Repression (With a Dose of Reform)

September 25, 2007

On January 22, 1980- the 48th anniversary
of the unsuccessful rebellion of 1932-
200,000 people filled the streets of San
Salvador in a unity march of the popular
Gabriel Cienfuegos, 47, two children, a
Q: Why have you come to this demonstra-
A: Because we have to be one single body
in this battle against the rich.
Magdalena Bonilla, 42, a street vendor:
Q: Who are you marching with today?
A: We are going with the BPR. I came last
night with my two daughters. Back
where I'm from, things are ugly. It was
hard to get here. They wanted to
frighten us, but here we are.
Carlos Vazquez, 36, tailor; with his 3-year
old son:
Q: How do you feel in this demonstration?
A: Brave and strong. We're ready to show
them that we are more thqn a few!'
The streets were so crowded that each
organization had to await its turn to enter the
procession. As members of FAPU approached
the National Palace, sharpshooters on the
rooftops of the palace and surrounding
buildings opened fire on the march.
Thousands started to run. The bodyguards
accompanying the march returned the fire.
Members of the BPR still waiting to get on-
to the streets sought shelter in the National
University. The security forces surrounded it
as a plane sprayed insecticide on the crowd.
In the center of the city, 21 lay dead, 120
wounded. The new junta denied any involve-
ment in the massacre. "All the security forces
were in their barracks. The right is to blame."
This theme would be used repeatedly by the
Christian Democratic Party to justify its con-
tinued presence in the junta. They washed
their hands of the blood, and shook hands
with U.S. strategists and the Salvadorean
12JulylAugust 1980
Christian Democracy sank its roots in Latin
America in the late 1950s. The mother
church was the Christian Democratic parties
of Germany and Italy-whose money and
training created a generation of Latin
American politicians, determined to be the
third choice between capitalism and com-
During the 1960s, the Christian Democrats
were a growing and formidable force. They
held power in Chile; they challenged power in
Venezuela; and created new parties through-
out the hemisphere.
In 1960, Christian Democracy came to El
Salvador. Its reformist platform and Chris-
tian identity were powerfully attractive to the
exploited masses of this Catholic country. It
offered an opportunity for advancement to
the small but expanding middle class. 2
By 1980, Christian Democracy had lost its
lustre. In Chile, it was a U.S. handmaiden in
the overthrow of Allende. In Venezuela, it
13NACLA Report
represented the conservative business com-
munity. And in El Salvador, its electoral ef-
forts to unseat the military had failed.
The fall of the first junta gave the PDC the
chance it was waiting for and saved the U.S.
government from having to abandon its cen-
trist pretensions. The PDC had all the
necessary qualities: a moderate image and the
memory of popular support in the 1960s; an
international network to complement its own
structures; cordial relations with the business
community; and, above all, a thirst for
The PDC filled two slots on the junta and
packed the cabinet. Their rationale for enter-
ing as others resigned was simple: Only they
could prevent a civil war between left and
right. Where the first junta had failed, they
could succeed in pushing through reforms.
U.S. officials admitted that the "center"
had shifted to the right--but "only slightly,"
they said. 3 A new ambassador, Robert White,
with his human rights credentials earned in
Paraguay, was brought in to win votes for
U.S. policy among liberals in Congress. He
launched scathing attacks on the oligarchy's
greed, but blamed the left for the escalation
of violence. Meanwhile, a major military aid
package was being prepared to give "logistical
and communications support" to the Salva-
dorean armed forces. Counter-insurgency
plans were being dusted off and examined.
Throughout the countryside, the fledgling
people's army was testing its strength. The
ERP attacked the principal headquarters of
the National Guard. The FPL harassed and
pummeled the security forces in the moun-
tainous northern areas of Chalatenango and
Cabanas. The FARN was active in the region
of the western coffee fincas.
The brutality of the Salvadorean military
and its greater weaponry outgunned the guer-
rilla armies. Their targets were different. The
guerrillas attacked the armed forces and
members of the para-military squads. The
military went after the unarmed members of
the popular organizations. Death squads
combed the cities for their leaders and
decapitated the bodies. They were less
discriminating in the countryside: any pea-
sant would do to intimidate the rest.
The right was becoming more brazen as the
left grew stronger. It found a champion in
Roberto D'Abuisson, a former intelligence of-
ficer in the National Guard, dismissed by the
first junta as one of Romero's chief torturers.
