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The ‘Clean’ War

And yet the director of an international relief agency told me that compared to the terrors of the past the conflict in El Salvador has become a “clean war.” There are so many human rights groups watching, he argued, and so much pressure from the church and foreign press, that the government cannot act otherwise. He described the recent army evacuation of civilians from the slopes of the Guazapa Volcano—a rebel stronghold only fifteen miles from the capital—as “humane.”

Humane” and “clean” are elusive concepts. The Salvadoran people are so exhausted from the war, so disgusted by both government and rebels, that they long for a renewal of “dialogue” between Duarte and the guerrillas as the only way out. Dialogue, however, depends not only on Duarte but on the will of his patron—the United States.


The US embassy in San Salvador is literally a fortress, with high concrete walls and searchlights, cement blocks and armed Salvadorans in civil dress with submachine guns all around it, elaborate electronic devices inside to thwart potential terrorists. I was warned by some human rights activists that I would find Ambassador Edwin G. Corr and his senior aides insensitive to human rights abuse. For example, the embassy and Americas Watch have been engaged in an increasingly bitter dispute; the Americas Watch vice-chairman, Aryeh Neier, had a heated discussion with Ambassador Corr in January. Americas Watch representatives claim that the embassy minimizes many abuses by the army and security forces and acts as an apologist for the Duarte government. The embassy claims that Americas Watch exaggerates abuses by the government and is not nearly as vigilant in investigating atrocities by the FMLN. The embassy points, for example, to the 156-page September 1985 Americas Watch report on El Salvador, which devotes only sixteen “inadequate” pages to guerrilla abuses. 2

I did not find Ambassador Corr or his senior civilian and military aides dismissive of human rights abuses by the Salvadoran government. Within the limits of a debatable Reagan administration policy—a military solution to the civil war—they surprised me by their frankness. “We’re not fools or blind,” said the ambassador, a blunt career officer previously the US ambassador to Peru and Bolivia. “No doubt some torture still exists…but we’ve gone from eight hundred [death squad] murders a month to thirty a month.” One of his aides spoke of “loonies out there” among officers of the army, though he denied the army’s killing was indiscriminate. Another senior official said “the Salvadoran justice system stinks.”

It is undeniable that American ambassadors from Robert White through Deane Hinton and Thomas Pickering to Mr. Corr have struggled consistently to curb atrocities by the Salvadoran security forces. MILGROUP, the fifty-five American military advisors, has no doubt had some success in making the conduct of the Salvadoran army more “professional.” Moreover the embassy is pouring millions of dollars into the justice system in order to make it more humane. The money is being spent on a commission to revise the Salvadoran penal code, on administrative support, and on new vehicles and training for the national police. “Don’t torture” is one of the chief lessons the American military instructors teach the Salvadorans. “Aside from the moral question, torture is counterproductive. It creates more guerrillas.” Donald Hamilton, the chief embassy spokesman, claims that “the message is getting across, but not as fast as we’d like…. We want a systematic change—to a fair court system. Until people believe that they can go to court and get a fair resolution of their grievances, this society will be plagued by vigilantism and violence.” Whether such wishes will be fulfilled—or whether the embassy is simply throwing dollars at an incurable cultural disease spread by the war—remains a question no one can convincingly answer.

As for the Reagan administration’s larger objective—to defeat the FMLN—Ambassador Corr held out little hope that the war will end soon, and even the Salvadoran military command admits that it may continue another six or seven years at least. “We’re here for the long haul,” the ambassador told me. “The only way out [of the present impasse] is to create—and this will take time—a viable constitutional democracy…. We won’t know if the Christian Democratic government is a success before the second or third presidential election.” That could mean that the war will continue until 1994 or beyond.

The United States has spent nearly $1 billion on El Salvador so far, and may spend many billions more before the FMLN is crushed. For that is the basic American goal. The United States favors talks between Duarte and the guerrillas only if the insurgents lay down their arms first. Duarte’s position is essentially the same.


Many of the guerrillas are Christians,” a Franciscan told me in San Francisco Gotera. That may be true of the rank and file, but it is hard to believe of the FMLN’s commanders, or even of the middle-level officers. I spent three long sessions with Miguel Castellanos, chief of the FMLN’s Popular Liberation Forces (FPL) in San Salvador from 1982 until he defected to the government last year. Skeptical at first, I checked his information with a variety of sources and finally found it persuasive.

According to Castellanos, such FMLN chiefs as Jorge Shafik Handal of the Communist party of El Salvador (PCS), Loonel Gonzalez of the FPL, Roberto Roca of the Revolutionary party of Central American Workers (PRTC), and Fermán Cienfuegos of the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN), are all “hard-line” Marxists trained variously in Cuba, the East bloc, Vietnam, and Sandinista Nicaragua. Castellanos describes Joaquín Villalobos of the ERP as “a pragmatic Marxist—not 100 percent.” Despite their common ideology, these commanders have many differences over strategy, and struggles for power have gone on among them for years.

