El Salvador’s Forgotten War
El Salvador’s Forgotten War, by Frank Smyth, The Progressive, August 1987.
This story that appeared in print was put republished online 27 years later by The Progressive on its website in December 2014 after the launch of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture during the administration led by President George H.W. Bush after 9/11 in the 2000s.
The U.S. Congress, like the American mass media, seem notoriously in capable of focusing on more than one international troublespot at a time. A few years ago, all eyes were on El Salvador, its infamous Death Squads, and the U.S. Government’s role in sustaining a brutally repressive regime. Today the spotlight is on Nicaragua and El Salvador is all but forgotten, despite a resurgence of political violence and new evidence of U.S. com plicity in assaults on human rights.
“The democratic revolution has just begun,” President Jose Napoleon Duarte told the Salvadoran people in his third annual state-of-the-union address on June 1. But one day earlier, labor leader Julio Portillo was shot at an anti-government demonstration near San Salvador. Three days before that, the offices of the Co-Madres (Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Political Prisoners Disappeared) were demolished by a bomb. And earlier in May, the tortured, headless body of peasant leader Antonio Hernandez Martinez was found in San Miguel.
Hernandez, Portillo, and the Co-Madres were active participants in a labor-led opposition coalition that has been challenging the Salvadoran government to pursue genuine reforms and negotiate an end to years of insurgent warfare. Instead, the Duarte government has chosen to dismiss the opposition as a subversive communist front.
The murdered Hernandez Martinez was last seen being led off by government soldiers on April 16. He had been on his way to arrange for a loan to his peasant co operative.
Julio Portillo, who heads a high-school teachers’ union, was leading a peaceful anti-government protest outside Mariona prison when he was struck by one of the shots directed at the protesters from the direction of the Salvadoran army’s First Infantry Brigade.
Duarte ignored these developments when he traveled in a heavily armored eighty-car convoy to deliver his state-of-the-union address in the small northern town of Sensuntepeque. He unveiled fifty- four new proposals to rebuild El Salvador and promised to open a dialogue with leftist guerrillas, provided they first laid down their arms.
The Salvadoran government maintains that the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) is prolonging the conflict. But classified CIA documents reveal that it is Duarte’s U.S.-backed government that has no interest in ending the civil war. In fact, these documents—prepared by the Office of African and Latin American Analysis in coordination with the CIA’s Directorate of Operations—dismiss Duarte’s previous call for peace, is sued last year, as a meaningless “public-relations gesture.” Salvadoran government officials “see little to be gained in a dialogue with the rebels while the Salvadoran military has the initiative in the war,” says a CIA report dated September 2, 1986.
The Salvadoran military say they can win the war, and U.S. authorities believe the government has taken the upper hand. “Although they have not been decisively beaten,” the September CIA report states, “the guerrillas, in our view, no longer have the capacity to launch and sustain major offensives.”
Such assessments have often been made in the course of the eight-year-old conflict, and they have always turned out to be unfounded. Early this spring, at a time when the insurgents were believed to be in decline, the FMLN mounted a surprise attack on an army garrison at El Paraiso, killing sixty-nine government soldiers and one U.S. Army Special Forces adviser.
The FMLN has expanded its operations to all fourteen provinces of El Salvador, increasing the likelihood that the struggle may continue for many years. The conflict has already claimed some 60,000 lives—more than 1 percent of the Salvadoran population.
Duarte, who has neither the will nor the power to oversee an end to the war, did offer two symbolic concessions in his June 1 speech: He said that he would allow seventy-eight wounded rebels to leave the country for medical treatment and that he might grant amnesty to 400 political prisoners. At the same time, however, he rejected out of hand a bold new FMLN peace initiative.
Three days before Duarte’s speech at Sensuntepeque, the FMLN had proposed to enter into direct negotiations with the government on July 15. Their offer included pledges to stop using land mines and to suspend their campaign of economic sabotage in exchange for an end to aerial bombing by the government and a halt of summary executions by both sides.
Guerrilla-planted mines cause up to 70 percent of government casualties and are, along with the economic-sabotage campaign, the insurgents’ most effective weapons. Government bombing missions are targeted on areas of high rebel activity, but most casualties are inflicted on civilians rather than FMLN fighters. The steps proposed by the FMLN would, therefore, go a long way toward reducing civilian casualties.
But the Salvadoran government, backed by the United States, is interested only in a military solution. The Reagan Administration has tried to make El Salvador a showcase for containment of communism in the Hemisphere, and has undertaken highly publicized steps to “professionalize” the Salvadoran military.
In 1981, when unarmed civilians were being murdered at the rate of thirty-five a day, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff sent Brigadier General Fred Woerner to conduct a survey of the Salvadoran armed forces. His report, which called for the expansion, equipping, training, and modernization of the Salvadoran military, set the tone for Reagan Administration policy toward El Salvador.
