Salvadoran Civil War
|Salvadoran Civil War|
|Part of the Central American crisis and Cold War|
A billboard serving as a reminder of one of many massacres that occurred during the Civil War in El Salvador. The Spanish inscription to the left reads in English: "They tore out the flower, but the roots are returning among us."
|Commanders and leaders|
José Guillermo García
José Napoleón Duarte
Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova
Salvador Sánchez Cerén
|Casualties and losses|
|7,000 dead||20,000 dead|
|70,000–80,000 (total dead); 8,000 disappeared; 550,000 internally displaced and 500,000 refugees in other countries|
The Salvadoran Civil War was a conflict between the military-led government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition or "umbrella organization" of five left-wing guerrilla groups. A coup on October 15, 1979, led to the killings of anti-coup protesters by the government as well as anti-disorder protesters by the guerrillas, and is widely seen as the tipping point toward civil war.
By January 1980, the left-wing political organizations united to form the Coordinated Revolutionaries of the Masses (CRM). A few months later, the left-wing armed groups united to form the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (DRU). It was renamed the FMLN following its merger with the Communist Party in October 1980.
The full-fledged civil war lasted for more than 12 years and saw extreme violence from both sides. It also included the deliberate terrorizing and targeting of civilians by death squads, the recruitment of child soldiers, and other violations of human rights, mostly by the military. An unknown number of people disappeared during the conflict, and the UN reports that more than 75,000 were killed. The United States contributed to the conflict by providing large amounts of military aid to the government of El Salvador during the Carter and Reagan administrations.
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America after Belize. As in many nations of Latin America, the history of El Salvador has been characterized by marked socioeconomic inequality. In the late 19th century, coffee became a major cash crop for El Salvador, bringing in approximately 95% of the country's income. However, this income was restricted to only 2% of the population, sharply dividing the people between a small powerful elite and an impoverished majority. Socioeconomic tension grew through the 1920s, and were compounded by a drop in coffee prices following the stock-market crash of 1929. In 1932 the Central American Socialist Party was formed and led an uprising of peasants and indigenous people against the government. The government brutally suppressed it in what became known as the 1932 Salvadoran peasant massacre or simply "La Matanza" (the Massacre), with the military murdering between 10,000 and 40,000 Indians. Farabundo Martí, the leader of the uprising, was eventually arrested and put to death, and the military subsequently took power over the country. "La Matanza" also served to reinforce feelings of strong distrust and animosity among the populace towards the government, the military and the landed elite.
On July 14, 1969, an armed conflict erupted between El Salvador and Honduras over immigration disputes caused by Honduran land reform laws. The conflict (known as the Football War) lasted only four days, but had major long-term effects for Salvadoran society. Trade was disrupted between El Salvador and Honduras, causing tremendous economic damage to both nations. An estimated 300,000 Salvadorans were displaced due to battle, many of whom were exiled from Honduras; in many cases, the Salvadoran government could not meet their needs. The Football War also strengthened the power of the military in El Salvador, leading to heightened corruption. In the years following the war, the government increased military spending and expanded purchases of weaponry from sources such as Israel, Brazil, West Germany, and the United States in an attempt to modernize the Salvadoran army.
The 1973 oil crisis had led to rising food prices and decreased agricultural output. This worsened the existent socioeconomic inequality in the country, leading to increased unrest. In response, President Arturo Armando Molina enacted a series of land reform measures, calling for large landholdings to be redistributed among the peasant population. The reforms failed, thanks to opposition from the landed elite, reinforcing the widespread discontent with the government.
On 20 February 1977, General Carlos Humberto Romero, representing the National Conciliation Party (PCN), defeated the National Opposing Union in elections marred by blatant fraud and voter intimidation by government-sponsored paramilitary forces such as the feared ORDEN, who intimidated voters with machetes. The period between the election and the formal inauguration of President Romero on 1 July 1977 was characterized by massive protests from the popular movement, which were met by state repression. On 28 February 1977, a crowd of political demonstrators gathered in downtown San Salvador to protest the electoral fraud. Security forces arrived on the scene and opened fire, resulting in a massacre as they indiscriminately killed demonstrators and bystanders alike. Estimates of the number of civilians killed range between 200 and 1,500. President Molina blamed the protests on "foreign Communists," and immediately exiled a number of top UNO party members from the country.
Repression continued after the inauguration of President Romero, with his new government declaring a state-of-siege and suspending civil liberties. In the country side, the agrarian elite organized and funded paramilitary death squads, such as the infamous Regalado's Armed Forces (FAR) led by Hector Regalado. While the death squads were initially autonomous from the Salvadoran military and composed of civilians (the FAR for example had developed out of a Boy Scout troop), they were soon taken over by El Salvador's military intelligence service - ANSESAL, led by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson - and became a crucial part of the state's repressive apparatus, murdering thousands of union leaders, activists, students and teachers suspected of sympathizing with the left. The Socorro Jurídico Cristiano (Christian Legal Assistance, a legal aid office within the Archbishop's office and El Salvador's leading human rights group at the time) documented the killings of 687 civilians by government forces in 1978. In 1979, the number of documented killings increased to 1,796. The repression prompted many in the Catholic Church to denounce the government; The government responded by repressing the clergy.
