Bookmark : Death Squads Murdered, U.S. Supplied the Fig Leaf

1991 by Tina Rosenberg. Reprinted with

Political violence has been endemic in Latin America throughout the region’s history. A particularly vicious form of violence, the death squad, is a key factor in the continuing civil war in El Salvador, according to the author. An excerpt. The death squads that proved so effective in the 1980s were born in the 1970s, the clandestine children of many fathers. Landowners created local death squads to solve their labor problems. One rural death squad started out as a Boy Scout troop. The top military security agency, ANSESAL, which the CIA had founded and equipped, was probably responsible for pulling most of them together into one organization with financing from wealthy businessmen. Soldiers, either on active duty or retired, carried out the killings of leftists whose names they pulled from ANSESAL’s files.

The death squads found a new protective umbrella in 1982, when ARENA won the elections for the National Assembly and (Roberto) D’Aubuisson, the country’s most popular politician, was elected head of the legislature. D’Aubuisson and his security chief, Hector Antonio Regalado, turned his office into the death squads’ central headquarters.

One of D’Aubuisson’s bodyguards told the Washington Post that men went out each night to kill, sometimes just to have something to do. About 40 men arrived each night to get orders from Regalado, chose a weapon from the stockpile on the Assembly building’s second floor and went out to roam the streets.

In the rise and subsequent rule of the death squads, D’Aubuisson’s fingerprints were everywhere. When cashiered from the National Guard, he took ANSESAL’s files with him. Soon after, he was arrested for plotting a coup against the new government. When soldiers raided the farm serving as the plotters’ headquarters, they found notes of meetings, a phone directory of right-wing military officers and businessmen, and lists of purchase records for submachine guns, silencers, scopes and ammunition. The material clearly linked D’Aubuisson to the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the leadership of death squads. But the military judge in the case was a member of D’Aubuisson’s military-school class, and the suspects went free due to lack of evidence.


D’Aubuisson was the most direct connection between two naturally allied groups, the oligarchy and the military. With the rise of the guerrillas, the army reinforced its links with the oligarchy, bonded by their common enemy.

With the rise of the guerrillas, the United States intensified its efforts to reform and repackage the Salvadoran officers. It was an intensification of years of effort to train, reform and professionalize the Salvadoran security forces--and years of failure.

Under the Reagan Administration, the experiment changed. To the Reagan people, who wanted a quick battlefield victory, human rights were fine as long as they didn’t get in the way of efficient operations. But they had to convince the U.S. Congress that democracy, human rights and social reform were coming to El Salvador. So to keep the money for the war flowing, it began to emphasize cosmetic change.

The war was costing a lot of money. From 1980 to 1990, the United States gave Salvador $1 billion in military aid and at least an equal amount that indirectly supported the war effort.


Salvadoran military officials watched in amused disbelief as the gringos funded them, armed them to the teeth, trained and reorganized them and tried to transform them into a mobile troop of Eagle Scouts earning merit badges all over El Salvador. Under the watchful eye of U.S. military advisers, Salvadoran soldiers kissed babies, dug roads and handed out food to villagers. A weekly television program touted the army’s activities.

Military officials, the men the embassy was lauding as “moderates,” learned a new vocabulary from the embassy’s counterinsurgency phrase book. In 1989, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Col. Rene Emilio Ponce was saying such things as “It hurts the guerrillas much more if we take away their base of support than if we’re killing their combatants.” When Ponce arrived in a village, he gave out food, clothing and medicine.

But Ponce had found democracy late in life, a conversion that coincided with the arrival of a billion dollars in military aid. In the early 1980s, the old Ponce had been a high-ranking official in the Treasury Police, the most brutal security force in the country. As recently as 1988, he had refused to investigate when witnesses saw troops under his command force two men suspected of guerrilla sympathies to run through a burning field, then chop off their noses, fingers and ears, and shoot them. By far the least credible rehabilitation was that of D’Aubuisson. After ARENA’s victory, the U.S. Embassy advertised the new 1989 D’Aubuisson, a man we can work with. Ambassador William Walker--who as political counselor at the embassy in Salvador had been kicked out in 1977 for his aggressive criticism of human-rights violations--a few months after the election told a visiting U.S. labor delegation that D’Aubuisson was a “Huey Long-style populist.”

The Salvadorans quickly figured out that they could do anything and the gringos would cover for them. If they raped and murdered U.S. nuns, Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. would testify that perhaps there had been an “exchange of fire,” that maybe the nuns were armed. When six Jesuit priests were killed in 1989 on a university campus surrounded by the army, Walker suggested to the press that they had been killed by guerrillas dressed as soldiers.


After each massacre or assassination, U.S. officials swore that this time they were serious, the money was going to dry up, that continued funding depended on a full investigation and prosecution for--and here the phrase varied over the years--the killing of Archbishop Romero, the nuns, the Sheraton Hotel murders, the murder of four Dutch TV journalists, the murder of civilians in the village of Las Vueltas, the village of Los Llanitos, the village of Las Hojas, Armenia, Mozote or San Sebastian, the murder of the Jesuits.

In the first months of 1990, death squads and security forces killed or disappeared about 200 civilians--not the chilling figures of the early 1980s but still double that of the previous year. The guerrillas disappeared or executed 23 civilians in the same period. Arrests of union activists were up, torture was widespread. Fourteen of the 15 top military commanders had, during the war, led troops responsible for illegal executions or disappearances. But by 1990, not a single officer had been convicted of a human-rights violation--and the money kept coming. The gringos were bluffing. They were always bluffing.

permission of William Morrow and Company, Inc.

BOOK REVIEW: “Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America,” by Tina Rosenberg, is reviewed on Page 1 of today’s Book Review Section.