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Bookmark : Death Squads Murdered, U.S. Supplied the Fig Leaf

September 15, 1991|Tina Rosenberg | Tina Rosenberg, a journalist, has lived and traveled extensively in Latin America. and 1991 by Tina Rosenberg. Reprinted with

Political violence has been endemic in Latin America throughout the region's history. A particularly vicious form of violence, the death squad, is a key factor in the continuing civil war in El Salvador, according to the author. An excerpt. The death squads that proved so effective in the 1980s were born in the 1970s, the clandestine children of many fathers. Landowners created local death squads to solve their labor problems. One rural death squad started out as a Boy Scout troop. The top military security agency, ANSESAL, which the CIA had founded and equipped, was probably responsible for pulling most of them together into one organization with financing from wealthy businessmen. Soldiers, either on active duty or retired, carried out the killings of leftists whose names they pulled from ANSESAL's files.

The death squads found a new protective umbrella in 1982, when ARENA won the elections for the National Assembly and (Roberto) D'Aubuisson, the country's most popular politician, was elected head of the legislature. D'Aubuisson and his security chief, Hector Antonio Regalado, turned his office into the death squads' central headquarters.

One of D'Aubuisson's bodyguards told the Washington Post that men went out each night to kill, sometimes just to have something to do. About 40 men arrived each night to get orders from Regalado, chose a weapon from the stockpile on the Assembly building's second floor and went out to roam the streets.

In the rise and subsequent rule of the death squads, D'Aubuisson's fingerprints were everywhere. When cashiered from the National Guard, he took ANSESAL's files with him. Soon after, he was arrested for plotting a coup against the new government. When soldiers raided the farm serving as the plotters' headquarters, they found notes of meetings, a phone directory of right-wing military officers and businessmen, and lists of purchase records for submachine guns, silencers, scopes and ammunition. The material clearly linked D'Aubuisson to the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero and the leadership of death squads. But the military judge in the case was a member of D'Aubuisson's military-school class, and the suspects went free due to lack of evidence.

D'Aubuisson was the most direct connection between two naturally allied groups, the oligarchy and the military. With the rise of the guerrillas, the army reinforced its links with the oligarchy, bonded by their common enemy.

With the rise of the guerrillas, the United States intensified its efforts to reform and repackage the Salvadoran officers. It was an intensification of years of effort to train, reform and professionalize the Salvadoran security forces--and years of failure.

Under the Reagan Administration, the experiment changed. To the Reagan people, who wanted a quick battlefield victory, human rights were fine as long as they didn't get in the way of efficient operations. But they had to convince the U.S. Congress that democracy, human rights and social reform were coming to El Salvador. So to keep the money for the war flowing, it began to emphasize cosmetic change.

The war was costing a lot of money. From 1980 to 1990, the United States gave Salvador $1 billion in military aid and at least an equal amount that indirectly supported the war effort.

Salvadoran military officials watched in amused disbelief as the gringos funded them, armed them to the teeth, trained and reorganized them and tried to transform them into a mobile troop of Eagle Scouts earning merit badges all over El Salvador. Under the watchful eye of U.S. military advisers, Salvadoran soldiers kissed babies, dug roads and handed out food to villagers. A weekly television program touted the army's activities.

Military officials, the men the embassy was lauding as "moderates," learned a new vocabulary from the embassy's counterinsurgency phrase book. In 1989, Armed Forces Chief of Staff Col. Rene Emilio Ponce was saying such things as "It hurts the guerrillas much more if we take away their base of support than if we're killing their combatants." When Ponce arrived in a village, he gave out food, clothing and medicine.

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