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The 1970s in El Salvador: Repression and Revolt
February 26, 2007

This edition of the Weekly commentary continues my account of American involvement in El Salvador.

Recap—the situation in 1972: As noted in last week's posting, extreme population pressures on this tiny country exacerbated tensions between poor landless campesinos and the ruling elite, comprised of a small number of prominent families known as Los Catorce—the Fourteen Families (the number of well-heeled, interconnected families was in fact slightly larger than that). This elite, as of the 1960s, numbered only a few thousand people out of a population of nearly five million, but they owned sixty percent of the farmland, the entire banking system, and most of the nation's industry; the richest eight percent of the population received fifty percent of the national income.

Inclusion in the Central American Common Market in 1961 and concurrent aid from the U.S. as part of its Alliance for Progress helped spur economic growth in the 1960s—at least until the disruptive 1969 Soccer War launched a severe recession—but this growth caused little if any change in the distribution of wealth. In fact, growth spurred political unrest, as even more campesinos were driven off the land, and the urban middle and working classes grew increasingly unwilling to suffer government repression. Though touted by the U.S. as the model for its Alliance for Progress, El Salvador was in fact the only country in Central America with no agrarian reform legislation, and peasant political organization remained illegal. The oligarchy, with the military protecting it and serving as its political front, helped inure the elite from the threat of political instability by running pro forma if not conspicuously corrupt elections—in which the military itself both supplied the candidates and counted the votes.

The 1972 elections ended with the most conspicuously fraudulent result up to that time, with Colonel Arturo Armando Molina of the right-wing Party of National Reconciliation (PCN) winning over the centrist Christian Democrat José Napolean Duarte. After the election, reformist military officers led by Colonel Benjamin Mejía staged a violent but unsuccessful coup, and Duarte was forced into exile in Venezuela, while the military launched a new wave of violent repression.

Meanwhile, the Molina government initiated two abortive agrarian reform efforts, one in 1974, the second in 1976. The first was never enforced, and the second was undermined when wealthy landowners insisted that land which had a "social function" be eliminated for consideration for redistribution to peasants. This loophole eliminated all the land in question from the program.

Repression—an army of informers and death squads: The government's repression apparatus, meanwhile, kicked into high gear, tracking down and abducting, torturing, and killing the political opposition in earnest after the 1972 coup. Political scientist Enrique A. Baloyra compiled statistics for 1972-1979 showing a tenfold increase in political assassinations, a tripling in the prosecution of "subversives," and a doubling in the number of "disappeared."

The actual apparatus for this bloodshed was, unsurprisingly, formidable. In the mid-1960s, General José Alberto Medrano had formed the Organización Democrática Nacionalista—ORDEN), a nationwide network of informers and rightist paramilitary groups, largely linked to the National Guard, that boasted a membership of one hundred thousand at its peak in 1980. With CIA assistance, Medrano also organized ANSESAL (Agencia Nacional de Seguridad Salvadoreña), a centralized intelligence unit comprised of military officers from various services. The two organizations worked in tandem, with ORDEN collecting information that it passed along to ANSESAL. In some cases, ANSESAL would order ORDEN operatives to kidnap or kill various dissidents, and sometimes the intelligence section of the National Guard or ANSESAL itself would assign the killing to special elite units (especiales) from the military, the National Police, or the Treasury Police.

One of the first death squads, the Mano Blanca (White Hand) emerged from this network; one which emerged later, the White Warriors Union—it had a particular hatred for clerics—was headed by a Medrano protégé named Roberto D'Aubuisson, of whom much will be said later. Medrano referred to D'Aubuisson and two of his other closest aides as mis tres asesinos—my three murderers.

These units modeled their methods after the anticommunist tactics employed by the military regimes in Guatemala (many death squad members had direct ties to the Guatemalan right), and Brazil—with additional tutelage from the extreme military reprisals of the Pinochet regime in Chile after the 1973 coup that deposed Salvador Allende. (Of course, the Salvadoran army need have looked no further than its own past for such inspiration, specifically the massacre of 1932, La Matanza, in which tens of thousands of indigenous campesinos were slaughtered—this model would indeed be resuscitated specifically as the repression grew total neared the end of the decade).

