US policy in El Salvador in the early 1980s: Reality versus rhetoric

The US to El Salvador junta: we’ll do your fighting for you

To prove that the US was committed to the principles of democracy and human rights, the US State in the early 1980s was obsessed with controlling who was in power in El Salvador (hereafter, ES).

It didn’t matter what the actual people wanted; what kind of government they preferred; what kind of state policy would result from a representative governmental structure. Rather, the kind of state and policy formation in ES would be determined through over US interference and control. And this is the main point: US state policy is determined first and foremost by the intense desire to control policy outcomes in foreign nations.

If the State Department had an internal memo drawing up the priorities behind its foreign policy agenda, it would perhaps be something like: 85% desire to control foreign states’ policy outcomes; 12% desire to cultivate a positive public image both domestically and internationally; and 3% desire to genuinely help people in a disinterested sense.

Once we realize driving forces behind US policy, we are then in a far better position to understand US foreign policy decisions, since they follow a highly predictable pattern:

  1. the US State does what it wants to maintain a desirable business atmosphere, with utter disregard to the social impact on the local population;
  2. activate major public relations resources to project an image of benign, altruistic, and moral intentions behind all policy decisions and, to the extent possible, the outcomes as well.

Utterly lacking in these decisions (and demonstrably so) are any genuine concerns (at the level of policy formation) for a principled or moral approach to foreign policy. The US state as an institution is structured to almost guarantee that policy formation will never be set by a morally principled agenda, but only by a business agenda,  unapologetically seeking to guarantee the best outcome for a strong flow of wealth and resources toward the US.

When we return to ES with these principles in mind, US policy during the late 1970s and through the 1980s begins to make sense.  In this instance, control over ES state policy concretely meant funding, arming, and otherwise supporting the military dictatorship, which was at strong risk of being toppled by a democratic reform movement.

The US control over ES took three basic types:

  • funding and supplying arms to the junta-controlled military
  • providing US military and intelligence trainers to help increase the ES military’s effectiveness; supplying intelligence gathered by US equipment (spy flights, spy ships, etc.)
  • occasionally providing actual fighting forces; on-the-ground intelligence services to direct the military and paramilitary actions; and otherwise participating directly in violence

To gain perspective, it is always useful to reverse the situation. Imagine if Russia were to have directly armed, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment, the preferred government in Mexico. Imagine if it had sent “advisers” on the ground to direct military operations. And imagine if it had deployed actual covert forces in the field to direct bombings, protect various interests, etc. This would be the equivalent of what the US was doing not only in ES, but simultaneously in Guatemala and Nicaragua, where it actually placed mines through the harbors to block all shipping traffic.

The public story being told was the familiar one about the Great Menace of Communism, the ever-present Reds that were invading earth and taking over human souls everywhere. This had little basis in reality, if by fearsome Reds one referred to Soviet-linked operatives, activists, or policies. But “Red Commie” became a convenient term to label the peasantry and the workers with whenever the committed such unacceptable crimes as demanding a wage hike, land reform, or a democratic government. Once labeled an Official Red Enemy by Carter or Reagan, you stood a very high chance of being murdered, kidnapped, tortured, or otherwise abused by US proxy agents in the field.

The actual state concerns at the core of the policies in Latin America were two-fold:

  1. prevent democratic movements from occurring in the field, since the policies that would result would be “anti-American” (i.e., limit the power of foreign corporations; impose capital controls to keep wealth from being funneled out of the country; raise the standards of workers and labor conditions; refuse to let the US dictate domestic or foreign policy); and
  2. control the wealth itself, in the form of business interests that were strongly linked to powerful US business figures.

Making the facts fit the policy

The State Department, under both Carter and Reagan, had the familiar habit of schematizing reality to make it fit policy, as examples below demonstrate. The public-consumption version of their policy initiatives typically had only the most tenuous connection with the facts on the ground, even when these unpleasant facts were reported by segments of the press (who, having reported on things supposed to have been ignored, would then come under fire for “supporting a Communist take-over of the Western Hemisphere”).

