Human Rights Abuses in El Salvador

[excerpts from 2 documents of the Digital National Security Archives]


On the other hand, another characteristic that can be deduced from the investigations mint be added to the metamorphosis of the "death squads" as a consequence of the peace process: the atomization of the old structures. At a regional level, the existence of evidence retarding the behavior of groups that mobilize to obtain local political objectives, using violent methods toward that end has been perceived. These groups appear to be closely linked to actions of common crime, with a high level of organization, logistics and support, in certain cases from agents of the State.

Serious violations of human rights and death squad activities were also reported which involved members of the Air Force. It was reported that the Air Force utilized its helicopters to "disappear" civilians, letting them fall into water or inaccessible areas." This practice had been used at least since April 1988, according to a cable found among the declassified documentation examined.

Mid-level commanders around them were the mentors of a new generation of young officers involved in violent political actions and other illegal activities. According to the information analyzed, since the beginning of the death squads operated inside the elite security forces and in various sections of the Armed Forces. Their actions were supported by high-ranking army officers; officers who reached the most senior posts at the end of the decade of the 80s were deeply involved in these activities. They and other

Analysis of the information about the structure of dint squads whose members were from the military and polio forces allows the description of a complex nexus between individuals and units of the security forces with the civilian organizations already described. The National Police (PN), the National Guard (ON) and Treasury Police (P11) were frequently linked to violent assassinations, torture, kidnappings and forted disappearances.

Documents were confiscated at the moment of arrest which constituted evidence of a conspiracy. A list of apparent contacts inside units of the Armed Forces was also discovered. Members of this group had planned and executed the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero on March 24, 1980. CA

According to intelligence information from the CIA, almost all the funding for these illegal activities came from outside the country. One report referred to economic support from "members of the extreme right elite, the majority living in. Guatemala and the United States." Sources extensively quoted in the same declassified materials indicated also six wealthy Salvadorans living in Miami who financed the death squads in El Salvador. The activities of the "death squads' reached the highest levels after the coup de etat of 1979. During the following years the operations showed a dramatic increase. In 1922, for example; bodies with the thumbs tied behind the bad were found in the streets every day.

Many individuals both in and outside of the security forces directed and carried out the operations of the death squads. According to the documentation studied by The Joint Group, the activity of the death squads appeared to have been financed since 1979 through diverse mechanisms: security offices of the Government: kidnappings, contributions from wealthy members of the oligarchy both inside and outside the country. Financing and support for the activities of the "death squads" came from "wealthy members of the Salvadoran oligarchy residing in Miami or Guatemala:"

During the 1960s, structures linked to or situated within institutions of the State were formed which were later associated with the "death squads" of the 80s. In this way, ORDEN (Democratic Nationalist Organization) (14) and ANSESAL (National Agency for Salvadoran Security) were formed.
ORDEN and ANSESAL were described by the Truth Commission as 'serving to consolidate an cm of military hegemony in El Salvador, sowing selective terror against alleged subversives identified by the intelligence services.' The Truth Commission concluded: "The domination of the am over civil society virus thus consolidated through the use of repression to maintain control of the society."

In the section of the report entitled “The pattern of the Death Squads,” the Commission noted that it "regards the organization of groups of persons usually dressed in civilian clothes, heavily armed, and clandestinely hid their affiliation or identity" and adds that "the death squads, linked to state structures by active participation or tolerance, reached a level of control that surpassed the limits of an isolated or marginal phenomenon to become an instrument of terror and a systematic practice of physical elimination of political adversaries.”

The links of members of the Armed Forces and civilian government officials with the activities of the death squads. The existence of a structural connection between the death squads and certain institutions of the State, and the c21I of alert in the sense that "there is doubt and concern, in particular due to the fact that hundreds of ex-members of the Civil Defense are still armed in the countryside. The participation of the intelligence services in death squad activities: "An investigation must lead to au institutional reorganization of the intelligence service as well as the identification of those responsible. The necessity to “clarify the relationship between members of private enterprise and some wealthy families, to the funding and use of the death squads." The fact that for reasons of its organizational structure and possession of weapons, there is a serious danger that the death squads can take part, as has been proven in some cases, in illegal activities such as drug trafficking, arms trafficking and kidnappings for ransom.'

In its recommendations the Truth Commission also declared that "among the most atrocious installments of the violence that shook the country during recent years, was the action of private armed groups that acted with impunity. It is necessary to adopt precise measures for their dismantling. Based on the history of the county, in this area prevention is imperative."


July 1993 (George S. Vest, Member; Richard W. Murphy, Member; Career Ambassador, Ret. Career Ambassador, I. M. Destler, Academic Adviser, Professor, University of Maryland)

Over the past three months, the Secretary of State's Panel on El Salvador has conducted a comprehensive assessment of how the State Department and the Foreign Service handled human rights issues involving that country from 1980 to 1991. The Panel reviewed the public and State Department record, including classified documents. It interviewed over 70 individuals, inside and outside the Department, who were directly involved. It convened a public hearing and heard testimony from 25 witnesses. It paid particular attention to nine of the most egregious cases of human rights abuse reported by the United Nations Truth Commission in March 1993. Throughout, it was mindful of its mandate (1) to review human rights performance, not overall American policy toward El Salvador, and (2) to concentrate on the actions of the State Department and Foreign Service, not the U.S. Government as a whole.

