31, 29 were nominated by the Nominating Committee. The remaining two candidates were nominated by a petition of the membership which requires at least 250 signatures.” (One of those two nominated by petition was elected to the board last year.)

Other notable figures currently serving on the board include actor and firearms enthusiast Tom Selleck; anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist; Lt. Colonel Oliver North of Iran-Contra fame; right-wing rocker Ted Nugent, whose thinly veiled threats about Barack Obama’s reelection campaign prompted a Secret Service inquiry; and Marion Hammer, the former NRA president who helped mastermind the spread of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law.

At a poignant news conference held in Newtown on Monday, parents of some of the slain first-graders announced Sandy Hook Promise, a new group and campaign to promote “common sense solutions” to America’s gun violence problem. It is unclear whether Patricia A. Clark attended that gathering in her local community. But she has shown a certain kind of interest in kids for decades. According to her board bio, she has “worked with Juniors for more than 30 years” as a firearms coach and instructor. As a line in her bio puts it, she is an “NRA Benefactor and Heritage Society member who believes that youngsters are the key to NRA’s future.”

*This refers to the Nominating Committee appointed by the NRA board in 2011 for the most recent board elections in 2012. This year’s Nominating Committee, whose members remain unclear, presumably will soon release its handpicked slate of candidates for NRA board elections in 2013.


Murdering with Impunity: The Rise in Terror Tactics Against News Reporters

Original story found here.Frank Smyth Bookmark and Share

Murdering with Impunity

The Rise in Terror Tactics Against News Reporters

November 14, 2010 by

Frank Smyth is the Washington representative and Journalist Security Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. He serves as board member of the International News Safety Institute and was a former investigator for Human Rights Watch.

More journalists were killed last year than ever before. No doubt the world has become a more dangerous place for journalists, but not necessarily in ways that people might expect. The risks to foreign journalists, especially for (but hardly limited to) Western correspondents, have risen dramatically. Some of us are old enough to recall a time back in the 1980s when raising a white flag and writing TV in masking tape on a vehicle might help keep one safe. But in recent years reporters for outlets from The Wall Street Journal to Al-Arabiya have been attacked in ways which demonstrate that being a journalist may only make one more of a target.

The untold story, however, is the following: the risks to local journalists, or journalists who report within the borders of their own nation, have never been greater. In fact, the risks that local journalists face have long been severe. The difference is that, now, perhaps more Western-based international observers and groups are taking notice.

Nearly three out of four journalists killed around the world did not step on a landmine, or get shot in crossfire, or even die in a suicide bombing attack. Instead, no less than 72 percent of all 831 journalists killed on the job since 1992, according to data compiled with other figures cited below by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), were murdered outright, such as killed by a gunman escaping on the back of a motorcycle, shot or stabbed to death near their home or office, or found dead after having been abducted and tortured.

The pattern of most journalists murdered in reprisal for their work, as opposed to being killed by the hazards of combat reporting, holds true even in war zones. In Somalia, more than half (53 percent) of journalists killed did not die in anything like a firefight or bombing attack; instead, they were individually murdered. Similarly, in Afghanistan, outright homicides account for 59 percent of journalists killed. In Iraq, which by any measure has been the most dangerous nation for journalists on record, 63 percent of journalists killed since the US-led invasion in 2003 were murdered.

Atwar Bahjat was an Iraqi journalist and contract correspondent in Iraq for Al-Arabiya, a television network based in the United Arab Emirates and partly owned by the Saudi broadcaster Middle East Broadcasting Center. Bahjat had previously reported from Iraq for Al-Jazeera, the satellite television network based in Qatar and partly financed by the nation’s Emir-led government. In 2006, Bahjat and her TV crew were reporting at the site of the Shi’ite Askariya shrine, also known as the Golden Mosque, in Samarra immediately after it had been bombed. A surviving crewmember said that armed men driving a white car attacked the crew and demanded to know the whereabouts of the on-air correspondent. Her remains and those of two crewmembers were found the following day. Bahjat’s corpse in particular, according to a mutual friend interviewed by this author, bore unmistakable signs of torture.

The killing of local journalists is most common. Nearly nine out of ten journalists killed on the job, or 87 percent, were murdered or otherwise killed within their own nation. Many people have heard of the Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who, after her repeated exposés on human rights abuses in the Russian province of Chechnya, was shot to death in October 2006 in the elevator of her apartment building.

But how many people beyond the northern Mexican town of Saltillo have heard of Valentín Valdés Espinosa, a young general assignment reporter for Zócolo de Saltillo, whose tortured corpse was found in January 2010 after he reported the arrest of an alleged local drug lord? Or how many people outside of the Sindhi-speaking area of Pakistan have heard of Ghulam Rasool Birhamani, a middle-aged reporter for the Daily Sindhu Hyderabad, who was abducted, tortured and left for dead in May 2010 after reporting on an arranged, tribal marriage involving a 12-year-old girl? Or how many people outside of Indonesia have heard of Ridwan Salamun, a young correspondent and cameraman for Sun TV, who was stabbed to death in August 2010 while filming violent clashes between two villages?

The evidence in 2009 continues to bolster the same point. CPJ recorded a record 72 journalist deaths last year. The unprecedented toll stemmed largely from the November massacre of 30 journalists out of 57 people killed in one incident during election unrest in the Philippines’s Maguindano province. Keep in mind that CPJ figures are by and large consistent with those provided by other global monitors, including the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders and the Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists, except for two possible cases. When it comes to journalist murders, CPJ only includes those cases where researchers have investigated the motive to determine that a journalist was murdered in retaliation for his or her work, as opposed to, say, a business arrangement gone bad, a land dispute, or even a love triangle. In 2009, for example, no fewer than 24 journalists were murdered that year whom CPJ excluded from the record total of 72 journalists killed because a motive in each of these outstanding cases has yet to be determined. Each year, on average, CPJ records dozens of outstanding cases with motives under investigation. CPJ’s annual figure of journalists killed worldwide also excludes murders of media workers such as drivers and translators, which in 2009, for example, numbered three.

The resulting figures still stand up under scrutiny, and they are staggering. At least 599 journalists have been murdered since 1992, according to CPJ statistics. To put it another way, a journalist is murdered somewhere around the world at least once every 11 days. Most of them were not even investigative journalists, but simply beat reporters trying to get the story. More than nine out of ten of the murdered journalists, or 93 percent, were local newsmen and women.

Unsolved Crimes

There is another trend that is even more disturbing. When it comes to journalists, the killers get away with the murders in nearly nine out of ten cases. In no less than 89 percent of journalist murders worldwide, there has been little or no prosecution whatsoever. Moreover, only in four percent of journalist murder cases has full prosecution occurred, which in most cases means that both the assassins and the masterminds who ordered or hired them, have been brought to justice.