Coup d'état, repression and insurrection: 1979–1981
With tensions mounting and the country on the verge of an insurrection, the civil-military Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG) deposed President General Carlos Humberto Romero in a coup on October 15, 1979. The United States viewed the coup as a fortuitous event, given the recent overthrow of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and embraced the junta with large offers of military and economic aid, including a six-man Mobile Training Team (MTT) in November 1979 and $5.7 million in military aid for FY 1980, in order to prevent at all costs "another Nicaragua."
Under pressure from the military, all three civilian members of the junta resigned on January 3, 1980, along with 10 of the 11 cabinet ministers. On January 22, 1980, the Salvadoran National Guard attacked a massive peaceful demonstration, killing up to 50 people and wounding hundreds more. On February 6, US ambassador Frank Devine informed the State Department that the extreme right was arming itself and preparing for a confrontation in which it clearly expected to ally itself with the military.
Wishing to project a populist image, the JRG enacted a land reform program, which restricted landholdings to a hundred-hectare maximum, nationalised the banking, coffee, and sugar industries, scheduled elections for February 1982, and disbanded the paramilitary private death squad ORDEN on November 6, 1979.
However, the land reform program was received with hostility from El Salvador's military and economic elites who sought to sabotage the process as soon as it began. Upon learning of the government's intention to distribute land to the peasants and organize cooperatives, wealthy Salvadoran land owners began killing their own livestock and moving valuable farming equipment across the border into Guatemala, where many Salvadoran elites owned additional land. In addition most cooperative leaders in the countryside were assassinated or "disappeared" soon after being elected and becoming visible to the authorities.The Socorro Jurídico documented a jump in documented government killings from 234 in February 1980 to 487 the following month.
"In one case that has received little attention," Human Rights Watch noted, "US Embassy officials apparently collaborated with the death squad abduction of two law students in January 1980. National Guard troops arrested two youths, Francisco Ventura and José Humberto Mejía, following an anti-government demonstration. The National Guard received permission to bring the youths onto Embassy grounds. Shortly thereafter, a private car drove into the Embassy parking lot. Men in civilian dress put the students in the trunk of their car and drove away. Ventura and Mejía were never seen again."
In February 1980 Archbishop Óscar Romero published an open letter to US President Jimmy Carter in which he pleaded with him to suspend the United States' ongoing program of military aid to the Salvadoran regime. He advised Carter that "Political power is in the hands of the armed forces. They know only how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy." Romero warned that US support would only "sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their fundamental human rights." On 24 March 1980, the Archbishop was assassinated while celebrating mass, the day after he called upon Salvadoran soldiers and security force members to not follow their orders to kill Salvadoran civilians. President Jimmy Carter stated this was a "shocking and unconscionable act". At his funeral a week later, government-sponsored snipers in the National Palace and on the periphery of the Gerardo Barrios Plaza were responsible for the shooting of forty-two mourners.
On 7 May 1980, former Army Major Roberto D'Aubuisson was arrested with a group of civilians and soldiers at a farm. The raiders found documents connecting him and the civilians as organizers and financiers of the death squad who killed Archbishop Romero, and of plotting a coup d’état against the JRG. Their arrest provoked right-wing terrorist threats and institutional pressures forcing the JRG to release D’Aubuisson. In 1993, a U.N. investigation confirmed that D'Aubuisson ordered the assassination.
A week after the arrest of Roberto D'Aubuisson, the National Guard and the newly reorganized paramilitary Organización Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN), with the cooperation of the Military of Honduras, carried out a large massacre at the Sumpul River on May 14, 1980, in which an estimated 600 civilians were killed, mostly women and children. Escaping villagers were prevented from crossing the river by the Honduran armed forces, "and then killed by Salvadoran troops who fired on them in cold blood." Over the course of 1980, the Salvadoran Army and three main security forces (National Guard, National Police and Treasury Police) were estimated to have killed 11,895 people, mostly peasants, trade unionists, teachers, students, journalists, human rights advocates, priests, and other prominent demographics among the popular movement. Human rights organizations judged the Salvadoran government to have among the worst human rights records in the hemisphere.
"The immediate goal of the Salvadoran army and security forces—and of the United States in 1980, was to prevent a takeover by the leftist-led guerrillas and their allied political organizations. At this point in the Salvadoran conflict the latter were much more important than the former. The military resources of the rebels were extremely limited and their greatest strength, by far, lay not in force of arms but in their "mass organizations" made up of labor unions, student and peasant organizations that could be mobilized by the thousands in El Salvador's major cities and could shut down the country through strikes." Critics of US military aid charged that "it would legitimate what has become dictatorial violence and that political power in El Salvador lay with old-line military leaders in government positions who practice a policy of 'reform with repression.'" A prominent Catholic spokesman insisted that "any military aid you send to El Salvador ends up in the hands of the military and paramilitary rightist groups who are themselves at the root of the problems of the country."
On December 2, 1980, members of the Salvadoran National Guard were suspected to have raped and murdered four American nuns and a laywoman. Maryknoll missionary nuns Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, and Ursuline nun Dorothy Kazel, and laywoman Jean Donovan were on a Catholic relief mission providing food, shelter, transport, medical care, and burial to death squad victims. U.S. military aid was briefly cut off in response to the murders but would be renewed within six weeks.
