Peace Process Stirs Frustration Among El Salvador’s Armed Forces

Times Staff Writer

After signing the Central American peace plan last August, President Jose Napoleon Duarte called a meeting of commanders of the powerful Salvadoran armed forces to seek their backing for the accord.

“Duarte said the panorama was political now, not military,” a high-ranking army officer recalled last week. “He said, ‘I want to make political war.’ ”

Now, four months into that political war against the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas, the officer is grim.

“Duarte is losing,” he said flatly.


The officer expressed frustration with Duarte and the Central American peace plan, and his feelings are echoed by other conservative military men who believe peace talks, an amnesty and a two-week unilateral cease-fire have benefited the guerrillas they are fighting and demoralized their troops.

Members of the armed forces have criticized Duarte for allowing leftist political leaders Guillermo Ungo and Ruben Zamora to return from exile without breaking their alliance with the guerrillas.

“It was an abuse of democracy,” said an influential colonel.

Military commanders also are angered by the government’s inability to invigorate the economy, the alleged corruption and the bitter fighting within the ruling Christian Democratic Party. Adding to their discontent is the fact that Duarte recently reopened an investigation into the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of San Salvador, which could implicate active-duty military men in so-called death squad killings.


The army and security forces are believed to have been involved in massive political killings carried out by clandestine death squads in the early 1980s. The recent amnesty pardoned all political crimes except for the murder of Romero, but diplomats say the case may open a Pandora’s Box, linking together many of the unresolved political killings.

Military officials deny the armed forces had any connection to the death squads. U.S. officials say they believe there is no institutional connection between the military and a current rash of political killings and disappearances.

At the same time, however, some military officials acknowledge that mounting frustration among the security forces could lead to an upsurge in political violence in the capital. Diplomats also note an apparent willingness on the part of some officers to look the other way to allow political violence.

Asked about death squads, an army officer said: “I’m afraid they will re-emerge. How many police have been killed?”

Guerrillas have targeted police patrols in the capital this year, while union and student groups sympathetic to the rebels have grown increasingly confrontational during protests. They commandeer buses for barricades at their marches, burn government-owned vehicles and taunt riot police.

The police have followed orders to show restraint in the face of such tactics, but an official said that they were frustrated and felt their hands were tied.

“They feel conflict between the fulfillment of their orders as police and the fulfillment of their honor as men,” the official said. “There could be some irresponsibility in carrying out their duties, or groups that take justice into their own hands.”

Diplomats and sources close to the military say that disquiet among the armed forces is deeper and more widespread than it has been in recent years. They said they would not predict a military coup at present, but neither would they rule out the possibility as they have during other tense periods of Salvadoran politics.


The analysts suggest the military could begin to pressure Duarte for more direct power in the government, without resorting to a coup. They fear, however, that a large guerrilla attack or some other military embarrassment now could push the military toward a coup.

Army officers headed most of El Salvador’s modern governments until Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero was ousted as president in 1979 by dissident younger officers and replaced by the first of several civilian-military juntas. Duarte headed a junta from December, 1980, to April, 1982, and was elected president in 1984.

Since Duarte took office, Washington has frequently made the point that U.S. aid would be cut off in the event of a coup. The U.S. Administration’s goal has been to convince the military to respect civilian rule and human rights. Meanwhile, the United States has fortified the armed forces by supplying aircraft and other major hardware for use against the guerrillas and helped quadruple armed forces manpower to about 52,000.

Duarte is popular in the U.S. Congress, and the political cost of ousting him would be high, but some military officials calculate that the United States will support the Salvadoran armed forces as long as they face a strong insurgency--particularly if the Marxist-led Sandinista government remains in power in neighboring Nicaragua.

“We survived without (U.S.) aid before, but I don’t think the United States would cut us off totally because we are in their area of political interest,” retired Col. Sigifredo Ochoa said in a television interview last week.

Ochoa, who left the army this year to join the rightist National Republican Alliance, or Arena party, maintains close friends in the high reaches of the military. He criticized the U.S.-designed counterinsurgency program in which “the United States puts up the money and we put up the blood,” and seemed to be appealing to young officers to stage a coup.

“The field commanders have a constitutional obligation to defend Salvadorans from the Marxist aggression, whether it comes from these guys in the Farabundo Marti front or from the government,” Ochoa said.

Extreme rightists have also goaded the army with an unsigned newspaper advertisement. The authors, claiming they are not seeking a coup, accuse military commanders of supporting the ruling Christian Democratic Party and question their ability to win the war. The ad succeeded in irritating even those officers who are convinced the army should stay out of politics.


“I read that ad and couldn’t work all day,” said a colonel. “They don’t understand we’re not supporting the Christian Democrats. We support the government of the republic, whoever is in power.”

Rumors of coups frequently run high in December, when changes are made in military commands. U.S. concern over a coup generally focuses on the military’s 28 full colonels who belong to what is called la tandona, or the big class, that graduated from El Salvador’s military school in 1966.

