Reconciliation in El Salvador
by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This article appeared in The Nation on Sunday, 17 June 2012
From the early 1970s, there was conflict in the Central American republic of El Salvador as a result of great disparities between rich and poor. There was a resurgence of guerrilla activity which the government countered with death squads, which killed 687 civilians in 1978 and 1,796 in 1979. The Revolutionary Government Junta took power in a bloodless coup in October 1979 and made promises to improve living standards, hold free elections, and put an end to human rights violations.
The US began offering large-scale military and economic support. For over 20 years, Latin American officers were trained at the notorious US Army School of the Americas. In 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release training manuals from the School. These manuals advocated targeting civilians, extra-judicial executions and torture. In one training exercise, trainees act out the murder of a local priest.
In 1980, government forces murdered at least 11,895 people, mostly civilians. On December 2, 1980, the National Guard raped and murdered four American nuns. In 1981, government forces killed at least 16,276 unarmed civilians. Military death squads wiped out entire villages. In December 1981, the military killed 1,000 in the village of El Mozote. The US denied reports of these atrocities.
Failure to implement reforms provoked the five main guerrilla groups to unite into the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The death squads forced many civilians to flee to the US but most were denied asylum. The US-assisted plan was to burn all vegetation, including subsistence crops, and to destroy everything that might be of use to those, who opposed the Salvadoran armed forces.
The London Sunday Times reported that Menendez de Iglesias, was arrested in September 1985 by U.S. officials, “handed over to the Salvadoran Treasury Police and repeatedly raped and tortured while in detention and further questioned by U.S. officials while in custody.”
Baptist Carter wages war on Catholic Church
When we see the venerable and saintly Jimmy Carter roaming the world doing good in 2012, let us not forget that he was the US president who began funding the Salvadoran sadists, and he refused Archbishop Oscar Romero’s request to cut US military aid to El Salvador. Romero was assassinated while saying mass in 1980. At Romero’s funeral, government snipers killed forty-two mourners. Carter ignored the Archbishop’s plea and authorized $5.7 million in military assistance to “strengthen the Army’s key role in reforms.”
In one of its last acts, the outgoing Carter administration increased military aid to the Salvadoran armed forces to $10 million, claiming that the regime had taken “positive steps” to investigate the murder of the American nuns; this was disputed by US Ambassador, Robert E. White, who said that he could find no evidence the junta was conducting a serious investigation.”
Reverend Daniel Santiago was a Catholic priest working in El Salvador. He reported:
“People are not just killed by death squads in El Salvador — they are decapitated and then their heads are placed on pikes and used to dot the landscape. Men are not just disembowelled by the Salvadoran Treasury Police; their severed genitalia are stuffed into their mouths. Salvadoran women are not just raped by the National Guard; their wombs are cut from their bodies and used to cover their faces. It is not enough to kill children; they are dragged over barbed wire until the flesh falls from their bones while parents are forced to watch. There is a purpose to all of this. … Sadomasochistic killing creates terror in El Salvador. Terror creates passivity in the face of oppression. A passive population is easy to control. Why the need to control the peasants? Somebody has to pick the coffee and cotton and cut the sugar cane.”
Remember Father Santiago’s words when next you hear Jimmy Carter pontificating about human rights. This devout Christian president funded and gave immoral support to what many have interpreted as a war against the Catholic Church in El Salvador, which promoted “liberation theology” and defended the poor.
On November 16, 1989, the US-backed Atlacatl Battalion summarily executed six Jesuit priests. In the middle of the night, the six priests, and their housekeepers, were dragged from their beds and then shot in the head. “They were assassinated with lavish barbarity” said the Rev. Jose Maria Tojeira, the Jesuit Provincial for Central America. “For example, they took out their brains.”
Major Roberto D’Aubuisson Arrieta, can stand as a symbol of the horrors that the US funded in El Salvador. He was known as “Blowtorch Bob” because of his interrogation techniques. D’Aubuisson was the master-mind of the death squads. There is little doubt that he was responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero. He lost a presidential campaign in 1984 to Jose Napoleon Duarte. In 1992, D’Aubuisson died at 47 of oesophageal cancer. He was never tried for any of his crimes.
This most uncivil of wars ended on January 16, 1992, when the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed. The Comisión de la Verdad para El Salvador was a truth commission established by the UN to investigate and report on human rights abuses during the civil war. The Commission received testimony from 2,000 people in relation to 7,000 victims, and gathered information from secondary sources related to more than 8,000 victims. In addition, 23,000 written statements were received. The commission selected 13,569 cases and highlighted 32 cases, which illustrated the patterns of violence by the combatants in the war. On March 15, 1993, the commission published its report From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador. Five days later the legislative assembly approved an amnesty covering all the violent events of the war.
The complaints attributed almost 85 percent of the violence to State agents, private paramilitary groups, and the death squads. In its conclusions, the Commission called for an end to impunity. “Acts of this nature, regardless of the sector to which their perpetrators belong, must be the object of exemplary action by the law courts so that the punishment prescribed by law is meted out to those found responsible.”
The Commission recommended systemic changes: “In order to avoid any risk of reverting to the status quo ante, it is essential that El Salvador establish and strengthen the proper balance of power among the executive, legislative and judicial branches and that it institute full and indisputable civilian control over all military, paramilitary, intelligence and security forces”.
Did reconciliation work?
In an academic paper, Ruth Velasquez Estrada contends that the amnesty law closed what little space there had been for attaining symbolic retributive or restorative justice. However, she believes that “remembering” and “creating” communities have become part of a contestation against the socio-political polarisation based on ideological discourses serving the interests of political parties. She argues that, despite some claims of continuing political polarisation in El Salvador, many former army and guerrilla combatants are coexisting in the same communities and working together in various ways, and a space has opened up for the recreation of social networks and the creation of post-war communities. She calls this process ‘grassroots peacemaking’.
El Salvador today
In 2010, El Salvador celebrated the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords. President Mauricio Funes gave a speech addressing important issues of human rights and accountability and asked forgiveness, in the name of the state, of those who were victims of the armed conflict. Mr. Funes, who was elected in 2009, is a leader of the former rebel movement, the FMLN. The government has taken a number of important steps on impunity and human rights. Investigations into police and government corruption have been launched, with suspensions and several arrests. President Funes honoured the six Jesuit priests and their two companions who were murdered in 1989.
In March 2011, President Obama visited El Salvador and met Funes who, despite his left-wing roots, does not share the suspicion and hostility towards US imperialism expressed by other Latin American leftists such as Hugo Chavez.
A common thread in these articles has been that reconciliation, whatever truth-telling talky-talk goes on, is fragile if economic inequality and abuses of human rights persist. This is true in El Salvador today. Only last week, Robert Lorenzana, FMLN deputy and vice president of parliament, warned that conditions for a coup are being generated. The economic crisis has hurt El Salvador. Crime has continued to be a major problem; homicide rates have risen. The government has been criticized by the human rights community and the business community, for not introducing a comprehensive and effective anti-crime plan. A military crack-down might be a temptation. These are still dangerous times.