EL SALVADOR The Offensive in Perspective

September 25, 2007

On November 11, forces of the
Farabundo Marti National Liberation
Front (FMLN) launched their largest
offensive of El Salvador's decade-long
war, striking in all the country's princi-
pal cities: San Salvador, San Miguel,
Santa Ana, Usulutdn, and Zacateco-
luca. Several fixed targets were hit,
including President Alfredo Cristiani's
residence and the capital's First Bri-
gade barracks, but these were essen-
tially for psychological effect. The main
objectives were the working-class bar-
rios on the northern outskirts of the
capital, and in this the guerrilla forces
were more successful than they had
anticipated. By the next morning, the
rebels were in control of the city's
northern perimeter-a half-moon con-
necting the country's main highways
and -controlling access to the nearby
According to FMLN sources, the
rebels' plan was "to fight for three days
and see." By the end of three days,
despite heavy fighting, they remained
firmly entrenched in the barrios. Civil-
ian collaboration seemed to be increas-
ing, as residents built barricades and air
raid shelters, provided food and intelli-
gence, and took up arms. Both sides
appear to have shared the assessment
that the situation had reached a defini-
tive moment. As one army colonel put
it in a published account, "We realized
that we could lose it all, or that San
Salvador could end up like Beirut--a
divided city."
That night Joaquin Villalobos of the
FMLN's General Command went on
the clandestine Radio Venceremos to
call for a full-scale insurrection. At
about the same time, the army high
command decided to begin massive
aerial bombardment of the rebel-held
barrios, and ordered a wave of repres-
sion against the political opposition,
church figures, and the legal and semi-
legal organizations of the popular
movement. During the night, security
forces raided houses throughout the
city and ransacked the offices of sev-
eral unions and human rights organiza-
tions. But the movement leadership had
gone into hiding, and the army's attacks
only yielded the murders of the six
Jesuit priests, their housekeeper Julia
Ramos and her daughter Celia.
The effect of the bombardment was
far more dramatic than the appeal to
insurrection. From early on November
16 through the next day, planes terror-
ized the barrios. Thousands fled. Thou-
sands more who were unable to escape
hid at home, while bombs and strafing
rocked their neighborhoods. "You
could not believe," said one man who
hid under his bed, "that you could be so
frightened and live." While the FMLN's
initial emphasis was to organize the
population to stay and fight beside them,
in some areas the rebels reversed them-
selves and told civilians to flee. Finally,
the rebels themselves withdrew, though
not before occupying the wealthiest
neighborhoods in the city, demonstrat-
ing that the air force would not bomb
the rich.
Mixed Results
In our Reports on El Salvador last
year, we described the rebels' unortho-
dox intention of further irregularizing
the war as their "strategic counterof-
fensive" unfolded. Yet the November
offensive was much more conventional
than foreseen. The reasons for this are
worth exploring, since the tactics cho-
sen are part of the story behind the lack
of a widespread insurrectionary re-
sponse to the offensive. Though at
several times during the war the FMLN
has successfully overrun strategic gov-
ernment installations, no action of this
nature materialized during the offen-
sive. Rather, FMLN fighters were spread
out among the barrios, apparently to
provide for the broadest contact pos-
sible between guerrilla fighters and the
poor, and in this way to maximize the
opportunities for civilians to partici-
pate in the offensive. For three days this
seemed to be successful; but when the
bombing began in earnest, the trend
was abruptly reversed.
By centering the more conventional
military confrontation in the barrios,
the FMLN left residents with only two
options as the battles escalated: flee or
fight. Given the level of bombardment,
fighting would have required incred-
ible heroism. The more varied, irregu-
lar, and limited kinds of collaboration
available in the early days-building
Sara Miles and Bob Ostertag are
free-lance journalists and the authors
of two NACLA Reports on El Salvador
published in 1989.
7barricades, providing food and intelli-
gence, using homemade weaponry,
etc.--evaporated, and most residents
chose to flee.
According to several rebel sources,
the ferocity of the bombing caught the
FMLN by surprise. In our interview
with Commander Leo Cabral, [NACLA
Report on the Americas, September
1989] he stated the FMLN's belief that
full deployment of the army's conven-
tional firepower in the cities would be
"politically impossible." Given the fact
that the Salvadoran air force was headed
by the powerful Gen. Rafael Bustillo,
perhaps the most hardline officer in the
entire military, this assumption seems
Despite the tremendous strength the
rebels showed in their offensive, it
appears that the intricacies of urban
warfare continue to pose tactical diffi-
culties the formerly rural-based move-
ment has yet to resolve. However, it is
doubtful that the lack of a full-scale
insurrectionary response can be entirely
attributed to tactical decisions on the
part of the rebel leadership or to the
bombing. In Nicaragua in 1979, for
example, anger at Somoza's bombard-
ment helped turn the Sandinistas' final
offensive into a full insurrection. Larger
political questions are fundamental. As
we noted in the September Report, there
is no consensus among Salvadoran left-
ists that an insurrectionary political
climate prevails. While the situation
remains extremely fluid, it is at least
clear that the events of November did
not prove the FMLN's insurrectionary
thesis to be correct.
As to the regime's response to the
offensive, we argued the ARENA gov-
