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The ‘Clean’ War

José Vladimir and Jaime Ernesto Centeno, twenty and eighteen respectively, are the sons of Humberto Centeno, a telecommunications union leader in San Salvador. Last November, father and sons were seized by armed men in civilian clothes and taken to the headquarters of the treasury police. After protests from one of the unions the father was released, but José and Jaime (so they told me at Mariona) were tortured terribly, not least by being dumped into tubs full of urine and excrement and held under to the point of drowning. Told that their father was dying and would receive no medical attention until they signed confessions, the sons confessed to working for the FMLN.

I do not know whether the woman and three men whose stories I have told here were allied with the FMLN. (A senior US embassy official told me that Santos Martínez was indeed a spy, but I was shown no evidence.) Their accounts of torture had the ring of truth, but one must be cautious, since I learned that the FMLN instructs its followers in case of capture to claim that the government tortured them. Whatever the torture, it leaves no marks on the bodies of the victims, making verification difficult. Some sources told me that from 20 to 25 percent of political prisoners are physically tortured, though the US embassy official said “10 to 15 percent.”

Many political prisoners avoid physical torture by signing a confession they are not allowed to read. Under a special decree they are held for fifteen days. On the eighth day, they are visited by the International Red Cross to determine if they have been mistreated. On the fifteenth day, a military judge either lets them go or sends them to Mariona or Ilopango. It is a measure of the bizarre quality of the Salvadoran justice system that once inside Mariona and Ilopango the political prisoners are permitted to organize their own lives and discipline. The political sections of both prisons are completely controlled by the FMLN. The walls of Mariona and Ilopango are covered with guerrilla banners and slogans:





Shortly after my return to San Salvador, I received a telegram from the common criminals at San Francisco Gotera: “SUPLICAMOSLE POR FAVOR RECIBA NUESTRAS MADRES LLEGARAN. JESUS, MARIO, MAURICIO SALUDOS.—MARIO ENRIQUE GONZALEZ.” (“We beg you please see our mothers they’re coming.”) Shortly afterward a frail woman of forty-five showed up at my hotel. She had with her a sheaf of pleading letters from Mario Enrique Gonzalez, her son of twenty-four, and from several other prisoners. Mario, she explained, had killed (with a knife) another man in self-defense; he did not seek his liberty, only a trial. Moreover my list was wrong: Mario had been shuttled from one prison to another not for six months but for five years and six months. She had visited many officials during all of that time, but she had no work or money, she could pay no bribe, and they would not help her. She wept. “Mario could spend the rest of his life in jail.”

I had been warned that to pursue this case was a waste of time, that the men would be left to rot in jail, but soon I obtained appointments with Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, the minister closest to President Duarte, and with the minister of justice.

The minister of culture and communications, Rey Prendes, is the suavest and most cheerful of men. He is also President Duarte’s chief propagandist, adviser, and chum; they served in the Boy Scouts together, and later founded the Christian Democratic party. He amazed me with his candor. He admitted that torture was still practiced in El Salvador and that the entire justice system was in disrepair. “I don’t understand these military tribunals,” Rey Prendes said. “Confessions signed but not seen are worthless. Some people will sign anything, and the real culprit can escape. To the extent that the military still tortures, we’re trying to stop it. They’re beginning to realize it doesn’t work.” He meant physical torture. As for psychological torture, “Yes, we practice it, but so does every other country.”

He did not deny that some judges took bribes, though he argued that with government and American money the justice system is being modernized. I handed him my list of the abandoned common criminals in San Francisco Gotera. “Yes, this is sad,” he said, “to be left in jail so long without hope. It’s a problem of resources. At the height of the death squads [when there were eight hundred political murders a month], we had only sixty-five investigating detectives, and they were so poor they had to take the bus! For common crimes, you can imagine the backlog.” I pressed the Gotera case. “I’ll pass this list to the president of the supreme court,” he promised. “I’ll speak to him myself.”

Several days later, I saw Dr. Julio Alfredo Samayoa, the minister of justice, a plump and amiable man with a remarkable resemblance to Georges Pompidou. “I know of the Gotera case,” he told me. “I’ve visited every prison in El Salvador.” He showed me a pile of color photographs of himself surrounded by inmates, proving his point, then held up a batch of letters from distraught families seeking trials for their sons and daughters in every corner of the country. “I read every letter,” he said. “In the margin, I note the action.” As for Gotera, “I’ll investigate. Hoy mismo! This very day!”

I was not convinced, but later that week I saw the minister at the Hotel Camino Real, and he volunteered that he had indeed called the prison at Gotera. “Your list is exact,” he said. “However, one of the inmates has escaped, and another is so violent he killed a fellow prisoner.” I asked the minister if he would now try to bring the remaining men to trial. “Of course,” he said.


