The Salvadoran Civil War was a civil war in El Salvador fought between the military-led junta government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) (a coalition or “umbrella organisation” of left-wing groups) from 15 October 1979 to 16 January 1992. A coup on 15 October 1979, was followed by killings of anti-coup protesters by the government and of anti-disorder protesters by the guerrillas, and is widely seen as the start of civil war.
The fully-fledged civil war lasted for more than 12 years and included the deliberate terrorising and targeting of civilians by US-trained government death squads including prominent clergy from the Catholic Church, the recruitment of child soldiers and other human rights violations, mostly by the military. An unknown number of people disappeared while the United nations (UN) reports that the war killed more than 75,000 people between 1979 and 1992. The war ended with the Chapultepec Peace Accords, but in 2016 the El Salvador Supreme Court ruled that the 1993 amnesty law was unconstitutional and that the El Salvador government could prosecute war criminals.
The United States contributed to the conflict by providing military aid of $1-2 million per day to the government of El Salvador during the Carter and Reagan administrations and provided significant training. The Salvadoran government was considered “friendly” and allies by the US in the context of the Cold War. By May 1983, US officers started to take over positions in the top levels of the Salvadoran military and were making critical decisions and running the war.
Counterinsurgency tactics implemented often targeted civilians with the United Nations estimating that the FMLN guerrillas were responsible for 5% of the acts of violence of civilians during the civil war, while 85% were committed by the Salvadoran armed forces and death squads.
In 1990, the UN began peace negotiations and on 16 January 1992, a final agreement, The Chapultepec Peace Accords, was signed by the combatants in Mexico City, formally ending the conflict.
El Salvador has historically been characterized by marked socioeconomic inequality. In the late 19th century coffee became a major cash crop for El Salvador, bringing in about 95% of the country’s income. However, this income was restricted to only 2% of the population, exacerbating a divide between a small but powerful land owning elite and an impoverished majority. This divide grew through the 1920s and was 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 rebellion was brutally suppressed in the 1932 Salvadoran peasant massacre. La Matanza, ‘the slaughter’ in Spanish, as it came to be known, allowed a military-led government to maintain power and reinforced the animosity of many Salvadorans towards the government, military, and landed elite. That tension grew throughout the 20th century. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a leftist group that formed in the 1970s, took its name from one of the rebellion’s communist leaders.
On 14 July 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 expanded its purchases of arms from sources such as Israel, Brazil, West Germany and the United States.
The 1972 Salvadoran presidential election was marred by massive electoral fraud, which favoured the military-backed National Conciliation Party (PCN), whose candidate Arturo Armando Molina was a colonel in the Salvadoran Army. Opposition to the Molina government was strong on both the right and the left. Also in 1972, the Marxist–Leninist Fuerzas Populares de Liberación Farabundo Martí (FPL) -established in 1970 as an offshoot of the Communist Party of El Salvador- began conducting guerrilla operations in El Salvador. Other organizations such as the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) also began to develop.
The growth of left-wing insurgency in El Salvador occurred against a backdrop of rising food prices and decreased agricultural output exacerbated by the 1973 oil crisis. 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, the PCN defeated the National Opposing Union (UNO) in the presidential elections. As was the case in 1972, the results of the 1977 election were again fraudulent and favoured a military candidate, General Carlos Humberto Romero. State-sponsored paramilitary forces – such as the infamous Organización Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN) – reportedly strong-armed peasants into voting for the military candidate by threatening them with machetes. The period between the election and the formal inauguration of President Romero on 01 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 countryside, 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 Maj. 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 sympathising 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, which responded by repressing the clergy.
Historian M. A. Serpas posits the displacement and dispossession rates as a major factor. El Salvador is an agrarian society, with coffee fuelling its economy, where “77% of the arable land belonged to .01% of the population. Nearly 35% of the civilians in El Salvador were disfranchised from land ownership either through historical injustices, war or economic downturns in the commodities market. During this time frame, the country also experienced a growing population amidst major disruption in agrarian commerce and trade.”
Coup D’état, Repression and Insurrection: 1979-1981
JRG Coup October 1979
With tensions mounting and the country on the verge of an insurrection, the civil-military Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG) deposed President Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero in a coup on 15 October 1979. The US feared that El Salvador, like Nicaragua and Cuba before it, could fall to communist revolution. Thus, Jimmy Carter’s administration supported the new military government with vigour hoping to promote stability in the country. While Carter provided some support to the government, the subsequent administration significantly increased US spending in El Salvador. By 1984 Reagan would spend nearly $1 billion on economic aid for the Salvadoran government.