ernment would not resort to crude and
blatant repression until "the FMLN's
hoped-for insurrection develops a more
tangible, threatening form." This is
precisely what happened in the first
three days of the November offensive.
The murders of the Jesuits and the seal-
ing off of virtually all political space in
the country was the result. People from
the press, unions, human rights groups,
the churches, popular organizations,
universities, and even the Christian
Democrats went into hiding or exile.
With the immediacy of the threat past,
Cristiani and the U.S. Embassy are again
trying to ease some restrictions in order
to legitimize the government. As one
movement source commented, "proba-
bly the best thing that could happen to
Cristiani right now would be for the
unions to put 5,000 people marching in
the street so he can show he is demo-
cratic." Any political opening at all,
however, will be extremely fragile, and
will certainly evaporate when the FMLN
drops the other shoe.
Assessing the overall results of the
offensive is problematic, but some
points are clear. Despite the difficulties
the FMLN encountered, the rebels with-
drew in good order. Tactical adjust-
ments are without doubt under intense
discussion and the guerrillas are un-
October funeral of murdered union leaders: What will happen when the
FMLN drops the other shoe?
likely to make the same mistakes twice.
U.S. assertions that the FMLN spent its
forces in the first round and has been
dealt an overwhelming blow are highly
exaggerated. The rebels sustained seri-
ous losses: They acknowledged 401
dead, including several high-ranking
commanders, and the number of
wounded is surely much greater. But
they claim to have recruited extensively
during their stay in the barrios. And on
December 16, after army pronounce-
ments of the FMLN's demise, the rebel
radio reported an all-day battle in the
countryside, claiming that two govem-
ment companies were torn apart, 29
were killed, 30 wounded, and 24 cap-
tured. This would be consistent with
the rebels' goal of a limited reconcen-
tration of rural forces to hit the army in
the countryside as a counterpart to their
efforts in the cities.
For the government, however, the
situation appears more difficult. The
armed forces were unable to mount any
coherent counterattack short of mas-
sive aerial bombardment. While this
tactic may be effective for saving the
day in a particularly dire moment, it is
not a basis for retaking the offensive.
And with the FMLN's claimed acquisi-
tion of surface-to-air missiles, bom-
bardment may be less effective even as
a tactic of last resort. The army essen-
tially remains under a sort of guerrilla
siege, with rebels still near the periph-
eries of the cities and able to hit its
troops in the countryside.
Politically, the rightist camp is di-
vided by tensions which will be diffi-
cult to resolve. Its dream of economic
recovery has become a nightmare.
Stunned by the FMLN invasion of their
own neighborhoods, many of the rich
have fled taking their money with them.
(ARENA economic projections' had
assumed the opposite, a large-scale re-
patriation of capital.) Business people
report that the direct effects of the of-
fensive on the economy were cata-
strophic. Both the Salvadoran Associa-
tion of Industrialists and the National
Association of Private Capital de-
manded that Cristiani postpone his
program of structural adjustment. Given
the impact of the offensive, they ar-
gued, the program would lead to total
economic collapse.
Though the army's atrocities may
not actually result in the loss of U.S.
aid, foreign political pressure has led to
the arrest of eight people, including
Col. Guillermo Alfredo Benavides, for
the murder of the Jesuits. In the past,
arrests meant little as cases of human
rights violations wound through the
byzantine Salvadoran legal system and
were eventually dropped after the heat
was off. This time, however, the FMLN
may have the ability to keep the burner
turned up high.
Tensions between the military and
the United States have been exacer-
bated by the handling of the case. The
Salvadoran officer who informed the
U.S. Embassy of Benavides' direct
involvement was subsequently identi-
fied by the Embassy and then detained
by the Salvadoran high command, as
relations between the military and the
Embassy sank to an all-time low.
Commenting on Benavides' arrest, one
FMLN source noted, "This is historic.
The process of purification of the armed
forces has already begun. These people
won't do it the way we would, and they
won't do it all the way, but they cannot
avoid beginning the process."
The stated purpose of the rebel of-
fensive was to move the country closer
to a negotiated solution-the point at
which we ended our previous Reports.
Superficially, the offensive pushed such
an option farther from the picture, by
supposedly hardening the army's re-
solve. Continuing the sort of show biz
dialogue which has gone on in recent
years-in which the two sides talk be-
cause they cannot afford not to, rather
than actually seek a framework for a
settlement-may indeed be more diffi-
cult than before. But real negotiations
require a fundamental shift within the
Salvadoran elite and the United States,
and the divisions occurring now indi-
cate that the offensive was not without
its benefits in this regard.
These kinds of divisions, amid the
increased polarization brought about
by the offensive, open new political
space in the middle. Tragically, the
Jesuits are no longer there to help fill it,
and the legal space for political opposi-
tion has disappeared. In contrast to the
situation in 1981 after the FMLN's
previous attempt at insurrection, the
popular movement has gone deep under-
ground, but has not been destroyed.
The next crucial move for the Left may
well be in the political arena.

Tags: El Salvador, FMLN, offensive, bombing, Violence

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