El Salvador (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Between 1980 and 1992, the tiny Central American republic of El Salvador was engulfed in a brutal civil war. The Salvadoran armed forces, internal security forces such as the National Guard and National Police, and death squads allied with them killed tens of thousands of Salvadoran civilians in an effort to wipe out the guerrilla insurgency of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Throughout the conflict, but most particularly in its early years, state forces committed grave and systematic abuses of human rights, including massacres, murders, disappearance, and torture. The FMLN carried out a smaller but nonetheless serious number of violations of international humanitarian law, including targeted assassinations of prominent public figures, kidnappings for ransom, and harming civilians in violation of the rule of proportionality of the laws of war. A United Nations-sponsored Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, created in 1992 as part of a UN-brokered peace accord, concluded that 85 percent of the human rights cases brought to its attention involved state agents, paramilitary groups, or death squads allied with official forces. Five percent of cases brought to the Truth Commission were attributed to the FMLN.
Political factors that led to the outbreak of war included decades of military rule, blatant fraud when civilians won the 1972 and 1977 presidential elections, and increasingly violent suppression of the regime's opponents. These political factors were coupled with the domination of the economic life of the country by a small landed elite that was opposed to reforms, especially agrarian reform, and who derived their control from the economic transformation of the country in the late nineteenth century. That period saw the rapid expansion of coffee cultivation, the abolition of indigenous tribal lands, and the creation of rural police forces for the explicit purpose of evicting peasants from communally held properties.
A landmark event in El Salvador's modern history was the 1932 peasant revolt, which was prompted by worldwide depression and plunging coffee prices. In December 1931, Minister of War General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez seized power in a military coup. Poorly armed and poorly organized peasants staged an uprising, led by communist organizer Farabundo Martí (from whom the latter-day guerrillas took their name). In quelling the rebellion, Hernández Martínez and his troops massacred between 10,000 and 30,000 people in a matter of weeks. According to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), in a 1985 assessment, "the resulting endemic national paranoia over the Communist threat reinforced authoritarian rule by the armed forces and its affluent civilian backers for the next half century. The chain of military regimes provided order and stability, and largely gave the plantation owners and monopolist businessmen a free hand over the economic life of the country."Political violence dramatically increased in 1979, following a reformist military coup aimed at staving off a violent revolution like the one that had begun in 1978 in neighboring Nicaragua. Efforts by military officers and progressive civilians to promote reforms, including an end to human rights abuses, were blocked by a wave of violence unleashed by the army and security forces. Through mass demonstrations and sit-ins, grassroots organizations, some with direct or indirect links to guerrilla groups that had emerged in the early 1970s, challenged the junta to rapidly fulfill its promises. Targeted killings by state forces and increasing confrontations between government troops and demonstrators brought the civilian death toll to a record 9,000 to 10,000 in 1980. High-profile victims included El Salvador's Archbishop, Oscar Romero, who was shot by a death squad as he celebrated mass. Six leaders of the leftist political opposition were kidnapped by security forces from a press conference and then tortured and murdered, and four U.S. churchwomen were abducted,
The years 1980 to 1983 witnessed the heaviest repression. Massacres in rural areas, gruesome murders by death squads, and the killing or disappearance of teachers, trade unionists, students, religious and humanitarian workers, journalists, and members of opposition political parties were the products of a military mindset that equated opposition with subversion and that viewed civilians in combat zones as legitimate targets of attack. The scale of the killings in rural as well as urban areas subsided in the second half of the decade, largely as the result of pressure from the United States, which provided approximately $6 billion in military and economic assistance to the Salvadoran government over the course of the war. El Salvador became
The December 1981 massacre in El Mozote and surrounding villages epitomized both Salvadoran army practices and the pattern of U.S. denial. According to the Truth Commission, the army's elite Atlacatl Battalion "deliberately and systematically" executed more than 500 men, women, and children over a period of several days, torturing some victims and setting fire to buildings. Exhumations in and around El Mozote after the war revealed that, in one parish house alone, 131 of the 143 victims were children whose average age was six. The Truth Commission found "no evidence" to support arguments made publicly by the U.S. government at the time of the massacre that the victims had participated in combat or had been trapped in crossfire between combatant forces.
Other large-scale massacres of civilians in rural areas took place at the Sumpul River (1980), San Francisco Guajoyo (1980), El Junquillo (1981), the Lempa River (1981), El Calabozo (1982), Las Hojas (1983), the Gualsinga River (1984), Los Llanitos (1984), and San Sebastián (1988). While the death toll in massacres subsided as the decade wore on, hundreds of civilians were killed and many more thousands were displaced or forced to flee the country by indiscriminate aerial bombing campaigns conducted by the Salvadoran Air Force from 1983 to 1986. The goal was to drive civilians out of zones where the guerrillas were active. Bombing attacks subsided after 1986, a result of international pressure and a change in FMLN tactic, which emphasized small unit operations over the massing of large numbers of fighters.
Guerrilla abuses against the civilian population took place mainly but not exclusively in the context of the conflict. Before the outbreak of war, the guerrillas kidnapped prominent individuals for ransom, including the Salvadoran foreign minister in 1978 (he was subsequently executed). Beginning in the 1970s and continuing throughout the conflict, the FMLN summarily executed civilians suspected of being government informants. Such individuals were known as orejas, or "ears."
