Special Supplement -- El Salvador Revisited
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Issue Date:  September 23, 1994

A look at declassified State Department documents

Some of what U.S. government knew -- and when it new it

For several weeks this year, NCR editor-at-large Arthur Jones looked through the 12,000 El Salvador cables, dating from 1980 through 1991, released by the U.S. State Department on orders from the Clinton administration. A selection of cables from the department’s El Salvador files is offered below. NCR asked four people intimately involved with El Salvador issues in that era to comment on the cables’ significance and the overriding issues of U.S. involvement in El Salvador. Margaret Swedish is cofounder of the Religious Task Force on Central America, which began life as the Religious Task Force on El Salvador. Robert White was U.S. ambassador to El Salvador at the time of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination and the murders of the four U.S. churchwomen. Cynthia Arnson has long handled El Salvador issues for Human Rights Watch, where she is acting director, Latin America. Fr. William Callahan of the Quixote Center has been involved in Central American issues since the 1970s.

NCR Staff

WASHINGTON -- It was November 1987. El Salvador’s assassinated Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero had been dead seven years. In Miami, U.S. marshals were keeping Alvaro Saravia under surveillance. Saravia was a self-proclaimed key witness in the Romero slaying who had fled El Salvador and was in the United States illegally.

Saravia was prepared to finger, in the U.S. State Department’s words, “ultrarightist Salvadoran politician Roberto D’Aubuisson. ... Saravia has already told us he was present when D’Aubuisson ordered the 1980 Romero assassination.” Saravia “wants to trade information about D’Aubuisson’s involvement in political violence for resident status. ... While unsurprising, Saravia’s story is convincing. We believe Saravia knows more about the Romero case and may have additional information about D’Aubuisson’s involvement in death squads and kidnapping for profit.”

While the penniless Saravia tossed pizzas in a Miami parlor, telegrams marked “CONFIDENTIAL” that could determine his fate chattered back and forth between the State Department on C Street NW in Washington and the U.S. Embassy in central San Salvador and memorandums classified “SECRET/NODIS” (no distribution) circulated around the State Department’s top floors.

Cables, telegrams, memorandums and reports are how the State Department and most other governmental agencies conduct their business. And in November 1993, the department released 12,000 of them concerned with U.S. activities in El Salvador in 1980-91.

It took a U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador in 1993 to shame the United States into making its documents public. Even then, the U.S. document release was accompanied with some fanfare and not a little deceptive self-congratulations. They were issued “in keeping with the president’s and the secretary’s interest in providing the public with a full accounting of U.S. government involvement in El Salvador.”

These documents, more than 35,000 pages -- on the case of the four slain churchwomen alone there are 31 volumes, or about 11,000 pages -- in no way provide “a full accounting” of the U.S. government’s involvements in El Salvador.

President Clinton had acted in response to a March 26 letter from the chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee and 15 other members of Congress, by directing the State and Defense departments and the CIA -- in coordination with the National Security Council -- to declassify documents related to El Salvador human rights issues.

Yet there are no White House or Justice Department or FBI or NSC documents here, all of which are vital pieces in the same El Salvador jigsaw puzzle. Even these documents are incomplete: Ten percent are edited versions and a further 6 percent (roughly 600 documents, or three volumes of vital information) were withheld “because they are properly classified under Executive Order 12356 in the interest of national defense or foreign relations and, as such, exempt from release, (or) exempt under other provisions of the Freedom of Information Act.” Obviously, much has been withheld.

Some documents are basic housekeeping: “Carothers would like reservations at the Sheraton Hotel. Please meet him at arrival.” Other telegrams illustrate what goes on behind the scenes: cables from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador being routed to Rome for delivery to the Vatican. CIA documents reveal that the United States knew that Salvador’s defense minister, Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, was directly implicated in the death’s of the six Jesuits and their two housekeepers, but the United States thought Ponce was worth protecting in the hope he could reform the armed forces.

“What impresses me now, when I look at some of these cables,” said Marge Swedish of the Religious Task Force on Central America, “is realizing what a box the U.S. put itself in by deciding to support the Salvadoran army no matter what.

“The thing that kept coming through was that (the administrations) knew everything that was going on and simply made the choice it was better to work with this army, even when it was clear, as in the case of Ponce, they were not going to be able to reform these people. Strategic reasons for defeating the (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) were more important than human rights.”

Said Cynthia Arnson of Human Rights Watch, “We’ve known for a long time that the (Reagan) administration suppressed the information it had about human rights abuses by the Salvadoran government. What has only now become evident is the depth and breadth of the lie. And you have to remember what these documents are: The congressional request said, ‘Release documents relevant to the 32 cases investigated by the Truth Commission.’

“The information that has come out was limited by the way Congress formulated the original request. They didn’t say, ‘Release documents relevant to all aspects of U.S. policymaking in El Salvador.’ ”

Former ambassador to El Salvador Robert White said of the documents’ release, “This was something the State Department reluctantly, dragging its feet, kicking and screaming, got pushed into by (Congressman) Joe Moakley.”

White also drew a distinction between the generally bland State Department cables and some of the revealing CIA cables: “The State Department (and) many offices write cables with the idea that they’ll become public. The CIA really hasn’t learned the technique yet.”

To Fr. William Callahan of the Quixote Center, the release of documents has a deceptive pattern to it. Those that have been made public are designed “to show that the U.S. government had some knowledge of what was going on, but consistent with no firm evidence, no hard knowledge, so that no one could be blamed for failing to take action.”

“I think lurking behind the entire story is a huge amount of deception,” he said. “It is clear that from the earliest days the U.S. government knew exactly what was going on, especially through the Reagan era, and didn’t care what it was as long as their policy objectives were being achieved.

“They didn’t care how many tens of thousands of people were killed, slandered and persecuted in their determination to keep the ruling elite intact and their allies in power -- in their determination that the so-called ‘leftist’ element not only would not share power, but certainly not triumph in the Americas.

“It’s clear that human rights, even for (President) Carter, wasn’t in any way a U.S. government priority that was allowed to come into conflict with what were considered to be strategic interests.”

Basically, each of these declassified documents -- including pages of nongovernmental reports, letters from people protesting U.S. policy in Central America and El Salvador, congressional testimony, even a photocopy of an NCR story dated April 22, 1983 -- contains a little bit of truth. But the sum total of the documents is not the whole truth. All the truth will never be told. Much of it was never committed to paper. Absent are accounts of the meetings and telephone calls -- minutes were taken for some of them -- involving presidents and secretaries of state, such as Jimmy Carter and Cyrus Vance; Ronald Reagan and Alexander Haig; George Bush and James Baker.

Many of these cables show again the extent to which State Department work involves “finding the rights words” to appease, to evade, to deflect. Whether preparing “talking points” for traveling cabinet members or anticipating questions in the daily briefings (“If asked, don’t offer”), the word control is at once impressive and laughable. Not among these documents are details of positions argued when people such as Elliott Abrams or Jeane Kirkpatrick sat down with other Reagan appointees to conspire. There is nothing on the religious right’s role, which was significant, except for a mention of Jerry Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” turning up with a camera crew in San Vicente province, where Reagan’s pacification program was under way.

There is nothing vital or telling here about Vatican documents and actions that, for the same period, would be extremely enlightening. What does exist is innocuous, such as Cable R 012101Z APR 86, which was labeled:


In separate conversations with Poloff [political officer], Papal Nuncio to El Salvador Archbishop Francesco de Nittis said he would not be surprised if Romero were canonized a saint, and Mons. Ricardo Urioste said he truly believes that Romero was a saint.

If the Reagan-era ideological mindset were removed from the U.S. actions that generated these telegrams, this would be merely a story about cable traffic between the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador and the State Department in Washington. Placed in the context of the times, as reflected in National Catholic Reporter files, the cables provide a glimpse of how the U.S. government wanted its war fought.

In a March 1983 cable (0 311822Z MAR 83), Deane Hinton, ambassador to El Salvador at the time, reports on a meeting with Jesuit Fr. Ellacuría (the cable is run at length later in this article), in which Ellacuría described the situation with some accuracy:

President Reagan’s new policy relies on a failed scheme. The policy emerges from two assumptions: (1) that a Marxist regime is so unacceptable that anything, including war and repression, would be preferable and (2) that the negotiated presence of the FMLN in a power-sharing or representation scheme will inevitably usher in a Marxist regime.

Not at any point in these cables is the State Department about to entertain the idea, let alone concede it, that Romero and those around him -- or the human rights organizations or the religious groups and church workers -- actually were reading the situation pretty accurately. Certainly, those risking their lives to bring some sense to the El Salvador situation stated the case as they saw it. The San Salvador archdiocese human rights unit, Tutela Legal, at one point may have overestimated deaths. But Romero did not overstate the case in his appeal to Carter, and this account will begin with Carter. In the final analysis, as in the beginning when the U.S. religious community first challenged Carter, the protesters were correct.