Under pressure from the military, all three civilian members of the junta resigned on 03 January 1980, along with 10 of the 11 cabinet ministers. On 22 January 1980, the Salvadoran National Guard attacked a massive peaceful demonstration, killing up to 50 people and wounding hundreds more. On 06 February, 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 programme, which restricted landholdings to a 100-hectare maximum, nationalised the banking, coffee and sugar industries, scheduled elections for February 1982 and disbanded the paramilitary private death squad Organisación Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN) on 06 November 1979.
However, the land reform programme was received with hostility from El Salvador’s military and economic elites, which sought to sabotage the process as soon as it began. Upon learning of the government’s intent to distribute land to the peasants and organise cooperatives, wealthy Salvadoran landowners 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 co-op 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.
Aims of the Junta’s Violent Repression
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 organisations. 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 labour unions, student and peasant organisations that could be mobilised 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.”
“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.”
Motivation for the Resistance
As the government began to expand its violence towards its citizens, not only through death squads but also through the military, any group of citizens that attempted to provide any form of support whether physically or verbally ran the risk of death. Even so, many still chose to participate. But the violence was not limited to just activists but also to anyone who promoted ideas that “questioned official policy” were tacitly assumed to be subversive against the government. A marginalised group that metamorphosed into a guerrilla force that would end up confronting these government forces manifested itself in campesinos or peasants. Many of these insurgents joined collective action campaigns for material gain; however, in the Salvadoran Civil War, many peasants cited reasons other than material benefits in their decision to join the fight.
Piety was a popular reason for joining the insurrection because they saw their participation as a way of not only advancing a personal cause but a communal sentiment of divine justice. Even prior to the Civil War, numerous insurgents took part in other campaigns that tackled social changes much more directly, not only the lack of political representation but also the lack of economic and social opportunities not afforded to their communities.
In addition, the insurgents in the Civil War viewed their support of the insurrection as a demonstration of their opposition to the powerful elite’s unfair treatment of peasant communities that they experienced on an everyday basis, so there was a class element associated with these insurgencies. They revelled in their fight against injustice and in their belief that they were writing their own story, an emotion that Elisabeth Wood titled “pleasure of agency.” The peasants’ organisation thus centred on using their struggle to unite against their oppressors, not only towards the government but the elites as well, a struggle that would soon evolve itself into a political machine that came to be associated with the FMLN.
In the early months of 1980, Salvadoran guerrilla groups, workers, communists, and socialists, unified to form the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). 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 also launched on military targets throughout the country, leaving hundreds of people dead. FMLN Insurgents ranged from children to the elderly, both male and female, and most were trained in FMLN camps in the mountains and jungles of El Salvador to learn military techniques.
Much later, in November 1989, FMLN launched a large offensive that caught Salvadoran military off guard and succeeded in taking control of large sections of the country and entering the capital, San Salvador. In San Salvador, the FMLN quickly took control of many of the poor neighbourhoods as the military bombed their positions – including residential neighbourhoods to drive out the FMLN. This large FLMN offensive was unsuccessful in overthrowing the government but did convince the government that the FLMN cannot be defeated using force of arms and that a negotiated settlement with the FLMN would be necessary.
Assassination of Archbishop Romero
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 organisations 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 42 mourners.
On 07 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 organisers 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 UN investigation confirmed that D’Aubuisson ordered the assassination.
A week after the arrest of Roberto D’Aubuisson, the National Guard and the newly reorganised paramilitary Organisación Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN), with the cooperation of the Military of Honduras, carried out a large massacre at the Sumpul River on 14 May 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 organisations judged the Salvadoran government to have among the worst human rights records in the hemisphere.
Murder and Rape of US Nuns
On 02 December 1980, members of the Salvadoran National Guard were suspected to have raped and murdered four American, Catholic church women (three religious women, or nuns, and a laywoman). Maryknoll missionary sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, Ursuline sister 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. 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.” White was dismissed from the foreign service by the Reagan Administration after he had refused to participate in a coverup of the Salvadoran military’s responsibility for the murders at the behest of Secretary of State Alexander Haig.