However, State Department sources confirm there was considerable friction within the Administration over its indifference to human-rights considerations. Under mounting pressure from church and human-rights groups, the Administration began in 1983 to express concern over the operations of the Salvadoran Death Squads.
“The idea,” says a former State Department official, “was to play by their rules”—”their” meaning such human-rights organizations as Amnesty International and Americas Watch, which had long criticized U.S. policy. Congress, mindful of El Salvador’s blatant disregard for human rights, had blocked or reduced Administration requests for an escalation of military aid. However, the new training effort undertaken by the U.S. Government was directed less at restoring human rights than at developing more sophisticated forms of interrogation.
The first group of 470 Salvadoran officer cadets received training in a three-month course at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1982. Another 600 arrived in 1983, followed by even more in 1984. Additional units, particularly elite battalions, were trained at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and smaller units received special instruction at the U.S. Southern Command in Panama. In 1985, 250 Salvadoran military personnel were sent to the Pentagon’s Regional Training Center in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Last year, training shifted to a new center in La Union, El Salvador.
A Defense Department spokesman, Marine Captain Jay C. Farrar, said it is “highly doubtful” that these courses offered instruction in abusive interrogation techniques. But according to U.S. Army Special Forces advisers formerly stationed in the region, small courses for selected Salvadoran soldiers regularly included training in “negative-incentive” methods.
“Torture in El Salvador,” Americas Watch reported last year, “consists increasingly of physical abuse that does not leave physical marks, such as the capucha (hood to suffocate) and immersion in filthy water. . . . The most prevalent forms of abuse of detainees at present are sleep deprivation, food deprivation, and threats against family members. These practices, like the capucha and immersion, leave no physical marks.” State Department sources say abuse of this kind now occurs in about 20 percent of all prisoner interrogations.
A Pentagon intelligence officer who spoke on condition that his name not be published said such techniques “are exactly the kind of thing that the Special Forces are teaching in El Salvador.” He added that methods inappropriate for use by the police in the United States can be justified in El Salvador because “this is a war and a different situation.”
Even as the use of “negative-incentive” techniques has increased, blatant physical abuse continues. Few armed guerrillas have ever been taken prisoner, and it is generally assumed that they are executed when captured in the field. According to former U.S. advisers, Salvadoran officers complain that they don’t have time for lengthy interrogations on patrol.
Military intelligence documents sent from El Salvador to Washington give an indication of how interrogations are conducted in the field. In mid-1985, three combatants of the FAL—a guerrilla group led by the Salvadoran Communist Party—were captured coming off the Guazapa Volcano near the capital. The interrogators were able to learn the pseudonyms of about thirty members of that guerrilla unit, their titles and functions, and the pseudonyms of the three clandestine operatives who had recruited the prisoners.
The documents explain, in euphemistic terms, the interrogation of one combatant: “In the beginning he didn’t say much, due to his companeros who had told him that the FAL would beat or kill him [if he talked]. But once he saw that this was false, he opened up a little more.” The prisoner, it seems clear, was persuaded that his captors would inflict greater harm if he didn’t talk than his comrades would if he did.
One goal of Reagan Administration policy is to avoid the kind of wholesale slaughter that used to lead to questions in Congress and public protests. But if the Duarte government’s current policy of selective repression were to fail to keep the domestic opposition under control, the military might resort to more obvious methods. Indeed, five unarmed alleged “FMLN collaborators” were murdered by the army’s Arce Battalion on May 22, their bodies thrown into a well.
CIA analysts fear the FMLN is trying to provoke violence between civilians and security forces, and have expressed concern that in the future the military may exercise less restraint: “Increasing violence will fuel the insurgency by alienating Duarte’s primary constituencies in the lower middle classes and the urban poor, or by provoking a coup and military crackdown.”
The extreme Right continues to play an active role in Salvadoran politics. Ultra-conservative parties, backed by the country’s intransigent private sector, control El Salvador’s supreme court. For four months earlier this year, they boycotted the legislative assembly, which is dominated by Duarte’s Christian Democrats. A new rightist organization, the Movement for National Action, has entered the fray, calling for Duarte’s resignation and berating the military for failing to crush the insurgents.
In the past, such rhetoric has preceded the unleashing of new Death Squad offensives. In fact, one of El Salvador’s notorious right-wing Death Squads resurfaced on June 16. The Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade accused fourteen teachers and students at the National University of having guerrilla links, and gave them forty-eight hours to leave the country.
The ultraconservatives enjoy backing within the armed forces, especially among U.S.-trained oficiales de la guerra (war of ficers), including Colonel Sigfrido Ochoa, former commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade in Chalatenango, and Colonel Mauricio Staben of the Arce Battalion. For these officers, there is no distinction between the insurgents and the domestic political opposition.
That may explain why opposition political figures have come under violent political attack in recent months, and why Duarte’s effectiveness has been markedly reduced. In the past few months, the military has grown increasingly independent in El Salvador, and another round of political violence may be in the offing.
Frank Smyth, a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., has reported from El Salvador.
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