As government-sanctioned violence increased, previously non-militant political groups metamorphosed into guerrilla forces. In May 1980, the Salvadoran revolutionary leadership met in Havana, forming a consolidated politico-military command, which soon morphed into the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) honoring insurgent hero Farabundo Martí, killed by the National Guard in 1932. The FMLN immediately announced plans for an insurrection against the government, which began on 10 January 1981 with the FMLN's first major attack. The attack established FMLN control of most of Morazán and Chalatenango departments for the war's duration. Attacks were launched on military targets throughout the country, leaving hundreds of people dead.
In addition, the outgoing Carter administration increased military aid to the Salvadoran armed forces to $10 million which included $5 million in rifles, ammunition, grenades and helicopters. In justifying these arms shipments, the administration claimed that the regime had taken "positive steps" to investigate the murder of four American nuns, but this was disputed by US Ambassador, Robert E. White, who said that he could find no evidence the junta was "conducting a serious investigation."
During the same month, the JRG strengthened the state of siege, imposed by President Carlos Humberto Romero in May 1979, by declaring martial law and adopting a new set of curfew regulations. Between January 12 and February 19, 1981, 168 persons were killed by the security forces for violating curfew.
"Draining the Sea"
In its effort to defeat the insurgency, the Salvadoran Armed Forces carried out a "scorched earth" strategy, adopting tactics similar to those being employed by the counterinsurgency in neighboring Guatemala. These tactics were primarily derived and adapted from U.S. strategy during the Vietnam War and taught by American military advisors. An integral part of the Salvadoran Army's counterinsurgency strategy entailed "draining the sea" or "drying up the ocean," that is, eliminating the insurgency by eradicating its support base in the countryside. The primary target was the civilian population – displacing or killing them in order to remove any possible base of support for the rebels. The concept of "draining the sea" had its basis in a doctrine by Mao Zedong which emphasized that "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." Aryeh Neier, the executive director of Americas Watch wrote in a review of 1984: "This may be an effective strategy for winning the war. It is, however, a strategy that involves the use of terror tactics — bombings, strafings, shellings and, occasionally, massacres of civilians." Beginning in 1983, guerrilla strongholds were found by U.S. reconnaissance planes that relayed intelligence to the Salvadoran military.
In its report covering 1981, Amnesty International identified "regular security and military units as responsible for widespread torture, mutilation and killings of noncombatant civilians from all sectors of Salvadoran society." The report also stated that the killing of civilians by state security forces became increasingly systematic with the implementation of more methodical killing strategies, which allegedly included use of a meat packing plant to dispose of human remains. Between August 20 and August 25, 1981, eighty-three decapitations were reported. The murders were later revealed to have been carried out by a death squad using a guillotine.
On 15 March 1981, the Salvadoran Army began a "sweep" operation in the department of Cabanas in northern El Salvador near the Honduran border. The sweep was accompanied by the use of scorched earth tactics by the Salvadoran Army and indiscriminate killings of anyone captured by the army. Those displaced by the "sweep" who were not killed outright fled the advance of the Salvadoran Army; hiding in caves and under trees to evade capture and probable summary execution. On 18 March, three days after the sweep in Cabanas began, 4-8,000 survivors of the sweep (mostly women and children) attempted to cross the Rio Lempa into Honduras to flee violence. There, they were caught between Salvadoran and Honduran troops. The Salvadoran Air Force, subsequently bombed and strafed the fleeing civilians with machine gun fire, killing hundreds. Among the dead were at least 189 persons who were unaccounted for and registered as "disappeared" during the operation.
A second offensive was launched in the department of Cabanas on 11 November 1981 in which 1,200 troops were mobilized including members of the Atlacatl Battalion; organized in 1980 at the US Army School of the Americas in Panama. The operation was commanded by Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, a former Treasury Police chief with a reputation for brutality. Ochoa was close associate of Major Roberto D'Abuisson and was alleged to have been involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. From the start, the invasion of Cabanas was described as a "cleansing" operation by official sources. Hundreds of civilians were massacred by the army as Col. Ochoa's troops moved through the villages. Col. Ochoa claimed that hundreds of guerrillas had been killed but was able to show journalists only fifteen captured weapons, half of them virtual antiques, suggesting that most of those killed in the sweep were unarmed.
This operation was followed by additional "sweeps" through Morazán Department, spearheaded by the Atlacatl Battalion. On December 11, 1981, one month after the "sweep" through Cabanas, the Battalion occupied the village of El Mozote and massacred at least 733 and possibly up to 1,000 unarmed civilians in what became known as the El Mozote Massacre. The Atlacatl soldiers accused the adults of collaborating with the guerrillas. The field commander said they were under orders to kill everyone, including the children, who he asserted would just grow up to become guerrillas if they let them live. "We were going to make an example of these people," he said. As details became more widely known, the event became recognized as one of the worst atrocities of the conflict.
The repression in rural areas resulted in the displacement of large portions of the rural populace, and many peasants fled. Of those who fled or were displaced, some 20,000 resided in makeshift refugee centers on the Honduran border in conditions of poverty, starvation and disease. The army and death squads forced many of them to flee to the United States, but most were denied asylum. On January 17–18, 1981, a US congressional delegation visited the refugee camps in El Salvador on a fact finding mission and submitted a report to Congress. The delegation concluded that "the Salvadoran method of 'drying up the ocean' is to eliminate entire villages from the map, to isolate the guerrillas, and deny them any rural base off which they can feed."
