Roberto D’Aubuisson, 48; Reputed Head of Salvadoran Death Squads


Roberto D’Aubuisson, the reputed godfather of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads and founder of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance party, died Thursday after a prolonged battle with throat cancer and bleeding ulcers. He was 48.

D’Aubuisson’s death was reported by Dr. Jose Luis Saca, one of the physicians who had been attending him here.

In the course of his political career, the former army intelligence major was accused of fomenting a coup, plotting the assassination of a U.S ambassador and masterminding the murder of thousands of his countrymen, including the archbishop of San Salvador.


D’Aubuisson vehemently denied the charges as he made his way into mainstream politics. He became a charismatic leader of the conservative poor and a hero to El Salvador’s wealthy elite, who believed that he saved the country from communism.

To many leftists, D’Aubuisson remained a driving force of this country’s 12-year civil war, and they saw his death, coming soon after a negotiated peace, as poetic justice. Yet months earlier, the cold warrior had become an unlikely champion of peace, reining in right-wing extremists who were trying to stop President Alfredo Cristiani from signing a cease-fire agreement with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

Last September, at the 10th congress of his party, known as Arena, D’Aubuisson laid down the law: “We support our president because he is fulfilling the three objectives of Arena: peace, progress and liberty. . . . The government has extended a silver bridge to the terrorists so they can enter the political arena, where we will be waiting for them.”

D’Aubuisson was a small, wiry chain-smoker who spit out words like bits of tobacco on the tip of his tongue. He became known to the nation in early 1980 when he made frequent nighttime television appearances to denounce civilian opposition leaders as subversives, much as Sen. Joseph McCarthy once accused many Americans of being communists.

Some of those whom D’Aubuisson targeted on television were later killed by unknown assailants.

As a youth, D’Aubuisson excelled in mathematics at a high school run by Jesuit priests--an order he would later brand as subversive. He entered the country’s military school as a teen-ager, beginning his anti-communist education in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution. After graduating near the bottom of his class in 1963, he joined the National Guard.

During his military career, D’Aubuisson received counterinsurgency and psychological warfare training from the United States and Taiwan. In the 1970s, while radical students, peasants and union workers began to organize against the repressive government of Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero, D’Aubuisson became a political policeman. He was a military intelligence specialist spying on the growing numbers of dissidents taking to the streets to protest military rule, electoral fraud and the crushing poverty in which most Salvadorans lived.

D’Aubuisson was a major in the National Guard’s intelligence section when a group of young military officers overthrew Romero in October, 1979, and formed a civilian-military government with many of the leftists that D’Aubuisson had been tracking.

When the new government established a commission to investigate hundreds of political killings and cases of “the disappeared,” D’Aubuisson resigned rather than testify against his superiors.

The junta collapsed, and reformers lost power to extreme rightists. In the aftermath, thousands of leftists took up arms. The United States eventually spent more than $4 billion to put down the rebels in the civil war that followed. The right, meanwhile, formed clandestine groups with names like Squadron of Death and Secret Anti-Communist Army that unleashed a campaign of terror. Their death squads killed an estimated 30,000 people between 1980 and 1983.

According to a 1983 Times investigation, the killings were part of a deliberate counterinsurgency program designed by a group of rightist military officers and wealthy landowners for whom D’Aubuisson was the spokesman.

Over the years, U.S. officials and former Salvadoran military officers implicated D’Aubuisson in some of the most high-profile assassinations, including the archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero and Atty. Gen. Mario Zamora in 1980, and two American agrarian advisers and the head of a Salvadoran land distribution institute in 1981.

U.S. officials accused D’Aubuisson of plotting to kill Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering. Another U.S. ambassador, Robert E. White, called D’Aubuisson a “pathological killer.” He was periodically denied visas to the United States.

In the fall of 1981, D’Aubuisson founded Arena and adopted a red, white and blue party flag. Originally Arena was part of the right’s political-military organization modeled after the revolutionary groups on the left. But over the last decade it evolved into a more moderate and democratic political party.

And D’Aubuisson turned into one of the country’s cleverest and most agile politicians. On the stump, his blend of frank talk and machismo appealed to conservative peasants as well as businessmen.

He campaigned for the March, 1983, constituent assembly with a pistol on his hip, singing, “Tremble, tremble, communists . . . criminals with the habits of animals. . . .” He vowed to “exterminate” the guerrillas.

D’Aubuisson not only won election but helped his party capture a majority in the new assembly. His colleagues elected him president of the congress.

He ran a rousing campaign for president in 1984 and accused the CIA of rigging the election when he lost to Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte, whom he considered a communist. But in what many view as a key moment in Salvadoran history, D’Aubuisson accepted the outcome.

“He was conscious that if he called out the people to defend the vote, it would have meant breaking with the (democratic) process,” said Vice President Francisco Merino, a D’Aubuisson protege. “He decided to accept a defeat.”

Two years later, when Arena lost control of the legislature to the Christian Democrats, D’Aubuisson realized that the country had no more appetite for his firebrand politics. A pragmatist, he turned over the top party post to Cristiani, who enjoyed a more moderate image. D’Aubuisson remained “honorary president” and the behind-the-scenes power.

The hard-drinking D’Aubuisson could behave impetuously. Friends described him as noble and forgiving. He was fiercely loyal, they said, and a devout Catholic. Others, however, said he was overly proud and called him a public drunk.

U.S. Ambassador William Walker recalled a dinner party not long ago at which D’Aubuisson arrived inebriated.

“One minute he was insulting me and the next he was charming the pants off of me, telling me I was the best U.S. ambassador El Salvador had ever had,” Walker said. “I saw flashes of the guy who I’m sure a couple years earlier sent out death squads, and I could see why people in this country who don’t believe in death squads were attracted to this guy.”

Noting his efforts toward peace, Walker said, “I think he changed. Or, politically, things changed around him.”

The political landscape certainly changed. D’Aubuisson’s nemesis, Duarte, died two years ago. As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Pickering played a key role in pushing the government to sign a peace agreement with the guerrillas. And under the accord, many of D’Aubuisson’s leftist foes--communists and non-communists alike--are returning home.