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 mountains. 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 VOLUME XXIII, NUMBER 6 (APRIL 1990) 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 inexplicable. 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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