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Past Special Report II
SPECIAL REPORT II
US influence in El Salvador's civil war
Oscar Alvarado
March 06, 2009
Key words: civil war, foreign influence, El Salvador, United States of America, Russia, Cuba, Latin America, paramilitary groups, peace, conciliation


In El Salvador the rich and powerful have systematically defrauded the poor and denied eighty percent of the people any voice in the affairs of their country. A revolution is now underway and we are one of the principal actors. There is no stopping this revolution; no going back. We can influence the course of events, however, and try to guide it into channels which will benefit the Salvadoran people [and] provide an alternative to the Nicaraguan model

Declassified telegram from American Embassy in San Salvador to Secretary of State in Washington, DC (March, 1980)[1]

The underlying source of the initial conflict that has been present since colonization may be described as a matter of environmental security (in the form of land deprivation)[2] based on the unequal distribution of power and resources. For most of the history before the civil war, structural transformations[3] within and among parties occurred completely independent of American influence. At times the conflict has escalated and de-escalated violently while other periods showed relative stability under negative peace[4]. The preconditions for El Salvador’s civil war includes the different identity groups involved and their relationship[5], liberation theology and the “international linkages”[6] with the Cold War (including events in Cuba, Panama and Nicaragua). Throughout this essay, the direct and indirect role of the United States will be analyzed at every conflict stage to demonstrate that the psychological and social changes that were occurring in El Salvador were tolerated or augmented by American policies and contributed to the escalation, intensity, prolongation and termination of the civil war.

Pre-War and Escalation

Since WWII, American foreign policy had been defined along the lines of ‘promoting free markets, human rights and representative democracies, in the form of fair elections’. Given the proximity of El Salvador to the United States’ sphere of influence, one would have expected strong condemnation from the American government for the fact that elections were “seldom free and fair” during military rule from 1930-1984[7]. Furthermore, throughout its history El Salvador has seen rural social movements (protests, strikes, etc.) opposed to land deprivation violently suppressed by military forces under the influence of the government and the coffee oligarchs of the time[8]. Well-documented human rights violations like ‘La Matanza’ in 1932 were not soon forgotten by the peasant population. As seen through the structural change model[9], these changes lead to progressively worse violent tactics being suggested and implemented by leftist organizations against the land-owners and the allied government.  Simultaneously, right-wing paramilitaries (linked to both of the aforementioned parties) carried out a “campaign of terror… radicalizing the rural areas” in the belief that “they were against anyone who was perceived to be supporting or aiding communist rebels”[10]. This polarization and de-individuization[11] made stopping the conflict spiral more difficult as moderates on all sides were put in a difficult dilemma: calling for comprehensive change to the status quo (i.e. agrarian reforms) but fearing a communist revolt resembling that of Nicaragua[12].

The counter-insurgency measures that were carried out by some of the security forces and “hired thugs”[13] were a result of the earliest form of (indirect) US government involvement in El Salvador. The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHISC), known as the School of the Americas at the time, oversaw the military training of individuals and groups that would play significant roles throughout the war[14]. Roberto D’Aubuisson (an attendee of WHISC in 1972) was the founder of the conservative ARENA political party (winner of the 2004 presidential elections), the main leader/organizer of many of the right-wing ‘death squads’ during the civil war[15] and the one “who gave the order to assassinate” [16] Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1979. Other graduates include the Atlacatl Battalion, a ‘rapid response, counter insurgency team’ that was directly trained by the United States military[17] and responsible for El Mozote massacre of 1981 (where at least 500 non-combatants of the area were indiscriminately tortured and murdered)[18]. Officials of the Reagan administration (as well as Accuracy in Media, a conservative press watch group) vehemently denied the accuracy of reports about El Mozote coming from NY Times correspondents. The credibility and political affiliation of the reporters was also openly questioned until forensic evidence confirmed their stories in 1992[19].