In 2005, a judge in Nicaragua found a local politician guilty of the murder of journalist Maria José Bravo, a correspondent for the Managua daily La Prensa. Bravo had been killed in the previous year upon leaving a voting booth during claims of election irregularities. In 2004, a military court in the Ivory Coast found a police officer guilty of the murder of journalist Jean Hélène, a French correspondent with Radio France Internationale, who was shot in the head outside the national police headquarters while waiting to interview an opposition activist. But such convictions remain rare, especially when they involve local correspondents.

To help illustrate the problem, CPJ developed an Impunity Index. The methodology is simple: The index calculates the number of unsolved journalist murders as a percentage of a nation’s population. The size of the population is used as the base of the calculus since it is a discernible figure, unlike attempts to guess at the number of journalists in any one nation at any given time. Determining who is a journalist has long been problematic. In a digital age, it becomes nearly impossible. The percentage of journalists belonging to a trade union or professional association varies from nation to nation, and local journalists such as community radio reporters often belong to no formal group. Moreover, defining who is a journalist in the blogosphere can be done only on a case-by-case basis. (Most observers would seem to agree that journalists, noted in The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel, as opposed to other disseminators of information, engage in some process of verification.)

The number of unsolved journalist murders is a figure which hits as hard as a bullet, however, in all too many nations. The latest Impunity Index covers the years 2000 through 2009, and includes nations with at least five unsolved journalist murders over the same period. Iraq tops the list with no fewer than 88 journalist murders out of a population of over 31 million, followed by the much smaller nation of Somalia with nine unsolved journalist murders in a nation of nine million people.

Few are surprised to see either nation top the list. But the countries that follow may not be expected. Three democratic nations (nations with a reasonably long history of competitive national elections) come next: the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Colombia. The Philippines has had 55 unsolved journalist murders so far in the past decade out of a population of 90.3 million. The smaller nation of Sri Lanka has seen 10 unsolved journalist murders out of a population of 20 million; Colombia, 13 out of over 44 million.

All the remaining nations on the list are also all at least nominal democracies, although a few if not more for different reasons may not be arguably worthy of even that term: Afghanistan, Nepal, Russia, Mexico, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India. The ongoing problem of such impunity in murdering journalists cuts across geographic and political boundaries, perhaps the single greatest threat to press freedom worldwide. But it also raises questions that go beyond the traditional bounds of press freedom monitors. One thing, however, is clear: in the post-Cold War era, civilian government institutions, which include judicial and law enforcement capabilities, remain woefully weak in many nations, while military or intelligence agencies continue to dominate many of the same nations.

Who is behind all these journalist murders? The answer is also not what many might expect. Government officials of one kind or another have killed nearly as many journalists as terrorists or other political movements and groups. In fact, if one adds government-backed paramilitary groups to the list, government officials along with their paramilitary allies have murdered more journalists than terrorists and other anti-government groups.

Individual CPJ case capsules — which, along with all other data cited here, are available online—have identified anti-government political groups and movements, including terrorist organizations, as being the most likely perpetrators of at least 30 percent, or 180 cases, out of a worldwide total of 599 murders since 1992. Civilian government officials are considered the probable perpetrators of 24 percent of journalist murders. Military government officials are responsible for another five percent, and pro-government paramilitary groups are responsible for seven percent, or of about 41 murders over the same period.

The repercussions of the murder also stretch beyond the incidents themselves. The murder of any one journalist sends a signal to countless others that they or members of their family could well be next. Many journalists have been threatened, sometimes repeatedly, before being murdered. But countless more journalists have been warned not to travel the same path. Unfortunately, from the perspective of the perpetrators or those who wish to keep the press from reporting on their own wrongdoings, murdering a journalist makes cold-blooded sense. In the 1980s, many journalists were murdered while covering human rights abuses. In the past two decades, more journalists have been killed while reporting on corruption, such as collusion between government actors and organized crime.

Murdering some journalists, while threatening to target even more, generates fear that is hard to measure. Self-censorship has become routine in nations from Colombia to Mexico. After the tortured remains of previously mentioned Mexican reporter Espinosa were discovered, no other reporter in the city of Saltillo attempted to report on why Espinosa had been killed. In fact, his newspaper, Zócolo de Saltillo, went in the other direction entirely and stopped reporting on organized crime, according to a senior editor who asked to remain anonymous.

The unchecked proliferation of journalist murders also challenges some of the precepts behind global press freedom indices produced by groups like the Washington, D.C.-based Freedom House as well as Reporters Without Borders. Based on a multiplicity of factors, their global indices, when evaluating another democratic nation like the Philippines, must somehow weigh the value of a relatively open environment for the press to criticize the government and report on a wide range of other topics against the disvalue of journalist murders.

Multilateral institutions like the World Bank are only beginning to come to grips with this ongoing problem, and how to factor it into decisions concerning loans and other economic support to nations. In fact, while economic and health indicators like gross national product and infant mortality per capita have long been used to determine levels of economic development, another way to measure development would be to examine the rate of prosecutions for murders. Hard, comparative data on the topic is not readily available. But one factor that clearly separates the world’s most developed nations from most other nations is that in most G-8 nations, for example, most murders are solved. In contrast, throughout much of the world, the global rate of impunity for unsolved journalist murders approaches 90 percent and largely appears to be replicated for the murders of other citizens as well.

Danger at the Front Lines

At the same time, combat journalists and other reporters who cover dangerous situations still face great risks. No less than 18 percent of the journalists killed on the job in all circumstances since 1992 died covering combat or some other form of military engagement. Another ten percent were killed during reporting on matters like violent demonstrations.

Among field reporting incidents, disputed shootings have received the most attention. What’s the difference between a murder and a disputed shooting? In a murder, no one doubts that a homicide occurred; the question is who did it. In most disputed shootings, everyone knows who fired the ordinance that killed the journalist; the question is whether the firing was justified.

Few cases have received more scrutiny than the August 2003 shooting of Reuters cameraman Mazen Dana outside the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. He was in a car with members of his crew after filming outside the walls of the jail when a US Army tank approached their position in the street. Dana got out of the car, put his camera on his shoulder, and began walking in the direction of the tank as he was filming it. A gunner atop the tank opened fire, hitting Dana fatally in the chest.

The soldier who fired later said that he had seen a dark-skinned, dark-haired man in black clothing, and mistook Dana’s camera for a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, according to a US military investigation of the shooting that was later declassified and released to the public. The US military exonerated the soldiers involved. But the same report also included a recommendation that commanders should review the military’s own rules-of-engagement for potential modifications to try and avoid such incidents in the future. Human Rights Watch and CPJ would later make a similar recommendation in a 2005 letter to then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

In fact, since 2003, at least 16 journalists have died and others seriously wounded by US forces’ fire in Iraq. US military authorities have conducted investigations in less than a handful of cases, but the investigations exonerated the soldiers involved in each case. It remains unclear whether, or to what degree, the US military may have reviewed its procedures in response to the recommendations by its own investigators and others.

Another well-known disputed shooting involved Israeli Defense Forces and British freelance cameraman and film director James Miller, who was working on a documentary for the TV channel HBO in Gaza in May 2003. Miller and his crew were working out of the home of a Palestinian family as they filmed the army’s demolition of houses in an area that the Israeli army alleged contained tunnels used to smuggle arms. Near midnight, the television crew decided to leave the home and walked toward a fixed position of Israeli troops and armored personnel carriers 300 feet away.

