El Savlador Escuadrón de la Muerte
Death squad activity was deeply ingrained in Salvadoran society and to varying degrees in all Central American societies and Mexico, with Costa Rica as a possible exception. The activity was reflective of social turmoil and of weak and corrupt national and local law enforcement organizations and governments. The lack of institutionalized authority and reliable legal systems encouraged the persistence of "caudillismo" - local rule by strong men who function autonomously and, when necessary, maintain their dominance by force through the use of armed security squads.
In El Salvador some of the cadre of right-wing terrorist groups were probably drawn from the ranks of ORDEN, the campesino based local law enforcement and intelligence collection system that flourished under Gen. Madrano in the 1960s. ORDEN effectively institutionalized vigilanteism and grew up naturally in the context of rural Salvadoran violence. which was classically exemplified by the ruthless repression of a peasant rebellion in the 19305 that involved the loss of tens of thousands of lives.
By the 1970s Salvadoran society was undergoing forced change, and among those who were the most resistent to that change were many members of the oligarchy who were previously were accustomed to manipulating the political system. Their support of Right Wing terrorism was important, but not crucial. The importance of their support is best understood in terms of influence upon key military officers, rather than in terms of financial support for death squad activities. The actual functioning of the squads appeared to require quite limited funds.
Of the several "death squads" that were formed by the National Guard and the oligarchy to suppress strikes and demonstrations, the most famous was the National Democratic Organization known as ORDEN (the Spanish word for order). ORDEN controlled elections by stuffing ballot boxes and transporting them to be counted. Another such group, FALANGE (Anti-Communist Armed Forces of Liberation by Wars of Elimination) first appeared in August 197S, threatening to kill all Communists and their sympathizers. In 1977 the UGB or White Warriors Union, was credited with killing a Catholic priest and broadcasting a threat to kill any Jesuit. Priests were a target because of their influence in organizing peasants. This threat brought a strong reaction from the United States, France, Mexico, and Venezuela. The right-wing death squads were known to be supported by the oligarchy and included members from the National Guard, Treasury Police, as well as mercenaries.
The death squads that became active in the late 1970s had their historical roots in El Salvador's three security forces, which often functioned as a law unto themselves. Each security service had its own special unit charged with assassinating suspected "subversives." The PH's intelligence section, the S-2, in particular was persistently linked to the political killings and kidnappings that became commonplace in the 1970s and early 1980s. Immediately after being appointed PH director general in 1984, Golcher disbanded the S-2 unit. Within six months, he had replaced it with a new forty-member police force trained by the PN in intelligence work.
The upsurge in political violence during the period 1978 to 1983, culminating in the large-scale activities of extreme right-wing death squads since 1980, was based primarily on socio-political factors within Salvadoran society. Clandestine rightist terror developed in the late 1970's in concert with a growing campaign of terrorist actions by leftist forces. Extreme rightist elements claimed that the existing security and judicial systems could not effectively counter the growth of armed leftist activities, and decided to take the law into their own hands.
The growth of an open, constitutional leftist opposition during the late 1970's also antagonized social forces on the far right, including elements of the traditional oligarchy and rightist officers in the armed forces and security services. These elements began resorting to extralegal means to oppose leftist activism and legally-mandated social reforms. After the military reformist coup in 1979 and the formation of the junta government, political violence by extreme rightist elements in the government and oligarchy was driven underground. It re-emerged, in part, in the form of the death squads.
The extreme right responded to the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s and the growing militancy of the popular (or mass) organizations in a violent fashion. Paramilitary forces — first Orden, later civil defense — supplemented the military establishment. Ultra-rightists within the military, security forces, and oligarchy also organized death squads to eliminate leftist activists and sympathizers and to deter popular support through intimidation. Analysts generally agreed that right-wing death squads — often composed of active-duty military or security force personnel operating with the complicity of some senior officers of the armed forces — were responsible for thousands of murders in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, the regime's security forces themselves became increasingly violent.
Orden supplied recruits for the notorious White Hand (Mano Blanca), the death squad that Medrano organized in the late 1970s. Medrano's protege, D'Aubuisson, reportedly helped organize the White Warriors Union (Union de Guerreros Blancos—UGB), a group of death squads that emerged in early 1977 and became known for their terrorism against the Jesuit community working in El Salvador. Some military officers, particularly in the GN, privately supported and facilitated death squad killings during the Romero regime. The UGB reportedly was associated with the GN's intelligence branch (the G-2).
Between January and July 1977 two priests were killed, two tortured, one beaten, two imprisoned, and four threatened with death. Organizers of the peasants became recurrent targets, and the assassination of Father Rutilio Grande on 17 March 1977 had significant implications for both sides. Grande was instrumental in organizing rural workers, especially in the Aguilares district. He had been threatened several times by rightwing death squads for his activities. Following his assassination, the army moved into the area and killed every peasant that was suspected of being sympathetic to Grande. The result was at least 50 dead and hundreds more missing. Several hundred others were crowded into jails while the army occupied the area for over a month. The White Warriors Union began distributing pamphlets declaring "Be a Patriot. Kill a Priest." The resulting international outcry brought attention to the deteriorating situation in the country.
