Police Find Inconsistencies : Death Squads in L.A.--Less Than Meets the Eye?

Times Staff Writer

It has been three weeks since the Los Angeles Police Department began receiving crime reports about Salvadoran death squad-style incidents in Los Angeles--three kidnapings, three written death threats and a flurry of telephoned threats.

"This thing's gotten to a fever pitch with . . . thousands of people living terrified over death squads in this city," one police official said, speaking on the condition that he not be named.

"And we're sitting here looking at a can of worms that keeps growing. As far as physical evidence, we've got about zip. As far as suspects, we've got nine descriptions and none of them match. And then we've got copycat crimes too."

"We don't know who's doing this, or why," he said. "But we're going to find out."

The investigation started after a young Salvadoran activist named Yanira was abducted outside the downtown office of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador on July 7. She reported that three Central American men interrogated her about her politics and colleagues, molested her, burned her fingertips with cigarettes, and left her alive to pass the word that "we are here."

After a popular local Latino priest, Father Luis Olivares, received a letter July 15 bearing the initials E.M., apparently for Escuadron de la Muerte, or Squadron of Death, the pitch became--as the LAPD official put it--feverish.

The FBI announced that it was investigating the possibility of "terrorist activity" in Los Angeles. Mayor Tom Bradley proposed a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of those responsible.

The Tidings, the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese here, bannered its July 24 issue with "Archbishop Condemns Death Squads Here." Spanish-language media quoted a handful of the more than 300,000 Salvadorans in Los Angeles as saying that they are afraid that death squads may have come to the United States.

But police investigators suspect that they are likely to turn up something far less interesting than international terrorism--a power play by a rival political group, an extortion or a personal dispute, the LAPD official said.

"Certain inconsistencies" in the evidence, which he declined to enumerate, further complicate the investigation, he said.

"Is it really a death squad-type of thing?" he asked. "Don't get me wrong. We're not doubting that any of these things occurred. We're not dismissing anything, but we suspect politics is only a quarter of the pie here."

Those who have been threatened say they see no other possible context for the incidents except a political one.

Except for a few incidents that police believe to be copycat crimes, the nearly 30 people whose names have been mentioned in threatening calls and letters are political activists. Most are active in solidarity groups that organize protests, sponsor speakers and raise money for causes in El Salvador.

'No Other Explanation'

"There is just absolutely no other explanation for this beyond some political motivation," said Mark Rosenbaum, general counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union here. The ACLU is advising those who have been threatened.

The threats in Los Angeles follow by a few weeks a brief resurgence of written death squad threats in El Salvador, one of them targeting the president of a leftist student organization that works closely with Los Angeles activists. The kidnap-molestation victim, Yanira, said her father had received a threat against her in El Salvador a month before her abduction.

However, it is unlikely that a Salvadoran death squad--one of the military and paramilitary bands that are believed responsible for many thousands of murders in El Salvador--has been ordered to Los Angeles to kill or intimidate activists.

That, at least, is the assertion of a knowledgeable, if varied, group of sources asked by The Times to place the recent events in perspective.

These sources include a U.S. intelligence agent based in El Salvador, a RAND Corp. terrorism expert, a former death squad member now living in Los Angeles, El Salvador's ambassador to the United States, and some victims of death squad threats.

Negative Publicity

Most dismiss the idea that the incidents, which carry with them heavily negative publicity, are being ordered by top military officials of the government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte, a Christian Democrat.

What is clear, they add, is that the incidents mimic known death squad terror tactics and would appear to be political in nature.

The term Escuadron de la Muerte has been used in several Latin American countries since the 1960s as a generic name for members and former members of security forces who carry out killings of suspected subversives and, occasionally, common criminals.

The initials E.M. first appeared in El Salvador in the late 1970s and early 1980s when bodies appeared with notes pinned to them reading E.M. or had the same initials scratched into the victims' flesh. Many have been women whose bodies were mutilated. Since about 1982, such murders have substantially decreased, but they have not stopped altogether.

Two weeks ago, Olivares received such a note at his church. It said in simple, bold letters: E.M.

In another incident police believe to be either a copycat crime or a hoax, a Salvadoran laborer reported July 26 that he was kidnaped in Woodland Hills by two Salvadoran men who demanded details about his military service.

Bound and Gagged

The man, who was not politically active, was found bound and gagged with cloth bearing the initials of an apparent death squad. Police requested that the initials not be made public.

By leaving their names or initials, these "death squads" are usually pursuing psychological warfare to terrorize political opponents into inaction, experts explained.

Such notes are believed to be often written not by the actual death squad killers but rather by civilians who support their political goals.

Two of the threats here have ordered the activists to stop speaking in public, according to police reports. One Guatemalan woman who reportedly was kidnaped July 17 said her captors did not harm her, for example, but ordered her to stop working with Salvadorans.

"When I left El Salvador, I thought I was safe from being killed," said Salvadoran refugee Marta Alicia Rivera, who fled her homeland in 1979 after she was abducted, raped and interrogated under torture by the National Guard. Rivera, who received political asylum here because of the highly publicized incident, reported to police that she had received one of the threatening letters.