The journalists were wearing jackets and helmets marked “TV,” as was later shown in the HBO documentary. One crewmember waved a white flag, while Miller used a flashlight to illuminate the flag and also shouted a greeting as they approached. A shot was fired. The group yelled that they were British journalists, and a second shot was fired immediately after. The video shows the second shot hitting Miller, who was struck in the neck. Several more shots followed. An Israeli army spokesman first said that troops in the area returned fire after being fired on by rocket-propelled grenades. Later, the army said that Miller was struck by a bullet from behind, claiming that he may have been hit by Palestinian fire. Israeli authorities exonerated the soldiers involved; exhortations by CPJ and others for the Israeli army to conduct a transparent investigation into the shooting were not heeded.

These incidents and others helped compel a group of journalists based in Geneva, Switzerland, who cover the United Nations and other multilateral agencies, to form a group with two goals: to establish a universal press emblem and to work to modify the Geneva conventions, making it an explicit war crime to target journalists. Most global press freedom groups including CPJ, Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists, as well as a consortium of groups based in Europe known as the International News Safety Institute opposed the changes.

Global press freedom groups argued, first, that establishing a universal press emblem would require the formation of a regime to determine who would be eligible to don the emblem and that this would be tantamount to establishing a licensing regime which would determine who is and who is not a journalist. Such a step would only feed efforts by repressive regimes, the global press freedom groups went on, which already sought to restrict journalists by licensing them according to political criteria.

Second, it is already a war crime to target civilians, a category which includes journalists (journalists who are embedded with military forces may be legitimately targeted, as they legally become a part of the military unit to which they are embedded). Thus, to make the targeting of journalists an explicit war crime would not only be redundant and unnecessary; it would also send the message to the public that journalists saw themselves as special and somehow more important than other civilians.

Moreover, the entire debate over the changes proposed by the Geneva-based group, now known as Press Emblem Campaign, does not address the facts underscored here that nearly three out of four journalists killed are murdered outright in non-military situations in direct reprisal for their work. But the discussion has managed to generate more dialogue over the issue than ever before, starting largely with the International News Safety Institute and its watershed 2006 report, “Killing the Messenger: Report of the Global Inquiry by the International News Safety Institute into the Protection of Journalists.”

Reporting, Past and Future

Violence, of course, is only one way to silence the press. In many so-called closed or restrictive nations, especially those controlled or dominated by a single political party or monarchy, outright censorship of the press and imprisonment for individual journalists who persist in crossing the line is the most common reprisal. For 11 consecutive years, China was the world’s leading jailer of journalists. But Iran usurped China to hold that dishonor after jailing dozens of journalists in the wake of election unrest in 2009. Cuba is next on the list, followed, unfortunately, by sub-Saharan Africa’s newest nation, Eritrea.

Two trends also stand out. In 2008, online journalists of one form or another surpassed print and broadcast journalists as the largest single category of journalists imprisoned around the world, comprising nearly half of those incarcerated. In the following year, the number of jailed freelance journalists nearly doubled from the previous three years to similarly make up almost half of incarcerated journalists. Both trends are likely to grow: Further digital advances will empower more freelance journalists to venture out on their own, while newsroom cutbacks, especially in newspapers in most developed nations, will lead to more freelancers on the market.

One should also not forget that many methods to restrict the press fall somewhere in between the more obvious means of violence or imprisonment. For instance, ruling party thugs have intimidated and attacked journalists in the streets from Zimbabwe to Venezuela; government officials and other public figures have brought criminal libel suits against journalists from Thailand to Morocco; national agencies have ordered impromptu tax audits against news outlets from the Ukraine to South Korea. In nations such as Hong Kong and Argentina, governments have manipulated private or public advertising to punish media outlets’ critical reporting, as was recently documented by the Center for International Media of the US-funded National Endowment for Democracy.

Serious challenges lie ahead. The Committee to Protect Journalists has launched a Global Campaign Against Impunity, which aspires both to raise awareness among the public in nations like the Philippines about the value of journalism to society, and to pressure law enforcement authorities to bring the murderers of journalists to justice. Some progress has already been made in Latin America to resolve a number of journalist-murder cases, due to efforts by the Inter-American Press Association. There is no doubt, however, that progress will take time.

But the first step toward solving any issue is to acknowledge it. One should also keep in mind that behind every figure is a face, and most likely also a family, friends, and colleagues, all of whom suffer from a journalist’s persecution or death.

Think Daniel Pearl, Atwar Bahjat, or Valentín Valdés Espinosa. Clearly, there is much more to say.

Colombia’s Blowback

EDITOR’S NOTE: The article below by investigative journalist Frank Smyth was published last Fall by the Transnational Institute (Amsterdam) and Accion Andina (Cochabomba, Bolivia) as a chapter titled, “La Mano Blanca en Colombia,” in the book, Crimen Uniformado [Crime in Uniform]: entre la corrupcion y la impunidad (1997). It appears in Antifa Info-Bulletin with the author’s permission.

The CIA has long backed anti-communist allies who, either during their relationship with the agency or later, ran drugs. This comes as no surprise. As early as 1960, U.S. military manuals encouraged intelligence operatives to ally themselves with “smugglers” and “black market operators to defeat communist insurgents, as reported by Michael McClintock in his seminal book Instruments of Statecraft. In fact, the CIA did just that. Take Southeast Asia. Later in that same decade the agency allied itself with, among others, the Hmong in Laos, who, according to historian Alfred W. McCoy in his book, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, were trafficking opium. Or Afghanistan. There in the 1980s the CIA backed the Mujahedeen against the Soviet Union. In the 1990s, according to Tim Weiner of The New York Times, the same Mujahedeen have controlled up to one third of the opium (used to make heroin) reaching the United States.

Colombia is an even better example today.

In addition to suffering from rampant common crime, Colombia is a country crippled by two ongoing political campaigns. One is a three-decade war pitching the CIA-backed Colombian military and allied rightist paramilitaries against formerly pro-Moscow and pro-Havana, leftist guerrilla groups. The other campaign is the drug war, where the battle lines are far less clear. Elements of all these sides are involved in Colombia’s drug trade, which includes the processing of about 80 percent of the world’s cocaine, the base substance of crack.

The CIA is no exception. Since 1995, an elite CIA counter-drug team commanded by, progressively enough, a woman, and staffed mainly by young, competent technocrats, has been instrumental in apprehending all top seven leaders of Colombia’s Cali cartel. But back in 1991, another CIA team played a different role. More interested in supporting Colombia’s dirty counter-insurgency than its counter-drug efforts, this team helped forge and finance a secret anti-communist alliance between the Colombian military and illegal paramilitary groups, many of whom are running drugs today.

