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…

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