Rebellion—popular organizations and armed groups: After the 1972 election and unsuccessful coup, the military targeted not just the centrist and leftist parties whose coalition would have prevailed with a fair, complete counting of ballots—a strategy, ironically, which only drove the centrists further left—but the rightist government also sought to crush the rising tide of popular organizations, coalitions of peasant, worker and student unions that pressed for immediate social gains and staged mass demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience. Though very successful at galvanizing citizen support against the oligarchy and its military protectors, the various organizations failed, until 1980, to unify into a cohesive political movement due to rivalries among the various armed groups with which they were affiliated.

These armed groups changed over the course of the decade, but basically split into two camps: one led by Salvador Cayetano Carpio ("Marcial"), a Maoist advocate of a revolutionary "prolonged popular war;" and Jorge Shafik Handal, who adhered more to a Moscow-generated political line of electoral participation. By the end of the 1970s, however, with the escalating repression and political instability, those advocating a violent path to power gained the upper hand, and the 1979 success of the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua inspired the Central American Marxist left's Soviet sponsors to eschew the electoral path and embrace a strategy of "armed conflict" long advocated by Cuba. No less than five Salvadoran guerilla groups with Marxist leanings adopted this strategy, only unifying in 1980. Meanwhile, they staged an increasingly disruptive campaign of kidnappings for ransom and hit-and-run attacks on government buildings and other targets.

Linked to the popular organizations were the Christian Base Communities formed by activist Catholic clergy throughout the country, and many of the popular organizations drew their leadership from among the base communities. (The Lutheran church was also very much involved in serving the needs of the socially and economically disenfranchised, but the Catholic church, specifically the Jesuits, stood conspicuously in the vanguard.) Traditionally, the church had been a bastion of rightwing repression, but this changed with the 1968 Conference of Latin American Bishops in Medellin, Colombia, at which a decidedly more activist approach to the problem of mass poverty was forged. These church groups taught the peasants they had an inalienable dignity before God, which inspired them seek better conditions from the landowners. The landowners predictably saw this as subversion, and the agents of repression killed or disappeared such "subversives," including priests, who increasingly became the target of death squads, especially the White Warriors Union, which under the leadership of Roberto D'Aubuisson launched a pamphlet campaign with the slogan, "Be a patriot! Kill a Priest!"

The priest who most rankled the far right was Archbishop Oscar Romero, chosen by the Vatican in 1977 to succeed his predecessor on the grounds he was the most moderate of the candidates available. Once selected, however, Archbishop Romero advocacy's for the poor became total, and his weekly sermon broadcasts, in which he routinely condemned the government's human rights abuses and called on the rich to surrender some of their wealth for the benefit of the poor, frequently drew an audience equaling seventy-five percent of the population, a popularity so threatening to the right that it repeatedly bombed the radio station from which the sermons were broadcast.

Elections, Protests, and the Official Response: Meanwhile, not just the violence but the civic fraud and waste continued to escalate. Legislative Assembly and municipal elections in 1974 and 1976 were blatantly manipulated, with the center-left coalition refusing to take part in the latter. In 1975, government troops fired into a peaceful demonstration of fifty thousand students protesting the Miss Universe contest scheduled to be held in the Los Churros Turicentro just outside the capital—and on which the government intended to spend millions. Dozens of protestors were killed and many more wounded.

The 1977 presidential elections were too important for the center-left to boycott, but their participation yielded them little. General Carlos Humberto Romero (no relation to the archbishop) won easily, though apparently not only the dead but the invisible were reported to have voted for him (some villages had more registered voters than citizens). Shortly after the results were announced, protestors flocked to the Plaza Libertad in the capital to demand new elections. Day by day the crowds grew, until they swelled to over sixty thousand. Finally government troops moved in, circling the plaza and ordering the protestors to disperse within ten minutes. Intead, the protestors sang the national anthem. The troops opened fire, and the ensuing slaughter was caught on camera by foreign news crews (this footage was used by Oliver Stone in his opening credit sequence for his film Salvador). As Colonel Ernesto Claramount, the center-left presidential candidate, was taken from the scene in an ambulance, he announced, "This is not the end! This is the beginning!" In all, between eighty and three hundred people died in or around the plaza, and in the following days angry mobs burned cars and government offices around the capital.

As William M. LeoGrande notes in In Our Own Backyard, his seminal history of American policy in Central America from 1977-1992:
Despite popular demands for access to the political process, the armed forces refused to create a political order it could not control. By that refusal, it produced instead political disorder, which no one could control.

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