The ‘Clean’ War


Colonel Mauricio Ernesto Vargas is the commander of the Fourth Detachment of the Salvadoran army’s Third Brigade in San Francisco Gotera, capital of the warravaged department of Morazán, about a hundred miles northeast of San Salvador. He is thirty-nine years old but looks about twenty-five. I met him early one morning in late March, just as he was leaving the cuartel, his headquarters next to the Franciscan church. Dressed in combat fatigues and a floppy hat, he was on his way to visit one of his units north of the Torola River in guerrilla-held territory. “Would you like to come with me?” the colonel asked.

Minutes later, in an American UH-1 helicopter equipped with huge machine guns, we were aloft over mountainous terrain and deep valleys smoking from intermittent fires or patched with ash where fires had raged. We flew over the Torola toward Joateca, only several miles from the Honduran border. Some of the burned-out patches were straining for rebirth—shoots of new green bush and trees struggled to grow. We landed at the foot of a hill, black with the skeletons of trees still smoldering from a fire, where Colonel Vargas and I were greeted by about forty of his soldiers.

We walked up and down the blackened hills, the colonel conferring with his junior officers, examining his field maps, talking with nearby units on an American PRC-77 radio, scanning the adjacent hills with his high-powered “mil-scale” binoculars and seeing no guerrillas. The day before, he explained, there had been a battle between his men and guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Nobody had been killed, but a guerrilla had been captured and was being questioned. I had heard accounts of what such “interrogation” meant, and was glad I was not the guerrilla, who might have been tortured. I borrowed the colonel’s field glasses, and fell behind him as several of his peasant soldiers—boys no more than seventeen years old—asked me for cigarettes. They were armed with American M-16 automatic rifles. With the binoculars I scanned the hills, and for an instant glimpsed three or four young men in civilian clothes with rifles dashing through a patch of burned-out trees. I said, “Oh.”

Did you see somebody?” a sergeant asked.

They’re guerrillas, I thought. They may die tomorrow. Why should they die today? I said, “No. Ninguno. Nobody.” I held on to the binoculars, and to distract the soldiers handed out more cigarettes. Eventually I flew back to Gotera with Colonel Vargas.

The colonel is considered one of the most enlightened officers in El Salvador’s army, and in fact if not in name he rules those parts of Morazán held by the government. No one has accused him of the massacres of helpless civilians that took place only a few years ago; he practices “psych-ops” to win the loyalty of his people. In his office at the cuartel he explained how. “Our mission as soldiers is not only to bring peace and security, but to remove the causes of war by improving economic and social life,” he said. “I build schools, roads, provide medicines for health centers and materials to build houses, distribute food and clothes to displaced persons.” But what of the fires? I asked him. Wasn’t the army taking away with one hand what it gave with the other—through its tactic of burning the campesinos’ stores and crops to deprive the guerrillas of sustenance and cover?

My question seemed to displease Colonel Vargas. “The guerrillas burn the crops,” he answered. “The campesinos burn away the land to prepare for planting. Sometimes the army is responsible, but seldom—and it’s definitely not our policy…. There are hot, self-combustible minerals in the earth. The fires start themselves.”

The colonel’s remark about self-combustible minerals became a joke for the Franciscan priests and nuns I talked to who work in Gotera. “Well of course there are self-combustible minerals,” one Franciscan said. “Phosphorus, for example, which comes on the end of a stick. It’s called a match.” He told me of a soldier who entered a peasant’s house, politely asked for a box of matches, then burned the house down. “The army has a scorched-earth policy,” the Franciscan continued. “Anything to flush out the guerrillas, no matter who suffers. The ecological effect has been disastrous.” He explained that for lack of trees, the earth is so eroded that when the rains come the earth cannot hold the water, the river beds are drying up, and the water table in recent years has dropped seventeen feet. (At my hotel, water was turned on only between four and six in the morning.) Because of the war and the army’s policy, the Franciscans contend, in a few years Morazán may become a desert.

The Franciscans exaggerated, it seemed to me, when they spoke of a “scorched earth” policy; the peasants often do burn off land to prepare for planting. Yet as I toured the province a number of peasants told me the army set many of the fires, burning their meager crops of corn, beans, coffee, and sisal. Often the army torches the land to set off guerrilla mines that would otherwise wound or kill its soldiers. Whatever the cause, the province, once self-sustaining, can no longer feed itself. And the fires are only one measure of Morazán’s misery.