D'Abuisson was handsome, charismatic and
totally committed to the destruction of the
left. He headed the Broad National Front
(the reincarnation of ORDEN) and many said
he led the death squads, the White Warrior
Union and the Secret Anti-Communist Army.
D'Abuisson had close ties to the American
right. His first trip to the United States was
sponsored by the American Security Council,
a right-wing lobby group in Washington. He
lunched with the American Legion, lobbied
for more arms and accused the U.S. Am-
bassador of "leftist sympathies." D'Abuisson's
message was clear: get rid of the Christian
Democrats and make way for a Chilean solu-
tion to the crisis. 4
In mid-February, he appeared on
Salvadorean TV to denounce a list of persons
who, he said, were linked to the political-
military organizations of the left. Among
them was Mario Zamora Rivas, then Solicitor
General of the second junta. Zamora was a
bridge between the left and right wings of the
Christian Democratic Party. Destroying that
bridge might force the party out of the junta.
Several nights later, armed men entered
Zamora's house through the roof and killed
him with a tommy gun. The Christian
Democrats were stunned and outraged. They
pointed the finger at D'Abuisson and
threatened to resign if Zamora's killers were
not brought to justice. But no one was ar-
rested and the Christian Democrats stayed on.
The party, however, could no longer stand
the strain.
We have not been able to stop the repres-
sion and those committing acts of repres-
sion ... go unpunished; the promised
dialogue with the popular organizations
fails to materialize; the chances for produc-
ing reforms with the support of the people
are receding beyond reach.
Letter of resignation, Hector Dada,
Christian Democratic member of the
junta, March 3, 1980.
14Christian Democratic leader, Jose Napoleon Duarte.
The Christian Democratic Party should not
participate in a regime which has unleash-
ed the'bloodiest repression ever experienc-
ed by the Salvadorean people . . . The 600
victims of repression between January and
February clamor for justice.
Statement of the Popular Tendency, 20%
of the Party, upon its resignation,
March 10, 1980.
Respect for human rights is incompatible
with the exacerbated and growing repres-
sion exercised against the popular
organizations and against the people in
general ... a program of 'reforms with
repression' runs contrary to fundamentals
of Christian Democracy.
Resignation letter of 7 key
party leaders. 5
By May, the entire left wing of the party
had resigned, as well as those associated with
the Central American University. But there
were others, less scrupulous than they, to fill
the vacancies. Napoleon Duarte- the
charismatic mayor of San Salvador in the
1960s, presidential candidate in 1972--would
now save the junta from total abandonment.
He was joined by Antonio Morales Erlich,
another stalwart of the party's right wing.
Again, the U.S. government breathed a
sigh of relief. Duarte was well known interna-
tionally; the myth of a moderate center might
still be swallowed. But time was running out,
as the right grew more bellicose and the left
continued to grow. In mid-February, the U.S.
ambassador had to summon the military high
command, along with members of the oligar-
chy, to convey that the U.S. government
would not tolerate a coup.
It was high time for some dramatic strokes.
So on March 9, the second junta announced a
set of "sweeping reforms": land would be
redistributed, banks and foreign trade would
be nationalized, the power of the oligarchy
would be broken, they said. And the people
would desert the popular organizations, they
believed.NACLA Report
A Son's Letter to His Father
Jose Antonio Morales Carbonell, a militant of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), writes to his
father, Antonio Morales Erlich, member of the second junta [on June 13, Jose Antonio was cap-
tured and is imprisoned in the jail of the National Police]:
Dear father,
On May 30, 1979, I had to leave the country with a group of companeros to visit the Embassies of
France, Venezuela and Costa Rica, to demand freedom for our captured leaders. . . . Today, on my
return after a long trip through various countries of Europe, I want to tell you that the entire world is
exasperated. From every corner you hear !Basta Ya!-Enough!-to the repression against the
Salvadorean people.
It is inconceivable that after so few months in government, your seemingly good intentions. . .have
been converted into such enormous compromises and complicities with the number one enemy of
Humanity: Yankee Imperialism.
Compromises that seem to know no limits!
Compromises that have taken more lives than the last years of the Military Tyranny!
I remember that some time ago you told me . . that the enormous crisis of imperialism in our coun-
try, caused by the uncontainable rise of the revolutionary movement, had to be used to present a more
favorable alternative to U.S. interests and, at the same time, to carry out genuine changes in our coun-
But in the end, what are those promised changes?
The famed Agrarian Reform?
Or the permanent state of siege . . .?