The Panel's basic conclusion is that, within the parameters of overall U.S. policy, the Department and Foreign Service personnel performed creditably -- and on occasion with personal bravery -- in advancing human rights in El Salvador:
- Ambassadors consistently pushed their staffs to prepare honest, detailed human rights reports for Washington concerning specific abuses and the overall situation.
- Reporting officers pursued cases aggressively, and the Embassy put steady pressure on the Salvadoran government. and military to bring perpetrators to justice.
- Enormous effort was expended, and modest progress achieved, in developing El Salvador's institutional capacity to deter and punish human rights abusers.
- Mistakes were certainly made: in dealing with specific cases, in the handling of reporting during one period of the decade, and particularly in the failure to get the truth about the December 1981 massacre at El Mozote. In the testimony cited above, Thomas Enders did not note that the Embassy officers, unlike the reporters, did not actually visit the site. That omission became highly controversial, despite the fact he had told another subcommittee the day before the officers had not reached El Mozote. So did the phrase “no evidence to confirm."

But breakthroughs were achieved as well: in winning the first convictions of Salvadoran security personnel for murders of American and Salvadoran citizens. Departmental performance was sometimes flawed, particularly in handling the public dimension of human rights policy toward El Salvador:

Summary of Human Rights Abuses by Salvadoran Military or Affiliated Death Squads


Murder of six Jesuit priests (November 16, I989)1
San Francisco Guajoyo (May 29, 19130), 12 murdered
Murder of Six FDR leaders (November 27, 1980)t
Enrique Alvarez. Cordoba, Juan Chacon, Enrique Escobar Barrera, Manuel de Jesus Franco RamireE, Humberto Mendoza, Doroteo Hernandez
Four American Nuns executed (December 2, 1980) Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel, Jean Donovan
El Junguillo Massacre (March 3. 1981)
Four Dutch journalists murdered (March 17. 1982)
Las Hojzis massacre (February 22, 1953), 16 peasants executed
San Sebastian Massacre, 10 executed (September 21, 1988)t
Attack Against FMLN mobile hospital (April 15, 1989) five killed, of which at least one victim, French nurse Madeleine Lagladec, executed
Dr. Begona Garcia Arandigoyen, Spanish national, executed (September 10, 1990)
FENASTRAS and COMADRES bomb attack (October 31, 1989), nine dead
Hector Oqueli Colindras and Gilda Flores Arevalo kidnapped and killed in Guatemala (January 12, 1990)


Ventura and Mejia (January 22, 1980)
Miguel Angel Rivas Hernandez (November 29, 1986)
Sara Cristina Chan Chan Medina and Juan Francisco Massi Chavez (August 18, 19E19)
U.S. citizens


El Mozote (December 10, 1981)f
Sumpul River (May 14, 1980)f
El Calabozo (August 22, 1982)
General pattern of conduct 1980-82


Archbishop Oscar Romero ,(March 24, 19/30)t
Death squads, general operations, 1980-1991
Mario Zamora Rivas, Christian Democratic leader and Attorney General (February 23, 1980)
El Bartolillo hamlet, Tehuicho (July 23, 1980), 13 killed
Jose Rodolfo Viera Lizra, Michael Hammer, and Mark Pearlman (January 3, 1981), President of ISTA and two American ATFLD workers

[Details of specific abuses as described in the US Secretary of State's Report]

On March 24, 1980, the Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Romero, was murdered while celebrating mass. There followed a long process of failed judicial investigations, despite the importance of the case to El Salvador and to its image abroad. A National Police investigation lasted only six weeks followed by an equally unsuccessful investigation by the Attorney General. An Embassy political officer was told by a new contact in November 1980 that Roberto D'Aubuisson was in charge of a meeting in which participants drew lots to see who would kill the Archbishop. (A former army major removed in 19th, D'Aubuisson was then temporarily in exile in Guatemala, because be and several confederates had been arrested, and then released, in May for coup plotting. Among the items confiscated was a diary which included information that appeared to be related to the assassination.) In August 1981, the same source told the Embassy officer that a man nicknamed "Musa" had drawn the winning lot. In December the Embassy concluded that "muse was Walter Antonio Alvarez who had been taken away from a football game in September and killed.

With U.S. pressure intense, he was found guilty and sentenced to 30 years in prison. The Truth Commission noted that this was the first time in Salvadoran history that a judge had found a member of the military guilty of assassination. Those convicted filed a keep the government intact and avoid tits] slide into a repressive military dictatorship with an unstated policy of permitting the security forces to kill with impunity." The Ambassador recommended an immediate suspension of military assistance until the assassination was dealt with satisfactorily.

