SAN SALVADOR — The top officers of El Salvador's armed forces were removed from duty Thursday in a U.N.-ordered purge of human rights abusers, marking the end of an era in which a single generation of U.S.-trained officers controlled the army and dominated wartime society.
President Alfredo Cristiani, acting six months late, replaced Defense Minister Gen. Rene Emilio Ponce and ordered a complete overhaul of the military high command. He also ordered changes in key military posts around the country.
Ponce, accused in a U.N. war crimes report of ordering the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter, was forced into retirement along with the army's three other active-duty generals.
The naming of a new defense minister--little-known Col. Humberto Corado Figueroa--raised cautious hope that the Salvadoran army of the future can be kept out of politics and under civilian control.
Human rights groups remained skeptical, however, pointing out that the atrocities committed during 12 years of civil war have inevitably tainted the entire institution.
In a change-of-command ceremony at the Military Academy, Cristiani and Ponce reviewed several hundred cadets and infantrymen in combat dress as army helicopters flew in formation overhead.
Delivering a feisty and unrepentant 45-minute speech, Ponce--who has said he plans to enter politics--defended the role of the armed forces as the bulwark against communism.
"Let us reflect for a moment: Did the (guerrillas) achieve their objectives like the Marxists in Managua and Cuba?" he asked. "Has a Communist system been established here? Were the armed forces defeated militarily in order to change our democratic system? The answer to all of these questions is no."
The U.S.-backed army and Marxist-led guerrillas fought a savage war throughout the last decade until reaching a stalemate in 1990. The impasse forced the two sides into negotiations.
Cristiani, in the ceremony, praised Ponce and the three other generals who were retired--Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Orlando Zepeda and the top two men at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Gilberto Rubio and Gen. Mauricio Vargas--as men who "with merit, efficiency and loyalty, carried out extremely high national responsibilities."
Under U.N.-brokered peace accords that formally ended the war last year, Cristiani was required to dismiss Ponce and 101 other officers by Jan. 1. The officers were named by a special ad hoc commission that reviewed the records of about 2,000 officers and recommended the removal of those deemed guilty of human rights abuses such as murder or torture and corruption.
But pressured by the military and the right-wing political party that he heads, Cristiani delayed the purge and allowed a core group of 15 officers to remain in their positions until now.
Privately, Cristiani argued that the men should be allowed to leave their positions without public humiliation. And he singled out Ponce, saying he ought to be rewarded, not punished, for his role in implementing U.N.-required military reforms, including a 50% reduction in troop strength.
But Ponce's status became harder to justify after the release on March 15 of a report by the Commission on Truth, a panel appointed by the United Nations as part of the peace settlement to examine the war's atrocities. It found that the vast majority of abuses had been committed by government forces and blamed Ponce specifically for the Jesuit murders, a charge the general has denied. Also named were Rubio and Zepeda.
Ponce, in Thursday's speech, blamed his forced departure on what he called an ad hoc commission "with evil intentions" and a "prejudiced, unjust and partial" Commission on Truth.
The purge practically decapitated the Salvadoran military because almost all of its senior leaders were named by one of the two commissions.
This forced Cristiani to reach down several military generations to fill the ministry and other positions. The changes represent the end of military control by a powerful group of officers .
In El Salvador's armed forces, officers who graduate together tend to rise through the ranks as a tight-knit group demanding unwavering loyalty from its members. Ponce, Zepeda, Rubio and Vargas all belonged to the military academy's graduating class of 1966.
Corado and Col. Roberto Tejada Murcia, the new minister and deputy minister of defense, respectively, belong to the class of 1969, while several other new commanders belong to classes of 1971, '72 and '73.
The changes announced Thursday will be reviewed by the U.S. Congress, which will consider renewing the suspended military aid, U.S. Charge d'Affaires Peter Romero said.