Why was this alliance made secret? Colombia had outlawed all such paramilitary groups two years before in 1989. Why did Colombia do that? A Colombian government investigation had found that these same paramilitaries had been taken over by the Medellin drug cartel led by the late Pablo Escobar. At the time, Escobar and his associates were fiercely resisting U.S.-backed pressure for Colombia to pass extradition laws intended to make them stand trial in the United States on drug trafficking charges. So they took control of Colombia’s strongest paramilitaries, using them to wage a terrorist campaign against the state. These same paramilitaries, based in the Middle Magdalena valley, were behind a wave of violent crimes, including the 1989 bombing of Avianca flight HK-1803, which killed 111 passengers. Investigators concluded that the bomb was detonated by an altimeter, and that the perpetrators had been trained in such techniques by Israeli, British and other mercenaries led by an Israeli Reserved Army Lieutenant Colonel, Yair Klein. The Colombian military had helped protect this training, to the point of even being in radio contact with the paramilitaries’ training base, while Escobar had paid the mercenaries’ fees.

The CIA, however, ignored these facts when it decided two years later to help renew — in secret — the alliance between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups. By then, even though the cold war was over and Eastern bloc aid had long since dried up, Colombia’s leftist insurgents were still relatively strong. And many trade union, student and peasant groups, among others, provided them with political and sometimes even logistical forms of support. CIA officers knew that paramilitaries — civilians usually led by retired military officers — could provide the Colombian military with plausible deniability for assassinations of suspected leftists and similar crimes. “A vast network of armed civilians began to replace, at least in part, soldiers and policemen who could be easily identified,” writes Javier Giraldo, a Jesuit priest and founder of Colombia’s Inter-Congregational Commission for Justice and Peace. “They also started to employ methods that had been carefully designed to ensure secrecy and generate confusion.”

But neither the CIA nor any other U.S. agency admitted that it was still backing Colombia’s counter-insurgency campaign. Instead U.S. officials claim that all U.S. support to Colombia, since 1989, has been designed to further the drug war. “There was a very big debate going on [about how to best allocate] money for counter-narcotics operations in Colombia,” said retired U.S. Army Colonel James S. Roach, Jr., who was then the top U.S. military attaché in Bogota as well as the Pentagon’s ranking Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) liaison there. “The U.S. was looking for a way to try to help. But if you’re not going to be combatants [yourselves], you have to find something to do.”

Do, they did. First an inter-agency team including representatives of the U.S. embassy’s Military Advisory Group in Bogota, the U.S. Southern Command in Panama, the DIA in Washington and the CIA in Langley made recommendations to completely overhaul Colombia’s military intelligence networks. Then The CIA independently provided funds to incorporate paramilitary forces into them. It didn’t matter that these paramilitary forces were illegal in Colombia at the time. Nor did it matter that they had been outlawed explicitly over the growing influence of the late Pablo Escobar and his Medellin drug cartel in directing them.

In addition to drug trafficking, Colombia’s nefarious paramilitaries had already been implicated in widespread human rights abuses. This led the Defense Department, for one, to discourage the Colombian military from incorporating them into these new intelligence networks. “The intent was not to be associated with paramilitaries,” said Colonel Roach, who was also in regular contact with CIA officers in Bogota. He says they had another approach. “The CIA set up clandestine nets of their own. They had a lot of money. It was kind of like Santa Claus had arrived.” CIA spokesman Mike Mansfield declined to comment.

News of these clandestine intelligence networks was first brought to light by Human Rights Watch, in November 1996 released U.S. and Colombian military documents, as well as oral testimony, to show that both the Defense Department and the CIA, in late 1990, encouraged Colombia to reorganize its entire military intelligence system. In May 1991, Colombia formed 41 new intelligence networks nationwide “based on the recommendations made by the commission of U.S. military advisors,” according to the original Colombian order which established them. Later, four former Colombian operatives from one of network in central
Colombia’s Magdalena valley testified that it incorporated illegal paramilitary groups, paying them to both gather intelligence and assassinate suspected leftists. Though U.S. officials still maintain that they supported this intelligence reorganization as part of their drug war efforts, the same Colombian order quoted above instructs these new intelligence networks to fight only “the armed subversion” or leftist guerrillas.

Indeed most of Colombia’s leftist guerrillas, especially among the formerly pro-Moscow FARC, are also involved with drugs. But a U.S. interagency study recently ordered by the Clinton administration’s former ambassador in Bogota, Myles Frechette, found the guerrillas’ role to be limited to mostly protecting drug crops, and, to a lesser degree, processing operations. Meanwhile, rightist paramilitaries allied with the military protect far more drug laboratories and internal transit routes, according to both U.S. intelligence and Colombian law enforcement authorities. In fact, according to one Colombian law enforcement report, drug trafficking today is — again — the paramilitaries’ “central axis” of funding.

Similarly, according to another report from a different law enforcement entity, this one about the Magdalena valley in 1995 by top detectives from Colombia’s Judicial and Investigative Police, the military and paramilitaries there are allied “not only for the anti-subversive struggle, but also to profit and open the way for drug traffickers.” One paramilitary suspect it names is “the well-known narco-trafficker Victor Carranza.” A contemporary of Medellin’s Escobar, Carranza first established himself by rising to the top of Colombia’s lucrative emerald trade among the Boyaca Mountains, and by wiping out a large guerrilla front there at the same time. Soon Carranza also became a major landowner, buying large swaths of it in the eastern plains of Meta, a province choked with drug crops as well as laboratories. Today Colombian police identify Carranza as both a multi-ton level drug trafficker, and one of the key leaders of Colombia’s many illegal paramilitary groups like, in Meta, the infamous “Black Snake.” Human rights groups have accused Carranza of engineering assassinations as well as massacres.

There is no evidence that Carranza has ever been either a CIA asset or informant. But his anti-communist credentials are unquestionable. And he runs frequently in military crowds. Military eyewitnesses say that military officers in Villavicencio, Meta have even met him inside the Los Llanos hotel, which he owns. U.S. officials too know a lot about him. “Carranza comes up constantly in intelligence reporting,” one such expert says. An old-fashioned gangster, “Don Victor,” as he is respectfully called by his men, still frequents the emerald mines and likes to be the first to pick out the largest stones from the best veins uncovered. Yet, Carranza remains untouchable, even though one of his purported lieutenants, Arnulfo Castillo Agudelo, also known as “Scratch,” was arrested in 1995 implicated Carranza in circumstances involving over 40 corpses which had been exhumed — six years before — on one of Carranza’s Meta ranches. “Scratch” declined to be interviewed in Modelo prison in Bogota. Carranza, who avoids publicity, was also unavailable for comment.

In recent years, Carranza has been expanding his operations in central Colombia throughout the Magdalena valley. The above police report notes: “Carranza is planning to acquire Hacienda Bella Cruz [there] to use as a base for his activities, [and] bring in 200 paramilitary operatives from Meta.” Witnesses say that it is now teeming with armed men, who have displaced hundreds of local peasants. In total, Carranza and other drug suspects have bought about 45,000 acres of land throughout the Magdalena valley, according to Jamie Prieto Amaya, the Catholic bishop there, quoted in the Bogota newsweekly, Cambio 16.