In total, Socorro Jurídico registered 13,353 individual cases of summary execution by government forces over the course of 1981. However, the true figure for the number of persons killed by the Army and security services could be substantially higher, due to the fact that extrajudicial killings generally went unreported in the countryside and many of the victims families remained silent in fear of reprisal. An America's Watch report described that the Socorro Jurídico figures "tended to be conservative because it's standards of confirmation are strict"; killings of persons were registered individually and required proof of being "not combat related". Socorro Jurídico later revised its count of government killings for 1981 up to 16,000 with the induction of new cases.
Interim government and continued violence: 1982–1984
In 1982, the FMLN began calling for a peace settlement that would establish a "government of broad participation". The Reagan administration said they wanted to create a Communist dictatorship. Elections were interrupted with right-wing paramilitary attacks and FMLN-suggested boycotts. El Salvador's National Federation of Lawyers, which represented all of the country's bar associations, refused to participate in drafting the 1982 electoral law. The lawyers said that the elections couldn't possibly be free and fair during a state of siege that suspended all basic rights and freedoms.
Pursuant with measures put in place by the JRG on October 18, 1979, elections for an interim government were held on April 29, 1982. The Legislative Assembly voted on three candidates nominated by the armed forces; Álvaro Alfredo Magaña Borja, leader of the moderate Democratic Action and thus effectively politically independent, was elected by 36 votes to 17, ahead of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Party of National Conciliation candidates. Roberto D'Aubuisson accused Jaime Abdul Gutiérrez Avendaño of imposing on the Assembly "his personal decision to put Álvaro Alfredo Magaña Borja in the presidency" in spite of a "categorical no" from the ARENA deputies. Magana was sworn into office on 2 May. Decree No. 6 of the National Assembly suspended phase III of the implementation of the agrarian reform, and was itself later amended. The Apaneca Pact was signed on 3 August 1982, establishing a Government of National Unity, whose objectives were peace, democratization, human rights, economic recovery, security and a strengthened international position. An attempt was made to form a transitional government which would establish a democratic system. Lack of agreement among the forces that made up the government and the pressures of the armed conflict prevented any substantive changes from being made during Magaña's presidency.
The activities of the insurgency continued during the period of interim government, as did government repression. The FMLN attacked the Ilopango Air Force Base, destroying six of the Air Force's 14 Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, five of its 18 Dassault Ouragan aircraft and three C-47s. The guerrillas stepped up their activities against economic targets. Between February and April, a total of 439 acts of sabotage were reported. The number of acts of sabotage involving explosives or arson rose to 782 between January and September. The United States Embassy estimated the damage to the economic infrastructure at US$98 million. FMLN also carried out large-scale operations in the capital city and temporarily occupied urban centres in the country's interior. According to some reports, the number of rebels ranged between 4,000 and 5,000; other sources put the number at between 6,000 and 9,000.
Systemic and widespread human rights violations by the Salvadoran military and security forces continued at high levels during the period of interim government. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported that on May 24, 1982, a clandestine cemetery containing the corpses of 150 disappeared persons was discovered near Puerta del Diablo, Panchimalco, approximately twelve kilometers from San Salvador. On June 10, 1982, almost 4,000 Salvadoran troops carried out a "cleanup" operation in the rebel-controlled Chalatenango province. Over 600 civilians were reportedly massacred during the Army sweep. The Salvadoran field commander acknowledged that an unknown number of civilian rebel sympathizers or "masas" were killed, while declaring the operation a success. Nineteen days later, the Army massacred 27 unarmed civilians during house raids in a San Salvador neighborhood. The women were raped and murdered. Everyone was dragged from their homes into the street and then executed. "The operation was a success," said the Salvadoran Defense Ministry communique. "This action was a result of training and professionalization of our officers and soldiers."
During 1982 and 1983, government forces killed approximately 8,000 civilians a year. Although the figure is substantially less than the figures reported by human rights groups in 1980 and 1981, targeted executions as well as indiscriminate killings nonetheless remained an integral policy of the army and internal security forces, part of what Professor William Stanley of the University of New Mexico has described as a “strategy of mass murder” designed to terrorize the civilian population as well as opponents of the government. General Adolfo Blandón, the Salvadoran armed forces chief of staff during much of the 1980s, has stated, "Before 1983, we never took prisoners of war."
In March 1983, Marianella Garcia Villas, president of the Non-Governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador, was captured by army troops on the Guazapa volcano, and later tortured to death. Garcia Villas had been on Guazapa collecting evidence about the possible army use of white phosphorus munitions. In April 1983, Melida Anaya Montes, a leader of the Popular Forces for Liberation (FPL) "Farabundo Marti", was murdered in Managua, Nicaragua. Salvador Cayetano Carpio, her superior in the FPL was allegedly implicated in her murder. He committed suicide in Managua shortly after Anaya Montes' murder. Their deaths influenced the course within the FMLN of the FPL's Prolonged Popular War strategy.