Before receiving the cable above confirming the killing of the FDR leaders, the Department's spokesman called the kidnappings "a deplorable terrorist incident" and noted news reports that they had been killed. The following Monday he condemned the killings themselves as a deplorable act of terrorism" and expressed concern about the "vicious circle" of killings. The atmosphere in San Salvador was very different. The Embassy reported that many military leaders seemed "quite satisfied" that the FDR leaders had been killed. Rumors pointed to various groups who might have been responsible, including the military, Roberto D'Aubuisson, and National Guardsmen. But the investigation never made any progress and no one was ever arrested in the case.

On December 2, 1980, members of the Salvadoran National Guard arrested four American churchwomen (Nuns Ita Ford, Maura Clarke and Dorothy Kazel, and laywoman Jean Donovan) on the road from the international airport. They were taken to an isolated spot, raped and killed. In 1984, Sub-sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman and four other members of the National Guard were sentenced to 30 years for the crime, The Truth Commission concluded the abductions were planned in advance and the men had carried out the murders on orders from above. It further stated that the head of the National Guard and two officers assigned to investigate the case had concealed the facts to harm the judicial process.

This particular act of barbarism and attempts by the Salvadoran military to cover it up did more to inflame the debate over El Salvador in the United States than any other single incident. It produced a grassroots opposition to the incoming Administration's El Salvador policy. The comments by UN Ambassador-designate Jeanne Kirkpatrick in December and Secretary of State Alexander Haig in March on the churchwomen's motives and the event itself were taken as “emblematic" of the Reagan Administration's approach on human rights in El Salvador. Congressional interest was intense and books and a television documentary added to the public controversy on the issue.

The Department released the Embassy summary of its investigation to the press on February 1. Assistant Secretary Thomas Enders testified at several House and Senate committees over the next few days. His approach before the Subcommittee on Inter-American Affairs of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on February 2 was typical. He commented that there was "no question that the human rights situation in El Salvador is deeply troubled" and discussed the difficulties of gathering accurate information. He said the "most difficult of all to assess are the repeated allegations of massacres. The ambiguity lies in the fact that there are indeed incidents in which the noncombatants have suffered terribly at the hands of the guerrillas, rightist vigilantes, government forces, or some or all of them, but at the same time the insurgency has repeatedly fabricated or inflated alleged mass murders as a means of propaganda." He noted two instances that had not stood up under investigation in 1981 and sharply criticized the killing of 19 persons in San Salvador (San Antonio Abad) two days previously, adding that he "deeply deplored" the "excessive violence of the Salvadoran forces in this incident."

Command of the Salvadoran armed forces is engaged in a conspiracy to obstruct justice in the Jesuits' case." The effort was "to control the investigation and to limit the number and rank of the officers who will be held responsible for the crimes." The Embassy had reported the information obtained by the Congressional Task Force and discussed its import. It also undertook a review of all its documents pertinent to the case.

On August 15, 1990, Congressman Moakley issued a statement based on information obtained in El Salvador that the High Court decided to establish an Honor Board to review the case, relieve three officers of command during the investigation, and have the Honor Board cooperate closely with the civilian legal authorities. He asked for U.S. assistance in carrying oat polygraph investigations. At the Department's request, the FBI agreed to provide polygraph assistance and the Defense Department forensic experts. On March 9, the human rights officer who had been pressing the case briefed the Honor Board on the evidence available to the Embassy.

On March 11, 1989, the Salvadoran High Command announced its conclusions that it had sufficient evidence on nine active duty military personnel to detain them and hand the cases over to the courts. The Embassy called this a very positive outcome -- it was the first time the military had investigated human rights violations of its own people and concluded probable guilt on the part of active duty personnel -- but cautioned that the case was not over. That assessment proved correct. In decisions in February and May 1990, all but the major in charge of the operation were released for lack of evidence. Despite numerous promises of action, his trial had riot taken place by the time of the publication of the Truth Commission Report in March 1993.

On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests at the Central American University in San Salvador, including the University's rector Father Ignacio Ellacuria, were killed along with a cook and her daughter. After two years of investigation, nine members of the military were tried for the murders. Colonel Guillermo Benevides and Lieutenant Yusshy Mendoza were sentenced to 30 years in prison. Three others received lesser sentences and were released. In a reversal of previous outcomes, the soldiers who actually shot the priests were acquitted, their confessions notwithstanding. The Truth Commission concluded that Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce gave the order to Colonel Benevides to kill Ellacuria in the presence of General Juan Rafael Bustillo, Colonel Orlando Zepede, Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, and Colonel Elena Fuentes. It found that the assassination was organized by Major Carlos Camilo Hernandez Barahona and that Colonel Oscar Alberto Leon Linares, Colonel Manuel Antonio Rivas Mejia, Colonel Nelson Ivan Lopez y Lopez, Colonel Gilberto Rubio y Rubio, and the attorney Adolfo Antonio Parker Soto knew what had happened and took steps to conceal it.

The murders occurred five days after the FMLN launched its largest urban military offensive of the war. The Embassy reported the murders of the priests the day they occurred, describing Father Ellacuria as "an important figure in the ongoing political debate, greatly respected for his intellectual strengths while viewed with suspicion by some sectors for his clearly leftist views."