They were correct about what was happening in El Salvador, about what would continue to happen because of the intent of U.S. financial aid. The U.S. government was co-responsible -- the Salvadoran government was doing the killing; the U.S. was the paymaster. Again, Ellacur¡a was pointed in this when he told Hinton that the two protagonists in El Salvador were, in fact, the “U.S. government and the FMLN.”

In looking at the cable traffic, it is important to remember that an embassy does not give orders, it takes orders. Equally, a U.S. secretary of state also takes orders -- from the president.

Embassies tell the State Department what they see occurring in a nation and bolster that with items from many sources. Here is such an item, in which the late Roberto D’Aubuisson, who since has been intimately linked with El Salvador’s death squads, blames the United States for Romero’s death:

0 082300Z MAY 80

We have been supplied with a copy of draft manifesto captured at the time of Major D’Aubuisson’s arrest, evidently to be released to the public at opening of the right-wing coup scheduled to begin May 1.
QUOTE: In our country the influence of the Tri-Lateral Commission began with the coup of Oct. 15, 1979, which was promoted by Carter and Cyrus Vance (head of the Department of State and creature of the Tri-Lateral Commission). They installed a revolutionary governing junta (JRG) in our country with the participation of the Christian Democrats, international socialists, multinational corporations, communists and military officers. This shrimp salad, together with its cabinet of guerrilla fighters, was never able to reach any agreement, and the first JRG resigned.
QUOTE: Wednesday, Jan. 9, 1980, a second governing junta was formed. The military and the communists remained in the government, and the Tri-Lateral Commission retained its power and believed that by putting Christian Democrats in the second JRG they might be able to gain popular support. When this proved false, the Tri-Lateral Commission was on the verge of losing its control of El Salvador. It provoked the resignation of Dada Hirezi and replaced him with Napoleon Duarte, whom they regarded as the Imam of the masses. They also decided it was necessary to send a loyal spy to the country and thus on Tuesday, 11th of March 1980, Robert White, a left-wing socialist, arrived in the country [as U.S. ambassador]. ...
On the 24th March 1980, only 13 days after Robert White’s arrival, Cuban communists were hired to assassinate Msgr. Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The JRG was left tottering. The first week of April, White left for Washington where he argued that the survival in power of the Tri-Lateral Commission necessitated a government with enough popular support to avert a civil war. He calls civil war an invasion of mercenary communists operating from a base in the territory of our Nicaraguan brothers. Robert White returned 6th April and only 12 days afterwards the Frente Democratico Revolucionario, Social Democratic Coalition, was formed as a last alternative for installing a communist regime in the country.
The Revolutionary Democratic Front is nothing but the conversation carried on among Robert White, Col. Arnoldo Majano, Juan Chacon and Pichinte. The FDR merged with the Coordinadora Revolucionaria de Masas (CRM), the new alternative which is being prepared for El Salvador. The campaign of destabilization against the second JRG was planned by Robert White, who used the CRM to secure the resignations of various ministers ... in order to put the FDR and the CRM in power.
The plan is to turn Central America into a Cuban paradise. Salvadoran Military Officers: These are to be your new rulers. The people are depending on your intelligence and on the integrity of the Armed Forces. We know how small communist penetration has been in your ranks. The people and the Armed Forces will stop the communist advance. Long live the Armed Forces. Long live Liberty. Death to communism.

The coup failed; D’Aubuisson was arrested but later released without charges. The Reagan administration found in D’Aubuisson’s views ideas that were already the basis for its own El Salvador policy: Build democracy by defeating the FMLN at whatever cost. D’Aubuisson of the diatribe was a natural ally for the right wing in the United States and a special favorite of conservative Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

Later, when the Reagan-Bush administrations wanted the Christian Democrats in power, Helms would become an irritant to the White House for promoting instead D’Aubuisson and the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as ARENA.

The Reagan administration seemingly wanted communist plots near home, anywhere south of Harlingen, Texas -- in Nicaragua and El Salvador and Grenada.

Communist plots, socialism, Marxism and revolution were the foundation of the era’s right-wing and reactionary politics. El Salvador was made to pay a bigger price -- at least 70,000 dead -- during the 1980s, when the United States and Soviet Union were playing out their final Cold War battles, than either superpower was prepared to pay.

Also made to pay a price, in lives, in ridicule, in harassment, were those North Americans who understood what it was most Salvadorans were trying to accomplish: basic human rights and a decent, democratic way of life. In one 32-day period, from Dec. 2, 1980, to Jan. 3, 1981, seven U.S. citizens were murdered in El Salvador. All were shot to death.

Yet from the beginning, the Reagan administration attacked those Americans. It set the FBI to spy on them and, throughout the 1980s, not only discounted what they said but labored to disprove it by any means possible. The administration’s “conclusions in El Salvador are thoroughly flawed,” wrote Human Rights Watch’s Holly Burkhalter in 1984.

Some U.S. journalists were as unpopular as the U.S. activists. The New York Times recalled Ray Bonner, “who was loathed by the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador,” according to State Department files. When Bonner’s successor, Lydia Chavez, turned on the heat after a slow start, her life was threatened.

Laurie Becklund of the Los Angeles Times was another rarity: a mainstream U.S. journalist digging at the unpalatable facts it would take the Truth Commission to ram into the American psyche. On the margins, many brave U.S print and electronic media journalists regularly circulated some of the message.

There is in the cables the occasional cutting remark about a Salvadoran government official; or a lighthearted handwritten comment about a new development; or the occasional insight into a cable writer’s views -- but not much else. Any embassy’s job is to gather information about the country it is in and relay that information to the secretary of state and his subordinates for policy interpretation and decisions. In cable traffic, there is room to summarize, comment and recommend. And, occasionally, to complain. Here is Hinton taking a jab at Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams (0 041743Z APR 83):

When I play poker, raises are in firm amounts, not reiterated promises of something. ... This is the same case that prompted me to withdraw the US trainers from Sonsonate. ... Why don’t you and your staff provide thoughts, rather than questions? Better still, why don’t you plan a trip down here to concentrate on this issue?

Only when placed in the broader chronology of its time is this accounting of what the U.S. Embassy and State Department reported on El Salvador useful.

The cables

For space purposes here, the cables are identified only by their numbers and whether they were from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to Washington (FM SAN SALV) or from the secretary of state, Washington, to San Salvador (FM SECSTATE WASHDC). There has been no attempt to identify every individual or incident in each of these cables in the belief that the cable context is usually sufficient to provide the flavor of what was occurring or being recommended. The particular cables have been selected with that in mind.

The five parts to this report: 1. Jesuits, Romero, Carter, Reagan; 2. the churchwomen’s murders; 3. D’Aubuisson and human rights; 4. the Jesuits’ murders. The chronology of the times is woven into parts 1 and 4; the segments on the churchwomen and D’Aubuisson are restricted mainly to cable accounts. Part 5 is assessments by Swedish, White, Arnson and Callahan.

These cables should be read as pages torn from three administrations’ El Salvador diaries, culminating in the U.S. reluctance to properly pursue Salvadoran military chief of staff Rene Emilio Ponce’s responsibility for ordering the deaths of the six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers.

The cables below constitute a selection of clues and indications of the state of the mind that gave rise to the Carter, Reagan and Bush El Salvador policy.

Throughout the 12,000 cables, letters and reports -- some cables are six and eight pages long -- there is little internal or cross-agency or governmental criticism.

That said, Ambassador Hinton, who was regarded by the Reagan administration as a “safe” player to succeed the ousted Ambassador Robert White, later shocked the Reaganites by publicly denouncing El Salvador’s “gorillas of the right wing.” Reagan disavowed Hinton’s speech and ordered him removed.


The El Salvador story leading up to these cables begins early in 1977. The mood in the government was anti-Catholic; liberation theology was viewed as a threat. Priests were being expelled, and Salvadoran presidential candidate Carlos Romero vowed, if elected, particularly to expel all Jesuits.

In March, Jesuit Fr. Rutilio Grande was murdered. In April, two University of Central America professors were arrested. Jesuit Fr. Jorge Sarsane was deported. Then three U.S. priests, Benedictine Fr. John Kevin Murphy and Maryknoll Frs. Bernard Survil and Lawrence McCulloch, were deported.

On Oct. 15, 1979, came the bloodless coup by junior army officers. The oligarchic dictatorship was ended; the new ruling junta consisted of Catholic intellectuals and the military.

Jesuits, Romero, Carter and Reagan

As 1980 opened, Jesuits were under attack in El Salvador, Guatemala and Rome. In February, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote to President Carter and begged him not to approve aid to the Salvadoran military:

O R 192010Z FEB 80

Following is embassy informal translation of Archbishop Romero’s letter. ...
QUOTE: In the last few days news has appeared in the national press that worries me greatly: According to the reports, your government is studying the possibility of economic and military support and assistance to the present junta government. Because you are a Christian and because you have shown you want to defend human rights, I venture to set forth for you my pastoral point of view. ... I am very worried that the government of the United States is studying a form of abetting the army of El Salvador by sending military teams to “train three Salvadoran battalions in logistics, communications and intelligence.” If this information is correct, the contribution, instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador, will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights.
The present junta government and above all the armed forces and security forces unfortunately have not demonstrated their capacity to resolve, in political and structural practice, the grave national problems. In general, they have only reverted to repressive violence producing a total of deaths and injuries much greater than in the recent military regimes whose systematic violation of human rights was denounced by the international committee on human rights.