Still another suspect is Henry Loaiza, also known as “The Scorpion.” Demonstrating the importance of paramilitaries to the overall drug trade, he was one of the top seven Cali cartel suspects arrested with CIA help since 1995. Like Carranza, “The Scorpion” is also implicated in several specific civilian massacres of suspected leftists carried out jointly by military and paramilitary forces, including the 1989 Trujillo massacres (involving chainsaws) near Cali. Other drug suspects identified by the Colombian police include military officers like Major Jorge Alberto Lazaro, a former Army commander also accused of ordering paramilitaries to commit massacres in the Magdalena valley. Today this same central Colombian valley, which runs about 400 miles north toward Caribbean ports, is a major corridor for both processed drugs and precursor chemicals.

The CIA helped enable Colombia’s military and paramilitaries to collaborate in the dark — more than a year after the Berlin Wall fell. By doing so, the CIA has facilitated crimes involving both human rights and drug trafficking. Such behavior was reprehensible during the cold war. It is completely indefensible now.

Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist who has written about drug trafficking in The Village Voice, The New Republic, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. He is co-author with Winifred Tate of “Colombia’s Gringo Invasion,” Covert Action Quarterly, Number 60, Spring 1997. The article above was reprinted in Colombia Bulletin: A Human Rights Quarterly.

Arms and Mandela: After the Honeymoon, He Faces the Deadly Dilemmas of South Africa’s Arms Industry

THE LITTLE-NOTICED role of South African-made arms in the catastrophe of Rwanda presents Nelson Mandela with an early test of his ability to reconcile realism and idealism. At least 3,000 of Rwanda’s soldiers and militiamen carry South African-made R-4 automatic rifles. Rwanda bought them in 1992 from Armscor — South Africa’s state-owned arms corporation — along with 10,000 hand grenades, 20,000 rifle grenades, 10,000 launching grenades and more than 1 million rounds of ammunition.

In Rwanda’s killing fields, such grenades and automatic rifles have been weapons of choice, after machetes. At the Christ Spirituality Center in Kigali, soldiers opened fire with automatic rifles, killing five diocesan priests, nine congregated women, three Jesuits and their cook. In Rukara, journalists came upon about 500 corpses inside a church. One supervisor said the people had died when militiamen threw dozens of grenades inside the people.

Will the new South Africa sell arms to countries like Rwanda? Mandela, with his international reputation as a peacemaker, may not want to. But the United Nations trade embargo against South Africa is expected to be lifted soon and new markets are already opening up for South Africa’s deadliest goods. Andre Buys, an executive for Armscor, told Defense News last month that “we expect that by 1996 [arms] exports will at least double, and possibly quadruple.”

Like Vaclav Havel of Czechoslovakia before him, Mandela may find that his humanitarian impulses are not strong enough to resist the financial attractions of the arms trade. When Havel became president of Czechoslovakia in 1989, he promised to end arms exports. But last year, after the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, both renewed sales.

Before Mandela’s inauguration, ANC spokesman Madala Mthembu carefully suggested that the post-apartheid government would not abstain from the arms business. “Once the new government is up and running, we will welcome a complete lifting of all remaining sanctions and embargoes against South Africa,” Mthembu told Defense News. “We also wish to state the new government will be in full compliance with international standards governing exports of technologies and materials that would threaten world security.”

Such standards would preclude arms sales to states like Lybia, which is also currently subject to a U.N. embargo. But states like Rwanda before its present crisis would still be able to legally buy arms. Ethnic strife, which plagues much of the world, makes for a boom market in the weapons trade. And South African weapons are generally more reliable, accurate and durable than comparable arms made by Egypt, Russia, Romania, and even Israel in some categories. While the world rejoices in witnessing apartheid’s downfall, it will have the unexpected effect of adding to the glut of arms already flooding the places that least need them, such as Rwanda, Sudan and Cambodia.

No one expects Mandela to turn his back on what promises to become one of the new South Africa’s best earners of foreign exchange. But few would expect, either, a man who has devoted his life to his country’s struggle for justice, equality, and human rights to turn his back on future victims of other abusive regimes. He doesn’t necessarily have to.

South Africa can afford to forgo sales of guns and grenades because it actually makes most of its profits from the sale of expensive, high technology systems like laser-designated missiles, tactical radios, anti-radiation bombs and battlefield mobility systems. This sort of weaponry, while potentially deadly, is much less likely to be used in human rights abuses than small arms.

In anticipation of an end to the U.N. embargo, South Africa created the Denel Corp. in 1992. While Armscor has since served as the government’s defense procurement organization, Denel has operated as a private manufacturing consortium, representing 60 percent of the arms industry. Denel expects to lead export sales; such sales averaged $127.5 million in the early 1990s, and increased to $222.2 million in 1993. Rwanda’s purchase of $5.9 million of grenades, mortars and ammunition from Denel made only a tiny addition to South Africa’s balance sheet.

South Africa also has a technological edge in land mine detection and sweeping equipment especially needed by Cambodia and other countries. While South Africa has already begun to market this equipment, it announced in March that it would not sell land mines at the same time, and stopped exports. Although it could be argued that this announcement was motivated more by appearance than principle, it was a welcome sign.

But Mandela and the ANC’s stated policy isn’t good enough. Exporting minesweeping equipment is a legitimate way to earn foreign exchange; sales of any arms to human rights violators are not. The new South Africa should re-examine its export policy on such items. International prohibitions against arms sales to abusive regimes are at present nonexistent or weak. Rwanda, with its long-documented history of ethnic strife and its grisly record of human rights abuses, is a case in point. Rather than sink to this standard, Mandela should lead the world in raising it up.

Release the Jesuit Tapes

Original article can be found here.

by Thomas Long & Frank Smyth

The FBI Has Videotaped Testimony That Accuses the Salvadoran Army of Killing Six Jesuits—and Proves the U.S. Knew in Advance

SAN SALVADOR—American officials in both San Salvador and Washington claim that they have cooperated “intensely” with the investigation into the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter last November. Yet even though State Department officials finally yielded to pressure from Congress to turn over the sworn testimony of a U.S. military adviser—who said he knew of the murder plan in advance—they have continued to withhold key evidence. For 10 months the FBI has kept a videotape of the adviser’s testimony, which suggests there was a conspiracy to murder the Jesuits that included several top Salvadoran army officers, in their Washington headquarters.

Two weeks ago U.S. Embassy officials delivered to a Salvadoran judge three cursory sworn affidavits given by U.S. Army Major Eric Warren Buckland to the FBI in January. But they did not turn over the videotape or a transcript of a detailed discussion between Buckland and FBI examiner Paul Cully.

The recorded discussion is vital. Cully based his own conclusion that Buckland had prior knowledge of a plan to kill the Jesuit priests on the videotaped interview. It also contains information that Buckland recanted—with only a sketchy explanation—one week later.

“There is no way to analyze his statements and his supposed retraction without having the videotape—or at least a transcript—to know exactly what he said and what he was trying to recant,” said Antonio Cañas, a senior political analyst at the Jesuit-run University of Central America.

