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The Battle for San Salvador


On the night of Friday, November 10, several unusual parties took place in the neighborhood of Santa Marta, which clings to the sides of a jagged ravine on the outskirts of San Salvador. Residents were invited to a wedding celebration, though they were never quite sure when the couple had been married. Another party was said to celebrate a young woman’s fifteenth birthday, though many residents thought that she was well past that age. Among the many strangers who turned up at the festivities some guests noticed several women who arrived with one man, danced a few turns with him, then left only to return an hour later with another man.

When, on the evening of the following day, Marxist guerrillas launched attacks in nearly every large working-class neighborhood in El Salvador’s capital, the people in Santa Marta quickly understood that the parties had been the final phase of the rebels’ clandestine infiltration into the capital city in preparation for what soon became their strongest offensive in a decade-old civil war, and their first full-scale combat in San Salvador in seven years.

The people in Santa Marta spent much of the next seven days crouching in the corners and pressed against the floors of their cinder-block houses. They found out that even in their cramped barrio where neighbors watched each other closely, fighters of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, known as the FMLN, had managed to set up several safe houses during the past year, stocked with rifles and ammunition. The guerrillas took up firing positions in the houses, attracting retaliation from government forces, which started with wild sprays of assault-rifle bullets and culminated in mortar barrages and aerial rocketing.

During the first days of the offensive some of the poorest people in Santa Marta, who live in dirt-floor shanties next to a railroad track, helped the guerrillas to build barricades and find food. They became less helpful as the fighting intensified. Soon food ran out in the entire neighborhood, the electricity and water went off, and the bodies of fallen guerrilla fighters lay rotting in the cobbled alleyways. By the end of the fighting asbestos-sheet roofs were blasted off houses, walls were leveled, and street paving stones were torn up. By a miracle, few civilians were injured because they stayed close to the ground for so long.

On Sunday, November 19, the rebels faded into the scrub forest of the surrounding hills. Their week-long siege left behind in Santa Marta a terrible knowledge of how close and randomly lethal the war could become, even in the capital city, and a paralyzing fear that the FMLN might draw the army and the crossfire back to Santa Marta. Therefore the residents returned to a state of fright they had not known since the nationwide terror of the early 1980s, when government security forces waged a campaign of butchery against the left.

None of those I interviewed would consent to having their names published with their accounts. Some observed that men and women they had seen fighting in guerrilla uniforms were still lingering around the neighborhood dressed as civilians, presumably waiting to be ordered back into action. But while Santa Marta residents I spoke with were not about to be friendly with them, they did not want to turn them in to the army.

The heavy combat throughout San Salvador lasted twenty days. The FMLN held the upper hand in the dense proletarian boroughs across the northern third of the city, and in some sections around the southeastern edge, for at least three days, and in some communities for as long as seven. In normal city traffic it takes forty minutes to drive from one end of the barrios they occupied to the other, an area in which more than 250,000 people live. By carrying the attack to the sloping boulevards of Escalón and other San Salvador ghettoes of privilege twice in two weeks, the FMLN demonstrated it could fight effectively in any part of the city. Fighting was also heavy in the provincial cities of San Miguel, Usulutan, and Zacatecoluca.

Eventually the forces of the rightist government of President Alfredo Cristiani managed to extract rebels from their positions, mainly by showing that the air force would not hesitate to strafe, rocket, even bomb crowded urban communities. The army reported a total of 446 of its 52,000 troops killed and 1,228 wounded, making the offensive easily the bloodiest episode in the war. The FMLN said 401 rebels died, and did not give the figures of its wounded. (The statistics are probably somewhat low on both sides.) US military sources report that the armed forces are holding some five hundred guerrillas captured during November, which combined with the rebel death toll suggests that the FMLN lost more than 10 percent of its overall force. US sources also estimate that more than seven hundred young men were “forcibly recruited” by the FMLN during November. Since families of volunteers often say their children were abducted in order to protect themselves from government reprisals, it’s possible that new recruits to the rebels nearly made up for those who were lost. Nevertheless, the FMLN paid a very high price for its offensive.

The violence spread beyond the streets where the two forces battled. Early on the morning of November 16, men dressed in camouflage uniforms raided the Jesuit residence on the campus of the Central American University and murdered six priests, their cook, and her fifteen-year-old daughter. The dead included the university rector Father Ignacio Ellacuría, one of the most distinguished intellectuals in El Salvador. Perhaps symbolically, the priests’ brains were destroyed by the M-16 and AK-47 bullets fired at point-blank range.

Under the state of siege declared by the government on November 12, forty-one Catholic and Protestant churches and religious offices were searched and frequently broken up by the security forces, and forty-eight church workers, most of them foreigners, were arrested. The Lutheran bishop Medardo Gómez, fled El Salvador for his life. Most left-of-center labor unions or civic organizations closed and sent their members into hiding.