SECRET: State Department synopsis: On March 24, 1980, at approximately 6 p.m., Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was saying Mass in the small chapel of a cancer hospital. He was hit by a single bullet fired from the rear of the church. Romero died a short time later at a nearby hospital. Romero was reportedly targeted because of his public stance against the death squads and his call for peace.

In April, President Carter expressed his support for military aid to El Salvador. That action triggered a major split -- between the White House and religious and secular human rights advocates. It was a breach that widened considerably when, later that same year, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Typical of the rumors that were circulated, or misinformation that was generated in San Salvador, Defense Minister García suggested to the U.S. Embassy that right-wing Cuban hit men had been hired by local “big money” to assassinate Romero.

White cabled:

0 261700Z MAR 80

It is important to do as much as I can in San Salvador to guide a press basically hostile to our policy. A reporter asked me if I could confirm that a right-wing Cuban terrorist had killed Archbishop Romero. (I know that Colonel Majano and others are giving this to reporters as a strong supposition.) I responded that I had no information whatsoever. ... When pressed ... I responded that a government source had told me that the bombing of Archbishop Romero’s radio station and other acts of violence were carried out with such a degree of sophistication he believed a group of Cuban terrorists were in the country.
I have previously reported to the (State) department my source on this was Colonel García, minister of defense.

In U.S. religious, human rights and pacifist circles, the United States was seen as the “moral author” of the “Central American Tragedy,” and a new wave of refugees, Salvadorans, was under way that would change the face of U.S. politics in some regions of the country.

In 1980, the Cleveland diocesan team in Salvador, which included Sr. Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, had made a commitment to remain despite the violence. Those in the United States opposing administration policy were urging President Carter to cease assistance to the junta; on Sept. 5, 1980, Amnesty International agreed, stating that military aid would be used against the peasants. Late that same year, the church was feeling a new onslaught of persecution: The radio station and a seminary were bombed, and Fr. Manuel Monico was killed.

A late 1980 presidential fact-finding mission, only weeks after the deaths of the four churchwomen, would find “no cover-up” of Salvadoran military high-command involvement. By 1981, the U.S. bishops were steadfastly opposing U.S. aid to El Salvador, where Catholic groups were describing the current revolt against the government as “the last means to obtain justice.”

Catholic relief shipments to El Salvador were being searched for arms, and in February 1981, Secretary of State Alexander Haig ousted Ambassador White.

In the United States, El Salvador’s consul attacked San Francisco’s Archbishop John R. Quinn for his criticisms, accusing Quinn of “defending communists.”

In February and March 1981, the religious lobbying against Reagan intensified.

The Vatican involvement in El Salvador was being influenced in Rome by the late conservative Cardinal Sebastiano Baggio, who decades earlier had held a minor diplomatic post in San Salvador. The pope and the Canadian bishops also were at odds over the Vatican’s policy toward El Salvador.

By that time Haig was telling Congress that the dead churchwomen had “run a roadblock,” and Reagan’s acting assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs stated that protests against the Reagan policy were part of a “well-orchestrated effort by a worldwide communist network.” The extent of the breach was obvious.

In the spring and summer of 1981, Maryknoll Sisters President Melinda Roper testified in Congress. A fundraising event in San Antonio for the Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, CISPES, was raided by police, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee placed restrictions on foreign aid.

Maryknoll Fr. Roy Bourgeois -- somewhat “recklessly” in White’s opinion -- deliberately disappeared and reappeared in El Salvador. Meanwhile, Reagan worried that the churches were winning in Congress. He must have thought they were winning elsewhere, too, when, in June, Archbishop Quinn banned conservative Salvadoran Archbishop Aparicio y Quintanilla from speaking in San Francisco. The Salvadoran prelate, who supported the Salvadoran military and the junta, was scheduled to speak at the right-wing Ignatius Institute at the University of San Francisco.

The next month, Salvadoran Archbishop Rivera Damas evened the score on Aparicio y Quintanilla by attacking the Salvadoran military in his homily and blasting the laxity in the junta’s inquiry into the churchwomen’s deaths.

The Reagan administration, by the fall, was attempting to sway U.S. bishops. But a special briefing for them failed to persuade, and the church kept up its pressure.

As a further effort to offset the bishops, Undersecretary of State James Buckley sent a letter to all 169 dioceses insisting that Salvadoran bishops were saying the U.S. bishops did not understand the situation.

That the critique of the U.S. bishops came only from one Salvadoran right-wing prelate and an episcopal conference priest seemed to make little impression on The Washington Post: In October it echoed the refrain, accusing the U.S. bishops of being “misleading.”

In spring 1982, Reagan tripled Salvadoran aid. Using emergency funds, Undersecretary of Defense Fred Ikle had brought 1,000 Salvadoran soldiers and 500 officers to the United States for training. Protesters outside Fort Bragg’s School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Ga., were being arrested.

Families of the slain churchwomen, meanwhile, were suing under the Freedom of Information Act for American Embassy-State Department cables (such as those released a decade later). The State Department reclassified the relevant documents to prevent the families from seeing them.

The recertification process for Salvadoran military aid was called a sham by Morton Halperin of the ACLU’s Center for Security Studies. He emphasized that the Reagan administration had made no effort to have human rights agencies determine the situation in El Salvador before the January 1982 certification.

The administration’s view of human rights was expressed in August by Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders: “Progress is marred, but real.” That same year, Reagan lifted the ban on Roberto D’Aubuisson’s visiting the United States (but the next year, Revolutionary Democratic Front leader Ruben Zamora was refused a visa). D’Aubuisson was regularly a cable topic, even more so after former junta member Col. Majano (not to be confused with junta President Magana), said he had documents implicating D’Aubuisson in Romero’s death:

R 211608Z AUG 82

Duarte confirms there exists a document which many overseas critics believe supports the charge that D’Aubuisson was involved [in Romero’s death]. Duarte reports that he received and studied the document while he was a member of the junta. The document was the basis for the arrest of D’Aubuisson in May 1980. Duarte notes that the document offers no proof. Duarte believes that this document was taken abroad by Colonel Majano after he lost his seat on the junta.
COMMENT: Duarte’s capsulized summary of the oft-mentioned but seldom quoted document and the circumstances of its distribution overseas appear to be accurate. On the other hand, his statement concerning the circumstances of D’Aubuisson’s arrest in May 1980 is not accurate as we understand the facts of the case. Duarte seems to imply that D’Aubuisson was arrested for suspected participation in the murder of Archbishop Romero or, at the very least, for his possession of incriminating documents. In fact, we understand that Roberto D’Aubuisson was arrested for suspected plotting to overthrow the GOES (Government of El Salvador).

White would later say that “we fixed D’Aubuisson as the author of the killing very early on.” There was not the same level of certainty in the San Salvador Embassy three years later:

O 181711Z MAR 83

Reference quotes Majano as saying he captured documents one month after event implicating D’Aubuisson in murder of Archbishop Romero. He is further quoted as saying, “I arrested the conspirators and submitted evidence to both the military junta and the U.S. Embassy.”
In addition, Ambassador Robert White has been quoted as saying D’Aubuisson staged Romero murder. Without knowing much about it, I had until reading FBI’s report assumed there was supposition but no hard evidence. Unfortunately, embassy files on this subject apparently were destroyed or transferred to Washington some time ago.
My curiosity piqued, I asked President Duarte March 17 if reports were well-founded. He said evidence Majano presented to him did not make the case but that he had always thought that Majano had withheld information. Duarte wondered if Ambassador White might not have received a more complete file. Certainly, in Duarte’s opinion, D’Aubuisson was capable of the act and Majano capable of withholding evidence. Action request: 1. Contact Robert White and ask him about evidence, substantiating his public charge. 2. Search State, CIA and DOD files; 3. Advise urgently.

D’Aubuisson, perhaps with encouragement from the United States, played a wily game with the San Salvador Embassy.

0221935Z DEC 83

I saw President Magana briefly evening Dec. 20 and later on the 21st. He told me that D’Aubuisson had been around to see him to say that two of the civilians on our list would not leave the country and would prefer to be investigated here. D’Aubuisson made a couple of points to Magana which foreshadow his public reactions in days to come: viz the CIA will assassinate his innocent friends if they are forced to go overseas. And the USG (U.S. government) seeks to deprive him of his loyal supporters during his political campaign which is just beginning.
Two DOD officials have arrived to brief Vides on forming his special investigative unit. We will be working closely with them.
Independent sources continue to give us good vibrations in response to vice president’s (Bush’s) visit in the military and most of the parties.