On February 7, 1984, nine labor leaders, including all seven top officials of one major federation, were arrested by the Salvadoran National Police and sent to a military court. The arrests were part of Duarte's moves to crack down on labor unions after more than 80 trade unionists were detained in a raid by the National Police. The police confiscated the union's files and took videotape mugshots of each union member. During a 15-day interrogation, the nine labor leaders were beaten during late-night questioning and were told to confess to being guerrillas. They were then forced to sign a written confession while blindfolded. They were never charged with being guerrillas but the official police statement said they were accused of planning to "present demands to management for higher wages and benefits and promoting strikes, which destabilize the economy." A U.S. official said the embassy had "followed the arrests closely and was satisfied that the correct procedures were followed."
Duarte presidency: 1984–1989
In 1984 elections, Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte won the presidency (with 54% of the votes) against Army Major Roberto d’Aubuisson, of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). The elections were held under military rule amidst high levels of repression and violence, however, and candidates to the left of Duarte's brand of Christian Democrats were excluded from participating. Fearful of a d’Aubuisson presidency for public relations purposes, the CIA financed Duarte's campaign with some two million dollars.
After Duarte's victory, human rights abuses at the hands of the army and security forces continued, but declined due to modifications made to the security structures. The policies of the Duarte government attempted to make the country's three security forces more accountable to the government by placing them under the direct supervision of a Vice Minister of Defense, but all three forces continued to be commanded individually by regular army officers, which, given the command structure within the government, served to effectively nullify any of the accountability provisions. The Duarte government also failed to decommission personnel within the security structures that had been involved in gross human rights abuses, instead simply dispersing them to posts in other regions of the country.
While reforms were being made to the security forces, the army continued to massacre unarmed civilians in the country side. An Americas Watch report noted that the Atlacatl Battalion killed 80 unarmed civilians in Cabanas in July, 1984 and carried out another massacre one month later, killing 50 displaced people in the Chalatenango province. The women were raped and then everyone was systematically executed.
Through 1984 and 1985, the Salvadoran Armed Forces enacted a series of "civic-action" programs in Chalatenango province. This consisted of the establishment of "citizen defense committees" to guard plantations and businesses against attacks by insurgents and the establishment of a number of free-fire zones. These measures were implemented under former Cabanas commander, Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, who had previously been exiled to the US Army War College for mutiny. By January 1985 Ochoa's forces had established 12 free-fire zones in Chalatenango in which any inhabitants unidentified by the army were deemed to be insurgents. Ochoa stated in an interview that areas within the free fire zone were susceptible to indiscriminate bombings by the Salvadoran Air Force. Ochoa's forces were implicated in a massacre of about 40 civilians in an Army sweep through one of the free fire zones in August 1985. Ochoa refused to permit the Red Cross to enter these areas to deliver humanitarian aid to the victims. Ochoa's forces reportedly uprooted some 1,400 civilian rebel supporters with mortar fire between September and November 1984.
In San Salvador (06/16/85), Shirley Christian reports in the New York Times that the National Federation of Trade Unions was "making tough wage demands," and that Christian Democrats said they were "haunted by the memory of 1979, when the same groups were prominent in the near-anarchy that swept El Salvador." But "by mid-1980, the agitation dried up as many street activists joined the guerrillas and others disengaged out of fear for their lives, while the Government imposed the wage freeze and state of siege" amidst "accusations" of human rights abuses. The fear they said was that these subversive groups, who admitted their former affiliation with the political arm of the guerrillas, may try to reestablish the "mass organizations" that were destroyed by the violent repression of strikes and demonstrations in the early 1980s.
In it's annual review of 1987, Amnesty International reported that "some of the most serious violations of human rights are found in Central America," particularly Guatemala and El Salvador, where "kidnappings and assassinations serve as systematic mechanisms of the government against opposition from the left". On 10/26/87, unknown gunmen shot and killed Herbert Ernesto Anaya, Director of El Salvador's nongovernmental Human Rights Commission. Anaya was in his car in his driveway with his wife and children at the time. Some human rights groups linked the increase of death squad-style killings and disappearances to the reactivation of the popular organizations, which had been decimated by mass state terror in the early 80s. The U.S. Trade Representative told Human Rights Watch that the government's repression of trade unionists was justified on the grounds that they were guerrilla supporters. Col. Renee Emilio Ponce, the Army operations chief, asserted that the guerrillas were "returning to their first phase of clandestine organization" in the city, "and mobilization of the masses".
During the Central American Peace Accords in 1987, the FMLN demanded that all death squads be disbanded and the members be held accountable. In October 1987, the Salvadoran Assembly approved an amnesty for civil-war-related crimes. The Amnesty law required the release of all prisoners suspected of being guerrillas and guerrilla sympathizers. Pursuant with these laws, 400 political prisoners were released. Insurgents were given a period of fifteen days to turn themselves over to the security forces in exchange for amnesty. Despite amnesty being granted to guerillas and political prisoners, amnesty was also granted to members of the army, security forces and paramilitary who were involved in human rights abuses.