Mozote Massacre, 1982

On January 28, 1982, Reagan made press statements to support his policy in ES. The policy had been to fund the military junta, which was at risk of being toppled by a grass-roots driven coalition of reformers demanding a democratic and representative government.

Reagan’s statements included an assertion that  the ES military dictatorship “is making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” According to Reagan’s version of the facts, the junta was not systematically repressing the people at all; on the contrary it “is achieving substantial control over [certain violent fanatics within the otherwise benign armed forces], so as to bring an end to the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadorean citizens.” Bonner 340.

In other words, things are getting better, nobody needs to worry, the US is not supporting a torture regime or a terror regime.

However, according to those with access to the facts on the ground, the ES military was doing precisely what Reagan had denied. In the same period as Reagan’s public relations statements about the military being under control, the Atlacatl Battalion of the ES army, which had been trained by US military advisers, had been systematically massacring peasants in the countryside, since their pro-democracy activism had transformed them into “Communists” undeserving of even the most basic of human rights.

The most famous of the many massacres, murders, and abuses of that year is the Mozote massacre, by now extremely well documented. [See, for example, Mark Danner’s book, pictured above. At the time, this and other incidents were documented by Raymond Bonner (Times), Stephen Kinzer (Times), Philippe Bourgois, and others.]

Raymond Bonner was a journalist for the Times, reporting at the time from El Salvador. Here are relevant excerpts regarding ES army atrocities, all in the same period as Reagan’s PR statements and during colossal US support (without which the junta would have very quickly collapsed under reformist democratic pressures), from Bonner’s 1984 book, Weakness and Deceit: US Policy and El Salvador:

It was also the regular army that stormed into the village of Cerros de San Pedro after a day of mortar shelling. A survivor told the archdiocese’s legal aid office that the soldiers seized fifteen people, including a 65 year old woman, her sister, and the latter’s children, ages three, five, and seven. All those taken away were shot. …

The Rio Lempa and San Pedro weren’t isolated instances. They were illustrative of the manner in which the Salvadoran Army fought the counterinsurgency war. And contrary to the claims from US officials that the American training produced commanders who respected human rights, the US-trained battalions, as well as the commanders most highly regarded by the advisers, also carried out massacres.

After the elite Atlacatl Battalion, which was the first trained by the advisers, swept through the Guazapa Volcano in the spring of 1983, “the signs of slaughter were everywhere,” freelance journalist Don North reported for Newsweek. … A villager from Tenango showed him shallow graves in which he said the soldiers had buried dozens of men, women, and children after executing them with guns and machetes. … On the adobe walls were “graffiti marks left by soldiers congratulating the Atlacatl Brigade on its second anniversary.” …

A few days before the incident at Cabanas there was another army massacre, which the State Department is still [as of 1984] covering up. … The [November 10, 1981] cable [sent from Ambassador Hinton to the State Department] is described as a report “of a particularly violent military operation.” … The department refuses to release any part of the cable. … But a US government official who read the cable said that it contained a report that at least 200 noncombatant civilians, primarily women and children, were killed during an army operation. …

At the edge of a cornfield [in the village of Mozote], under the swooping green leaves of the banana trees, was a pile of fourteen bodies–infants and men and women in their teens and early twenties. Horrified disbelief was reflected int heir wide eyes and gaping mouths. …

The carnage was wreaked during a ten-day military operation through the northern part of Morazan Province just before Christmas 1981. Again, it was the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion, reinforced by helicopter gunships and heavy artillery. …

The first column of soldiers arrived on foot in Mozote at about 6:00 a.m. More soldiers were landed by helicopter. The villagers were ordered out of their houses, into the tiny square in front of the church, men in one group, women in another. The men were blindfolded, taken away in small groups of four and five, and shot. Women were raped [including children ten years old and up, as later evidence would show]. Of the 482 Mozote victims [later revised to over 800], 280 were children under 14 years old. …