The 1983 peaks and valleys of Salvadoran rhetoric from the Reagan administration included Secretary of State George Shultz’s alluding to “churchmen (U.S. bishops) who wanted to see the Soviet influence in El Salvador improved.” He was echoing Bush. Meanwhile, the administration had embarked on its San Vicente pacification program: Reagan’s $23 million Operation Wellbeing, which included the visit from Jerry Falwell’s “Old Time Gospel Hour.”

Catholics were less popular. Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin said U.S. policy and Reagan administration attitudes toward human rights were sending “the wrong message,” and Rivera Damas was telling the United States to negotiate with the guerrillas or make “a serious mistake.” The administration continued to prefer extending its string of serious mistakes.

Within a year, the pacification project was sputtering, the FMLN was improving its strength, and White, having held his tongue, under oath would say there had been a cover-up in the investigation of the churchwomen’s deaths. An administration investigation, the “Tyler Report” in February 1983, denied that allegation. The other issue, of course, was that no one was being brought to justice for the murder of Romero. The following cables, 1984 to 1989, are examples of official U.S. efforts to resolve the Romero assassination.

FEB 8 84

In recent testimony before this committee, former Ambassador Robert E. White made some very serious accusations regarding information possessed by the administration concerning death-squad activities in El Salvador, Major D’Aubuisson’s involvement and the role certain Salvadoran exiles in Miami play in supporting and financing these activities. Contrary to the assertions of Deputy Assistant Secretary Alan Romberg to the press, the Committee has NOT received all relevant cables or other information on any of these subjects:
(1) Several cables from the embassy in 1980 reporting activities of Salvadoran exiles in Miami.
(2) A diary and other materials captured in Major D’Aubuisson’s possession listing connections between military, security, death-squad, government and Miami-based Salvadorans involved in civilian murders. ...
(3) A Nov. 80 cable from AMEMBASSY implicating Major D’Aubuisson in the murder of Archbishop Romero.
William S. Broomfield, ranking minority member
Dante B. Fascell, chairman

MAR 20 84

“... former Ambassador White ... alleges the State Department has been suppressing information about U.S. resident Salvadoran expatriates’ involvement in death squad activities and about Roberto D’Aubuisson’s supposed complicity in Archbishop Romero’s murder. White’s charges are incorrect.
Information developed by our embassy in San Salvador about these expatriates’ activities was sent in January 1981 to the FBI along with a request to prosecute if violations of federal law were discovered. The FBI early in 1981 interviewed White, among others, but no prosecution resulted.“

JAN 4 89

As I mentioned in my NODIS, we are deeply concerned about the action of the Salvadoran Supreme Court in ordering the withdrawal of the extradition warrant for Alvaro Saravia. This closed the last remaining avenue of prosecution in the notorious assassination of Archbishop Romero. ... I believe it is time to send an unambiguous signal to ARENA and those who do their bidding that we will not stand idly by while thorough investigation and prosecution of heinous human rights offenses are prevented. We will have an excellent opportunity to make this point this week: Salvadoran Foreign Minister Acevedo will be in town (Washington) (on) civil aviation negotiations. It would be useful for you to meet with Acevedo to emphasize our displeasure.
That you agree to meet with ForMin Acevedo: Disagree
That Secretary-designate Baker be invited to attend: Disagree.

The left-right divisions the Reagan administration dealt in were used also to assess those around Romero’s successor, Archbishop Rivera Damas. Typical is this cable:

R 012154Z APR 85

COMMENT: Church hierarchy is fighting a battle against the left’s political exploitation of one of its most notable figures, Archbishop Romero. To reclaim him from his current status as the patron saint of the left, however, the archbishop (Rivera Damas) must counter five years of successful guerrilla propaganda. His chances of succeeding are good but will require him to persevere with his quiet internal diplomacy and pastoral work. ... Rivera has also for the first time presented a humane and respectable orthodoxy whereby Romero’s real place in the turmoil of the past half-decade can be defined. Some will see this as a sacrilegious revisionism, but perhaps he has rescued Romero from an uncomfortable captivity among the cynics, and perhaps the late archbishop can now rest more peacefully.

R O218Z Mar 89

The (PDC) key to success in the (March 19 election) campaign is to get D’Aubuisson so emotionally involved that he comes out swinging in public. ... The Duarte administration made every effort to bring Romero’s murderers to justice and was rightfully outraged when the Supreme Court overturned Garay’s testimony and the Saravia extradition petition and the ARENA legislative assembly majority fired Attorney General Giron in December 1988. Should Cristiani win the presidency in March, it is unlikely his administration would continue the investigation with the same vigor. ... Duarte expressed in Emboff’s (Embassy officer’s) presence in Dec. 1987 certainty that Regalado was the (Romero) triggerman.

Slain Churchwomen

The period between the assassination of Archbishop Romero and the murder of the four U.S. churchwomen in December was less than nine months. Salvadorans were being slain at the rate of 200 a week, and threats against foreigners were increasing.

Even this early, critics were asking to what extent the United States was responsible for El Salvador’s chaos. Some asked whether U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance’s “lukewarm response” to Romero’s “no military aid” appeal had contributed to Romero’s death. Would a strong, supportive U.S. response to Romero have forestalled his death and much else that followed?

By June, the San Salvador archdiocesan legal aid office had been raided, and three rightist Catholic paramilitaries in the Knights of Christ had been slain. The refugee exodus, a development that would have a profound effect on U.S. domestic politics, was already under way.

Opposition groups in El Salvador were begging the United States, as Romero had, to stop assisting the junta; the 1980 death toll climbed toward 11,000.

Back in the United States, in San Francisco, there was a prayer vigil at the docks from which weaponry would be shipped to El Salvador, and angry longshoremen eventually refused to load it. In San Salvador, the Catholic church was besieged.

Then, on Dec. 3, 1980, four U.S. churchwomen were reported missing after arriving at the San Salvador airport the previous evening. They were later found raped and shot to death.

That same month, the United States revealed its strategy for the decade ahead: The incoming Reagan administration transition team announced that the United States would reduce its worldwide influence on human rights issues.

After a one-week, fact-finding mission to El Salvador, former Secretary of State William Rodgers declared there was “no direct evidence” that the El Salvador military high command was involved in the killings of the four churchwomen. What becomes apparent from the State Department documents concerning the deaths of the four women is that had the United States not led the way in discovering the names, details and actions surrounding the night the women were killed, the Salvadoran investigation would have led nowhere. Equally, the State Department was stalling the churchwomen’s families.

The real break in the case came early. As it happened, shortly before the deaths, a U.S. Embassy officer in San Salvador had developed “a source with right-wing leanings [an officer in the security forces]” who was approached “after Salvadoran investigators failed to make headway in identifying the murderers.”

According to a 1984 State Department briefing for Congressmen Barnes and Studds and to other mentions in cable traffic, the right-wing source provided the information that, with other U.S. input, became the basis for both the subsequent investigative work and the prosecution. Even so, Salvador’s Napoleonic Code legal system and a judicial network that ran from indifferent to hostile, threatened to keep the case bottled up.

Reagan was under enormous pressure in the United States to resolve the issue. Not only was military aid threatened but the indignation over inaction on the murders, as the months turned into years, cut across partisan lines.

In December 1983, Judge Tyler compiled a secret report on the deaths. Tyler explored the possibility of having the right-wing source testify. The foreign service officer who had originally developed the source returned to El Salvador offering him U.S. government relocation assistance if he testified. The source refused.

The “SECRET” 1984 Barnes-Studds briefing states: “Because the source, if forced to testify, might perjure himself and because the other evidence, e.g., ballistics tests, against those charged is quite good, Judge Tyler opted not to press the witness further.”

The same briefing reveals suggestions of an even murkier world, with allegations that the former head of the Salvadoran Treasury Police, Carranza, received $90,000 a year “as a CIA asset.”

Another element of routine embassy and State Department work begins to emerge. A key element of the diplomatic world is ensuring that only the correct words are spoken and that they convey as little information as possible.

The released 1980-93 documents are punctuated with “talking points” for State Department and other officials. Similarly, there were suggestions for dealing with the media: Use “following guidance on an ‘if-asked’ basis” when queried by the press. Typical of the talking points are those prepared in advance of Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger’s September 1983 El Salvador visit. The embassy proposed that “during his call on DEFMIN Vides Casanova, Secretary Weinberger request Vides’ personal intervention in speeding the investigations in the churchwomen’s and Sheraton murder cases.”

Suggested Weinberger talking points included:

-- “I wish to commend your recent efforts to reduce human rights abuses by all branches of the security forces -- as you are aware, however, there are a number of unresolved human rights cases in El Salvador which continue to attract considerable attention in my country.”

-- “I need not emphasize the direct relationship between progress in the prosecution of the churchwomen’s and Sheraton cases and the ability of the Reagan administration to assist your government in pursuit of our shared objectives -- resisting communist subversion and building democracy.”

The cable was signed “BLEAKLEY CONFIDENTIAL.” What follows are samples of the cable traffic and other State Department reports and files covering the next four years as the deaths of the four churchwomen were resolved, if only to official U.S. satisfaction.