In October 1988, Amnesty International reported that death squads had abducted, tortured, and killed, hundreds of suspected dissidents in the proceeding eighteen months. The squads were made up of members of the intelligence sections of the Armed Forces and the security services. They customarily wore plain clothes and made use of trucks or vans with tinted windows and without license plates. They were "chillingly efficient", said the report. Victims were sometimes shot from passing cars, in the daytime and in front of eye-witnesses. At other times, victims were kidnapped from their homes or on the streets and their bodies found dumped far from the scene. Some joined "the long list" of the "disappeared" and were never heard from again. Victims were "customarily found mutilated, decapitated, dismembered, strangled or showing marks of torture or rape." The death squad style was "to operate in secret but to leave mutilated bodies of victims as a means of terrifying the population." Most of the victims were trade unionists and members of cooperatives, human rights workers, members of the judiciary involved in efforts to establish criminal responsibility for human rights violations, returned refugees and displaced persons, and released political prisoners.
Angered by the results of the 1988 elections and the military's use of terror tactics and voter intimidation, the FMLN launched a major offensive with the aim of unseating the Christiani government on November 11, 1989. This offensive brought the epicenter of fighting into the wealthy suburbs of San Salvador for essentially the first time in the history of the conflict, as the FMLN began a campaign of selective assassinations against political and military officials, civil officials, and upper-class private citizens. The government retaliated with a renewed campaign of repression, primarily against activists in the democratic sector. The non-governmental Salvadoran Human Rights Commission (CDHES) counted 2,868 killings by the armed forces between May 1989 and May 1990. In addition, the CDHES stated that government paramilitary organizations illegally detained 1,916 persons and disappeared 250 during the same period.
On February 13, the Atlacatl Battalion attacked a guerrilla field hospital and killed at least 10 people, including five patients, a doctor and a nurse. Two of the female victims showed signs that they had been raped before they were executed. Nearly 2 weeks earlier, Vice President Dan Quayle, on a visit to San Salvador, had told army leaders that human rights abuses committed by the military had to stop. Sources associated with the military said afterword that Quayle's warning was dismissed as propaganda aimed at the Congress and the U.S. public.
Meanwhile, as Chris Norton reported, U.S. advisers were apparently sending a different message to the Salvadoran military - "do what you need to do to stop the commies, just don't get caught". One major problem, said Washington security consultant Neil C. Livingstone, was one of visuals - he quoted a former U.S. intelligence officer who suggested the death squads should stop dumping bodies on the side of the road because "they have an ocean and they ought to use it".
In San Salvador on October 1, eight people were killed and 35 others were injured when a death squad bombed the headquarters of the leftist labor confederation, the National Trade Union Federation of Salvadoran Workers (UNTS). Earlier the same day, another bomb exploded outside the headquarters of a victims' advocacy group, the Committee of Mothers and Family Members of Political Prisoners, Disappeared and Assassinated of El Salvador, injuring four others.
As in the early 1980s, the University of Central America fell under attack from the army and death squads. On 16 November 1989, five days after the beginning of the FMLN offensive, the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of the University of Central America in uniform and summarily executed six Jesuit priests—Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Joaquín López y López, Juan Ramón Moreno, and Amando López—and their housekeepers (a mother and daughter, Elba Ramos and Celia Marisela Ramos). In the middle of the night, the six priests were dragged from their beds on the campus, machine gunned to death and their corpses mutilated. The mother and daughter were found shot to death in the bed they shared. The Atlacatl Battalion was reportedly under the tutelage of U.S. special forces just 48 hours before the killings. One day later, six men and one youth were slaughtered by government soldiers in San Salvador. According to relatives and neighbors who witnessed the killings, the six men were lined up against a peach-colored masonry wall and shot to death. The seventh youth who happened to be walking by at the time was also executed.
The Salvadoran government then began a campaign to dismantle a liberal church network that the army said were "front organizations" supporting the guerrillas. Church offices were raided and workers were arrested and expelled. Targets included priests, lay workers and foreign employees of humanitarian agencies, providing social services to the poor - food programs, health care, relief for the displaced. One church volunteer, who was a U.S. citizen, said she was blindfolded, tortured and interrogated in Treasury Police headquarters in San Salvador while a U.S. vice consul "having coffee with the colonel in charge" did nothing to intervene.
In a November 29 press conference, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said he believed President Cristiani was in control of the army and defended the government's crackdown on opponents as "absolutely appropriate."
By the late 1980s, 75% of the population lived in poverty. The living standards of most Salvadorans declined by 30% since 1983. Unemployment or underemployment increased to 50%. Most people, moreover, still didn't have access to clean water or healthcare. The armed forces were feared, inflation rose almost 40%, capital flight reached an estimated $1 billion, and the economic elite avoided paying taxes. Despite nearly $3 billion in American economic assistance, per capita income declined by one third. American aid was distributed to urban businesses although the impoverished majority received almost none of it. The concentration of wealth was even higher than before the U.S.-administered land reform program. The agrarian law generated windfall profits for the economic elite and buried the cooperatives in debts that left them incapable of competing in the capital markets. The oligarchs often took back the land from bankrupt peasants who couldn't obtain the credit necessary to pay for seeds and fertilizer. Although, "few of the poor would dream of seeking legal redress against a landlord because virtually no judge would favor a poor man." By 1989, 1% of the landowners owned 41% of the tillable land, while 60% of the rural population owned 0%.
Death squads and peace accords: 1990–1992
After 10 years of war, more than one million people had been displaced out of a population of 5,389,000. 40% of the homes of newly displaced people were completely destroyed and another 25% were in need of major repairs. Death squad activities further escalated in 1990, despite a U.N. Agreement on Human Rights signed July 26 by the Cristiani government and the FMLN. In June 1990, U.S. President George Bush announced an "Enterprise for the Americas Initiative" to improve the investment climate by creating "a hemisphere-wide free trade zone."