In addition to her [survivor Rufina Amaya’s] son, somewhere among the ruins in Mozote were the skeletons of her blind husband and three daughters, ages three years, five years, and eight months. …

When the soldiers and helicopters began arriving in La Joya, a smaller village south of Mozote, the older boys and men fled. “We didn’t think they would kill children, women, and old people,” explained César Martínez. … But the soldiers killed Martínez’s mother and sister and his sister’s two children, ages five and eight. …

Another villager from La Joya, Gumersindo Lucas … explained that before he fled from the advancing troops with his wife, children, and other relatives, he had taken his sixty-two-year old mother, too sick to walk, to a neighbor’s house and hidden her under some blankets. He returned to find that she had been shot in bed. … Among the victims in La Joya were a seventy-year-old woman, a mother, and her three-day-old baby. On the adobe walls, the soldiers had scrawled, “The Atlactl Battalion will return to kill the rest.” …

In Cerro Pando, the toll of 149 included twenty-four-year-old Rosalda Argueta, who was pregnant, one-month-old Jermia Argueta, and ten men and women in their seventies and eighties.  …

In the year preceding Reagan’s first certification (January 28, 1982) that the Salvadoran government was making a serious effort to respect human rights, 13,353 Salvadorans had been murdered by the Salvadoran Army, security forces, and paramilitary groups, according to the archdiocese’s legal aid office. There had been the massacres at the Rio Lempa, Cabanas, Mozote, the small-unit sweeps through Soyapango and Armenia, the decapitations in Santa Ana. And three days after the President had issued his certification, a patrol of soldiers from the First Infantry Brigade attacked San Antonio Abad, a warren of mud huts and tin shacks. … The army said there had been a shoot-out with “subversives.” But the slum residents and a nun said that the soldiers, accompanied by several men with hoods, arrived during the still-dark morning hours and went house to house, dragging out people dressed in their underwear or without shoes and socks. Many were shot in the back of the head or the heart. Among at least twenty victims were a fifty-seven-year-old couple and their twenty-two-year-old son. The soldiers raped three sisters, ages sixteen, fourteen, and theirteen,a dn shot their twenty-year-old brother. (Bonner 334-339, 344-345.)

So there are some of the facts, as reported by journalists and eye-witnesses who observed them or suffered through them.

In contrast, the US State Department’s consistently attempted to deny the Mozote massacre and the generalized violence deployed by the regime it was propping up. If you worked for the State Department, you were apparently allowed to just make up whatever version of the world best fit declared state policy.

In response, one Congressman, Representative Studds, declared: “The President has just certified that up is down and in is out and black is white. I anticipate his telling us that war is peace at any moment.”

Native Salvadorans agreed. The Vicar-General Urioste registered his shock at Reagan’s statements, when in reality “Here hundreds, thousands, of workers have been killed;” a worker with one of the human rights organizations suggested that Reagan “come down here, to walk the streets of El Salvador at six a.m. every day, then tell us if there is progress in human rights here.”

Assistant Secretary of State Enders had declared in 1981 that the Salvadoran military had gone “from an institution dedicated to the status quo to one that spearheads land reform and supports constitutional democracy.” (Bonner 63.)

In fact, the State Department didn’t even believe its own statements. A March 9, 1981 State Department memorandum records that “Soldiers sometimes get together in larger groups and kill whole groups of campesinos on a weekend away from their barracks.”

A November 1983 State Department cable recorded that, according to the International Red Cross investigations, “Perhaps as many as 90 percent of detainees are being tortured during interrogation;” and the Red Cross “has seen a continuing deterioration in the treatment of detainees since April.” (Bonner 353.)

A July 1982 cable from embassy ES to Washington recorded an example account of torture, in this case of a volunteer for the humanitarian organization Green Cross, who had been picked up by the National Police and tortured over and over at the police headquarters. He was put on a strapped to a rack (a wooden torture wheel); severely beaten and forced to inhale lime; his testicles severely yanked by a wire. (Bonner 351.)

