The Marxist guerrillas who fought U.S.-backed Salvadoran forces for more than a decade--and who were championed by many in the American left--killed civilians, shot prisoners and committed other war crimes, a U.N.-sponsored investigation found.
The probe by the Commission on Truth blamed the overwhelming majority of violent acts in El Salvador’s civil war on state security forces and allied death squads. But it also found “deliberate and approved” policies adopted by the guerrillas that violated basic human rights and were aimed at non-military, and therefore illegitimate, targets.
The findings complicate the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front’s transition from armed guerrilla organization to political party, a change that, like the Truth Commission itself, was an important element of the U.N.-brokered peace accords that ended the war last year.
The FMLN, and particularly its most militant faction, the People’s Revolutionary Army, executed mayors in war zones, planted land mines that claimed innocent victims and, in the case of two U.S. military servicemen, killed wounded prisoners, the Truth Commission said in an exhaustive report that was officially released Monday.
The report singles out former rebel commander Joaquin Villalobos for blame, recommending that he and several other guerrilla leaders be barred from holding public office for 10 years.
Villalobos said he would accept the commission’s findings, as long as everyone else did. The commission also called for the firing of military and government officials who were involved in massacres and political murder, saying they, too, should be banned from public service.
“We are prepared to be the cellmates of the majors, colonels, generals and members of the oligarchy,” Villalobos said.
But he conceded that his organization was hurt by the report.
“The FMLN suffered certain deterioration because of the war, and something like this provokes certain deterioration because it reduces the electoral possibilities of (some) people,” Villalobos said in a television interview Wednesday.
Villalobos was widely regarded as a potential presidential candidate. Another prominent FMLN militant who was a key negotiator in the peace talks, Ana Guadalupe Martinez, was also named as bearing responsibility for the murders of mayors.
The government has begun to question and criticize the report, saying it was biased and paid little attention to most of the crimes committed by the FMLN.
“It really makes you wonder that such care was taken to detail the information related to military officers in each case, but not with the murders and kidnapings attributed to the FMLN,” Vice President Francisco Merino said. “It suggests certain imbalance.”
He said the FMLN should share the blame for all the violence in El Salvador because the guerrillas’ “armed aggression” is what caused the war in the first place.
What was surprising to many Salvadorans who read the report was that only Villalobos’ faction, the People’s Revolutionary Army, was singled out for specific criticism, despite the fact that other factions also committed kidnapings and political murders.
Villalobos blamed the omission on his group’s decision to own up to the deeds they committed, something he contended the other members of the FMLN did not do.
“We established that we were going to tell the truth and we were not going to hide anything,” he said. “Maybe naively, we thought everyone was going to act the same way.”
The Truth Commission blamed the FMLN for only 5% of the cases it studied; it said most of the targets of rebel violence were chosen as part of a deliberate strategy. For example, the report criticizes the FMLN for the executions of at least 11 mayors, although the actual number, it says, is much higher.
As a case study, the report describes the 1988 assassination of Jose Alberto Lopez, mayor of Guatajiagua, in Morazan province.
After his election in 1988, Lopez received three letters from the FMLN demanding that he resign. He refused. One day, a guerrilla fighter approached Lopez at his home and demanded that he accompany the man to an unknown location.
Lopez’s wife, Leticia Canales, insisted on going along. They set out on foot, and when they reached the Gualavo River, the guerrilla handed Lopez over to another combatant. Canales was ordered to go home and was promised that her husband would arrive later.
But Lopez was taken to a guerrilla commander known only as Amadeus, who executed him.
According to the commission, FMLN leaders said mayors were legitimate military targets because they often collaborated with the army and spied on potential FMLN supporters in their towns. But the commission rejected that argument, saying the mayors were slain while in custody, not in combat, in violation of international law.
“Whether or not, at some moment, the executed mayors could have been considered military objectives is irrelevant, because there is no evidence that a single one of them lost his or her life as a consequence of combat action.
“The execution of a person, whether or not (the person) is a combatant, who is in the power of a guerrilla force, and who does not offer resistance, is not an action of combat,” the commission said.
Other cases cited by the commission include the 1985 killing of four unarmed U.S. Marines gunned down as they sat outside a cafe in San Salvador’s posh Zona Rosa section; nine civilians and one of the attackers were also slain.
The attack was carried out by a commando of the Central American Revolutionary Workers Party, a small faction within the FMLN.
The report also focuses on the killing of two U.S. servicemen, Lt. Col. David H. Pickett and Cpl. Earnest G. Dawson, who were captured after their helicopter was shot down by rebels. The two men, “wounded and helpless,” were executed by an FMLN soldier.
The report says the killings violated international humanitarian law but says the commission found no evidence that the crime was part of rebel policy.
The case that has caused the most commotion here is that of human rights activist Herbert Anaya, gunned down in the driveway of his San Salvador home in 1987. The report suggests, but does not conclude, that Anaya may have been killed as part of a rebel internal purge.