President Bush authorized the release of $42.5 million in military aid to the Salvadoran armed forces on January 16, 1991. In late January, the Usulután offices of the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of left-of-center parties, were attacked with grenades. On February 21, a candidate for the Democratic National Unity (UDN) party and his pregnant wife were assassinated after ignoring death squad threats to leave the country or die. On the last day of the campaign, another UDN candidate was shot in her eye when Arena party gunmen opened fire on campaign activists putting up posters. Despite fraudulent elections orchestrated by Arena through voter intimidation, sabotage of polling stations by the Arena-dominated Central Elections Council and the disappearing of tens of thousands of names from the voting lists, the official U.S. observation team declared them "free and fair."
Death squad killings and disappearances remained steady throughout 1991 as well as torture, false imprisonment, and attacks on civilians by the Army and security forces. Opposition politicians and members of church and grassroots organizations representing peasants, women and repatriated refugees suffered constant death threats, arrests, surveillance and break-ins all year. The FMLN killed two wounded U.S. military advisers and carried out indiscriminate attacks, kidnappings and assassinations of civilians. The war intensified in mid-1991, as both the army and the FMLN attempted to gain the advantage in the United Nations-brokered peace talks prior to a cease-fire. Indiscriminate attacks and executions by the armed forces increased as a result. Eventually, by April 1991, negotiations resumed, resulting in a truce that successfully concluded in January 1992, bringing about the war's end. On 16 January 1992, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed in Chapultepec Castle, Mexico City, to bring peace to El Salvador. The Armed Forces were regulated, a civilian police force was established, the FMLN metamorphosed from a guerrilla army to a political party, and an amnesty law was legislated in 1993.
The peace process set up under the Chapultepec Accords was monitored by the United Nations from 1991 until June 1997 when it closed its special monitoring mission in El Salvador.
During the 2004 elections, White House Special Assistant Otto Reich gave a phone-in press conference at ARENA party headquarters. He reportedly said he was worried about the impact an FMLN win could have on the country's "economic, commercial, and migratory relations with the United States." In February 2004, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told voters to "consider what kind of a relationship they want a new administration to have with us." He met with all the candidates except Schafik Handal, the FMLN candidate. This prompted 28 US Congress members to send a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell saying Mr. Noriega "crossed a boundary" and that his remarks were perceived as "interference in Salvadoran electoral affairs." A week later, two US congressmen blasted Reich's comments as inflammatory.
At war's end, the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador registered more than 22,000 complaints of political violence in El Salvador, between January 1980 and July 1991, 60 percent about summary killing, 25 percent about kidnapping, and 20 percent about torture. These complaints attributed almost 85 percent of the violence to the Salvadoran Army and security forces alone. The Salvadoran Armed Forces were accused in 60 percent of the complaints, the security forces (i.e. the National Guard, Treasury Police and the National Police) in 25 percent, military escorts and civil defense units in 20 percent of complaints, the death squads in approximately 10 percent, and the FMLN in 5 percent. The Truth Commission could collect only a significant sample of the full number of potential complaints, having had only three months to collect it. The report concluded that more than 70,000 people were killed, many in the course of gross violation of their human rights. More than 25 per cent of the populace was displaced as refugees before the U.N. peace treaty in 1992.
The statistics presented in the Truth Commission's report are consistent with both previous and retrospective assessments by the international community and human rights monitors, which documented that the majority of the violence and repression in El Salvador was attributable to government agencies, primarily the National Guard and the Salvadoran Army. A 1984 Amnesty International report stated that many of the 40,000 people killed in the preceding five years had been murdered by government forces, who openly dumped their mutilated corpses in an apparent effort to terrorize the population.
Despite mostly killing peasants, the Government readily killed any opponent they suspected of sympathy with the guerrillas — clergy (men and women), church lay workers, political activists, journalists, labor unionists (leaders, rank-and-file), medical workers, liberal students and teachers, and human-rights monitors. The State's terrorism was affected by the security forces, the Army, the National Guard, and the Treasury Police; yet it was the paramilitary death squads who gave the Government plausible deniability of, and accountability for, the political killings. Typically, a death squad dressed in civilian clothes and traveled in anonymous vehicles (dark windows, blank license plates). Their terrorism consisted of publishing future-victim death lists, delivering coffins to said future victims, and sending the target-person an invitation to his/her own funeral. Cynthia Arnson, a Latin American-affairs writer for Human Rights Watch, says: the objective of death-squad-terror seemed not only to eliminate opponents, but also, through torture and the gruesome disfigurement of bodies, to terrorize the population. In the mid-1980s, state terror against Salvadorans became open — indiscriminate bombing from military airplanes, planted mines, and the harassment of national and international medical personnel; all indicate that, although death rates attributable to the death squads have declined in El Salvador since 1983, non-combatant victims of the civil war have increased dramatically.
Though the violations of the FMLN accounted for five percent or less of those documented by the Truth Commission, the FMLN continuously violated the human rights of many Salvadorans and other individuals identified as right-wing supporters, military targets, pro-government politicians, intellectuals, public officials, and judges. These violations included kidnapping, bombings, rape, and killing.