Repression Stepped Up
Other countries allied with the United States also intervened in El Salvador. The military government in Chile provided substantial training and tactical advice to the Salvadoran Armed Forces, such that the Salvadoran high command bestowed upon General Augusto Pinochet the prestigious Order of José Matías Delgado in May 1981 for his government’s avid support. The Argentine military dictatorship also supported the Salvadoran armed forces as part of Operation Charly.
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 12 January and 19 February 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 neighbouring Guatemala. These tactics were primarily derived and adapted from US 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 1984 review about the scorched earth approach: “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 US reconnaissance planes that relayed intelligence to the Salvadoran military.
Scorched Earth Offensives of 1981
On 15 March 1981, the Salvadoran Army began a “sweep” operation in Cabañas Department 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 Cabañas began, 4,000-8,000 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, also in Cabañas Department, on 11 November 1981 in which 1,200 troops were mobilised including members of the Atlacatl Battalion. Atlacatl was a rapid response counter-insurgency battalion organised at the US Army School of the Americas in Panama in 1980. Atlacatl soldiers were equipped and directed by US military advisers operating in El Salvador and were described as “the pride of the United States military team in San Salvador. Trained in antiguerrilla operations, the battalion was intended to turn a losing war around.”
The November 1981 operation was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa, a former Treasury Police chief with a reputation for brutality. Ochoa was close associate of Major Roberto D’Aubuisson and was alleged to have been involved in the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. D’Aubuisson and Ochoa were both members of La Tandona, the class of 1966 at the Escuela Militar. 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. Colonel 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.
El Mozote Massacre
This operation was followed by additional “sweeps” through Morazán Department, spearheaded by the Atlacatl Battalion. On 11 December 1981, one month after the “sweep” through Cabañas, the Battalion occupied the village of El Mozote and massacred at least 733 and possibly up to 1,000 unarmed civilians, including women and 146 children, 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.
The US steadfastly denied the existence of the El Mozote massacre, dismissing reports of it as leftist “propaganda,” until secret US cables were declassified in the 1990s. The US government and its allies in US media smeared reporters of American newspapers who reported on the atrocity and, more generally, undertook a campaign of whitewashing the human rights record of the Salvadoran military and the US role in arming, training and guiding it. The smears, according to journalists like Michael Massing writing in the Columbia Journalism Review and Anthony Lewis, made other American journalists tone down their reporting on the crimes of the Salvadoran regime and the US role in supporting the regime. As details became more widely known, the event became recognized as one of the worst atrocities of the conflict.
In its report covering 1981, Amnesty International identified “regular security and military units as responsible for widespread torture, mutilation and killings of non-combatant 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 20-25 August 1981, eighty-three decapitations were reported. The murders were later revealed to have been carried out by a death squad using a guillotine.
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 centres 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. A US congressional delegation that on 17-18 January 1981, visited the refugee camps in El Salvador on a fact finding mission submitted a report to Congress which found 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 Americas Watch report described that the Socorro Jurídico figures “tended to be conservative because its 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.
Lieutenant Colonel Domingo Monterrosa was chosen to replace Colonial Jaime Flores and became military commander of the whole eastern zone of El Salvador. He was a rare thing: “pure, one-hundred-percent soldier, a natural leader, a born military man.” Monterrosa did not want wholesale bloodshed, but he wanted to win the war at any costs. He tried to be more relatable and less arrogant to the local population in the way he presented his military. When he first executed massacres he didn’t think much of it because it was part of his military training and because it was tactically approved by the High Command, but he did not consider whether it would become a political problem. He was accused of responsibility for what happened at El Mozote, though he denied it. Monterrosa later began to date a Salvadorian women who worked in the press corps, for an American television network. Monterrosa’s girlfriend let her co-worker know that something had gone wrong at El Mozote, though she did not go into detail. But people knew that he had lost radio contact with his men and that it was unfortunate and something that later brought regrettable consequences. Although he says he lost contact with his men, the guerrillas did not believe it and said it was well known to everyone that he had ordered the massacre. However, in an interview with James LeMoyne he stated that he did in fact order his men to “clean out” EL Mozote.
Interim Government and Continued Violence: 1982-1984
Peace Offer and Rejection
In 1982, the FMLN began calling for a peace settlement that would establish a “government of broad participation”. The Reagan administration said the FMLN 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 could not possibly be free and fair during a state of siege that suspended all basic rights and freedoms.