DS DEC 4 80

At 4 p.m. on Dec. 3 Father Paul Schindler, a U.S. citizen Catholic priest resident in Saragosa (Zaragosa) near La Libertad, called the ambassador to report the disappearance of three U.S. citizens nuns and one U.S. citizen lay missionary. One nun attached to his parish, Sister Rita (Dorothy) Kazel, accompanied by lay missionary Jean Donovan, went to the international airport at 5 p.m. on Dec. 2 to meet Sister Maura Clark and Sister Ita Ford, resident in Managua, who were arriving on a Lanica [sic] flight due in at 6 p.m. The four never returned. Father Schindler had not been alarmed because he assumed they had gone directly to San Salvador and stayed with friends. When they did not appear in San Salvador or Saragosa, he became alarmed and phoned the ambassador for help.
On the ambassador’s instructions, MILGP Commander Col. Cummings telephoned DefMin García to request his assistance in finding the missing missionaries. Col. García promised full cooperation and, over the next 10 hours, spoke repeatedly with Col. Cummings. Meanwhile, U.S. Consul Patricia Lasbury, a personal friend of the two missionaries in Saragosa, telephoned the Direc. of National Police, Col. Lopez Nuila, to ask his assistance.
Thereafter, Col. Lopez Nuila spoke to Miss Lasbury and Col. Cummings by telephone throughout the night of Dec. 3. At approximately 8 p.m. the ambassador was informed by Father Schindler that the parish vehicle, a Jeep Wagoneer, had been found by local people some nine km from the airport exit road on the main highway to San Salvador.
The vehicle was off the highway and had been burned. No one was in the vehicle. This information was passed immediately to the Defense Minister and the Police Chief. They promised to send investigators to the site immediately...
At 10:40 a.m. on Dec. 4, Msgr. Freddy Delgado, vicar of the archdiocese of San Vincente, called to speak to teh ambassador. DCM [deputy chief of mission] took the call. He was told that the bodies of the four nuns were found by parishioners near Santa Rita Almendro in the vicinity of Zacatecoluca. They were buried on the farm of Fulgencio Guzman. The four were wearing sandals and dresses of slacks and have the appearance of North Americans. He is certain they are the four missing nuns.
The parishioners who found the bodies are terrified to be identified. Their pastor called the archbishopric of San Vicente and proviede all the information.
Apostolic Administrator Rivera Damas spoke to DCM by phone at 11 a.m. He had received the same information from Msgr. Delgado and was forming a committee to proceed to the site in order to identify the bodies. ...
DCM told Msgr Rivera Y Damas that full details on the location of the Guzman farm had been given Ambassador White by telephone at the airport and that the ambassador planned to go there directly. He would be accompanied by U.S. Consul Miss Lasbury.
DCM phoned MILGP Commanding Cummings at the office of Chief of Police Lopez Nuila and provied hem with above information. Col. Cummings has now reported that he made the strongest representation to Lopez Nuila and will see Col. Garcia now, to express shock and dismay of the U.S. Embassy with this tragic incident and to counsel that a throughgoing investigation be made immediately into the circumstances with the aim of punishing the guilty as promptly as possible. ...

0 050500Z DEC 80

Ambassador White and Consul Patricia Lasbury were present at exhumation of bodies of three Catholic nuns and one lay missionary. All U.S. citizens, buried morning of Dec. 3 under direction of members of El Salvador National Guard in mass grave.

In Washington, an immediate priority was “finding the right words”; State Department wordsmiths sprang into action.

0 04128267 DEC 80

We are preparing guidance for a statement by the department spokesman expressing our shock and dismay over the killing of the four U.S. citizens and stating that we are asking the GOES urgently to carry out a full investigation of the murders.
Accordingly, you should approach junta and MINDEF García ASAP to urge that a thorough investigation of these murders be carried out.

President Carter’s response to the deaths was to establish a quick mission of inquiry.

The December day the women’s bodies were discovered, six assassinated revolutionary coordinating council leaders kidnapped from a Jesuit high school meeting in November were buried. But assessing Salvadoran national security was a higher priority than investigating deaths when junta President Duarte met with embassy officials.

JAN 11 81

Junta President Napoleon Duarte gave us a summary this morning of the current security situation in El Salvador. He says the armed forces are in control throughout the country and that while the guerrillas can use surprise to carry out multiple attacks they cannot hold ground or sustain a battle as long as overt foreign intervention does not take place. He said there is abundant evidence of Cuban and particularly Nicaraguan intervention that is thinly disguised, but a crossborder attack by several thousand “volunteers” could alter the outcome here drastically. The Salvadoran armed forces are short of transport, especially helicopters, and ammunition, principally for rifles. A sudden attack from outside by well-armed and trained troops would be difficult to repel, fresh forces could seize and hold a piece of territory while the leftists proclaimed a government.
The second major subject of discussion we the investigation into the murders of the four U.S. churchwomen and the AIFLD officials, Mike Hammer and Mark Pearlman. We urged the GOES to prosecute these investigations fully and promptly. He gave us a progress report that demonstrated his close involvement with the investigations but progress seems to be slow to the pointo fo invisibility.
A great many questions were posed to Duarte which he tended to answer with legalistic apologies for the inaction of both investigations to date.
He was pleased to hear that Ambassador Pezulla [Pezzullo] had issued three stern warnings to the Nicaraguan junta regarding direct intervention. ...

The outrage in the United States over President Carter’s decision to approve military aid to El Salvador included criticism from U.S. bishops, legislators and scores of religious and human rights organizations. The NCCB president, Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, said the move “enhances the possibility of more violence from security forces, and [it] associates the United States with acts of oppression that can only alienate the majority of people in El Salvador.” The charge was reduced to its simplest terms when Americans in San Salvador picketed the U.S. Embassy, declaring that “U.S. guns kill U.S. nuns.” Ten Salvadoran Catholic agencies published a statement that supported the “right of legitimate insurrection” as a “last means to obtain justice and peace” in the country.

Conservative political and religious elements in the United States were quick to counterattack. The Reagan nominee for the State Department’s human rights bureau, Ernest Lefever, said the nuns “used religion as a garb for cloaking political activity” and “hiding guns for the insurgents,” a statement he later refuted; Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, “The nuns were not just nuns, they were political activists, and we should be very clear about that.” The smear campaign against the Catholic church and U.S. religious in general, and the Maryknollers and Jesuits in particular, began early and was sustained.

Typical of the drumbeat being picked up in nongovernmental right-wing circles, the Council for Inter-American Security in a March press release fudged the issues in a manner that would be repeated in the years ahead. The council was a privately funded advocacy group that supported Reagan’s foreign policy. CIS said the religious women “may have been working with left-wing guerrillas to overthrow the government.” The council offered no proof for the charge except that “all but one of the murdered women were members of the Maryknoll Society, which has earned a reputation for championing radical politics and liberation theology.” Next, came the guilt by association: “Two of the nuns were killed when returning from Nicaragua, where another member of the Maryknoll Society, Sandinista Miguel D’Escoto, is foreign minister. It is unknown what the women were doing in Nicaragua at a time when vast quantities of arms were being sent through Nicaragua to the guerrillas in El Salvador.” (The activities of the women were not unknown. Two of them, Srs. Maura Clarke and Ita Ford had been at the sisters’ regional assembly in Managua.)

CIS continued that “the families of three of the women recently signed an ad in The New York Times soliciting contributions to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, a group that supports a takeover by pro-Castro guerrillas.” Everyone had been tarred.

The State Department chose to see no evil. On March 24, Secretary of State Alexander Haig explained the churchwomen’s deaths to Congress as an accident caused by nervous soldiers who “misread the mere traveling down the road (of the nuns’ van) as an effort to run a roadblock.” Nonetheless, the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador was well ahead of the Salvadoran junta in investigating who had killed the American women.

0 132250Z APR 81

On APRIL 12 an officer of one of the security services told POLOFF that six National Guard [GN] member posted at the international airport were responsible for the December killing of the four American churchwomen. He identified the “post comander” who, he said, ordered the murders. The source promised to give POLOFF a complete list of the GN people involved later on this week. The four U.S. women were killed, said the officer, after a call from “the police” [presumably National Police] in La Libertad to the GN at the airport. POLOFF asked the officer why the four Americans had been killed. He answered that the police [presumably National Police] had called the GN at the airport to alert them to the arrival of what were considered “subversive” nuns. According to the source, the police told the GN that they -- the police -- were unable to do anything about this arrival and suggested that the GN do something [not specified] about it. POLOFF’s contact supposed that Colindres assumed that this meant kill them. ...

