And D'Aubuisson turned into one of the country's cleverest and most agile politicians. On the stump, his blend of frank talk and machismo appealed to conservative peasants as well as businessmen.
He campaigned for the March, 1983, constituent assembly with a pistol on his hip, singing, "Tremble, tremble, communists . . . criminals with the habits of animals. . . ." He vowed to "exterminate" the guerrillas.
D'Aubuisson not only won election but helped his party capture a majority in the new assembly. His colleagues elected him president of the congress.
He ran a rousing campaign for president in 1984 and accused the CIA of rigging the election when he lost to Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte, whom he considered a communist. But in what many view as a key moment in Salvadoran history, D'Aubuisson accepted the outcome.
"He was conscious that if he called out the people to defend the vote, it would have meant breaking with the (democratic) process," said Vice President Francisco Merino, a D'Aubuisson protege. "He decided to accept a defeat."
Two years later, when Arena lost control of the legislature to the Christian Democrats, D'Aubuisson realized that the country had no more appetite for his firebrand politics. A pragmatist, he turned over the top party post to Cristiani, who enjoyed a more moderate image. D'Aubuisson remained "honorary president" and the behind-the-scenes power.
The hard-drinking D'Aubuisson could behave impetuously. Friends described him as noble and forgiving. He was fiercely loyal, they said, and a devout Catholic. Others, however, said he was overly proud and called him a public drunk.
U.S. Ambassador William Walker recalled a dinner party not long ago at which D'Aubuisson arrived inebriated.
"One minute he was insulting me and the next he was charming the pants off of me, telling me I was the best U.S. ambassador El Salvador had ever had," Walker said. "I saw flashes of the guy who I'm sure a couple years earlier sent out death squads, and I could see why people in this country who don't believe in death squads were attracted to this guy."
Noting his efforts toward peace, Walker said, "I think he changed. Or, politically, things changed around him."
The political landscape certainly changed. D'Aubuisson's nemesis, Duarte, died two years ago. As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Pickering played a key role in pushing the government to sign a peace agreement with the guerrillas. And under the accord, many of D'Aubuisson's leftist foes--communists and non-communists alike--are returning home.