FMLN Steps Up Campaign
Attacks against military and economic targets by the FMLN began to escalate. The FMLN attacked the Ilopango Air Force Base in San Salvador, destroying six of the Air Force’s 14 Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, five of its 18 Dassault Ouragan aircraft and three C-47s. 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.
Pursuant to measures implemented by the JRG junta on 18 October 1979, elections for an interim government were held on 29 April 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 Party of National Conciliation and the hard right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) 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 02 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 03 August 1982, establishing a Government of National Unity, whose objectives were peace, democratisation, 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.
More Atrocities by the Government
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights reported that on 24 May 1982, a clandestine cemetery containing the corpses of 150 disappeared persons was discovered near Puerta del Diablo, Panchimalco, approximately twelve kilometres from San Salvador. On 10 June 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 sympathisers 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 neighbourhood. 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 Defence Ministry communique. “This action was a result of training and professionalisation 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 described as a “strategy of mass murder” designed to terrorise 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.”
Government Murder of Human Rights and Labour Union Leaders
In March 1983, Marianella García 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”, a communist party-affiliated militia, 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 07 February 1984, nine labour union leaders, including all seven top officials of one major labour federation, were arrested by the Salvadoran National Police and sent to be tried by a military court. The arrests were part of Duarte’s moves to crack down on labour 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 labour 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 destabilise the economy.” A US official said the embassy had “followed the arrests closely and was satisfied that the correct procedures were followed.”
Duarte Presidency: 1984-1989
Fixed Elections and Lack of Accountability
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. $10 million were put into the election as a whole, by the CIA, for electoral technology, administration and international observers.
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 Defence, 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.
Army Massacres Continue
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” programmes in Chalatenango province, consisting of the establishment of “citizen defence 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 its 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 26 October 1987, 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 organisations, which had been decimated by mass state terror in the early 1980s. Colonel Renee Emilio Ponce, the Army operations chief, asserted that the guerrillas were “returning to their first phase of clandestine organisation” in the city, “and mobilisation of the masses”.
During the Central American Peace Accords negotiations 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 to 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 guerrillas and political prisoners, amnesty was also granted to members of the army, security forces and paramilitary who were involved in human rights abuses.
Army Death Squads Continue
In October 1988, Amnesty International reported that death squads had abducted, tortured, and killed, hundreds of suspected dissidents in the proceeding eighteen months. 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.
The squads comprised 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 eyewitnesses. At other times, victims were kidnapped from their homes or on the streets and their bodies found dumped far from the scene. Others were forcefully “disappeared.” 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.”
FMLN Offensive of 1989 and Retaliation
Outraged by the results of the 1988 fixed elections and the military’s use of terror tactics and voter intimidation, the FMLN launched a major offensive with the aim of unseating the government of President Alfredo Cristiani on 11 November 1989. This offensive brought the epicentre 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 organisations illegally detained 1,916 persons and disappeared 250 during the same period.
On 13 February, the Atlacatl Battalion attacked a guerrilla field hospital and killed at least 10 people, including five patients, a physician and a nurse. Two of the female victims showed signs that they had been raped before they were executed.
Nearly two weeks earlier, US Vice President Dan Quayle on a visit to San Salvador 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 for American consumption aimed at the US Congress and public. At the same time, US advisers were sending a different message to the Salvadoran military: “Do what you need to do to stop the commies, just don’t get caught”. A former US intelligence officer suggested the death squads needed to leave less visual evidence, that they should stop dumping bodies on the side of the road because “they have an ocean and they ought to use it”. The School of the Americas, founded by the United States, trained many members of the El Salvadoran military, including Roberto D’Aubuisson, organiser of death squads, and military officers linked to the murder of Jesuit priests.
In a 29 November 1989, 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”. The US Trade Representative told Human Rights Watch that the government’s repression of trade unionists was justified on the grounds that they were guerrilla supporters.
Government Terrorism in San Salvador
In San Salvador on 01 October 1989, eight people were killed and 35 others were injured when a death squad bombed the headquarters of the leftist labour 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.
