Quagmire in the Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Salvador: People Have Reason to Be Afraid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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