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The Saving of El Salvador

Weakness and Deceit: US Policy and El Salvador

by Raymond Bonner
Times Books, 408 pp., $16.95

Rift and Revolution: The Central American Imbroglio

edited by Howard J. Wiarda
American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 392 pp., $10.95 (paper)

Violent Neighbors: El Salvador, Central America and the United States

by Tom Buckley
Times Books, 358 pp., $17.95

The Morass: United States Intervention in Central America

by Richard Alan White
Harper and Row, 319 pp., $6.95 (paper)

Situación Revolucionaria y Escalada Intervencionista en la Guerra Salvadoreña DF, CP 06700)

by Comandancia Generaldel FMLN
Ediciones Sistema Radio Venceremos (Apartado Postal 7–907, México, 57 pp., no price listed

El Salvador, too, had a revolution several years ago, and is now struggling valiantly to achieve a workable democracy and, at the same time, to achieve a stable economic system and to redress historical injustices.

—Ronald Reagan, May 9, 1984


The crisis that first gave José Napoleón Duarte the title of president in El Salvador began on Thanksgiving Day in 1980. A hundred or more armed men calling themselves the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Anti-Communist Brigade surrounded a Jesuit boarding school on one of San Salvador’s busiest streets. The political leadership of El Salvador’s rebel opposition, the directorate of the Revolutionary Democractic Front (FDR), was meeting there and the five top leaders were dragged away, tortured, and killed.

By that time in 1980 peasants and workers had been murdered by the thousands. Politicians and soldiers with suspect loyalties, Salvadoran academics, and the archbishop had been eliminated. But the seven weeks after the FDR massacre were a separate chapter in the development of the Salvadoran disaster. Ronald Reagan, regarded as a savior by Central America’s extreme right, had been elected earlier in the month. The guerrillas were building toward an all-out offensive to present Reagan with “an irreversible situation” before he took office, and clandestine arms shipments to back them up were flowing into El Salvador from Cuba and Nicaragua. The Salvadoran military, purged of most of its leftwing officers in the preceding months, was out to break the rebel organizations in the city before the offensive could be launched. The new US administration, the Salvadoran right firmly believed, would have little problem with the means chosen to thwart a communist victory. And no one was immune from those means.

On December 2, four American churchwomen were raped and murdered near El Salvador’s international airport. American aid was cut off immediately and a high-level official delegation was sent down from Washington. Its announced purpose was to look into the killings, but most of its time was spent forcing a reorganization of the government.

That December I found myself sitting one long morning with Raymond Bonner in the first anteroom of the presidential palace. It has since been redecorated with fake antiques displaying the blue and white colors of the national flag, but in December 1980 it was hospital green and dirty, with thick bars on the windows. A hard-faced guardia inspected visitors through a hole in the heavy door. Peasants, who had come as supplicants to one or another official in the palace, lined the benches.

We watched a steady stream of army officers arrive, piling their pistols and submachine guns on a long table by the entrance. There was no information to be had from these impassive, sometimes menacing colonels unbuckling their holsters, and I had the sense, as I often did, that we reporters were deeply ignorant of what was going on in El Salvador.

There was not much interest in Central America in those days. Academics were studying Mexico, Brazil, and the southern cone if they were studying Latin America at all. The US embassies were ranked class IV, which is as low as they get. And news organizations relied on young correspondents with little or no foreign experience. I had been in the region writing for The Washington Post for less than a year. The New York Times regional bureau chief, Alan Riding, had a decade of experience, but in February 1980 Riding stopped going to El Salvador “for reasons of health,” as the telephoned threats in the night put it, and the Times came to depend on Bonner, who had never been a reporter before 1979.

Bonner had been a public-interest lawyer. He was committed to classic, liberal 1960s notions of social justice, and he was nearly forty when he set out to be a foreign correspondent in Latin America. Enthusiastic and relentless, he built his stories, not surprisingly, as he would build a case in court.

Crimes, certainly, abounded. Reporters faced a succession of grisly scenes, appalling carnage, and confusing interviews with politicians who would defend the government one day and resign the next. One sensed deadly patterns taking shape just beneath the flow of events, and felt enormous frustration at not having any good way of getting at them. Everyone was lying and yet each lie seemed to contain some disconcerting truth. Suspicion of one’s sources was both inevitable and prudent. Bonner was naturally suspicious of the US government and the regimes it supported in El Salvador. He was less suspicious of the left.

But we tended to see Duarte as someone special. He was, to the extent that anyone in the United States had heard of anyone in El Salvador in 1980, the best-known member of the five-man “Revolutionary Government Junta,” even if there were times when he appeared out of touch with what was happening around him, even if what he said was always the same.