Extreme rightist political factions viewed the death squads as legitimate "counterterrorists" against the leftist guerrillas, and they did in fact do serious damage to the FMLN's urban base by 1982. The rightist parahilitary groups, or "death squads" were diverse in composition and purpose but did share many characteristics. The groups were not large; they rarely exceeded 20 concurrent members and commonly operate in groups of 10 or less. Active membership in such groups in El Salvador probably oscilated between 100 and 200. The squads were essentially impermanent. Most members had other full tine professions and coalesce to plan and execute terrorist acts. Ranh and file memsership wes fluid and sometimes interchangeasle. While leadership positions were more permanent, leaders of one group were likely to know the leaders of others operating in the same area or against common targets and and distinct groups occasionally conduct joint operations. Information about the leadership and activities of the groups is tightly held and anyone betraying their trust is subject to execution.
There appeared to be tho categories of death squads, differentiated by the public or clandestine nature of their operations. The first category was publicity seeking. They employed self-styled titles such as the "White Warriors Union", the "General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez AntiCommunist Brigade", or the "Secret Anti-Communist Army" and make a public example of their victims, who were often tortured to death or executed and dumped in public places. The killers proclaim their their work with communiques or placards left with the body identifying the responsirle squad and containing a harning to others, or by carving the non-specific letters "E.M." (Escuadrón de la muerte - the Spanish abbreviation of "death squad") on the body.
An example of the publicityseeking death squad is the paramilitary organization of the National First Republican Alliance Party (ARENA). The group was organized and directed by Dr. Pedro Regalado Cuellar. Regalado. a former dentist, was the chief of security at the Constituent Assembly. The group's activities were undertaken with the knowledge and approval of ARENA leader and constituent assembly president Roberto d'Aubuisson. This squad used the name "Secret Anti-Communist Party" (ESA) in order to have a public front for issuing communioues and threatening people while covering the true source of the violence.
There was little information concerning funding of the ARENA death squad. D‘Aubuisson was reported to have been involved in narcotics trafficking in 1982 to finance the party and possibly the paramilitary group. Other money came from selling weapons, donations from the oligarchy in-country or abroad, and possibly from murder for hire.
The second type of death squad uses no title and apart from the evidence of torture, leaves no indication of its responsibility. Most of those killed by right-wing death squads appear to be victims of this latter type.
A death squad which tended to avoid high profile operations had existed within the National Police since at least late 1979. It was this squad which was believed to have been responsible for the assassination of Archeishop Romero. The leader of the squad at that time was Capt. Amilcar Molina Panameno. Others reportedly involved in that assassination were Detective Sigifredo Perez Linares, Inspector Misael Rivas Romero, Jose Luis Alas Romero. Luis Rodriguez, and Onefnu Santin. Most of the members of the National Police paramilitary group were drawn from the Criminal Investigation section, the Special Political Investigation section. and the Narcotics Control Section.
The National Guard death squad had operated since at least 1981, under Capt. Eduardo Alfonso Avila and Rrodolfo Isidro Lopez Sibrian. Members of the squad were conspirators in the murder of Salvadoran Rodolfo Viera and U.S. labor advisors Mark Pearlman and Michael Hammer at the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador in Hanuary 1981. The leader of the National Guard paramilitary group at the time of those assassinations wasn Major Mario Denis Moran, former head of the National Guard intelligence unit. Some of the financing for this group was provided through Ricardo Sol Mesa, a Ssalvadoran businessman and oligarch family member
Right-wing terrorism crested during the 1980-82 period. At the peak of the violence in late 1980, the monthly toll of politically motivated murders ran between 700 and 800. Targets for kidnapping, hostile interrogation or torture and assassination were most commonly revolutionary leftists and their sympathizers and associates; however, victims also included members of rival political parties and death squads, moderate mass organizations, "undesirable" social elements such as drug addicts, and the personal enemies of the group leaders.
Other death squad victims included bureaucrats and office workers, labor organizers, professionals, politicians, priests, and even soldiers. Typically suspected guerrillas are executed after interrogation. Information gained in the interrogations is shared with the security forces, which sometihes base their actions against individuals or facilities, such as safehouses, solely upon confessions made under duress.
An extreme right-wing group calling itself the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade claimed responsibility for several assassinations of Christian democratic and Marxist leaders in San Salvador in 1980. Four churchwomen from the United States were murdered in December 1980. Several army officers were linked to the submachine gun killings of two land reform advisers of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) in San Salvador's Sheraton Hotel on January 3, 1981, an act that was carried out by two GN corporals. After the cut-off of United States aid over the murders of the churchwomen, the Christian Democrats in the government were able to remove from command positions several key ultra-rightists, including Carranza, the deputy minister of defense and public security.