According to the Robert White, US Ambassador to El Salvador in 1980, it was crucial that the United States bring to an end the “officially-sponsored and tolerated violence”[20] through the withholding of military assistance. Further visible assistance (i.e. helicopters) would be “interpreted by all sectors as support… for the campaign of repression” and would vastly undermine efforts to bring together the moderate elements of the governmental, military and popular organizations[21]. These opinions were also expressed by Archbishop Oscar Romero before his death in 1979. Unfortunately, Ambassador White was removed from his post in 1981[22] as the US government, acting after the events in Nicaragua within a Cold War mentality, rapidly increased economic and military aid to the government and its security forces[23]. This policy had three main effects:

a) Firstly,it introduced fresh resources into the conflict in an effort to stop the uprising via overwhelming military force. This alone had significant effects for the intensity and prolongation of the war (by facilitating the use of heavier tactics)[24]

b) Secondly, it convinced centrist and moderate left groups that the primary American objective was not reforms or the cessation of violence but the elimination of the left-wing guerillas (strengthening the support that these groups had among most of the rural population, who were seeking change)

c) Lastly, this visible show of support to the right-wing, anti-communist government (who had been overlooking or encouraging the ‘death squads’)[25] inspired the various, disorganized guerrilla groups to seek external assistance for retaliation (and thus further increased the parties and resources involved in the conflict)[26]

The fact that the Soviet Union (via Cuba) took an interest in the conflict was evident at a conference in Havana that facilitated dialogue and eventually unified the 5 main rebel groups into the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN)[27]. In rural areas, feelings of frustration were combining with feelings of hatred and injustice as successive US-backed governments failed to implement promised reforms and were unable (or unwilling) to stop the violence of the army and independent death squads. The assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1980 and the FMLN offensive in 1981 are seen as the flashpoints in which there was no turning back from civil war.

“Protracted Social Conflict”[28]

American hopes for a moderate, reformist government during the 1984 election was the reason behind its support of Jose Napoleon Duarte (a civilian) over the right-wing extremist D’Aubuisson. Optimism in Washington, DC was soon met with disappointment as the government of President Duarte attempted but failed to implement reforms, remained corrupt and seemed unable to stem the violence through restraint of the military[29]. The continued role of the state in “frustrating [the] basic communal needs”[30] of the affected parties meant that a purely military solution was always going to be ineffective at best, yet it was seen by many parties as the only solution. Despite Vice-President Bush’s 1983 visit to El Salvador, in which he demanded government accountability and efforts to restrain the death squads as conditions for aid, the Reagan administration “evaded a 55-person cap on military personnel in El Salvador by redefining military personnel” and continued its substantial military aid despite ongoing systematic human rights violations (by both the FMLN and the army)[31] and lack of serious reforms[32]. In a sign of utter hypocrisy, Robert D’Aubuisson (mastermind behind the assassination of Archbishop Romero and of Jesuit priests)[33] was honored at a Capitol Hill dinner in 1984 by conservative, often religious, organizations (such as the Moral Majority and the Conservative Alliance) for his “inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere”[34]. At the same time, US congressmen were becoming more vocal against the Salvadoran government (threatening suspension of aid) and calling for a shifting of resources towards a negotiated settlement (no policy change was enacted until 1989)[35]. These mixed signals were interpreted differently throughout El Salvador, with some perceiving it as US approval for the actions of the government, its forces and the private death squads (while it was condemning the equally atrocious acts of the FMLN).

Conclusion: Conflict Termination

As the FMLN launched “the biggest offensive of the war” in 1989, it became clear that fighting could be carried out indefinitely by both sides and that a “decisive military victory was not within their grasp”[36]. While attempts were made, mostly by the Salvadoran government after 1984, to initiate dialogue between the parties, several parallel events and factors led all sides to significantly alter their policies[37] and eventually enter the Peace Agreements of 1989-1992. The decline of the Soviet Union changed the US’ perception of a global communist threat while the perestroika reforms altered the FMLN’s reluctance to be a part of the political process[38]. With the parties seemingly less polarized, the US government was able to exert more influence on the government to seek a peaceful solution while Central American presidents requested UN involvement in the process (at the behest of the FMLN)[39]. Even as progress was being made during the negotiations, the continuing violence was a constant threat and specific events almost derailed the whole process; the bombing of a worker’s syndicate, the murdering of Jesuit priests of a university, the killing of Herbert Ernesto Anaya (leader of the UN Human Rights Commission) by a right-wing death squad and the continued FMLN aggression in parts of the country.