Bonner supplies a long list of examples, culled from a collection of “horrendous stories about rape, torture, murder, and mayhem that could fill pages,” perhaps even “volumes.” (Bonner 352.) Yet all of this was during the same four-year period that the Reagan administration was vigorously defending the regime, supporting it to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and military supplies, in addition to numerous boots on the ground. All the while, the public relations side of the administration is continually describing a freedom fighters holding out against Communist fanatics trying to conquer the Western Hemisphere one country at a time.

“We didn’t know shit about the [ES] left.”

The administration, and the security intelligence institutions in general, tended to make up the vision of the world that suited their assumptions.

Since it was convenient to defend a pro-business foreign policy by labeling all meaningful reformist activism as “subversive Communism,” wherein Communism was a synonym for the Dark Side of human existence, this then was the frame of reference.

The policy under both the Carter and the Reagan administrations was to keep a leftist government from coming to power in ES. It was a policy better served by viewing the opposition in simplest black-and-white terms, by using labels such as terrorists, Marxist-Leninists, … or Communist-led insurgents.

[Footnote:] By contrast, Reagan administration officials, and most reporters, did not politically label as rightists the forces that the United States trained and equipped and that were trying to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. They were usually referred to as simply guerrillas, rebels, insurgents, or counterrevolutionaries (often shortened to the Spanish contras). President Reagan called them freedom fighters. …

“There would almost never be a discussion of the ideological issues involved” … Feinberg explained. “It was basically labeling. The information from the CIA would basically be: These guys are Marxist.” … “We didn’t know shit about the [ES] left,” said a senior member of the Carter administration.” … An embassy officer who served in ES until mid-1982 said that the US embassy “knew very little about who exactly is out there in the hills. … We know that they receive arms through Nicaragua. But beyond that I don’t think we know very much. ” …

Robert White, who frequently used the phrase “Pol Pot Left” to refer to the Salvadoran left when he was ambassador [in ES], was more charitable after he had left El Salvador. … White told a congressional subcommittee: “The guerrilla groups, the revolutionary groups, almost without exception began as associations of teachers, associations of labor unions, campesino unions, or parish organizations which were organized for the definite purpose of getting a schoolhouse up on the market road. When they tried to use their power of association to gain their ends, first they were warned and then they were persecuted and tortured and shot.” (Bonner 87, 88.)

Part of the reason the Reagan administration’s analysis of ES was so informed, penetrating, and balanced was because Reagan had been careful to surround himself with capable, seasoned analysts with a strong sense of Central American history and society.

As Bonner explains,

To implement his hard-line policy in Central America, Reagan conducted one of the most thorough purges in State Department history. … Reagan removed from the highest levels of the State Department and as ambassadors in Central America nearly everyone with knowledge about and understanding of Latin America. In their stead were substituted men who had established their conservative reputation, in many instances a bit tarnished, in Southeast Asia. “The Gang That Blew Vietnam Goes Latin” is how The Washington Post characterized Reagan’s Central America team. …

Enders [the assistance secretary of state for Inter-American affairs] was to be the first assistant secretary for Latin America in several decades without any prior experience in the region. He could speak several languages–French, German, Italian–but not Spanish. (Bonner 244-245.)

What the US state actually wanted

The administrations under Carter and Reagan who funded, equipped, and supported the ES junta for a decade wanted what the US state always wants in Latin America: a reliable client state that would implement what is called a “US-friendly policy.” In concrete terms, it translates to keeping democratic reformist movements heavily repressed; keeping worker movements fragmented and ineffective; and maintaining a trade policy that is more beneficial to US business than to the domestic ES population (no capital controls; no tariffs on US goods; consolidated control over export crops; low worker wages; no public sector spending).


Photodocumentation of the conflict can be found at the below sites:


The Oliver Stone film Salvador does a good job portraying some of the events and issues of the early 1980s US backing of the junta:

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