The watershed U.N-sponsored investigation into the brutalities of El Salvador’s civil war paints a chilling picture of organized, systematic violence conducted by a network of military officials and right-wing death squads bent on destroying any and all enemies.
Although leftist guerrillas were also guilty of murder and other war crimes in the 12-year-long civil war, the investigation lays blame for the bulk of the violence on El Salvador’s official state organs--backed financially and politically by allies in the United States who at the very least turned a blind eye to atrocities that ranged from torture to massacre.
In an extensive and scathing report, officially released Monday, the U.N. Truth Commission said the bloodletting that claimed more than 75,000 mostly civilian lives cannot be blamed on the excesses of war but on premeditated and ideologically inspired decisions to kill.
It also found that Salvadoran society, crippled through the 1980s by military domination, was incapable of controlling an out-of-control situation.
“Most of the slayings cannot be attributed to a few sporadic events that can be explained by the actions of certain individuals at certain times, but rather they are part of a panorama of systematic, general and organized violence,” the report declared.
“Neither the Salvadoran state, nor those who work on its behalf or in its place, can affirm that the existence of an armed conflict justified having committed grave acts of violence, in contravention of any (applicable) human rights treaties.”
Presidents of El Salvador and their American supporters contended for years that mass killing of peasants and other abuses were most often the unsanctioned work of rogue officers. The report seemed to gut that defense, as case after case showed a pattern of orders being issued from on high and followed on the ground.
Human rights organizations have long complained about the Salvadoran military’s actions. Nevertheless, the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations continued to pour billions of dollars into the tiny country, most of it to build and train an army that Washington intended to serve as the bulwark against the perceived Communist threat of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
The work of the three-member Truth Commission marked the first time that an independent panel had investigated the crimes committed during El Salvador’s civil war. Set up as part of U.N.-brokered peace accords that formally ended the war last year, the commission delivered its report, entitled “From Madness to Hope: 12 Years of War in El Salvador,” to the United Nations on Monday.
It was the “unlimited and devastating power” of the death squads, held responsible for the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, among others, and linked closely to right-wing businessmen and prominent families, that represented the most aberrant extreme to which violence descended, according to the commission.
The report failed to fully explore the formation and financing of the death squads, nor did it detail their long-evidenced civilian patronage. But, significantly, it did condemn both Salvadoran and U.S. government complicity, promotion or at least tolerance of death squad activities.
The United States made no effort to stop a group of Salvadoran exiles living in Miami who financed and supported the death squads, the report said.
Because the Salvadoran government allowed the death squads to flourish, the report said, they gained power that transformed them from an isolated phenomenon to “an instrument of terror and systematic elimination of political opposition.”
The most notorious of the death squad leaders, the report said, was Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former army major and founder of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena)--President Alfredo Cristiani’s political party.
D’Aubuisson, who died last year of cancer, ordered the assassination of Archbishop Romero, the report said. He hired a sharpshooter who killed Romero as he was celebrating Mass in the chapel of a school here.
Romero, a frequent critic of the army’s dismal human rights performance, fell dead from a single shot.
A death squad operating out of the National Guard’s intelligence unit and dedicated to eliminating perceived leftist sympathizers was blamed for the killing of two American labor advisers and a Salvadoran agrarian specialist in 1981 as the three left the Sheraton Hotel in the capital.
The two triggermen were eventually convicted and sentenced but the report found evidence that two higher-ranking National Guard officers, in collusion with a right-wing entrepreneur, ordered the killings.
“The commission is particularly concerned by the close relationship between military men, paid assassins and extremists from among the Salvadoran business community and some wealthy families, who have resorted to killing for settling disputes,” the report said.
While the death squads represented the most nefarious of El Salvador’s recent past, it was the actions of ranking army officers, including current members of Cristiani’s Cabinet, that show what the report called the institutionalized nature of illegal violence.
The commission found that Defense Minister Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce, a long-time favorite of U.S. officials, gave orders that led to the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter. The priests were considered by the military to be intellectual collaborators of the FMLN guerrillas.
Ponce and four other top military men met late on Nov. 15, 1989, during an intense guerrilla offensive in the capital. He ordered Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides to kill Jesuit university rector Father Ignacio Ellacuria “without leaving witnesses,” the report said.
Benavides then met with the men he commanded, informed them of their orders, and asked anyone disagreeing with the mission to raise his hand. No one raised his hand.
A platoon from the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion--an elite counterinsurgency unit also blamed in the report for a number of peasant massacres--was deployed to the Jesuit school in the middle of the night. The soldiers awakened the priests, ordered them to lie face down in a garden and shot each one in the head. The cook and her 16-year-old daughter, found cowering in fright in a bedroom, were then shot several times by two of the soldiers.
Benavides and a lieutenant who also participated in the raid were later convicted in the killings, but Ponce’s alleged role was not previously documented. In anticipation of Monday’s report, Ponce--already on a list of human rights abusers in the military whose dismissal was recommended by an earlier U.N. panel--offered his resignation last Friday. Cristiani has not yet said whether he will accept it.
The report cited the rapes and killings of four American religious workers in 1980 as an example of a case in which official explanations flew in the face of the truth.
Despite government and military statements that five National Guardsmen later convicted in the killings were acting on their own, the commission found that the men were obeying superior orders to kidnap and kill the four women and that former Defense Minister Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova knew the truth but covered it up as pro forma investigations were conducted.
Two years later, four Dutch journalists, traveling through the Chalatenango province with armed guerrillas, were killed in an ambush by members of the army’s U.S.-trained Atonal Battalion.
Although the incident was portrayed as a firefight into which the four journalists had blundered, the commission found that the military had in fact planned to ambush them, evidently because their reports were considered favorable to the guerrillas.
The report concluded that top army officers, including Col. Mario Reyes Mena, concealed the truth and blocked a full investigation. The commission also faulted Supreme Court President Mauricio Gutierrez Castro for refusing to cooperate with the investigation.