Nevertheless, late last year the five fighting factions of the FMLN announced their intention to create a single Marxist-Leninist party in El Salvador led by a “vanguard” that will wage “a 20-year war” against “North American imperialism” and “liquidate the capitalist system.”3 In 1983, the FMLN’s Radio Venceremos announced that when victory comes the FMLN will “expel from the country all those who yielded our homeland, our resources, and our power of decision to imperialist interests.” Castellanos and others who have closely studied the FMLN believe that the FMLN might not even bother to expel many of its enemies, but would shoot them in the thousands—using the Cuban model of the early 1960s. In power, the FMLN might make the Sandinistas seem like Swedish socialists.

The FMLN’s declarations are an embarrassment to the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), the civilian wing of the rebel cause headed by such non-Marxists as Guillermo Ungo of the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and Rubén Zamora of the Popular Social Christian Movement (MPSC). Though Ungo and Zamora represent the FMLN internationally, Castellanos calls them “a political cover. They really have no power. All the big decisions are made by the guerrilla comandantes.” Indeed, in captured guerrilla correspondence Ungo and Zamora complained in 1984 that the FMLN leaders did not consider their alliance with the FDR “a strategic one,” and that the insurgent commanders kept the civilians in the dark about the FMLN’s military plans.4

Still, the country is so bled by war that more and more Salvadorans support the plea of Monseñor Arturo Rivera y Damas, archbishop of San Salvador, for dialogue between the Duarte government and the FMLN. Monseñor Rivera acted as the mediator between the two sides during the abortive attempts at dialogue at La Palma and Ayagualo in late 1984, and he helped to arrange the release last October of Duarte’s daughter in exchange for wounded guerrillas.

The archbishop is a canon lawyer, a realist, and an extremely cautious ecclesiastic. He cannot forget that his predecessor, Monseñor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, was assassinated, in 1980 (probably by the extreme right)—shot in the face while he was celebrating Mass. (Today Monseñor Romero is revered in El Salvador as a martyr-saint, especially by the left. He is sometimes pictured with a halo above his head.) Monseñor Rivera presides over a divided Church that includes conservative bishops on the right and Marxist Jesuits on the left. He has cast himself as the man in the middle. He courageously condemns, when he feels he must, the atrocities of either government or guerrillas—but otherwise he struggles to maintain good relations with both sides.

Monseñor Rivera is deliberately vague about what he means by “dialogue.” In numerous public statements and in a conversation with me he spoke of “humanizing” the war. “I want first to see that the war doesn’t spread,” the archbishop told me. “We’re in contact with the commanders of the army, President Duarte, and the commanders of the FMLN. We’re trying to get food to the war zones. We’re trying to help the refugees, widows, orphans, and the wounded guerrillas. We can’t solve all the problems, but we can make that kind of progress—hoping it will lead to dialogue between the government and the FMLN…. To create the conditions for dialogue, we must begin with small steps. I’m ready always to serve as mediator. Don’t ask me for details.”

The archbishop is said by those closest to him to believe that if the right-wing death squads can be abolished altogether, if the uprooting of the civilian population and bombing of guerrilla field hospitals stops, if the guerrillas cease laying land mines and soften their economic sabotage, then the government and guerrillas might start talking about a political solution. The parties are so far apart that as mediator the archbishop shuns concrete details to avoid subverting the dialogue before it starts.

But can it ever start? The extreme right—still very powerful in the army—is adamantly opposed to dialogue because its leaders aspire to complete extermination of the armed left. Roberto d’Aubuisson, the reputed one-time mastermind of the death squads, though still a member of parliament, is today less powerful—but a number of his sympathizers and alleged cohorts in political killings remain in high command posts throughout the security forces, unpunished for their crimes. (In fact, no high officer suspected of death squad murders has ever been prosecuted.) El Diario de Hoy, the daily newspaper that speaks for the radical right and members of the rich oligarchy, likewise rigidly resists the prospect of dialogue. The FMLN nominally favors dialogue, but its conditions are impossible for the Duarte government to accept.

Originally the FMLN demanded the abrogation of El Salvador’s constitution and the formation of a provisional government, with FMLN members sitting in the same cabinet with Christian Democrats. The guerrillas also sought a purge of the army’s “fascist elements,” integration of the government and FMLN armies at the command level, the departure of all US military advisors, and new elections. Recently these demands were watered down. Some elements of the FMLN proposed integrating the armies at a lower level—meaning the FMLN would retain the territory it now controls—and representation in the government at a sub-cabinet level. However, after intense debate within the FMLN, the watered-down proposals were withdrawn late last year.

Early this year, Rubén Zamora of the FDR floated a new proposal. He suggested, among other things, a cease-fire and the creation of a new “pluralist” electoral process. The government ignored this plan because the guerrillas would retain control of territory, and the guerrillas were silent about it because they seek a single-party Marxist state. “For the FMLN, dialogue is a tactic,” says Miguel Castellanos. “They talk about dialogue, but they don’t really want it. For them, the essential is and always will be the armed struggle, no matter how long it takes. I know, because I participated in discussions with the leadership in which they said so.”