He liked to talk about “moral authority” and what he called “the process of control” over the armed forces. I recall one impromptu press conference in April 1980 at the bar of the Camino Real Hotel, only a few weeks after he joined the junta. The archbishop of San Salvador had been killed by a sharpshooter and his funeral had become yet another mad scene of mass killing. Duarte was struggling to shift the blame for the crime away from the government, away from the army, away from the Salvadoran people, explaining, “In this country there is nobody cold-blooded enough to have done this with one single shot.” Duarte said he was trying to carry out his own investigation. There were problems in the armed forces, but “the junta is having a process of control,” he said. “We have the complete upper control. We are trying to get the lower control.” There was no problem with the high command, certainly.

At about this moment a drunken businessman, offended for some reason by Duarte’s presence, urinated on the back of a chair next to him. He leaned his face into Duarte’s and was about to say something to him when Duarte’s bodyguards threw him sprawling across the room, training their guns on him until he cooled off. Duarte paused only briefly. “We are trying to get control….”

But if the old Notre Dame graduate had something of the clown about him in the Sicilian gangster suits that never quite fit him, and if he willfully and proudly insisted on speaking broken English, the face of the reformist of the 1960s showed both his suffering and, it seemed, his sincerity. He had won an election in 1972, been arrested, tortured, gone into exile. One could believe that at heart he was fighting for truth and justice—indeed, in the best sense, for American values.

On that morning in December 1980 as we waited for Duarte in the green room of the presidential palace I think we were ready to believe almost anything he told us. When he finally appeared, he threw his arm across Bonner’s shoulder and then walked us along one of the breezeways above the tropical garden in the courtyard. He talked about the changes that had taken place since the Christian Democrats had entered the junta. “During this year we have obtained moral authority so we can present now a solution,” he said. “If it is not accepted we will leave the government.” The key demand was “complete control of the army,” Duarte told us.

There were more talks. When the delegation from Washington went home and the colonels buckled their guns back on and left the palace, José Napoleón Duarte was “president of the junta.” It was an administrative position and the crucial power of being commander in chief did not go with it. A colonel in the junta got that post, so it became clear very quickly that Duarte’s main condition had not been met. But now Duarte was called Señor Presidente.

The violence went on, and Duarte’s relationship with the military continued to be as tense as it was dependent. He deplored the killing even as his presence, his many unfulfilled promises, served to mask and protect the killers. On December 28 a young American journalist disappeared. Still, on January 2 the United States secretly notified what was now called “the Duarte government” that military aid would be resumed. Two American agrarian reform experts working for the AFL-CIO and the US embassy were shot to death while having coffee with the head of the agrarian reform program on the night of January 3. The expected guerrilla offensive began on January 10 and ended, in failure, a week later. Then, on January 20, Ronald Reagan was inaugurated. Within days, his administration declared Central America a new front line in the war against Soviet aggression.

Many times since then the Reagan administration has tried to convince the American people how dangerous a rebel victory in El Salvador would be for US security. But the political consequences of those murderous weeks at the end of 1980 have dogged its policy all along. The cases of the murdered nuns and the labor advisers, particularly, destroy the harmony that the Reagan administration has tried to build around its anticommunist theme.

After three-and-a-half years of research by US diplomats, FBI agents, and independent investigators, by journalists, and, on rare occasions, by agents of the CIA and members of the Salvadoran government a great deal is known about those cases and the broader setting in which they occurred. The nuns were killed by members of the Salvadoran National Guard. The labor advisers were killed by members of the Salvadoran National Guard under the direct supervision of senior Salvadoran army officers and one of their wealthy right-wing friends. The journalist was probably abducted by the Treasury Police. His hands and face were blown off to prevent identification.

What emerges is a picture of repression gone wild. Those weeks at the end of 1980 tell us where the new government of El Salvador is coming from and suggest, as the Reagan administration continues to support it, send it money, and forgive it, the direction it may go.

Officials of the US embassy and the Catholic church guessed almost immediately that government forces were complicit up to the highest levels in much of the most extreme violence. But officials of the incoming Reagan administration, restating the published views of Jeane Kirkpatrick, argued that violence was an accepted part of the Salvadoran political scene. Kirkpatrick pointed out that Duarte, speaking for the junta, had denied any government involvement. She carefully implied that to suggest otherwise was to play into the hands of the guerrillas.

This was a time, clearly, when the press should have been alert to every nuance. Detailed news stories should have appeared every day and books should have been written to analyze what was happening. But El Salvador was still a story on the back pages. Even the death of the nuns was not given sustained attention, and when John Lennon was shot on December 8 in New York, there was suddenly no time or space for news from El Salvador. Almost all of us went home for Christmas, returning only as the “final offensive” began.

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