The famed nationalization of banks and foreign trade?
Or the growing and shameless intervention of Yankee Imperialism, that sends personnel trained in
counter-insurgency techniques and other specialties; that sends a permanent and constant stream of
arms and war supplies to strengthen the puppet armies and the para-military bands of assassins ...
It is really dishonorable to be in your situation, and still try to hide from the world the reality of
violence and repression that our people suffer daily, crudely attributing it to the supposed provocations
of the revolutionary organizations.
I am certain that you yourself don't believe that!
You should follow the example of the other Christian Democrats that decided to stop supporting the
repressive regime, to stop serving as a "progressive" cover, in exchange for afew crumbs of power and
to stop cynically attributing these desertions to merely "sentimental" motives.
At this point there are no longer intermediary positions, things are totally clear: one is either on the
side of the oppressed, or on the side of the oppressors. To stay on their side makes you responsible as
well for the crimes committed against the people-crimes committed by your very colleagues.
The least you can do at this moment is to be loyal to the principles you taught me.
Do it for your family, your children ...
Do it for the thousands of workers and peasants and for all our people who suffer hunger, misery, ex-
ploitation and oppression.
Do it for a minimum sense of human compassion, that I cannot believe you have lost.
It is lamentable to me that you find yourself in this situation, but I remember that you taught me to
be clear, a clarity that obliges me to tell you . . . that I am ready to give the last drop of my blood for
the liberation of our people; I have faith in the power and creativity of the people's forces and I am
convinced that the only way to defeat the enemy is with arms in hand, destroying completely the
repressive apparatus and creating a more just society, free of misery and exploitation ....
Your son,
Jose Antonio Morales Carbonell
El Salvador, April 19, 1980
16JulylAugust 1980
On paper, the agrarian reform seemed im-
pressive, even drastic. First, all properties in
excess of 1,250 acres would be expropriated to
form peasant cooperatives. Owners would be
generously compensated in cash and govern-
ment bonds, and encouraged to invest in
industry. At a second stage, properties of 250
to 500 acres would be affected; and later, the
small plots would become the property of ten-
ant farmers and sharecroppers.
Mobilizing its forces like a military cam-
paign, the junta rushed its reform into place.
A state of siege was declared throughout the
country and troops rolled into the largest ha-
ciendas, ostensibly to stop the landowners
from fighting back. But there was no resist-
ance. Most landowners took their compensa-
tion in cash, packed their bags and went to
Miami. From there they would finance a
more subtle resistance.
The real objectives of the military occupa-
tions became all too clear. Each hacienda was
to be a military outpost in the junta's cam-
paign to destroy the left. Each occupying
force received a list, prepared by ORDEN, of
suspected members of.the popular organiza-
tions. Reform was a cover for repression.
A technician with the government's In-
stitute for Agrarian Reform (ISTA) tells this
story: "The troops came and told the workers
the land was theirs now. They could elect
their own leaders and run it themselves. The
peasants couldn't believe their ears, but they
held elections that very night. The next morn-
ing the troops came back and I watched as
they shot every one of the elected leaders."6 In
late May, the ISTA technicians went out on
strike, protesting the massive repression, the
harassment of ISTA personnel by the Nation-
al Guard, and the lack of fertilizers, seed and
financial credit for the new cooperatives.
The Washington Post reports that "a squad
of more than 20 men in National Guard uni-
forms with complete battle dress and an ar-
mored car drove to a government agricultural
cooperative with a list of cooperative leaders
considered to be subversives. Twelve of the
leaders...were killed and the 160 families liv-
ing there fled in terror."'
Refugees began to flood the capital, seek-
ing protection within the Catholic Church.
They brought blood-curdling stories of mas-
sacres and sadistic brutality. The repression
was not confined to areas affected by the
agrarian reform. The greater brunt of the
killing was borne by people in areas known to
be strongholds of the popular organizations:
Chalatenango, Cabanas, Morazan. The
monthly murders of members of the popular
organizations rose from 487 in March; 480 in
April; 500 in May; to 1,000 in June. 8
The greatest sham of the agrarian reform
was that the coffee oligarchs, the heart of
bourgeois power, were not even touched. In
1971, 91% of all coffee holdings were less
than 1,250 acres--the limit of the agrarian
reform's reach. Since 1971, coffee magnates
had further subdivided their estates among
family members in anticipation of reform.
