WASHINGTON — Nearly all of El Salvador's top military officers have records blemished by repeated human rights abuses committed by soldiers serving under their commands, according to a congressional study released Monday on the eve of a key foreign aid vote.
The service records of the 15 most senior commanders in the Salvadoran military show that 14 of them had at one time commanded units known to have killed civilians, tortured prisoners or covered up similar abuses during El Salvador's 10-year-long civil war, said the report compiled by the staff of the bipartisan Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus.
The study was released in advance of a Democratic-led battle that will come to a head today, when the House, over the objections of the Bush Administration, is expected to vote on an amendment to cut El Salvador's military aid by half. Annual military aid to the country has been budgeted at $85 million, but only that portion not yet distributed would be cut.
Supporters of the amendment offered by Rules Committee Chairman Joe Moakley (D-Mass.) said they are confident of passage. That would pose a dilemma for the Administration because the authorization bill containing the amendment to cut aid to El Salvador also includes the President's package of emergency aid to Panama and Nicaragua.
Both the House and the Senate have approved appropriations bills granting $720 million in urgent aid to Panama and Nicaragua. But the money has been tied up by legislative knots in conference and in the House, which still has not passed the companion authorization bill.
Congressional sources said the Administration, hoping to avoid a cut in Salvador aid as the price for the Panama-Nicaragua package, is trying to persuade the appropriations conferees to waive the requirement for a separate authorization bill. This maneuver would defuse the Salvador vote while allowing the aid package to move forward.
Weighing in with a report clearly timed to influence the outcome of this battle, the foreign policy caucus examined the military careers of the 15 most important commanders in El Salvador.
The caucus found numerous instances in which civilians were killed, kidnaped or tortured by troops commanded by 14 of the officers, including Gen. Rafael Humberto Larios, the current minister of defense, and Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, chief of staff and the officer widely regarded as the most powerful man in the military.
The caucus chairman, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City), said nearly as damaging are findings that 11 of the officers linked to human rights abuses had received U.S. military training.
"When we got involved in El Salvador, we gambled that we could reform the Salvadoran military. This report makes it tragically clear that this gamble failed," Berman said.
While the caucus investigators conceded there was no evidence linking the officers directly to human rights abuses, the fact that they continued to rise through the ranks in spite of abuses committed by their troops sends "an unmistakable message to soldiers that misbehavior is tolerated," the report said.