Salvadoran military officers are known for forming a loyal brotherhood with their classmates. Today, the colonels who graduated in 1966 command all the important brigades and hold several posts in the high command. While the colonels are politically diverse, as a group they are closely allied with the ultraconservative air force chief, Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo.

For now, the military’s frustration is expected to focus on internal jockeying for high command positions that will open up this month. One of the army’s five generals, a vice minister of defense, will retire and the colonels are expected to seek that position to increase their already ample influence.

The vice minister of defense for public security, Col. Reynaldo Lopez Nuila, also will vacate his post, largely due to pressure from the colonels. Lopez Nuila, who is from an earlier military school class, is resented for his rise to power through desk jobs rather than field commands. He is perceived as being too close to the American Embassy and the Christian Democrats.

Some military officials charge that Lopez Nuila and the embassy want to weaken the military by splitting the security services away from the army. U.S. officials decline to comment on the subject. A complete separation appears politically unfeasible, but the United States has funded a police academy to separate police and military training.

Lopez Nuila’s main mistake--the one that will have him moved out of military headquarters and into a job at the presidential palace--was his apparent willingness to proceed against army officers accused of human rights abuses. Army officers here have never been prosecuted for political killings.

Lopez Nuila was blamed by some military officials when, in September, the government suddenly charged Col. Elmer Gonzalez Araujo with the 1983 massacre of at least 18 Indian peasants at the Las Hojas cooperative. Indian groups assert that 74 peasants died there, but a judge identified only 18 bodies.

The case now is tied up in court over whether it is affected by the government’s amnesty. In its wake, the case of Archbishop Romero’s murder has resurfaced.

In an announcement seemingly timed to overshadow the return of leftists Ungo and Zamora, Duarte said that a new witness had come forward in the Romero case, and, based on his testimony, the president accused rightist leader Roberto D’Aubuisson of ordering the archbishop’s murder.

D’Aubuisson, a former National Guard intelligence officer, denied the charge and countered that death squad killings were committed by the security forces. In a clever political move, he blamed the military’s own outcast, Lopez Nuila, who headed the National Police during the years of widespread political killing.

D’Aubuisson is unlikely to point a finger at more powerful military men, who, like Lopez Nuila, were in high positions during the heyday of the death squads. For example, Gen. Carlos E. Vides Casanova, the defense minister, was head of the National Guard when it was considered to be a center of death squad activity.

Nonetheless, the case could implicate several dozen current and former military officers along with rightist businessmen. The witness, Amado Garay, testified that he drove the triggerman to the church where Romero was slain on March 24, 1980, and later overheard a former army captain, Alvaro Rafael Saravia, tell D’Aubuisson that he had carried out his orders to kill the archbishop.

Saravia, a close D’Aubuisson associate, has been detained in Miami pending an extradition request. Saravia and D’Aubuisson were arrested with more than a dozen other military officers and rightist businessmen in May, 1980, for allegedly plotting a coup against the government, and a notebook was confiscated from Saravia outlining what was believed to have been the plan for the Romero killing.

The notebook lists purchase of weapons and silencers, names and phone numbers of Salvadoran businessmen thought to have funded death squads, and apparent payments to military men and hit men.

Among those arrested with D’Aubuisson in 1980 and listed in the notebook is Col. Mauricio Staben, head of an elite army counterinsurgency unit and a member of the big military school class of colonels.

Several other military people arrested that day are in jail or have fled the country for allegedly running a kidnap-for-ransom ring that targeted rich businessmen. A government witness in the case testified that Staben once lifted a gun at a drunken party and boasted it was the weapon used to kill Romero.

Three witnesses in the kidnaping case were killed last year, at least two of them while in police custody.

Military officials said they believe Duarte resurrected the Romero case to beef up support for his party before National Assembly elections in March. D’Aubuisson’s Arena party hopes to break a Christian Democratic majority in the assembly.

The military officials say they are far more worried about the return of Ungo and Zamora to the national political scene than the Romero case. The officers believe that the leftists will radicalize unions and student groups and that they provide a propaganda boon for the guerrillas in the local media. The officers also complain that a two-week cease-fire allowed guerrillas to get new supplies and that 400 political prisoners released under the amnesty have joined the guerrilla ranks.

Duarte insists that Ungo and Zamora must break their ties to the guerrillas to continue their political organizing here. He says the guerrillas must put down their guns and join legal, electoral politics.

Rightist political groups assert that Duarte eventually will negotiate a power-sharing deal with the guerrillas. They see the return of civilian rebel leaders Ungo and Zamora as proof.

“We know they have been allies before and they’re all socialists,” said coffee grower Orlando de Sola.

Ungo, a democratic socialist, was Duarte’s running mate in a coalition in the 1972 presidential race, which they believe they won, only to have victory stolen from them by the military. Zamora belonged to the Christian Democratic Party until he broke away in 1980 in protest to party’s participation in the governing junta during the death-squad activity that took his brother’s life, among many others.

Ungo and Zamora have left the country after a trial visit, but say they will return and keep up their alliance with the guerrillas.

The military officers, meanwhile, say they must keep their cool in a political war.

“We have to keep our equilibrium,” one colonel said.