The FMLN said it hoped its offensive would smash the long stalemate in El Salvador’s war by transforming city neighborhoods like Santa Marta into strongholds of rebellion. But the San Salvador fighting had a more stunning effect on national politics than it did on the neighborhood streets. The November offensive undermined the main assumptions on which all sides—the government, the United States, and the FMLN—had constructed their policies over the last decade.

First, the offensive demolished the United States’ premise that the government and its armed forces, on which Washington has lavished $4.8 billion since 1981, were prevailing in the war as a result of a policy that sought simultaneously to fortify the army in order to wear down the rebels in combat, and to fortify civilian democracy in order to weaken the rebels’ political legitimacy. It is now clear that in recent years the FMLN has gained military strength.

The offensive shattered the emerging image of the Cristiani government, which was chosen by a decisive margin in a national election in March 1989. It had then appeared that a new business class led by Cristiani had discarded the crude red-hating and vigilante violence of the old landed right-wing class in favor of modern conservatism and rational political debate. It seemed for a time that Cristiani’s party, known by its acronym as ARENA, might have enough nationalist appeal and ties to the officer corps to impose its civilian authority over the military, which the former Christian Democrat president, José Napoleón Duarte, had failed to do. However, it became evident during the fighting that Cristiani was hardly even briefed on the military’s decisions. At a press conference on November 16 Cristiani assured the nation that air power would be used inside the city limits “only where there is a clear FMLN objective.” He was speaking to reporters who had just come from watching Salvadorans in droves flee scattershot air assaults on their houses.

Cristiani appeared to have no control over the government security forces—the Treasury Police, National Guard, National Police, and the civil defense squads. All these took their revenge on churches, human rights groups and unlucky bystanders, whoever they suspected of having left-wing sympathies, using the same methods for which they became notorious early in the decade, unaffected by the intervening years of US human rights rhetoric. For example, Michael Eugene Terril, a forty-two-year-old American plumber from Washington state, was on a trip through Central America when he was arrested by the Treasury Police on November 15, along with another American and seven Salvadorans, at the offices of Comadres, a left-leaning organization of relatives of victims of human rights abuses. Terril said he was at the Comadres office because it was a “cheap place to stay.” Terril was kicked, struck with rifle butts, and left standing blindfolded for two days in the hallways of Treasury Police headquarters without being allowed rest. He could hear sounds of Salvadorans being interrogated in nearby cells; there were crashing and cries as the men were hurled against the cells’ metal doors. The prisoners begged for water.

They kick you, that heals. But I can remember them screams now,” Terril told me.

The events also served to undermine the FMLN’s own myths. It could no longer argue that it is a purely indigenous force, equipped exclusively with homemade bombs and rifles seized in combat from the Salvadoran army, after a plane that crashed in a bean field in San Miguel province on November 25 was found to be loaded with twenty-four SAM-7 missiles and one Redeye anti-air missile. Days later reporters in Nicaragua learned, by interviewing Nicaraguans who lived nearby, that the aircraft left from the Sandinista military airfield at Montelimar. The case was so clearcut that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega could not even bring himself to issue an outright denial.

The offensive also shattered one of the dearest illusions of the chief FMLN military mastermind, Joaquín Villalobos. For some eighteen months Villalobos had argued that El Salvador was on the brink of a “social explosion” that would be detonated by the FMLN, and he predicted that if his forces launched a “strategic blow” they would precipitate a “general uprising” by the poor. Nothing resembling a mass insurrection took place, a fact that the FMLN acknowledged in an assessment it broadcast on its Radio Venceremos in late November, and blamed the armed forces for this. “The incorporation of the masses in the first days of the offensive forced the enemy to use its aviation indiscriminately to thwart a general uprising and inhibit the insurrection….”

El Salvador after November was a nation with its unhealed wounds laid bare. The horror of the first years of the 1980s had never ended but had only been concealed. In 1989 the Salvadorans witnessed a recurrence of the tragedies of 1980 and 1981, when right-wing death squads killed thousands of people; when the Catholic primate, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, was murdered; when the newly formed FMLN launched a “final” offensive promising to ride a popular rebellion to power; and when the United States, in its determination to draw the line against communism, dismissed gross government abuses as fantasies of the left. At a time when many of the dogmas of the postwar period are becoming obsolescent, Salvadorans continue to die for anachronistic ideas. One of the world’s last devoutly Marxist-Leninist liberation movements is pitted against the reactionary anti-communism of the right, which has intermittently dominated the country for more than half a century, and against the US counterinsurgency theories that had proved both futile and cruelly destructive in Viet Nam.

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