US policy in El Salvador in the 1980s

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

The US has long demonstrated its deep and unwavering commitment to human rights and democracy. El Salvador offers a useful case study for examining this unique US obsession with individual freedom, civil liberties, and popular democracies.

Throughout the 1980s, and actually beginning much earlier, the US was obsessed with controlling the political situation in El Salvador. In order to control El Salvador’s political policies, the US armed, funded, and supported a military dictatorship.

It didn’t matter what the Salvadorian people themselves desired, or what form of government they preferred. What mattered was what kind of government the United States wanted to impose on the country, in the interests of US businesses.

Making the facts fit the policy

The US State Department, under both Carter and Reagan, had the habit of rearranging reality to make it fit policy. In this light, it is useful to compare presidential speeches and State Department memos, on one hand, with accounts by journalists and historians, on the other.

In his 1981 book Weakness and Deceit, New York Times reporter Raymond Bonner, who spent substantial time reporting on the ground in El Salvador, details some of these facts:

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 thirteen, and shot their twenty-year-old brother. (Bonner 334-339, 344-345.)

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).

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).

All of this was during the same four-year period that the Reagan administration was vigorously defending the regime, supporting it to the hilt, and to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in aid, military supplies, and US boots on the ground.

“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 best suited their assumptions.

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.

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:

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 [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 funded, equipped, and supported the ES junta for a decade.  They wanted what the US state has always wanted in Latin America: a reliable client prepared to offer profitable arrangements for US businesses.

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Photo-documentation of the conflict can be viewed in this PDF file.

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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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