0 251923Z APR 81

POLOFF received two telephone calls during the night of Apr. 24 from the security officer with whom he spoke before. The officer called at 7 p.m. said he had the information which POLOFF requested but could say no more and would call back at 10p.m. He did. the officer told POLOFF “take this down” and then whispered two names. Francisco Orlando Contreras and Jose Roberto Moreno Canjura. He said no more about the two men. He went on to say he was willing to meet POLOFF on Apr 27 in San Salvador and give POLOFF more details about the killing of the U.S. churchwomen. He made a vague comment about having more on “the other [los otro].” In previous conversations “los otros” has meant the Sheraton murders. The source officer then said that there had been “movement,” and he was not scrared. He asked POLOFF not to take any actions until their Monday conversation. “You have got to help me with this,” he said. With that he hung up.
Comment: we expect to have on Monday a complete list of the six guardsmen at the airport checkpoint on the night of Dec. 2. We may have, in addition, specifics about the events of that night: which of the six actually killed the women, etc. We note that the names given us by this source do not correspond with the names Jose Luis Monterosa, Luis Napoleon Cornejo and Vidal Cruz Piche, earlier fingerprinted as National Guardsman staffing the airport roadblock on the night of Dec. 2.

0 272253Z APR 81

Charge and DCM had breakfast meeting Sunday, April 26, at home of a civilian lawyer with the MINDEF Guillermo Garcia and Director General of the National Guard Col. Eugenio Vides Casanova. Stressed negative press treatment, public demonstrations and tough congressional questions on three cases: the Sheraton murders; the failure to find the killers of the American churchwomen; and the Soyapango massacre. Col. Garcia spoke at some length about his personal commitment ot the arrest and prosecution of guilty parties in both cases. Regarding the presence at the Sheraton on the night in question of Lt. Lopez Sibrian and Major Denis Moran, Col. Garcia said declarations would be taken from them. Charge made plain that in the interests of US/Salvadoran relations, the armed forces should encourage these two officers to be candid in their testimony even if it meant incriminating their civilian friends or themselves.
Comment: in the course of breakfast, Vides made plain his viewpoint that the natural strategic interests of the U.S. and El Salvador should take priority over concerns of a secondary importance such as the two investigations currently under way. Charge and DCM used every opportunity to convince the two officers that this was a minunderstanding of the situation and that accumulating impatience in the U.S. with the dilatory action of the Salvadoran armed forces to get to the bottom of these murders could jeopardize our economic and military assistance.

The battle lines in the United States were clearly drawn: The battlefield was Congress, and it was a war of words, slurs and headlines. The Reagan administration’s anti-Marxism was both the vocabulary and the cloak for dealing publicly with El Salvador.

Reagan was furious because congressional support for El Salvador military aid was wavering as public protest against White House Central American policies increased. The U.S. Catholic Conference held to its position of opposing arms to El Salvador from “any source.”

In San Salvador, Archbishop Rivera Damas assailed the U.S. weapons flow, attacked the Salvadoran military for civilian deaths and criticized the laxity of the junta in pursuing the inquiry into the churchwomen’s death. Duarte now wanted U.S. assistance in solving the murders. Polygraph testing became a major behind-the-scenes issue, as, over the next 18 months, did suspicions of a cover-up.

OCT 26 81
Hon. Mr. Ambassador. My government wishes to request that the government of the United States offer assistance necessary to give “polygraph” tests to persons who might be involved during the course of the investigations of the two cases [churchwomen and Sheraton].
God, union and liberty.
Engineer Jose Napoleon Duarte
President, Revolutionary Government Junta

0 201731Z JAN 82

In the opinion of the polygraph operator, Colindres Aleman did not -- repeat -- not lie when gave a negative reply to the question:
“Were you ordered or did you receive instructions to assault those women?” (He) showed deception on: Did you participate in any form in the killing of those women? Did you shoot any of those women? Did you have sexual relations with any of those women?
011810 Comment: The polygraph examinations are bearing out our previous predictions. Those suspects who spent time in detention with Colindres Aleman are uncooperative and closed-mouthed. Those who have not are willing to talk.

The State Department was already “finding the right words” on the coverup issue:

OCT 24 83

SUBJECT: Your meeting with churchwomen lawyers Posner and Greathead.
They may well raise the issue of a cover-up. I suggest that you sidestep any discussion of the actual evidence of a cover-up and simply state:
1. Our principal focus at the moment is to convict the Guardsmen and
2. we do not want to be diverted from that objective. As to whether we intend to pursue possible cover-up after the trail, you could respond by saying that we will address that issue after the completion of the trial and will take into consideration the recommendations of the Tyler Report which we have not yet seen.

Though 1982 had opened with news that National Guardsmen were to be charged in the churchwomen’s death, how well was the Salvadoran military doing? According to former Ambassador Robert White, “All the experts agree: The initiative has shifted to the insurgents. At this rate they’re going to win a military victory. [President] Duarte has clearly (been telling) any sophisticated reader that if the military isn’t doubled, the government is going to lose.” But there “is no possibility of doubling the military,” said White, “they have their hands full just trying to keep their strength at its current level.” Jesuit Fr. Tojelio Pedraz, president of the Catholic University in San Salvador, in March told an Italian journalist, when asked whether the Jesuits encouraged the guerrillas, “There are only 32 Jesuits in this country. Four of them are over 90, and one is sick. So the idea that 27 priests are capable of causing a social revolution is all too flattering.”

In April in Washington, Argentine Nobel laureate Adolpho Perez Esquivel joined other international justice and peace promoters in a 10-day fast to end at Easter. Washington Archbishop James Hickey opposed it; his spokesperson said, “The archbishop’s position on El Salvador is very clear, (but) he does not like anything that smacks of a demonstration.”

In August 1982, Pope John Paul II bemoaned Salvador’s “fratricidal war.”

Prosecuting the guardsmen accused of murdering the four churchwomen would be expensive for all parties concerned. The question now arose as to whether or not the case would be helped with U.S. funds.

OCT 27 82

Issue for decision. Whether to provide money to the families of four murdered Americah churchwomen to assist them in paying the costs of an acusador particular, a private counsel who, among his several functions, whould participate actively in the prosecution of the accused murders. Our experts advise su that an effective prosecution will require such private participation. The conflicting policy considerations are 1. the undesirability of a precedent for using official funds and 2. the importance of assuring vigorous prosecutions in these cases. The Bureau of Consular Affiars strongly opposes (as) the State Department handles over 10,000 welfare and whereabouts cases each year and 5,000 arrest cases each year.
Recommendation: That you approve up to $75,000 form appropriations for “Emergencies in the Diplomatic and Consular Service” to fund an for the churchwomen’s families and that such funding be certified as not advisable for public disclosure (ARA favors, CA opposes).

In November, Reagan Defense Secretary Fred Ikle was publicly warning the Salvadorans that without human rights improvements, military aid might be cut by Congress. In December, the trial of five guardsmen was postponed. Five months later, with still no trial date in sight, the State Department had Reagan call Salvadoran President Magana.

0 071913Z APR 83

President Reagan telephoned President Magana Apr. 5 and requested his support in obtaining significant movent on issues of concern to USG.
There should be no doubt in anyone’s mind what the issues of concern are; therefore, the list follows and you should present it to Magana:
-- The amnesty must be approved by the constituent assembly and a significant number of political prisonersreleased -- Lopez Sibrian must be arrested and prosecution of his case must begin.
-- ICRC [International Red Cross] should have the right to make unannounced visits to all prisoners and detention centers.
-- the peace commission must show some action.
-- the churchwomen’s case must go to trial without further delay.
-- The peace commission will have to demonstrate that the GOES is serious in inviting the guerrillas into the ongoing democratic process.
-- We need to work together to implement a program of judicial reform.
-- Action must be taken by the GOES to identify and develop competent military leaders and reinvigorate the war effort. We are prepared to be helpful in training, but we urge president to find competen, aggressive combat commanders who are dedicated to winning the war.
-- Progress must be sustained in phase III of the land reform.
-- the perpetrators of the Las Mujas killings must be detained and charged, and those responsible for killing Florida cooperative peasants must be charged and tried. There needs to be evidence that those in the government who violate the law will be punished.

The cover-up fears were not going away.

SEP 14 83

SUBJECT: Ambassador White’s remarks concerning churchwomen’s case.
Without the names of the witnesses it is hard to figure out to whom he is referring. It is true that two of the witnesses we had hoped to interview were reported dead by the National Guard. Isabel Aquino Giron, who was Colindres Aleman’s second-in-command, died in a car accident in April 1982. The embassy reported at that time there was no reason to suspect foul play in the accident. We certainly would have questioned Giron about his knowledge of any information Colindres Aleman might have received ... but there is no strong reason to believe that he would have been able to tell us anything more than the others, namely, that Colindres simply told him he had received orders concerning the churchwomen.
My personal theory is that White garbled a bit the information he must have received from the families or their lawyers and is exaggerating and hyping it for his own purposes.

In what critics saw as a return to Vietnam-era pacification, but in a new location, the Reagan administration determined that with a multimillion-dollar scheme titled, “Operation Well Being,” it wanted to rebuild the badly damaged infrastructure of the central San Vicente province. In addition to the “Old Time Gospel Hour,” and a one-day visit from Defense Secretary Weinberger, there were U.S. Green Berets as advisers to the U.S.-trained “Immediate Reaction Battalion.”