American officials have yet to explain why this evidence has not already been volunteered to investigating Salvadoran authorities. In fact, U.S. officials in San Salvador have received strict instructions from Washington not to comment on Buckland’s testimony at all.

Nevertheless, the videotape was entered into evidence at FBI headquarters in Washington. Logged, according to official FBI documents, under case title “Shooting of Six Jesuit Priests,” subject “Murder,” it has been “maintained” at the Polygraph Unit, section GRB, Suite 2, under the file number #00116093 PQ1X0.

“Why is the Embassy being so fucking tight-lipped?” asked a non-American Western official, who has been independently monitoring the investigation. “Somewhere somebody is lying through their back teeth within the U.S. hierarchy.”

According to Jesuit academic Michael Czerny, “The United States government from very early on has been acting in a very irregular if not criminal manner.”

Major Buckland has offered two clearly conflicting stories. First he said he had prior knowledge that senior officers were planning to murder the priests. Then he said that he only learned of the Jesuit murders after the fact.

But his recantation is less than weak. “It’s absolutely nonsensical,” said one Western diplomat. In both versions, Buckland says that some time before the Jesuits were killed he accompanied a senior Salvadoran army officer, Colonel Carlos Avilés, to the country’s military academy to “solve a problem” with the school’s director, Colonel Guillermo Benavides. Benavides was later charged with ordering the Jesuit murders.

Buckland says he shared a close working and personal relationship with Colonel Avilés, his Salvadoran counterpart in developing psychological operations for the war. He also says that Avilés was his chief source of information on the murders. According to both Buckland’s original and revised testimonies, on the day of their visit to the academy, Avilés was acting as a special envoy of then army chief of staff Colonel René Emilio Ponce.

In a sworn handwritten statement given to the FBI on January 11, Buckland says Avilés told him that Benavides, the military school’s director, and other unnamed officers were planning to kill Ignacio Ellacuría, the rector of the University of Central America and the most prominent of the murdered priests. The adviser says he waited while Avilés went to talk with Benavides:

“Aviles appeared very uncomfortable about talking to Benevides. Upon returning to the vehicle Aviles called me back to the vehicle and told me that he had to work something out; ‘Colonel Benavides is from the old school, he liked to handle things in his own way, in the old style.”…

“Benevides told Aviles that Ella Coria [sic] was a problem. Aviles told me they wanted to handle it the old way by killing some of the priests. I asked what happened when you (Aviles) talked to him. Aviles told me that Benavides was old school and was still the ‘rammer.’ ”

In his January 18 retraction one week later, Buckland describes the same visit in even greater detail. He recalls, for instance, Avilés telling him “about the fine quality of the bread baked at the military school.” At the same time, however, Buckland curiously claims not to remember anything about his conversation with Avilés concerning Benavides—which was, according to the adviser’s own testimonies, the purpose of the trip:

“After we both got into the vehicle, I asked him words to the effect of what was going on and I do not remember his reply or specifically what “we talked about.” According to this revised version, the major still claims Avilés told him about Benavides’s involvement in the murders—but on another occasion, six weeks after the crime took place.

In explaining the switch, Buckland implies that his initial version was given under duress, and that he became confused during the FBI examination. But it does seem odd that Buckland could have invented the information that Benavides wanted to murder Father Ellacuria—and even write it down himself—and then recall nothing a week later. What’s more, Buckland’s first account is rich, in its particulars, with little hint of confusion under stern FBI examination. It seems unlikely, for example, that Buckland could have remembered all the details like the little-known nickname, “the rammer,” when Benavides is more commonly referred to by fellow officers as “Virgin Boots.”

U.S. officials back up Buckland’s claim that he lost control of his faculties in his initial testimony—even though the veteran Green Beret and army Special Forces Psychological Operations major was under routine questioning as a friendly witness.

Even more convincing, a lie detector test directly contradicts Buckland’s retraction. In answer to the question, “Did you have prior knowledge that the Jesuits would be killed?” Buckland said no, and the polygraph indicated “deception,” according to official FBI documents.

Based on this and the subsequent videotaped interview, FBI examiner Cully concludes: “Buckland admitted that he obtained prior knowledge that the [priests at the university] were going to be killed, specifically Ellacoria [sic], through conversations with Colonel Avilés. According to Major Buckland, Colonel Avilés told him of the intent of certain officers of the El Salvadoran Army to conduct a military operation against the University of Central America. Major Buckland became aware of this information several weeks before the Jesuits were murdered.”

But Colonel Avilés, Buckland’s main source, denies telling the adviser anything. Avilés denies even his former friendship with Buckland—a relationship of which both Salvadoran and Americans were well aware. Indeed, Avilés claims that he was not even in El Salvador when the alleged trip took place.

Buckland, in his initial statement, says the pair made the visit “approximately 10 days before the killings (circa November 6, 1989).” But in his later version, the adviser says the trip was made in late October, recalling that Avilés left for vacation at the beginning of November.

Colonel Ponce, on whose orders Avilés was allegedly sent to the military school, also denies knowing of the murders in advance. He bases his denial on a selectively narrow reading of Buckland’s testimony (Ponce has since been promoted to the military’s top post as minister of defense).

Last month Ponce sent a letter to Massachusetts congressman Joe Moakley, who chairs a special task force on the investigation. Ponce points out that Avilés passport indicates he was not in El Salvador in early November. “That should be sufficient to demonstrate with facts the falsehood of Major Buckland’s declaration,” he says in the letter.

Only Buckland’s revised testimony, which U.S. officials now claim is the truth, establishes the date of the visit in late October.

The newest revelations do not mark the first time Avilés and Buckland have given widely disparate versions of their activities together. Buckland first came forward in early January, telling his superiors that Aviles informed him in December that the military school director had ordered the killings. Avilés categorically denies revealing any information.

Both men were given lie detector tests at that time. Congressman Moakley and other officials concluded that it was the Salvadoran colonel who was lying.

Avilés would have had good reason. To be branded a snitch within the most exclusive and powerful men’s club in El Salvador—the senior officers’ corps—is akin to blowing the whistle on the Mafia. At the very least, “his career is over,” said one Western official. Not surprisingly, Avilés has since said he’s planning to retire.

“It is a very grave sin among them [to snitch],” said a chief prosecutor from the office of the Salvadoran attorney general. “But they can’t get rid of him now, because it would be too obvious.” Portions of the affidavits which Buckland does not retract reveal that both men feared for their lives because of what they knew of the murders.

The many inconsistencies between Buckland’s original and revised testimonies clearly indicate that key pieces of the puzzle are still missing. For one thing, much of the information he recants in his revised affidavit never actually appeared in his previous sworn statements.

What’s more, the FBI examiner’s report draws heavily on evidence that has never been made available to Salvadoran judicial authorities. The most complete record of what Buckland may have known and when he knew it is likely to be found in the videotaped FBI interview.