In contrast to Mitchell’s Sketch of the Conflict Termination Process[40], de-escalation did not precede the decision by both parties to engage in formal talks. However, the persistence of these negotiations encouraged intra-group structural changes and allowed grassroots peace building (i.e. religious charity groups) to slowly gain momentum[41]. During the peace process, the peripheral issues (protection of human rights) were attended to first while the original issues of the conflict were to be addressed once there was confidence in the process and a sense of trust built between parties[42]. In the words of US Ambassador White, “if the systematic violation of human rights in the countryside does not cease, all the agrarian and banking reforms in the world will not help”[43]. The Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador[44] was instrumental in preventing further human rights violations, investigating those that had occurred on both sides and giving victims a “place where complaints could be made”[45]. Other issues that were dealt with in the many agreements were: military and police reform (reduction, civilian oversight and banning of paramilitary groups and known human rights violators), judicial and electoral reform and the guarantee of full political participation for former FMLN combatants (including their disarmament, demobilization and reinsertion into society)[46],[47]. As expected, several implementation issues arose during the peace process. Some of these obstacles (mistrust, animosity) were a result of the relationship structure that existed long before the war started and evolved into their own separate issues[48].

While the proposed reforms to the military were helpful in creating a minimum level of security as a precursor to disarmament[49], there was disagreement about the methods of implementing the demobilization. Strategies (such as dealing with ex-combatants on an individual basis) were rejected on the basis that the safety of FMLN members would be in danger if the government knew their names[50]. While the FMLN was excluded from the initial development of strategy, a compromise was reached where ex-combatants from both sides (who were not found guilty of any specific human rights crime) were entitled to demobilization packages (tools, supplies and training for relevant economic fields) and a small living-expense for several months[51]. This DDR[52] process would have been more effective and achieved sooner if it satisfied the following conditions: 1) aided in the reconstruction of infrastructure and services, 2) provided quick humanitarian assistance, 3) given a sense of purpose to ex-combatants and 4) alleviated the resentment of the general population towards those combatants. One method of achieving this would be in the reassignment of units (both from the army and FMLN) towards humanitarian and reconstructive in a manner that is overseen by NGOs or civilian organizations. The psychological effects of forcing ex-combatants to witness and repair all the damage that have been caused could also function as a powerful deterrence for the re-escalation of a conflict.


Reference List

Danner, M. The Truth of El Mozote. (1993, December 6). The New Yorker. Retrieved on September 14 from http://www.markdanner.com/articles/show/the_truth_of_el_mozote

Hoyt, M. The Mozote Massacre. (1993, January/February). Columbia Journalism Review. Retrieved on September14 from http://backissues.cjrarchives.org/year/93/1/mozote.asp

Gibb, T. US role in Salvador’s Brutal War. (2002, March 24). BBC News. Retrieved on September 13, 2008 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1891145.stm

Knowledge Bank: Profiles – Jose Napoleon Duarte Fuentes. (undated). CNN Interactive. Retrieved on September 13, 2008 from http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/kbank/profiles/duarte/

Library of Congress. The Civil Conflict Begins. (1988) Country Studies. Retrieved on September 14, 2008 from http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sv0023)

Library of Congress. The Oligarchy’s Private, 1824-1931. (1988). Country Studies. Retrieved on September 14, 2008 from

                http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sv0109)

Library of Congress. The Reformist Coup of 1979. (1988). Country Studies. Retrieved on September 14, 2008 from

                http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sv0022)

Miller, G. El Salvador: Policy of Deceipt.(1988, October 1). New York Times. Retrieved on September 12, 2008 from http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=940DE2D9143BF932A15753C1A96E948260

Mitchell, C.R. Sketch of the Conflict Termination Process. (1998). UPEACE Foundation Course, Lecture 11 – Negative Peace Handout. Presented on September 8, 2008

Omang, J. D’Aubuisson Honored by Conservatives at Capitol Hill Dinner. (1984, December 5). Washington Post. Retrieved on September 14, 2008 from http://www.newslinx.org/articles/12-5-1984DAubuisson.htm

Pruitt, D., and Kim, S.H. (2004) Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement. Boston: McGraw-Hill 3rd Edition. Chapter 5: Escalation and its Development, pp. 87-100

Pruitt, D., and Kim, S.H. (2004) Social Conflict: Escalation, Stalemate and Settlement. Boston: McGraw-Hill 3rd Edition. Chapter 6: The Structural Change Model, pp. 101-120

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., and Miall, H. (2005) Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Second Edition; Cambridge, UK; Chapter 1: Introduction to Conflict Resolution: Concepts and Definitions, pp. 3-31

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., and Miall, H. (2005) Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Second Edition; Cambridge, UK; Chapter 4: Understanding Contemporary Confluct, pp. 78-105

Ramsbotham, O., Woodhouse, T., and Miall, H. (2005) Contemporary Conflict Resolution. Second Edition; Cambridge, UK; Chapter 7: Ending Violent Conflict: Peacemaking, pp. 159-184

Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador. From Madness to Hope: The 12-year war in El Salvador. (1993, April 1). Retrieved on September 15, 2008 from http://www.derechos.org/nizkor/salvador/informes/truth.html

Roberto D’Aubuisson. (2008). BU School of Theology. Retrieved on September 12, 2008 from http://sthweb.bu.edu/index.php?option=com_awiki&view=mediawiki&article=Roberto_D%27Aubuisson&Itemid=176

Roush, L. The El Salvador Accords: A Model for Peacekeeping Actions. (1997). Peace in Action. Retrieved on September 15, 2008 from http://www.promotingpeace.org/1985/1/roush.html#toc2

Scott, D.D. (2002, October 6). Firearms Identification in Support of Identifying a Mass Execution at El Mozote, El Salvador. Retrieved on September 14, 2008 from http://www.icrc.org/themissi.nsf/0/d1ada386fd47d83fc1256ba5004940d2?OpenDocument&Click=

Supply Line for a Junta. (1981, March 16). Time Magazine. Retrieved on September 12, 2008 from http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,922440,00.html

White, R.E. Declassified Telegram. (1980, March). From: American Embassy, San Salvador. To: Secretary of State, Washington, DC. Property of United States Department of State. Retrieved on September 15, 2008 from http://foia.state.gov/documents/elsalvad/738d.PDF

Footnotes

[1] White, R., Declassified Telegram, 1980

[2] Ramsbotham, O., et al., Chapter 4: Understanding Contemporary Conflict, 2005

[3] Pruitt, D.G. and Kim, S.H., Chapter 5: Escalation and Its Development, 2004

[4] Ramsbotham, O. et al., Chapter 7: Ending Violent Conflict: Peacemaking, 2005

[5] Ramsbotham, O., et al., Chapter 4: Understanding Contemporary Conflict, 2005

[6] Ramsbotham, O., et al., Chapter 4: Understanding Contemporary Conflict, 2005

[7] Roush, L., 1997

[8] Library of Congress Country Studies, El Salvador: The Oligarchy’s Private Army 1824-1931, 1988

[9] Pruitt, D.G. and Kim, S.H., Chapter 6: The Structural Change Model, 2004

[10] White, R., Declassified Telegram, 1980

[11] Pruitt, D.G. and Kim, S.H., Chapter 6: The Structural Change Model, 2004

[12] Library of Congress Country Studies, El Salvador: The Reformist Coup of 1979, 1988

[13] White, R., Declassified Telegram, 1980

[14] Supply Line for a Junta, Time Magazine, 1981

[15] BU School of Theology, Robert D’Aubuisson, 2008

[16]Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, From Madness to Hope, 1993

[17] Scott, D.D., 2002

[18] Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, From Madness to Hope, 1993

[19] Hoyt, M., The Mozote Massacre, 1993

[20] White, R., Declassified Telegram, 1980

[21] White, R., Declassified Telegram, 1980

[22] Danner, M., The Truth of El Mozote,1993

[23] Supply Line for a Junta, Time Magazine, 1981

[24] Pruitt, D.G. and Kim, S.H., Chapter 6: The Structural Change Model, 2004

[25] White, R., Declassified Telegram, 1980

[26] Pruitt, D.G. and Kim, S.H., Chapter 6: The Structural Change Model, 2004

[27] Library of Congress Country Studies, El Salvador: The Civil Conflict Begins, 1988

[28] Ramsbotham, O., et al., Chapter 4: Understanding Contemporary Conflict, 2005

[29] Knowledge Bank: Profiles CNN, undated

[30] Ramsbotham, O., et al., Chapter 4: Understanding Contemporary Conflict, 2005

[31] Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, From Madness to Hope, 1993

[32] Miller, G., El Salvador: Policy of Deceit, New York Times, 1988

[33] Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, From Madness to Hope, 1993

[34] Omang, J., D’Aubuisson Honored by Conservatives at Capitol Hill Dinner, Washington Post, 1984

[35] Miller, G., El Salvador: Policy of Deceit, New York Times, 1988

[36] Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador, From Madness to Hope, 1993

[37] Mitchell, C.R., Foundation Course, Session 11: Sketch of Conflict Termination Process, 2008

[38] Gibb, T., US role in Salvador’s brutal war., BBC, 2002

[39] Roush, L., 1997

[40] Mitchell, C.R., Foundation Course, Session 11: Sketch of Conflict Termination Process, 2008<


Oscar Alvarado is a master's degree candidate at the University for Peace.
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