Targeted killings and disappearances of civilians by the FMLN were smaller in number than those of state forces, but constituted serious violations of international humanitarian law, nonetheless. Victims included more than eleven mayors, who were executed between 1985 and 1988 in areas the guerrillas considered their zones of control. Also killed were four off-duty U.S. Marines, who were machine-gunned at an outdoor café in 1985; and conservative public figures such as Attorney General José Roberto García Alvarado and intellectual Francisco Peccorini, both assassinated in 1989. Other episodes of FMLN abuse included the mass execution of a group of captured civilians in Morazán (1984), the kidnapping of the daughter of President José Napoleón Duarte (1985), and the killing of civilians who refused to stop at guerrilla roadblocks. Scores of civilians were killed and hundreds were wounded by the guerrillas' indiscriminate use of land mines. On numerous occasions, the use of crude and inaccurate homemade weapons and explosives resulted in civilian deaths.
Nothing so epitomized the terror of the Salvadoran war as the activities of the death squads. According to the Truth Commission, the squads' share of abuses was relatively small (just over 10% of documented cases), but they "gained such control that they ceased to be an isolated or marginal phenomenon and became an instrument of terror used systematically for the physical elimination of political opponents." The Truth Commission reported that civilian as well as military authorities during the 1980s participated in, encouraged, and tolerated death squad activities, offering "complete impunity" for those who worked in them.
Official U.S. documents that were declassified after the end of the war contain a wealth of information on death squad operations, structure, and personnel. For instance, Roberto D'Aubuisson, a cashiered National Guard officer, was a key figure in death squad violence. According to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, one of his most notorious crimes was overseeing the drawing of lots for the "privilege" of assassinating Archbishop Romero. According to a 1981 CIA memo, D'Aubuisson was funded by members of the "extreme right-wing Salvadoran elite" who "have reportedly spent millions of dollars" in an effort to return the country to right-wing military rule. Another 1981 CIA report said that D'Aubuisson favored the "physical elimination" of leftists, whom he defined as "anyone not supportive of the traditional status quo." According to the Truth Commission, D'Aubuisson maintained close contact with the intelligence sections of the security forces, combining "two elements in a strategic relationship": money (and weapons, vehicles, and safehouses) provided by the extreme right, and ideology, providing "the definition of a political line," for the intelligence units of the security forces.
To give a political front to the death squads, D'Aubuisson organized the Frente Amplio Nacional (Broad National Front), which later became the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nationalista, or ARENA) party. As ARENA's candidate, D'Aubuisson was elected to the Constituent Assembly in 1982, later becoming its president. From that post, according to the CIA in 1984, he directed a team that engaged in "political intimidation, including abduction, torture, and murder." In 1985, the CIA identified the notorious Secret Anticommunist Army (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista, or ESA) as the public face of the ARENA death squad.
Other death squads operated out of the military and security forces, occasionally conducting joint operations. These included death squads organized out of the intelligence sections of the National Guard and National Police. The army's First Brigade, Signal Corps, Second Brigade, and cavalry, artillery, engineer, and infantry detachments throughout the country also participated in death-squad killings. A death squad operating out of an intelligence unit of the Air Force in the early 1990s threw bound but living prisoners out of aircraft over the Pacific Ocean, a practice referred to as "night free-fall training."
Negotiations to end the Salvadoran conflict began in late 1989, the result of a military stalemate, the end of the cold war, and the international disrepute of the armed forces following the army's murder of six prominent Jesuit priests. This atrocity led to a human rights case with broad international repercussions. The sweeping accord signed in 1992 under UN auspices established a Truth Commission composed of non-Salvadorans to investigate grave acts of violence, and an Ad Hoc Commission of Salvadoran citizens to review the records of military officers with an eye to purging those who had violated human rights. Those recommended for dismissal eventually included the minister and vice-minister of defense. The accord also abolished the security forces, established a new National Civilian Police, and reduced the role of the military in postwar society. While most of the provisions of the peace accord were implemented, the majority of the recommendations of the Truth Commission remained unfulfilled. In 1993, amid death threats and high-profile killings of demobilized FMLN leaders, the Salvadoran government created a Joint Group (Grupo Conjunto) for the Investigation of Politically Motivated Illegal Armed Groups. It found that politically motivated violence was linked to "the broad network of organized crime" operating in El Salvador, and raised questions about the ties between earlier death squad participants and the "highly organized criminal structures" engaged in a host of illegal activities, including drug trafficking.
SEE ALSO Death Squads; Truth Commissions
Americas Watch (1991). El Salvador's Decade of Terror: Human Rights since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Americas Watch and American Civil Liberties Union (1982). Report on Human Rights in El Salvador. New York: Vintage Books.
Anderson, Thomas (1971). Matanza: El Salvador's Communist Revolt of 1932. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Arnson, Cynthia J. (2000). "Window on the Past: A Declassified History of Death Squads in El Salvador." In Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder With Deniability, ed. B. Campbell and A. Brenner. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Danner, Mark (1994). The Massacre at El Mozote. New York: Vintage Books.
Human Rights Watch/Americas (1993). "El Salvador. Accountability and Human Rights: The Report of the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador." 5(7). New York: Human Rights Watch.
National Security Archive (1996). El Salvador: War, Peace, and Human Rights 1980-1994. Alexandria, Va.: Chadwyck Healey. Available from .
Popkin, Margaret (2000). Peace Without Justice: Obstacles to Building the Rule of Law in El Salvador. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press.
United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (1993). From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador, UNDoc. S/25500. New York: United Nations.
United Nations (1995). The United Nations in El Salvador 1990995. The United Nations Blue Book Series, Volume IV. New York: United Nations Department of Public Information.
Cynthia J. Arnson