San Francisco Gotera is a garrison town of adobe houses with red tile roofs, swarming children, a white statue of Saint Francis of Assisi preaching to a wolf. It has three thousand troops, five thousand regular residents, and twelve thousand refugees. Military helicopters chop incessantly across the sky. Young soldiers whose feet and legs have been blown off by guerrilla mines hobble about the cuartel. Their more healthy companions rumble constantly through the streets in armored two-and-a-half-ton American personnel carriers and three-quarter-ton armor-plated trucks mounted with 50-caliber guns and M-60 machine guns en route to more search-and-destroy missions in the countryside where they will set more fires, step on more mines, and lose more limbs. Or they will be ambushed, and some of them will return to Gotera dead.

There are three refugee camps in Gotera, crammed with families displaced by the army from Perquin, Arambala, San Fernando, and other towns and villages north of the Torola controlled by the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), one of the five fighting branches of the FMLN. The condition of the camps is squalid; some of the huts are so hot that the refugees say they can hardly stay inside them. When I visited the camps, refugees gathered around, begging me to find them work. Unemployment in Gotera is 80 percent. The refugees live on handouts of food from the government and the United States. Some of the men are paid six colones (about $1.20) a day on public works projects financed by USAID, but the work is rationed and each refugee is limited to a fortnight on the job. Nobody I talked to or heard of any longer believes Christian Democratic president José Napoleón Duarte’s campaign promises of peace, work, and social justice. Neither do they love the guerrillas; they want the war to end so they can go home.

But war is not the only problem in Morazán, and in many ways San Francisco Gotera is a microcosm of El Salvador’s misfortune as a whole. Twice I visited the prison for common criminals on the outskirts of the town, where many prisoners have been held for five, six, seven years, dumped there, abandoned without trials. Immediately in the stone courtyard I was surrounded by dozens of men pleading with me to intercede with the minister of justice, the president of the supreme court, the archbishop of San Salvador, the American ambassador. I already knew that the judicial system in El Salvador is so corrupt that often only a bribe—up to a thousand dollars for a campesino, much more for a richer man—can free a prisoner, trial or no trial. One prisoner, fearful of the guard standing nearby, scribbled a note to me in English: “Please. I need your help. I’m in prison here [undecipherable] commandament is very bad with me. I’m very long of my house. I have n’t work please givme your help. I need twenty five colons for my fud.”

On the other side of this centro penal, the prisoners drew up for me a neat list of their names and the length of time each had served without trial. “Jesús Aristedes Quintanilla = 4 años [years]…Rafael de Jesús Enrique = 5 años…Manuel de Jesús Gonzalez = 6 años…Julio Antonio Menendez Orellana = 7 años….” What could a powerless foreigner do for them? They insisted that I accept the list, and I promised to speak to the minister of justice and to any other high official who might receive me.


When I returned to San Salvador, I visited the political prisoners at Mariona (men) and Ilopango (women), both institutions in the suburbs of the capital. At Ilopango, I met a young woman who requested anonymity but who told me her story in intimate detail. I shall call her Marta. She had been abducted early last year, she said, by four men in civilian clothes who accused her of collaborating with the FMLN, a charge she still denies. In secret detention, Marta was badly beaten, almost smothered in a capucha (a tight hood much favored by Salvadoran torturers), stripped naked, and raped by her four interrogators.

Later, at the headquarters of the national police, Marta was kept naked during five days of interrogation, then deprived for another several days of food and sleep. Eventually a military judge declared her guilty of “political crimes” and sent her to Ilopango for an indefinite sentence. A month later, Ilopango was invaded by air force troops who shot her in the leg. Taken to a hospital for an operation, Marta was told by the doctors that she was pregnant—the result of her rape on the day she was abducted. She pleaded for an abortion, which was refused. She gave birth to a girl at Ilopango late last year. When I saw Marta in mid-April she was nursing the child, six months old and beautiful. (The women are allowed to keep their children at Ilopango; on April 13 there were sixty-seven women and twenty-one children in the political section of that prison.)

At Mariona, the men’s prison, there were nearly eight hundred prisoners in the political section when I visited on April 10 and nearly nine hundred when I visited again on April 27. I spoke to at least twenty prisoners, and all of them told me they had been tortured. Only one admitted he had “collaborated” with the FMLN. Three cases stand out. Santos Martínez García, thirty-two, was a driver for the human rights officer of the US embassy until shortly before his arrest by security forces in September. Martínez was accused of working for the FMLN and spying on embassy personnel, a charge he says is completely false. He claims that, among many other horrors, the treasury police under a Captain Danilo sent electric shocks through his ears, testicles, and teeth, deprived him of food and water for days at a time, and took him, naked, late at night to the precipice of Puerta del Diablo where they held a machine gun to his head, threatening to shoot him and push him off.

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.

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. 1

    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.

  2. 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).

  3. 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).

  4. 4

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