One estimate is that only 2% of the coffee
plantations were affected by the "sweeping
When the first phase of the agrarian reform
failed to attract any popular support, the jun-
ta jumped to stage three: giving land to share-
croppers and tenant farmers. They called it
"Land to the Tiller" and a U.S. official com-
mented on the program's intent: "There is no
one more conservative than a small farmer.
We're going to breed capitalists like
The original "Land to the Tiller" program
was implemented in Viet Nam. Its purpose was
to politically isolate the Viet Cong by giving
land to peasants in targetted areas. But it was
one component of a larger "rural develop-
ment" project that included the infamous
Operation Phoenix, run by former CIA direc-
tor William Colby. Approximately 30,000
people were murdered through Colby's efforts
to eliminate Viet Cong supporters.
The parallels between Vietnam and El
Salvador are not far-fetched. Not even the
names have changed. The author of the
"Land to the Tiller" program in Viet Nam is
now advising the Salvadorean junta. His
name is Roy Prosterman, a law professor at
the University of Washington and currently
under contract to the Land Council, a private
New York-based organization." His work in
El Salvador is also being subsidized by the
17NACLA Report
American Institute for Free Labor Develop-
ment (AIFLD), a known conduit for CIA
funds in the 1960s.12
AIFLD itself is now under contract to the
U.S. Agency for International Development
(AID), another familiar actor in Vietnam, to
advise the Salvadorean Communal Union
(UCS) on managing the new cooperatives.
The UCS is a peasant organization with tradi-
tionally strong ties to the Salvadorean govern-
ment. By June, however, even the UCS had
withdrawn its support from the reforms after
several of its leaders were murdered by the
National Guard.'
Counter-insurgency is also part of the
package in El Salvador. On April 1, 1980, the
U.S. government re-programmed another
$5.7 million to El Salvador, for transport,
communications and intelligence equipment.
For fiscal year 1981, it proposes an additional
$5.5 million to purchase patrol boats, heli-
copters, jeeps, parachutes, trucks and radios;
plus $500,000 for military training.14
By 1981, the United States will have spent
$12.2 million on El Salvador's military, in the
post-coup period alone,. This represents 73%
of what it spent there from 1950 to 1979.
Archbishop Romero had implored Presi-
dent Carter to halt the flow of arms. He had
exposed the lies of U.S. policy, declaring that
so-called reforms "had to be judged within a
context of death and annihilation.""' He de-
cried the torture and killings from his pulpit
and said defiantly, "When all peaceful means
have been exhausted the Church rcognizes
the right to insurrection.""16 And finally, on
March 23, he called on the National Guard to
disobey the orders of their superiors and end
the killings.
On March 24, Archbishop Romero was
killed by an assassin's bullet as he offered mass
for the mother of a friend. His voice had
expressed the hopes and determination of the
Salvadorean people. But in Washington, it
was ignored.
The war that the United States is fighting
in El Salvador is the first step in its typical
response to liberation movements around the
world. It is a neo-colonial war, whose instru-
ments are a puppet government and a mili-
tary trained and financed by the United
States. In the first stages, U.S. involvement is
usually limited to military advisors, who give
technical assistance to the surrogate army. In
El Salvador, Venezuelan advisors have been
used to cover U.S. involvement."7 Ven-
ezuela-ruled by friendly Christian Dem-
ocrats-waged a successful anti-guerrilla
campaign in the 1960s. But the guerrillas in
El Salvador are different. They are peasants,
workers, students and other members of the
popular organizations who have now joined
the ranks of the popular army. They are
everywhere in the cities and villages. Viet Nam
is the clearer analogy. O
18JulylAugust 1980
During the funeral mass for
Archbishop Romero, an ex-
plosion stampeded the enor-
mous crowd. Rightist sharp-
shooters located in nearby
buildings engaged armed
guards of the popular organ-
izations who attempted to
defend the mourners in a
gun battle that lasted more
than an hour.
NACLA Report
San Salvador: June, 1980
I was returning to El Salvador for the third
time since I'd lived there 11 years ago as a
Peace Corps volunteer. In 1974, when Ifirst
went back, I saw the signs of crisis: people
were edgy, uncertain about the future. They
were afraid to have community meetings.
Political activists were just finding their bear-
I was there last December, during the brief
period of thefirst junta. It was extraordinary.
I had never seen people so determined, so
hopeful that things would finally change.
They were coming out of their houses again.
