"Political pilgrims" is a term coined to describe leftist intellectuals who credulously praised various Marxist dictators, while ignoring their abuses of power. But in the 1980s, it was an ultra-right-wing strongman, Roberto D'Aubuisson of El Salvador, who benefited most from idealistic American apologists blind to grotesque abuses of human rights. D'Aubuisson's political pilgrims contributed to a reign of terror that claimed the lives of thousands of people.
D'Aubuisson died in San Salvador on Feb. 20, a victim of cancer at age 48. The story of the military death squads he commanded while the Reagan Administration stood silent is already a blank page in the history of U.S. national-security policy, shrouded by evasion and classification of government documents.
But in El Salvador, D'Aubuisson's legacy is not so easily forgotten. Like the people of the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe, Salvadorans are grappling with the issue of how to prosecute former government leaders responsible for state-sanctioned crimes. D'Aubuisson is dead but many who assisted him are not. Some are alive and well--in Washington.
D'Aubuisson was the child of a middle-class Salvadoran couple. He enrolled at the Salvadoran Military Academy in the mid-1960s, did a tour of duty in the United States, then became a protege of Jose (Chele) Medrano, commander of the Salvadoran National Guard and organizer of ORDEN, an infamous network that ruled the Salvadoran countryside in the service of large landowners. Medrano, who was also liaison to the Central Intelligence Agency, affectionately referred to D'Aubuisson and two other young officers as "my three assassins."
In late 1979, D'Aubuisson entered politics in his own dramatic way. The pro-U.S. government of Nicaragua had been overthrown by left-wing Sandinistas in July, 1979. Fearing the same fate, reformist Salvadoran military officers staged a coup in October, 1979. The new government, supported by the Carter Administration, was regarded by the Salvadoran right as virtually communist because it implemented a land-reform program.
D'Aubuisson quit the government, taking a copy of the intelligence files. He soon appeared on TV, denouncing a leading official, a respected moderate leftist, as a communist. A few days later, the man was killed by a death squad. Overnight, D'Aubuisson became leader of El Salvador's anti-communists.
D'Aubuisson's notoriety quickly gained him support among right-wing U.S. activists. In April, 1980, he visited congressional offices in Washington. On his return he recorded a message for his supporters in the Salvadoran military: "We have spoken with various senators in the capital and they asked us that we maintain until November. . . . The Reagan Republicans will win, (and) our luck will change."
The first documentary evidence of D'Aubuisson's violent ways emerged in May, 1980. D'Aubuisson and a group of sympathizers were arrested for plotting to overthrow the government. A notebook seized during the arrest implicated D'Aubuisson in the March assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The Salvadoran military, losing interest in political reform, voted to free D'Aubuisson. The U.S. embassy turned the notebook over to the CIA--which buried it.
Two months later, D'Aubuisson returned to Washington illegally. His visa had been revoked because of threats he made to U.S. diplomats in El Salvador. Nonetheless, he held a press conference on Capitol Hill sponsored by the American Legion and the American Security Council, a right-wing lobbying group. Later in 1980, D'Aubuisson received a sympathetic hearing from Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, who worked on the Reagan foreign-policy transition team, and Roger Fontaine, who became a National Security Council staff member.
At the same time, D'Aubuisson was running a sophisticated paramilitary operation. Funding came from the country's wealthiest families. Gunmen were recruited from the Salvadoran military. Scores of suspected leftists were kidnaped and killed every week. So many victims were dumped at El Playon, a volcanic park in Northern El Salvador, that the spot became internationally famous.
In March, 1981, one of D'Aubuisson's closest associates was guest of honor at a Washington dinner party. In attendance were 16 conservative operatives, including aides to Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), and other New Right congressmen. According to a series on the death squads in The Los Angeles Times, the North American activists urged the Salvadoran rightists to establish their own political party. Two months later, D'Aubuisson announced the creation of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) whose platform was closely modeled on the 1980 GOP platform. ARENA was the political front for D'Aubuisson's paramilitary operations--which continued killing.
The New Right's fondness for D'Aubuisson soon became incorporated into U.S. foreign policy. When D'Aubuisson did well in El Salvador's legislative elections in March, 1982, U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton described him as "a fine young Democrat." Shortly thereafter, one U.S. intelligence agency purged its D'Aubuisson biography of allegations that he was involved in death squads and the assassination of Romero. Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, told a congressional committee that D'Aubuisson should not be considered an extremist. And what did one have to do to quality as an extremist, asked one congressman? "You'd have to be involved in murder," Abrams explained.
It was at least arguable that U.S. policy-makers had to deal with D'Aubuisson, whose macho style and financial backers made him El Salvador's most popular politician. But conservative activists went much farther by celebrating D'Aubuisson's upstanding character. In May, 1982, conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak praised D'Aubuisson for leading a "crusade for democratic capitalism." In January, 1983, right-wing political activist Paul M. Weyrich and the leaders of the Moral Majority sent a public letter of support to D'Aubuisson.
It wasn't until late 1983, that D'Aubuisson went too far. He alienated his funders in the Salvadoran oligarchy by leaving his wife and taking up with his high-school sweetheart. D'Aubuisson's supporters in Washington recoiled, not because he had tortured, raped and murdered, but because his death squad, a Maximiliano Hernandez brigade, threatened to kill a local labor leader funded by the U.S. government. Rep. Jack F. Kemp and other conservative leaders told D'Aubuisson privately that the death-squad killings had become a "public relations problem." The Reagan Administration finally turned on D'Aubuisson during the 1984 Salvadoran presidential election, directing the CIA to fund his opponent.
D'Aubuisson responded in characteristic fashion: He plotted to fire-bomb the car of U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering. Even the disclosure of this plot, in May, 1984, did not prevent D'Aubuisson from obtaining a visa to visit the United States a month later. Then, in December, 1984, D'Aubuisson attended a closed-door banquet on Capitol Hill, where he was honored by 120 conservatives as a "freedom fighter." Among the organizations paying their respects were the Washington Legal Foundation, the Gun Owners of America and the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee.
That was the high point of D'Aubuisson's career in U.S. politics. After that, evidence of his bloody deeds was too overwhelming even to meet the capacious standards of Helms and the Moral Majority. To ensure continued U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government, D'Aubuisson had to bow out of the public arena.
On the eve of the peace settlement in January, D'Aubuisson's lifelong foes in the guerrilla movement said his impending death "seems to be an act of divine justice in this moment of national reconciliation." Three weeks later, when cancer claimed the man who had killed so many, D'Aubuisson's former friends in Washington were silent. Thus atrocity is followed by amnesia.