The main complaint I heard from Salvadorans outside the prison system is that people have no work. Combined unemployment and “underemployment” (for example, selling cigarettes, sunglasses, and lottery tickets for meager returns) nationwide exceeds 50 percent; in San Salvador it surpasses 60 percent, and in the slums of the capital is higher still. The cities teem with intelligent, industrious young men and women desperate for work. President Duarte early this year devalued the currency, raised the minimum wage, and adopted measures to fight inflation, but the flight of capital continues and his reforms have produced few jobs. If anything, they have polarized society even more. The labor unions are increasingly hostile, mounting large demonstrations in the streets, demanding peace and work. And for his interference with a free economy, the right—particularly the urban businessmen and the coffee-growing landowners—considers Duarte a socialist.

Compounding the corruption and the weakness of the government is Duarte’s erratic style of rule. He has not selected effective ministers (he is afraid of strong officials who might challenge his authority), and he apparently doesn’t listen to the ministers he has. I was told that when aides present him with detailed plans addressing various social and economic problems he arbitrarily rips them apart, deciding everything himself. His vacillations delay action to deal with major national needs such as literacy and medical programs, and obstruct workable policies for the relief of refugees and creating jobs. His decision last fall to negotiate with the FMLN for the release of his kidnapped daughter, Inés Guadaloupe, strained his relations with the army and made him more beholden to the right-wing officers who dominate the military.1

Duarte’s chief problem, of course, is the war—and the havoc caused by the guerrillas’ drive to wreck the economy. The FMLN controls only enclaves of territory in Morazán and the northern department of Chalatenango, but its troops and agents operate throughout the country. Though the FMLN armies have suffered many deaths and desertions in recent years, and the total FMLN force may now number no more than five thousand, the guerrillas continue to wage a devastating war of attrition. They avoid direct confrontations with the army, but they ambush small units of soldiers and plant land mines that maim and kill not only soldiers but innocent peasants as well. “Our aim with the mines is to turn every road into a river of blood,” Joaquin Villalobos, commander of the ERP, declared last year.

The guerrillas burn down municipal offices, destroying precious records of campesino births, marriages, and land deeds. They levy “war taxes” on farmers and kidnap local mayors. They stop buses and trucks, and shoot civilian passengers who resist. They shoot civilians they suspect of collaborating with the army. Above all, the guerrillas sabotage the economy. They attack bridges, power pylons, and telephone lines, interrupt transport on the main roads, and destroy crops of coffee, cotton, and sugar that earn foreign exchange. (In San Salvador, San Miguel, and Gotera, the electricity in my hotels was often cut.) Contained by the army in conventional warfare, the FMLN’s cold-blooded strategy of economic and infrastructural sabotage cost the country an estimated $200 million last year alone.

The guerrilla arsenal, mostly American M-16 rifles, M-50 and M-60 heavy machine guns, mortars, grenades and 90-mm cannon, has been largely transshipped from Vietnam through Cuba and Nicaragua, though perhaps 30 percent of the American weapons have been captured on the battlefield from Salvadoran army casualties. The FMLN’s method of terror and sabotage reflects a classic Marxist strategy of inviting repression; of increasing the existing chaos, unemployment, flight of capital; of rendering conditions so intolerable throughout society that eventually (the FMLN hopes) the masses will revolt and the government will collapse. “Reagan and Duarte have only three more years,” Joaquin Villalobos recently told a visitor in Morazán. “If need be, I have twenty-five.”

In response, the Duarte government—financed by well over $1 million a day in US military and economic aid—has increased the armed forces to 53,000 men. Most of the troops are poor peasant and city boys; many of them claim they are press-ganged into service, since young men of the middle and upper classes can often use influence or pay bribes to avoid conscription. The army and air force pursue the guerrillas ferociously, on the ground with rifles, submachine guns and armored trucks, 60-mm and 81-mm mortars, and M-79 grenade launchers; from the air with Hughes and UH-1 helicopters that rain machine-gun fire, and A-37 jet aircraft that drop 500- and 750-pound iron fragmentation bombs on guerrilla strongholds and field hospitals.

In contrast to the indiscriminate bombings and massacres of civilians as late as 1984, the armed forces now show greater discipline, thanks partly to US training and to the recognition by the Salvadorans themselves that wanton killing creates more guerrillas. Nevertheless, serious abuses still occur. Since the guerrillas live among their civilian sympathizers for food and cover, the air force and army ignore President Duarte’s rules of engagement in such provinces as Chalatenango where the guerrillas still hold territory. They bomb villages, destroy houses, crops, and rebel hospitals, killing civilians in the process. Such tactics force the civilians to flee the rebel areas (which are more and more depopulated), or the army relocates the civilians into crowded refugee camps that surround San Salvador and other cities. Half a million people have been displaced since 1980, a tenth of the country’s population. Most are not lucky enough to live in these wretched camps. They squat in slums and along railroad tracks, without papers, work, or medicine, victims of a tragedy that seems to have no end.

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    An exception to this trend is a current case involving active and former right-wing military officials who kidnapped well-to-do businessmen for high ransoms. This was, one observer said, “the right feeding on itself.” The Duarte government, under pressure from the business community and the United States, arrested the kidnappers and the case is pending before the courts.

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