Death Squads take on the Church
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, uniformed soldiers of the Atlacatl Battalion entered the campus of the University of Central America in the middle of the night and executed six Jesuit priests – Ignacio Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martín-Baró, Joaquín López y López, Juan Ramón Moreno, and Amando López – and their housekeepers (a mother and daughter, Elba Ramos and Celia Marisela Ramos). The 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 US special forces just 48 hours before the killings. One day later, six men and one youth were slaughtered by government soldiers in the capital, San Salvador. According to relatives and neighbours who witnessed the killings, the six men were lined up against a 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 Catholic church network that the army said were “front organisations” 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, healthcare, relief for the displaced. One church volunteer, who was a US citizen, said she was blindfolded, tortured and interrogated in Treasury Police headquarters in San Salvador while a US vice consul “having coffee with the colonel in charge” did nothing to intervene.
Pressures to End The Stalemate
The murder of the six Jesuit priests and the November 1989 ‘final offensive’ by the FMLN in San Salvador, however, were key turning points that increased international pressure and domestic pressure from war-weary constituents that alternatives to the military stalemate needed to be found. International support for the FMLN was declining with the end of the Cold War just as international support for the Salvadoran armed forces was weakening as the Reagan administration gave way to the less ideological Bush administration, and the end of the Cold War lessened the anti-Communist concerns about a potential domino effect in Central America.
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 US-administered land reform programme. 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 could not obtain the credit necessary to pay for seeds and fertiliser. Although, “few of the poor would dream of seeking legal redress against a landlord because virtually no judge would favour 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 The 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 UN Agreement on Human Rights signed 26 July by the Cristiani government and the FMLN. In June 1990, US 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 authorised the release of $42.5 million in military aid to the Salvadoran armed forces on 16 January 1991. In late January, the Usulután offices of the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of left-of-centre parties, were attacked with grenades. On 21 February, 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 US 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, members of church and grassroots organisations representing peasants, women and repatriated refugees suffered constant death threats, arrests, surveillance and break-ins all year. The FMLN killed two wounded US 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.
Aftermath and Legacy
The peace process set up under the Chapultepec Accords was monitored by the UN 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% about kidnapping, and 20% about torture. These complaints attributed almost 85 percent of the violence to the Salvadoran Army and security forces alone. The Salvadoran Armed Forces, which were massively supported by the United States ($5,339,864,000.00 in 2018 dollars), were accused in 60% of the complaints, the security forces (i.e. the National Guard, Treasury Police and the National Police) in 25%, military escorts and civil defence units in 20% of complaints, the death squads in approximately 10%, and the FMLN in 5%. 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% of the populace was displaced as refugees before the UN 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 terrorise 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, labour 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 travelled 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 Defence was General Humberto Corado Figueroa. Demobilisation 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’s 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 Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES), was assassinated. His killing provoked four days’ of political protest – during which his remains were displayed before the US 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 US 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 labour leader Salvador Ubau, and other events do not seem to be isolated incidents. They are all part of an institutionalised 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 organisations 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 organisation called the Centre for Justice and Accountability jointly filed a lawsuit in Spain against former President Cristiani and former defence 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 US 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 defence minister, and Gen. José Guillermo Garcia – defence minister from 1979 to 1984, not responsible for the killings; the families appealed and lost, and, in 2003, the US 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 US Senators Richard Durbin (Democrat) and Tom Coburn (Republican), according to the Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA). Those deportation proceedings had been stalled by May 2010. However; one of the plaintiffs in the case believes the US 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 US 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 Defence Department, are not available…”
The Cold War with the Soviet Union and other communist nations at least partially explains the backdrop against which the US government aided various pro-government Salvadoran groups and opposed the FMLN. The US State Department reported on intelligence that the FMLN was receiving clandestine guidance and arms from the Cuban, Nicaraguan, and Soviet governments. While this White Paper on El Salvador later received criticism from some academics and journalists, it has also been largely substantiated based on the evidence available at the time. The closure of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991 reduced the incentive for ongoing US involvement and invited broad international support for the negotiation process that would lead to the 1992 peace accords.
The political and economic divisions at play in El Salvador during the civil war were complex, which is often overlooked by scholars and analysts eager to vindicate one side or the other. More research is needed, for example, to shed light on Salvadorans that resisted as political independents or as part of pro-democracy coalitions. After a 2012 historians seminar at the University of El Salvador commemorating the 20th anniversary of the peace accords, Michael Allison concluded:
“Most postwar discourse has been driven by elites who participated in the conflict either on the part of the guerrillas or the government. It’s not that these individuals’ perspectives are wrong; it is just healthier if they are challenged or supplemented by outside views.”