Our information is incomplete, and we have not heard back from the National Guard. However:
Guardsman Margarito Perez Nieto, the GN trooper at the airport, who was suspicious of Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan and reported their movements to sub-Sergeant Colindres Alemna, testified before Major Madrano in Dec. 81 and before Judge Rauda in Feb. 83. Disappeared in action Jan. 84. Guardsman Alirio Elber Orantes Menjivar was the GN trooper with Perez Nieto at the airport on the afternoon of Dec. 2. Never testified. Nieto testified that Orantes was killed in action sometime in 1981.
Corporal Isabel Aquino, Giron was the second-in-command at the GN detachment at the airport on the day of the murders. Testified before Major Madrano and Judge Rauda. Killed in automobile accident Apr. 82.

Salvadoran officials were not always impressed by U.S. pleas for urgent attention to the case at hand.

NOV 7 83

SUBJECT: Dr. Castillo: Don’t Cry, I’ll be in Argentina. At a lunch on Friday, Dr. Castillo reaffirmed his intentions to attend a criminology course in Argentina which begins Nov. 8 and ends Dec. 22. He continued to insist at this stage the chuchwomen’s case really did not require his staying here. We are somewhat concerned that even if everything goes as Castillo predicts, the GOES would look bad if Sanator Specter or the press find out that the coordinator of the churchwomen’s case has left town. On balance, it would not be worth the bad feelings engendered to prevent Castillo from leaving.

Not much except the names changed on the U.S. public front. Now it was Shultz saying he might refuse human rights certification, and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin saying the U.S. was sending the wrong message with Reagan’s attitude toward human rights.

In December 1983, Judge Harold R. Tyler Jr. handed in his 20,000-word classified report on the churchwomen’s case. Recommendations and conclusions included that “elements of the Salvadoran military undertook an initial attempto to protect the perpetrators of this crime” and that “the special evidence” gathered by the U.S. Embassy ought not be disclosed -- the risk of loss of life that would result was too great. “The information has already been highly useful to the United State since, without it, we doubt the prosecution would ever have been undertaken.”

0 240132Z MAY 84

The charge met with MINDEF Vides Casanova May 23 advised him of the impending publication of the Tyler Report and reviewed its conclusions with him. Vides indicated that he was prepared for criticism which the publication would engender. He lamented that he was unjustly being accused of a cover-up when he had in fact gone to extraordinary lengths to assure that the case got to trial. He reminded the charge that we had worked together for three years on this case and he had always attempted to be as cooperative as possible. The charge agreed. Vides said he had informed both Magana and Duarte that if be became too controversial he would resign as MINDEF.

0 250022Z MAY 84

The dramatic churchwomen’s trial has ended with the conviction of all five former guardsmen on all charges. The press behaved abominably. One journalist explained that whatever they could get away with was “all right” and blamed the Salvadorans for not imposing controls. The truth lies in the middle: Controls were articulated and attempts made to enforce them. The aggressiveness of the press simply overwhelmed Salvadorans who could not or would not match the press’ rudeness.

The Reagan administration referred to civilians killed by the Salvadoran military as “battlefield casualties”; a Salvadoran former treasury policeman alleged Green Beret captain and major taught torture techniques; the Salvadoran armed forces “air war” against guerrillas and civilian populations increased in intensity; and a U.S. appeals court disallowed the Reagan administration’s attempt to end the biannual human rights progress reports for El Salvador. In Salvador with bullets, in the U.S. with bulletins, the war against the churches in Salvador was intensified. Though the churchwomen case was ended, those who had helped seek justice were not forgotten either by the Salvadoran right -- or the U.S. government -- as this concluding cable reveals.

0 1414Z MAR 85

Department takes note of Supreme Court President Guerrero’s comments on Judge Rauda and the reasons for his transfer to Chalatenango. Despite Dr. Guerrero’s opinions of Dr. Rauda’s professional shortcomings, the fact remains that it was Rauda who tried the five national guardsmen responsible for killing the U.S. churchwomen. Whatever unnecessary delays may have occurred in the trial, it was Rauda who presided over the one successful prosecution which we have seen in the various murder cases which have languished (or worse) in the Salvadoran judicial system. Dr. Rauda’s fortitude impressed us far more than that of his predecessor, Dr. Adalberto Rivera, who now serves on the Supreme Court as the colleague of Dr. Guerrero.
Department requests that ambassador approach Dr. Guerrero and strongly stress the importance of avoiding even the appearance of political retribution against Dr. Rauda, which would generally undermine independence of Salvadoran judiciary and specifically discourage courageous judicial conduct in pending Sheraton, Kline and Las Bojas cases. We have received one Congressional inquiry about Judge Rauda’s reassignment from Senator Specter and expect to hear more in the context of developing FY 1986 authorizing and appropriations over moribund GOES legal-reform initiatives (No JDU, no SIU, no functioning revisory commission, no National Council of Judiciary, no visible progress in pending cases or investigations).
Dept would appreciate being kept informed of further development’s regarding Judge Rauda’s assignment.

Slain Americans, D’Aubuisson and human rights

More than a dozen U.S. citizens lost their lives in El Salvador during the 1980s, the same period during which some 70,000 Salvadoran citizens were murdered, assassinated, butchered or made to disappear.

While there is significant cable traffic reflecting the plight of the Salvadorans being slain, it is not surprising that the bulk of the traffic directly concerns U.S. citizens’ deaths.

Cable 0 131844 MAY 87 listed “Amcits killed in armed conflict.” It began with William Hom (Sept. 23, 1979), “killed during an attack by gunmen on the grounds of the Presidential Palace,” and Rogelio J. Alvarez (March 3, 1980), “found strangled near University of Central America.”

Then came the four churchwomen’s deaths and, two weeks after them, Thomas Bracken (Dec. 17, 1980), “killed on street by unidentified guerrillas during police investigation of kidnapping.” The two U.S. labor representatives were next, Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman (Jan. 3, 1981), “killed by National Guardsmen at Sheraton Hotel,” then John J. Sullivan (Jan. 7, 1981), “decapitated body found 07/82,” and Patricia Cuellar (July 28, 1982), “presumed dead.”

Michael Kline (Oct. 13, 1982) was “removed from bus and shot by ESAF soldiers,” and Lt. Cmdr. Albert Schaufelberger (May 25, 1983), “shot by FPL guerrilla assassins on university campus.” Linda Cancel (Jan. 26, 1984), “shot by guerrillas on Pan Am Highway in Morazan,” and John Philip Hoagland (March 16, 1984), “killed while accompanying Salvadoran army in battle.”

On June 19, 1985, four U.S. Marines (Bobby Dickson, Gregory Webber, Thomas Handwork and Patrick Kwiatkowski) and two civilian telecommunications workers (George Viney and Robert Alvidrez) were “slain by PRTC guerrilla terrorists at outdoor cafe” in Zona Rosa, San Salvador’s posh watering-hole district.

The 1987 cable ends with Peter S. Hascall (Feb. 15, 1986), “killed by unknown assailants passing by in automobile,” and Gregory Fronius (March 31, 1987), “killed during attack on 4th Brigade Garrison in Chalatenango.”

Was death in El Salvador, in the Reagan-Bush assessment, an accepted necessity, like U.S. association with the right-wing assassins and corrupt military?

The Reagan administration knew in the early 1980s that the national guard was staffed by murderers and thugs; that even the exiled Salvadoran wealthy presumed the Salvadoran armed forces were corrupt and responsible for kidnapping, extortion and worse; that the Salvadoran judiciary was corrupt; that the Salvadoran far right and Roberto D’Aubuisson were running death squads.

But if it knew all of these things, why did the Reagan-Bush administrations play their hand as they did? Because they were playing superpower games by proxy in El Salvador and Nicaragua. A reading of the selected cables and extracts below supports the continuing claim by the advocacy community that Salvadoran human rights abuses and political and military corruption were secondary to fighting the military fight.

The State Department -- and, therefore, throughout the decade, the Reagan and Bush administrations -- did have an enormous amount of knowledge about Salvador’s right-wing paramilitary, the death-dealing security forces and the military human rights abuses.

Even at the start of the Reagan administration, there was material sufficient to give pause. To examine these issues, we start again with cables from the beginning of the decade. And again, the Helms’ role should not be underestimated. Word around Washington was that it was a Helms aide who actually came up with the name ARENA, the Republican Nationalist Alliance, for D’Aubuisson’s party, because Helms wanted to be sure that “Republican” was in there. Here is an example of Helms playing coy.

P 151305Z JUL 80

RE: Request from Senator Jesse Helms re. Leftist Coup Plotting.
1. Follows text of letter received July 2 (1980) from Senator Helms to the Secretary (of State). The group of conservatives referred to in letter is Roberto D’Aubuisson and company. Begin text:
2. Dear Mr. Secretary: Yesterday a group of conservative El Salvadorans held a press conference in Washington charging that Ambassador White was encouraging left-wing members of the present junta in El Salvador to join with other representatives of the far left in mounting a coup.
It is sometimes difficult to separate fact from fiction in small countries distant from the United States, but I would appreciate it if Ambassador White could be formally asked for a reply to these charges. The El Salvadorans believe that this coup is planned for the next few weeks. For this reason a rapid response from Ambassador White would be appreciated. Sincerely, Jesse.