The Bush administration has never been notably openhanded about information concerning the Jesuits’ murder. The January affidavits were released only after Congressman Moakley publicly complained in mid-October. The Salvadoran judge on the case has now asked for the videotaped interview; U.S. officials refuse to comment on the matter, saying they have not yet received a formal diplomatic request.

Such behavior leads Jesuit leaders and other observers to question the administration’s true intentions. “The U.S. Embassy did not provide the evidence, and they have not yet explained why,” said Father Jose Maria Tojeira, the Jesuit Provincial for Central America. “They are either inept, or acting in bad faith.”

Sources say that Buckland’s January testimony was “discovered” by U.S. officials in San Salvador in late September. Yet they refuse to say who in the federal government might be responsible for their mysterious discovery or even which agency channeled the evidence from the FBI headquarters in Washington to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. They also fail to explain why it took nearly a month to pass the evidence to Salvadoran authorities— at the same time that they deny that Moakley’s prodding played any role.

Non-American officials and other observers say that the U.S. government’s blatant discrepancies warrant an inquiry. “There are too many agencies involved,” said one Western diplomat. “They [should] be called to testify under oath.”

Officials of the Jesuit university agree.

“There has always been passive complicity [by U.S. officials] in human rights abuses in the past; now the complicity has become active,” said the university’s Cañas. “It is not only a question of how far does this complicity reach, but where did it begin?”

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.”

Waiting for Tet: Salvadoran Rebels Have a Plan for Sunday’s Elections

SAN SALVADOR – THE BRIGHT LIGHTS of San Salvador cut the cool night air. Large spotlights beamed from military bases along the perimeter. Closer to the center, more lights glowed atop the heavily fortified walls of the U.S. embassy.

Dressed in black and armed with an M-16, one of my guerilla guides stopped along the rugged mountain trail. From the eastern slope of the San Salvador volcano, I could see the entire city below.

The overlook is less than two miles from the capital. “We are in the heart of the enemy,” says Elsa, the nom de guerre of a guerilla comandante.

In the past year, the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has moved the front line of the war to El Salvador’s central region. Along with a cameraman for West 57th of CBS News, I spent five days with the revels on the volcano, which towers several thousand feet about San Salvador.

The trip came amid a watershed in Salvador’s nine-year civil war. The FMLN made an unprecedented offer to participate in the upcoming presidential elections on the condition that they be delayed at least four months. But the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government plans to go ahead with March 19 elections as scheduled. In response, the guerillas have promised to increase attacks. “We will concentrate,” said Elsa, “on the capital city.”

The FMLN has been fighting since 1980. Many rebels and their civilian supporters say that victory is just around the corner, yet an FMLN takeover now seems doubtful. Nonetheless, a new rebel drive is expected. According to some, it may have the same relative impact on El Salvador’s civil war as the Tet offensive had in Vietnam 21 years ago.

A report on El Salvador by four U.S. Army lieutenant colonels a year ago described U.S. intervention here as “this country’s most significant sustained military enterprise since Vietnam.” And despite nine years and more than $3.3 billion in U.S. aid, the Salvadoran government, they say, has won neither popular support nor the war.

For at least 14 months, the rebels have held the military initiative. The numbers for the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency don’t look good. According to Salvadoran Army colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, FMLN assaults have forced the government to deploy 85 per cent of its troops in defensive positions. Since 1987, El Salvador has been more dependent on U.S. aid than any country since the former Republic of South Vietnam.

U.S. military advisers are frustrated. “This isn’t like World War II,” said one. “There are no population centers to control and industrial centers to attack.” Looking out over the country’s rugged terrain, he said: “Out here, how to you eliminate the enemy’s ability to fight?”

U.S. advisers asked that the same question in Vietnam; FMLN rebels look to that insurgency as a model.

SITTING WITH HER legs crossed, a camouflage hat on her head, and an Ak-47 on her lap, Comandante Elsa explained the difference between the army and the FMLN. “One can’t underestimate the enemy’s potential. They know how to defend themselves,” she says. But “the interests that drive the army are not the just interests of the people.”

Behind her, a young woman transcribed numbered radio codes, while another rebel tended the campfire. The guerillas said it was the same type used by the Vietcong; it burns in a dugout hold to avoid detection.

“Our army,” says Elsa, “did not grow based upon forced recruitment. We are rooted within the population.”

Soft-spoken, pleasant, and always smiling, Elsa doesn’t fit the image of a hardened guerilla leader. But she sits on the FMLN’s Joint Command for the “Central Front,” which includes both San Salvador and Guazapa volcanoes as well as the capital city. “If we say that Guazapa is the arrow in the heart of the enemy,” she said, “on [San Salvador] volcano we are the point of the arrow.”

Unlike in more secured areas under FMLN control, here the location of the army is always in some doubt. An unexpected encounter with a government patrol is a rare but real possibility, For us, getting past army checkpoints near the volcano’s base was the most dangerous exercise, but a clandestine network of civilians facilitated in our entry. Further on, two guerillas walking “point” provided cover as our patrol marched by moonlight through fields of recently harvested coffee.

The close proximity of the volcano to both the city and the army also makes conditions difficult. Base camps, for example, must move every few days. And life as a compa – a companero, or FMLN combatant – is essentially one of the perpetual camping out. A bed consists of two pieces of heavy plastic – one for above and one for below the body. Meals are the same tin cup of rice and beans every day. And to avoid detection, conversation must be kept to a near whisper.

Nonetheless, morale is exceptionally high. “Vergon!” – Salvadoran slang for the greatest – is the way most compass answer ‘How’s it going?” Among scores of combatants I’ve interviewed in the last several months, all but one were convinced or an eventual rebel victory. If morale is an indication, the odds are heavily weighed against the army.

And morale doesn’t fall from the sky. It is the rebels who define the terms of the conflict. They initiate most engagements, and government casualties are disproportionately high. In contrast to the guerillas, army soldiers usually say “A saber, va” – Who knows? – when asked which side is winning the war.

Literally dragged from movie theaters, bus stops, and high schools into military service, most army soldiers seem more interested in getting a visa to the United States than fighting guerillas. According to FMLN rebels, soldiers are notorious for firing their weapons in the air to give away their location – and thereby avoid a confrontation.

But according to Comandante Elsa, the key to the rebel’s success on San Salvador volcano is the civilian population.

IT IS DIFFICULT to determine popular support in any guerilla war. Most upper- and middle-class Salvadorans reject the rebels and their cause. But the FMLN is predominantly a rural-based insurgency.

“The masses are the ones who provide supplies,” said Elsa. “They also, up to a certain point, go out on scouting explorations to inform us about the location of the enemy.”
We met with a group of peasants working in a field. A rebel sent two men out to keep watch for the army; they trimmed coffee trees as a cover. Other peasants, mostly women, dropped about two handfuls of fresh tortillas each in a straw basket, which we later carried back to camp.

“To struggle you don’t need a weapon,” said Aristides, the guerilla leading our patrol. “Just to make tortillas is enough.”

Most of the people living on the volcano pick coffee. El Salvador’s leading export, coffee earns more than 60 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange. These pickers and others like them constitute the primary work force of the country.