Every day there was another demonstration
by the popular organizations. I followed a
march of lottery vendors, some of the poorest
of the capital's poor. At their rally, I listened
to men and women who had never spoken in
public, start forward, get lost in theirfeelings,
then burst free in torrents. Their demands
were simple: benches and toilet facilities in
the National Lottery Office. Simple things,
but they were tired of waiting.
I returned at the beginning of June.
Government soldiers were everywhere. The
popular organizations were no longer in the streets, since a state of siege had made all
demonstrations illegal. But the slogans and
struggle had escalated beyond demands for
daily needs. A poster in a working class barrio showed a young man holding a machine gun:
"Join the Armed Forces of Popular Libera-
tion. Venceremos. "
By 8:30 p.m., the streets were deserted. A queer calm set in, punctuated by occasional
gunfire, bomb explosions and the purr of the National Guard convoys heading toward
another night of murder.
I went to see old friends in the tugurios on the edge of the city. Everyone had a horror
story to tell, corroborated by neighbors and others who needed to tell the stories as a form of catharsis: Dona Teresa had gotten up early one morning to do marketing. On her way, she found a body cut in half; one half left on one street corner, the other on the next. A mother of five children told me of a woman, a militant of the popular organizations, whose head was cut off and tied by the hair to a fence, her nude body lying beneath it.
1. Francisco Andres Escobar, "En la linea de la
muerte," Estudios Centroamericanos, Nos. 375-376,
January-February, 1980, pp. 25-27.
2. Stephen Webre, Jose Napoleon Duarte and the
Christian Democratic Party in Salvadoran Politics
1960-1972, (Baton Rouge and London: 1979).
3. Memorandum of Meeting with Robert White on
June 4, 1980 with representatives of 6 Congresspeople,
Washington, D.C.
4. Washington Post, July 2, 1980.
5. Cynthia Arnson and Delia Miller, "Background
Information on El Salvador .. ," p. 4.
6. NACLA interview with ISTA technician, San
Salvador, June 2. 1980. Also comments by Ruben
Zamora in conference held at the Center for Inter-
American Relations, New York City, July 28, 1980. On
March 17, 1980 Amnesty International called on the
government of El Salvador to halt a campaign of murder
and abduction against peasants, launched following an
announcement of agrarian reform. Amnesty Interna-
tional news release, New York City, March 17, 1980.
7. Washington Post, July 1, 1980.
8. Solidaridad, Nos. 13-15, 1980. Solidaridad is the
bulletin of the Legal Aid Office of the Archbishop of San
Salvador. It is published weekly and includes a weekly
review of the government's violations of human rights.
Over the July 4 weekend, the government sent troops into
its offices and confiscated all of the files, including signed
statements by eyewitnesses of atrocities committed by Na-
tional Guardsmen and other members of the security
forces. Its address is SocorroJ uridico del Arzobispado de
San Salvador, Apartado Postal 06-294. San Salvador, El
Salvador, C.A.
9. NACLA interview with Enrique Alvarez Cordova,
President of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, New
York City, July 28, 1980. Agrocenso del Gobierno de El
Salvador, San Salvador, 1971.
10. New York Times, March 13, 1980.
11. Interpress Service, "El Salvador: 'Land Reform' as
a 'Counter Insurgency' Programme like CIA's 'Phoenix'
Operation in Vietnam," July 25, 1980. Also, Carolyn
Forche and Philip Wheaton, History and Motivations of
U.S. Involvement in the Control of the Peasant Move-
ment in El Salvador (Washington, D.C.: EPICA, 1980).
Copies of this pamphlet are available from EPICA, 1470
Irving Street N.W.. Washington, D.C. 20010, U.S.A. for
$2.00 plus 50 cents postage in the U.S.A.
12. For information on AIFLD's history in Latin
America see the following back issues of NA CLA Report
on the Americas: Smoldering Conflict: Dominican
Republic, 1965-1975, Vol. 9, No. 3; Argentina: AIFLD
Losing its Grip, Vol. 8, No. 9; Chile: The Story Behind
the Coup, Vol. 7, No. 8.
13. Communique of the Salvadorean Communal
Union (UCS), San Salvador, June 5, 1980.
14. Cynthia Arnson and Delia Miller, "Background
Information on El Salvador .. .. ," p.6.
15. Miami Herald, March 11, 1980.
16. This Week Central America and Panama,
February 4, 1980.
17. Cynthia Arnson and Delia Miller, "Background
Information on El Salvador . . .," p. 9.

Tags: El Salvador, popular demonstrations, repression, Christian Democrats, Archbishop Oscar Romero

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