Used Familiar Phrase

"I can't say that this is a death squad, only that it sends letters like the ones I got in El Salvador before I was kidnaped by the National Guard in 1979," she said. The threat ended with the words "Flowers in the desert die," a phrase she remembers as similar to ones contained in the letters she received in El Salvador.

A top U.S. intelligence agent based in El Salvador said in a telephone interview that, although he has no idea who is behind the incidents in Los Angeles, they sound like "relatively unsophisticated" activities attributed to death squads when the extreme right was most active in the early 1980s.

"It sounds more like intimidation is what they're after," he said. "That's more the way death squads operated in the early phases in El Salvador, through terror."

In an interview, the Salvadoran ambassador to the United States, Ernesto Rivas Gallont, stressed that the Salvadoran government has nothing to do with the recent threats here. But he raised the possibility that those responsible might be immigrants who had "connections" to death squads in El Salvador in the past.

"I have a very hard time believing this comes out of El Salvador," he said. "There no longer exists the institution of death squad activities.

'Some Rotten Apples'

"But what the heck, we have 600,000 Salvadorans in this country. Nobody's saying there aren't some rotten apples. I urge police and the FBI to fully investigate and prosecute anyone responsible despite any past connections."

Brian Jenkins, a U.S. government consultant on terrorism who is director of political violence research at the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, said the incidents here are unlike most terrorist actions ordered by foreign governments inside the United States.

In most of those acts, such as the killing of Chilean exile Orlando Letelier in 1976 at the order of Chilean officials, foreign nationalists have been proficiently assassinated.

But the incidents, particularly the kidnap and reported sexual torture of Yanira, do bear the earmarks of right-wing death squad actions peculiar to Latin America, Jenkins said.

"This matches in terms of the willingness to threaten women and children, round them up and subject them . . . to torture and sexual abuse," he said, adding that he has no personal knowledge of the cases here.

'Don't Give a Damn'

"That gives terrorism a bad name. But one can argue that it is a very effective way to terrorize people. I'd assert it comes mostly out of the right because they see power coming from above. They don't give a damn what the people think of them most of the time. The left will also try to provoke violence, but they want to create constituencies."

It is that sort of terror that is particularly effective when the goal is not to kill people, but to stop them from doing something, explained one former El Salvador police agent and death squad member now living in Los Angeles.

"Whoever is doing this is probably just trying to scare people, otherwise they would have killed them by now," the former agent said in an interview. "There is a saying we use, 'Tell Pedro so Juan understands.' That means that . . . you are really trying to scare other people besides Pedro."

The former agent, who was first interviewed in El Salvador several years ago, said he had killed 16 people as part of his job with the national police. A U.S. official who came in contact with him later said he found him highly credible. The agent is now living near MacArthur Park, a social center for many Salvadoran exiles.

"But I don't think any agents here would kill anybody here because the last thing agents want is problems with police that could get you deported," he said. "It could also be that someone is being sent from El Salvador, being paid by someone wealthy there."

Congressman a Target

There has been at least one such known emissary. In 1984, Rep. George Miller (D-Martinez) was notified by the U.S. State Department that a right-wing death squad figure had been sent to the United States to "investigate" Miller, who was not harmed.

Leonel Gomez, a former Salvadoran cabinet minister who was threatened along with the two American land reform experts who were assassinated in El Salvador in 1981, gave two reasons why he thinks the incidents are happening now.

First, he said, leftists have recently been taking to the streets in San Salvador to demonstrate for workers' rights and other issues in El Salvador. Second, he said, extreme rightists known to believe they could fight guerrillas better without U.S. military assistance--and human rights restraints--have been growing stronger as civil war wears on, as seen in their renewed willingness to issue death squad threats.

To the Los Angeles police official, such talk seems only indirectly related to the task at hand. He said the LAPD is approaching the crimes as they would any other, by piecing together evidence and hoping for witnesses.

"Once we get the suspects, then we will determine their motives," he said.

He said the department's anti-terrorist division, which is charged with intelligence duties, has "no files on right-wing Central American groups here" and "is starting from scratch" on this investigation.

Activities Curbed

He asserted that the department has no existing information because of curbs placed upon the department's intelligence-gathering abilities in 1983.

The Los Angeles Police Commission reined in LAPD intelligence-gathering activities after disclosures that officers had been spying on law-abiding leftist groups and individuals and had hidden some files outside the department.

Regardless of who is behind the incidents, many Salvadorans who fled their country in fear now feel afraid here as well.

Five of the 30 who have been threatened have moved from their homes, a spokesman for the group said. Most of the remainder are being accompanied by friends whenever they leave their houses. Two left their jobs because they were afraid they were being followed there.

Will Have an Effect

Several said they believe that the threats will cut down on the number of Salvadorans willing to participate in demonstrations, for example.

But not only activists feel afraid.

"Here you have freedoms to talk, not like in El Salvador," said one Salvadoran woman, who gave her name just as Ana, who was keeping a careful eye on her daughters playing in MacArthur Park.

"But now the death squads are active, it will take a very long time before people will get involved in anything political. I never have talked about politics because it's too dangerous. I'm not for anything. I'm not against anything."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
62°