Duarte’s position has been consistent. In essence, he has told the guerrillas: First, stop fighting. We will give you full security to open political offices in San Salvador, and then you can enter the electoral process. But I will not change the constitution, delegitimize myself, or share power with you. You can come to power only in free elections.

But could the government promise full security to the FDR opposition? Its army may be more likely to obey such a command now than it was a few years ago, but the extreme right wing could still conspire to kill and capture FMLN leaders. In any case, since the FMLN commands the sympathy of such a small fraction of the electorate beyond its physical control, it is unlikely the guerrillas or their political allies would fare well in free elections. Duarte has offered to meet the guerrillas again if Nicaragua’s Sandinistas will negotiate with the contras, but that idea is obviously doomed. Duarte’s chief aide, Rey Prendes, met Rubén Zamora in Lima in late April; little emerged from the encounter. The impasse continues.

Yet the yearning for peace is so intense throughout the country that the government may eventually be impelled to modify its position if only to create the illusion of progress. The leftist Jesuits at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador advance their own proposals for ending the war. “Things couldn’t be worse than they are now,” Padre Jon Sobrino, a Spanish-Basque Jesuit and a well-known liberation theologian, told me. “It’s essential to get talks started. Once they begin, the dialogue can create its own dynamic. The momentum of the people’s will might push the two sides closer together. It might persuade the FMLN to stop its sabotage of the economy, and the army to stop its burning and bombing. We might have a cease-fire, at least for a time. The refugees might return to their homes….

However, the United States can always control the process. The US doesn’t care what happens to the country, it only wishes to defeat the FMLN…. I don’t agree that the FMLN’s desire for dialogue is purely tactical. [The guerrillas] are not so contemptuous of the people. They’re more humane than that. Who has more love for El Salvador—the generals of the army or the commanders of the FMLN?… Both sides could change in the dynamic of dialogue once they see what the people want.”

Though their goals are laudable, the Jesuits tend to be utopian. They barely bother to disguise their sympathy for the FMLN, and their criticism of Salvadoran society is, as they put it, selectively Marxist. Padre Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of UCA, declared last November that “the principal contribution of Marxism to liberation theology is to oblige us to commit ourselves to struggle against injustice—against capitalism and imperialism which maintain the majority of people in a state of inhumanity.”

One is almost tempted to agree. The Jesuits’ vision of a new society is born of despair. They see Salvadoran society as so unjust, American domination as so debasing, that no other new order—even a government of the FMLN—could conceivably be worse. If the FMLN comes to power, the Jesuits hope to infuse it with Christian principles, just as the Jesuits of Nicaragua hoped to give a Christian direction to the Sandinistas.

My own conclusion is that for the foreseeable future no attempts at “dialogue” will bear fruit, and that El Salvador will join Lebanon and Northern Ireland among nations that fight unceasing wars. “The war is in its seventh year,” said Cristóbal Iglesias, editor of the moderate newspaper El Mundo. “We are in a tunnel without exit.” I could only agree—at least until the accession of an American president who has a different vision of how to contain communism and promote social justice in Central America and in the world at large.

Shortly before leaving the country, I visited the military hospital in San Salvador. It was jammed with peasant soldiers, their feet and legs blown off by guerrilla land mines. The mines, I learned, are tiny—two-inch plastic garden hose packed with aluminum powder, gunpowder, rocks, glass, and human feces. The victim’ steps on a blasting cap set off by sulphuric acid mixed with sugar and potassium hypochlorite. An American medical officer called the soldiers who had lost both legs “bilateral amputees.”

Next day, I received a letter from a Jesuit. He described a woman he knew whose guerrilla son had just been killed. “An eyewitness, herself wounded, related how government soldiers had cut off his hands and feet, slashed his face, and partially skinned him before he died. The mother, quiet and dignified in her grief, did not even know which of her sons was killed—a fourteen-year-old or his twelve-year-old brother.”

As I was about to leave the country, the mother of Mario Enrique Gonzalez came to my hotel to bid me farewell. I had no further word, I told her, on the fate of her son and the other common criminals in San Francisco Gotera. I left El Salvador wondering whether those abandoned men would ever be brought to trial.

May 28, 1986

  1. 2

    See The Continuing Terror, Seventh Supplement to the Report on Human Rights in El Salvador (Americas Watch, September 1985) and Managing the Facts: How the Administration Deals with Reports of Human Rights Abuses in El Salvador (Americas Watch, December 1985). See also the Americas Watch report Settling into Routine: Human Rights Abuses in Duarte’s Second Year (May 1986).

  2. 3

    See James LeMoyne, “Salvador Rebels Trying to Unify in Marxist Party,” The New York Times (December 22, 1985). See also his “Salvador’s Rebels Have Learned to Dodge the Bullets,” The New York Times (January 5, 1986).

  3. 4

    See “Papers shed light on Salvadoran rebels,” by Chris Hedges, The Dallas Morning News (May 21, 1985).

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