In the most publicized political assassination of this period, suspected rightists shot Archbishop Romero — an outspoken advocate of dialogue with the popular organizations and a critic of military repression — while he was saying mass on March 24, 1980. Archbishop Romero's weekly mass was broadcast on YSAX, the Church's radio station and became the most listened to program in El Salvador. The Archbishop would not only read scripture, he would read a list of government and death squad attacks. He would also comment on current political topics. The Right perceived that the effect of his messages was to mobilize the people against the government violence. By 1983, the death squads were used to challenge directly the influence of the United States in El Salvador. They forced at least one American journalist out of the country, threatened a prominent labor leader supported by the United States embassy, and even threatened to assassinate United States ambassador Thomas Pickering.
In December 1983, the Reagan administration promised Magana an additional US$100 million in military aid if his government took action against the death squads and dismissed from their official posts or transferred abroad at least eight armed forces officers and one civilian who had been identified as death squad leaders. Vice President George Bush personally visited San Salvador, however, to deliver the more decisive message that aid would be cut off if the abuses did not stop. The United States specifically asked for a halt to secret arrests by the three security forces and demonstrable progress in the court cases involving the murders of the churchwomen and the AIFLD advisers.
In response, senior Salvadoran officials and the armed forces leadership pledged a major crackdown on right-wing death squad activity and asked the United States for technical and investigative assistance in dealing with these groups. The Salvadoran Army also quietly dismissed or transferred abroad the officers whose names were on the United States list of suspects. In addition, the PN arrested a captain who had been linked to the murder of the two AIFLD advisers, but he was held on charges unrelated to the killings.
Despite these actions, the existence of the death squads remained a controversial issue in the United States in the late 1980s. In congressional testimony in February 1984, former United States ambassador to El Salvador Robert E. White identified six wealthy Salvadoran landowners, then living in exile in Miami, as the principal financiers of the death squads. Critics of the Reagan administration's Salvadoran policy also alleged that the United States had indirectly supported the death squads.
In response to charges in THE NEH YORK TIMES and THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR that the US Government and specifically the CIA were involved with death squad activity in El Salvador, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence [SSCI] began an extensive study of the activities and information held by the CIA. the Departments of State, Justice, and Defense, the US Southern Comand (SOUTHCON) and NSA relating to political violence in El Salvador. The CIA Office of Public Affairs repeatedly denied these allegations to the media and the Office of Legislative Liaison and appropriate Agency components assisted the SSCI in its investigation.
The unclassified version of the study released to the public in October 1984 reported that there was no evidence to support the allegations of US Government involvement with the political violence in El Salvador, especially violence perpetrated by extreme rightwing death squads.
"The Committee found ample evidence that the policy of the United States throughout the period under review was consistently to oppose political violence in El Salvador, including violence by extreme rightwing death squads. The degree to which Executive branch agencies acted directly with Salvadoran authorities to combat political violence generally reflected their judgments about what was achievable in the Salvadoran political context.
"The Conlnittee found that, in the course of carrying out their missions implementing overall US policy to assist the Government of El Salvador in resisting the leftist insurgency, elements of the US government unavoidably had contact with Salvadoran organizations and individual strongly suspected of being involved in or associated with political violence. The Conmittee believes that, for the most part, the problems that have arisen in this regard are of the type which may occur whenever the US government seeks to obtain igence on the activities of clandestine organizations such as international terrorist groups or narcotics rings, or to assist foreign governments engaged in violent confrontations with subversive forces."
In 1984 and 1985, Duarte transferred to lesser positions several military officers with alleged links to death squads. During the 1984-88 period, the civilian government and armed forces reiterated their opposition to death squad activity and their commitment to dealing with the problem. As a result, death squad killings declined sharply. According to Tutela Legal, the annual totals of death squad killings were 225 in 1984, 136 in 1985, 45 in 1986, and 24 in 1987.
Although violence continued to be endemic in El Salvador, the number of politically motivated deaths reported in the Salvadoran press averaged 28 per month during the first half of 1987, as compared with 64 in 1984 and 140 in 1983. These figures probably were inexact, but they indicated a general downward trend. Of the 183 political murders reported in the local press during the first nine months of 1987, most were attributed to the FMLN; only 2 were blamed on the extreme right and 5 on military personnel. Death squad activities began to pick up, however, in late 1987 after the signing of the Central American Peace Agreement. The number of right-wing death squad killings reportedly continued to creep upward in 1988. According to Tutela Legal, suspected right-wing death squads killed thirty-two civilians during the first half of 1988.
There are several vigilante organizations in El Salvador, including the Black Shadow Group and the Provisional Anti-Criminal Executive Command. These vigilante groups are characterized as traditional, pro-rightist death squads, which summarily execute criminals and drug dealers.
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