In accordance with the peace agreements, the constitution was amended to prohibit the military from playing an internal security role except under extraordinary circumstances. During the period of fulfilling of the peace agreements, the Minister of Defense was General Humberto Corado Figueroa. Demobilization of Salvadoran military forces generally proceeded on schedule throughout the process. The Treasury Police and National Guard were abolished, and military intelligence functions were transferred to civilian control. By 1993 — nine months ahead of schedule — the military had cut personnel from a wartime high of 63,000 to the level of 32,000 required by the peace accords. By 1999, ESAF strength stood at less than 15,000, including uniformed and non-uniformed personnel, consisting of personnel in the army, navy, and air force. A purge of military officers accused of human rights abuses and corruption was completed in 1993 in compliance with the Ad Hoc Committee's recommendations.
National Civilian Police
The new civilian police force, created to replace the discredited public security forces, deployed its first officers in March 1993, and was present throughout the country by the end of 1994. In 1999, the PNC had over 18,000 officers. The PNC faced many challenges in building a completely new police force. With common crime rising dramatically since the end of the war, over 500 PNC officers had been killed in the line of duty by late 1998. PNC officers also have arrested a number of their own in connection with various high-profile crimes, and a "purification" process to weed out unfit personnel from throughout the force was undertaken in late 2000.
Human Rights Commission of El Salvador
On 26 October 1987, Herbert Ernesto Anaya, head of the CDHES, was assassinated. His killing provoked four days' of political protest — during which his cadaver was displayed before the U.S. embassy and then before the Salvadoran armed forces headquarters. The National Union of Salvadoran Workers said: Those who bear sole responsibility for this crime are José Napoleón Duarte, the U.S. embassy ... and the high command of the armed forces. In its report the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, established as part of the El Salvador peace agreement, stated that it could not establish for sure whether the death squads, the Salvadoran Army or the FMLN was responsible for Anaya's death.
Moreover, the FMLN and the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) also protested Mr. Anaya's assassination by suspending negotiations with the Duarte Government on 29 October 1987. The same day, Reni Roldán resigned from the Commission of National Reconciliation, saying: The murder of Anaya, the disappearance of university labor leader Salvador Ubau, and other events do not seem to be isolated incidents. They are all part of an institutionalized pattern of conduct. Mr. Anaya's assassination evoked international indignation: the West German Government, the West German Social Democratic Party, and the French government asked President Duarte to clarify the circumstances of the crime. United Nations Secretary General, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, Americas Watch, Amnesty International, and other organizations protested against the assassination of the leader of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador.
Post-war international litigation
Groups seeking investigation or retribution for actions during the war have sought the involvement of other foreign courts. In 2008 the Spanish Association for Human Rights and a California organization called the Center for Justice and Accountability jointly filed a lawsuit in Spain against former President Cristiani and former defense minister Larios in the matter of the 1989 slaying of several Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The lawsuit accused Cristiani of a cover-up of the killings and Larios of participating in the meeting where the order to kill them was given; the groups asked the Spanish court to intervene on the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity.
Long after the war, in a U.S. federal court, in the case of Ford vs. García the families of the murdered Maryknoll nuns sued the two Salvadoran generals believed responsible for the killings, but lost; the jury found Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, ex-National Guard Leader and Duarte's defense minister, and Gen. José Guillermo Garcia—defense minister from 1979 to 1984, not responsible for the killings; the families appealed and lost, and, in 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear their final appeal. A second case, against the same generals, succeeded in the same Federal Court; the three plaintiffs in Romagoza vs. García won a judgment exceeding US$54 million compensation for having been tortured by the military during El Salvador's Civil War.
The day after losing a court appeal in October 2009, the two generals were put into deportation proceedings by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), at the urging of U.S. Senators Richard Durbin (Democrat) and Tom Coburn (Republican), according to the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA). Those deportation proceedings had been stalled by May 2010. However; one of the plaintiffs in the case believes the U.S. CIA/DOD — protecting its "assets" — has stymied the Obama Justice Department, for now.
The Spanish judge who issued indictments and arrest warrants for 20 former members of the Salvadoran military, charged with murder, Crimes Against Humanity and Terrorism requested that U.S. agencies declassify documents related to the killings of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter but were denied access. In his report, Judge Velasco writes:
"The agencies in charge of making the information public have identified 3,000 other documents that remain secret and are not available; the reasoning given is that privacy is needed to protect sources and methods. Many of the documents, from the CIA and the Defense Department, are not available…"
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- El Mozote massacre
- History of El Salvador
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- Salvador (film)
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- Anderson, Scott (1986). Inside the League: the shocking exposé of how terrorists, Nazis, and Latin American death squads have infiltrated the world Anti-Communist League. Dodd Mead.
- Grandin, Greg (2007). Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. Holt Paperbacks.
- McClintock, Michael (1985). The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador. Zed Books.
- McClintock, Michael (1992). Instruments of statecraft: U.S. guerrilla warfare, counterinsurgency, and counter-terrorism, 1940-1990. Pantheon Books.
Journals / Academic studies
- UNHCR Refworld search for FMLN
- Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1993)
- CIA World Factbook on El Salvador
- UN General Assembly Resolution on the "Situation of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms in El Salvador"
- CIA Threat Assessment of El Salvador in 1979