Aristides emphasized class divisions. “Those who work a lot,” he told them, “earn a little. But those who hardly work have millions of colones [worth five to the dollar].”

El Salvador’s U.S.-backed land reform affected about 18 per cent of the country’s peasants. Most of them are organized in cooperatives, many of which remain strapped for access to credit, equipment, and seed. A land-to-the-tiller program had less success. Out of a potential 117,000 beneficiaries, only 18,000 received definitive land titles. And eight years after it was conceived, the breakup of the large coffee farms – on paper, the meat of the reform – is still blocked by landowners.

The rebels’ simple Marxist message made sense to the pickers. Landless and illiterate, they don’t understand the material dialectics, but they do know the different between rich and poor. For them, the guerillas have not only brought a sense of hope for their future, but an immediate material gain in their lives.

“Thanks to them, we make more now,” said one weather-beaten man. Before, the pickers received the equivalent of 65 cents for picking 25 pounds of beans; now they receive about $1.10.

“We sent letters to the owners of these farms asking them to raise the workers’ salaries,” said Aristides. And now, he said, “the majority of the owners on this volcano are paying what we ask.”
“And what happens to the growers who don’t want to pay more?” I said.

“Well… there are laws, laws of war that have their limits. If a grower doesn’t pay what we say, then we sabotage his property,” he said. “We’ll burn his farm or destroy his property in San Salvador.”

A shy wrinkled old woman sat on the ground eating a tortilla. I asked her what she thought of the rebels’ coercive tactics.

Está bien.” – It’s good, she said.


“Because we eat more,” she said laughing, crumbs falling from her mouth. “Because we eat more.”

The army, on the other hang, protects the growers. Washington pundits may look to Sunday’s presidential elections as proof of democracy, but the drama being played out around San Salvador and Guazapa volcanoes, Usulutan, San Miguel, Santa Ana, and the other agro-export regions remains a class-based war.

“I became aware that they were paying more,” said army colonel Zepeda. The government’s counterpart to Comandante Elsa, Zepeda is responsible for the same territory as the Central Front.

Zepeda said that one Guazapa the rebels also demand a war tax from the growers. He met with growers from both volcanoes. Nobody, he told them, has to pay a tax or give workers more than the government’s set minimum wage. Thus, the minimum wage becomes a maximum wage; anyone demanding more – guerilla or peasant – is a subversive.

Zepeda also denies that the rebels have a legitimate social base. They only survive because of outside assistance, he says. “If Nicaragua were to stop providing aid to this Marxist movement, we could finish the conflict in a short time.”

“Yes, we receive some support,” said Noe, another FMLN comandante within the Central Front, when asked about foreign backing. “It comes from other countries in the world that support our cause.” But they get most out of their material, he added, from inside the country.

MASKING TAPE, coiled wire, flashlight batteries, PVC pipe, fuses, plastic bags, and containers with a variety of powdered chemicals were laid out on a plastic tarp.

“At first we weren’t sure about it,” said a scraggly looking guerilla, as he presided over his collection of homemade bombs. “But later…” He broke into a smile.

Homemade land minds are the rebels’ most common and effective weapon; they cause at least 60 per cent of army casualties. The rebels said they started experimenting with them to repel the army’s counterinsurgency sweep, “Operation Phoenix,” on Guazapa volcano.

A contact bomb, the mine is housed in the closed end of a three-inch piece of plastic PVC water pipe. It can be filled with almost any type of explosive or homemade gunpowder. The most essential ingredient is potassium nitrate, or saltpeter – available, said a rebel, from the local pharmacy.

PVC is used because it doesn’t conduct electricity, but other containers, even shampoo bottles, he says, will work as well. Two AA batteries are places inside the container and connected to an electrical detonator. Stepping on the buried mine from above completes the circuit.

Of all the materials required, only the detonator must be secured from the outside. For larger bombs, the rebels sometimes use TNT, which also must come from outside. But most often they use a highly explosive homemade mixture of ammonia and aluminum powder. This mixture is also used for rampas – a projectile that looks like a small soccer ball wrapped in masking tape. The rampa is hurled by an exploding charge set beneath a crude-looking wooden catapult.

The rebels have also converted car bombs into a more powerful catapult-like device. These have been effective against military bases throughout the capital city. But the two-charge bombs often misfire. In the latest attacks, they have killed more civilians than soldiers. The FMLN announced it was suspending their use late last month.

On the volcano, the rebels plant land mines around their perimeter and remove them whenever they change their camp. I learned the location of both the mines and the latrine – and made sure not confuse the two.

Later that day, I watched music videos with a guerilla on his handheld Sony Watchman. The beat was interrupted by the sound of machine guns. A firefight had broken out between the army and another rebel unit less than one mile away.

“What was that?” I asked, hearing an explosion.

“A mine.” Apparently an army soldier had discovered the perimeter of the other rebel camp.

A new U2 video came on, with images of Times Square and Richard Nixon. By the time the screen had changed to Madonna, the battle was just about over.


On February 21, FMLN guerillas attacked a Salvadoran army base in Zacatecoluca, 27 miles southeast of the capital. U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Jacobs confirmed that it was a U.S. Special Forces adviser was present at the base. During the attack, the adviser – Commander Two Zero – reported his situation by radio to the U.S. Military Group command – Retelo – in San Salvador. A tape recording of that transmission indicates that the adviser – one of the 55 officially posted in the country – felt his life to be in immediate danger.


The transmission took place from 4:00 to 4:30 a.m. The adviser originally referred to the rebel action as an exploratory “probe.”


Later that day, a Salvadoran military officer at the scene said that four soldiers were killed and another 13 were wounded. A Salvadoran army major was among the dead. It appears that the U.S. adviser suffered no injury.


U.S. officials admit to only three occasions of U.S. military personnel engaging in combat in El Salvador – once in 1987 and twice last year. But U.S. advisers are widely believed to have found themselves in conflict situations more frequently than is reported. Advisers are posted at even minor military bases throughout the country. Said a Western diplomat after the Zacatecoluca attack, “I would presume that every time a military base is attacked, a U.S. soldier comes under attack.”

Nine years after the American advisers were first deployed here, Vice-President Dan Quayle said that the congressionally imposed 55-man ceiling should be lifted. Including the U.S. Embassy’s 13-man Military Group command and the Special Forces advisers rotated into the country on 90-day temporary duty assignment, there is already an average of 150 U.S. military personnel in El Salvador at any given time. Many of these advisers are experienced in counterinsurgency. One Special Forces adviser with three years here, for instance, did four years of duty leading ARVN reconnaissance patrols in Vietnam.

CHARRING KERNELS over a hot stone slab, a woman looks up and says hello. She uses roast corn, she explained, to make a cheap substitute for coffee.

A displaced peasant, she lives in one of the many poor barrios on the fringe of the city. The woman said she remembered me from my last visit two months ago.

I asked her if she thought the rebels would win. “I don’t know,” she said. “I hope so. What do you think?”