On July 15, 1980, White replied:

Naturally we are tempted to suggest a tough response to Senator Helm’s disingenuous query. However, we suspect that is exactly the type of letter he is looking for and we therefore suggest Department confine its response to a. some phrasing that would indicate we do not necessarily accept his characterization of Major D’Aubuisson and company as “conservative” (to accept this description of D’Aubuisson would undercut the Department’s action in finding him ineligible for entry), and b. that would deny that Ambassador was encouraging anyone in present junta to join with representatives of the far left in mounting a coup. Department should also note that Senator Helm’s phrasing of this sentence is tendentious. Unless the Department is careful in drafting its reply, we could wind up admitting that some members of the present junta are adherents of the far left, a total falsehood.

D’Aubuisson’s reputation was always being assessed in cables regarding his U.S. visa applications.

In 1980 the State Department’s American Republics Area, ARA, official William G. Bowdler cabled that “D’Aubuisson is a retired Salvadoran army major who for some months has been public spokesman for the Salvadoran extreme right and cochairman of an organization named Broad National Front, FAN (later ARENA). In a public television appearance, D’Aubuisson bitterly attacked the U.S. -- we were responsible for frustrating a rightist coup on Feb. 23 -- and linked U.S. Embassy officers and moderate politicians with leftist groups. Thereafter, one of those politicians and several members of the leftist groups were assassinated.

D’Aubuisson’s performance contained a strong (though implicit) threat against U.S. Mission personnel because of our role in supporting the present government.”

Bowdler wanted D’Aubuisson’s name “placed in the Look Out System and be listed with INS for checking should he return to the U.S. in the future.”

Two years later, Ambassador Hinton was referring to “Major D’Aubuisson of unsavory reputation, visa blacklisted by Ambassador White for good and sufficient reason, even if lacking solid proof, purportedly now born-again devotee of democratic electoral politics, has asked me for a third time about visa to travel to U.S.

“He apparently has invitation, as perhaps do all party leaders, from some U.S. organizations (we believe from American Enterprise Institute) and wants to travel no later than Mar. 12. Believe he and his cohorts plans to make this visit even if AEI invitation is deferred.”

D’Aubuisson generally received his visas, however. In May, 1983, SECSTATE WASH DC cabled, “Department has no objection to issuance of one entry B-2 visa to subject for purpose stated forthwith. However, he remains a controversial person whose visits to the U.S. rarely fail to arouse the interest of the press and others concerned with Central American Policy. Any visa application by D’Aubuisson must be submitted to the department for an advisory opinion.” Two years later came a cable: “Issue for Decision: Whether to recommend that the Immigration and Naturalization Service grant a waiver of ineligibility to Roberto D’Aubuisson. The GOES persists in efforts to bring criminal charges against D’Aubuisson for his role in the Mar. 24, 1981 Archbishop Romero assassination. On Aug. 13, the Attorney General took the first legal steps to reopen the case, which was closed three years ago. D’Aubuisson could be indicted.”

In 1985 and 1986, after much similar hemming and hawing, D’Aubuisson was still obtaining visas.

In 1986: “Embassy recommends granting of a waiver for one entry to the United States for 10 days. Please note short time frame.”

Read from the perspective of State Department cables, it is obvious that there was little that was not known about Roberto D’Aubuisson. But the Reagan-Bush administrations put down the magnifying glasses with which they examined the religious and secular human rights communities and put on rose-colored glasses to look at D’Aubuisson.

Given the breadth and depth of U.S. State Department knowledge of D’Aubuisson’s activities and aims, the cable traffic is interesting when juxtaposed with Sen. Helms’ 1989 plea for “fairness” for D’Aubuisson. Helms describes D’Aubuisson as “the author of the constitution down there, which is patterned closely after the U.S. Constitution.” Helms told his Senate colleagues this in the same breath in which he referred to ARENA as a “centrist party.”

Equally, the State Department was well-aware of how widespread the security forces’ activities were in the constant killings, as revealed in the following October 1981 letter the State Department received from John McAward of the Universalist Service Committee.

0 0201439Z OCT 81

Letter contents:
Dear Art. I spoke to Ambassador Hinton by phone last week. The Ambassador wanted me to share with you data on the nuns’ deaths that we both have pieces of so that you can communicate it to him on the secure channel.
When I was in Mexico City recently with representatives Petri and Schroeder, I met privately with and then had the delegation meet with BLANK BLANK a computer engineer and graduate of BLANK BLANK. He and Napoleon Duarte became fast friends while Duarte was studying at BLANK Notre Dame. He was a cofounder with Duarte of the Christian Democratic Party. Until June he held a high position BLANK BLANK San Salvador. He fled to Mexico City at that time because he could no longer work in the country in the face of so many assassinations by the security forces.
One incident he described had him sitting in a bar in early 1980 in La Libertad when the officer in charge of the National Guard in that port city, half drunk, came into the bar with stains on his uniform and bragged he had just killed three guerrillas. As BLANK relates the story he told him he was just shooting off his mouth, he was drunk, to shut up and sit down. The officer challenged him to come to the National Guard barracks for himself. He did and found the bodies of three young people with their throats slit lying on the floor.
A short while later, in June, the left called a general strike. BLANK told BLANKS five chauffeurs to come to work but not to leave the building that day in their vehicles. This brought the wrath of the Treasury Police who considered their actions as supportive of the strike and arrested the five. BLANK went to Colonel Moral BLANK. The colonel admitted that the five were held but told BLANK not to worry they would be released in the morning. When he went to pick them up, he found their bodies. He shared these stories with Duarte as he tells it and Duarte told him, “The military takes care of the war and we take care of the politics. Keep your nose out of it.” He fled the country shortly thereafter.

In March 1984, Americas Watch, Helsinki Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights critiqued the 1983 U.S. State Department report on human rights practices in El Salvador. The critique opened with the heart of the matter:

As has become customary in reports from the Reagan administration, every effort is made in this report to exculpate the Salvadoran armed forces as an institution for any responsibility for human rights abuses. In keeping with this tradition, the report asserts:
Extremists of the right and left are guilty of politically motivated civilian deaths as are some members of the armed forces. The climate created by the guerrilla violence has further depreciated the value of human life.
Apparently after four and a half years during which the armed forces and paramilitary forces allied to them have murdered more than 38,000 civilian noncombatants, the State Department doesn’t yet consider that the blame should be attributed to more than just “some members of the Armed Forces.”
Much of what is wrong with this report follows from this central failure to acknowledge the institutional responsibility of the Salvadoran armed forces. In addition, we note objectionable features of the report on El Salvador:
In discussing criminal punishment of members of the armed forces for human rights abuses, the report refers to the sentence imposed in August on a civil defenseman. This is introduced with these words, “for example.” This is misleading, probably deliberately. This is the only known case in which a civil defenseman has been criminally punished for a human rights abuse. There is no known case in which a member of the armed forces has been criminally punished for such an abuse.

D’Aubuisson, meanwhile, was not short of well-placed supporters in the wealthy expatriated Salvadoran community.

JAN 10 81

This is further to Warren Christopher’s conversation with Mr. O’Malley concerning the accusations of involvement of wealthy Salvadoran exiles resident in Miami in assassinations and terrorist acts in El Salvador.
We would greatly appreciate the bureau investigating these charges as thoroughly and promptly as possible, particularly since they involve possible actions against the lives of our own personnel in El Salvador. There is a strong national interest in pursuing an investigation which could uncover illegal activities on the part of the U.S. residents who are also acting without regard to the foreign policies of the U.S. government.

R 271319Z NOV 82

Poloff stopped off in Miami on Nov. 2 through 9 to meet with about 15 members of the Salvadoran expatriate community. Most were supporters of Roberto D’Aubuisson and Arena, but appear to have lost faith due to his failure to reverse the reformers and bring back the “Good Old Days.” Fear of kidnapping or worse was the primary reason for these individuals’ departures from El Salvador. Their fear and loathing was not directed at the left, but at the Armed Forces whom they consider directly responsible for many of the kidnappings.
All had either been kidnapped, suffered a kidnap or assassination attempt or had such a fate befall a close family member. Their vindictiveness over being the victims of terrorism was directed not at the left, but to a person, at the armed forces. None held back on this issue. They felt that a corrupt and venal clique of officers either condoned or planned most of the 30-odd major kidnappings between 1972 and 1981.
They pointed to Ex-major Guillermo Roeder as the only perpetrator to be unmasked but insisted he was only one of those responsible. They claimed ex-chief of staff Carlos Alberto Rodriguez (jailed in 1975 in New York for arms trafficking), ex-Anesal director Col Roberto Santivanez, current Policia de Hacienda director Col. Francisco Moran and current Minister of Defense Gen. Guilermo García as among those who either knew or profited from the kidnappings. None acknowledged the contradiction between their fear and distrust of these officers and their support for ex-major D’Aubuisson who was/is closely associated with Roeder, Santivanez and Moran. Some went so far as to claim that the military collaborated with the left in some kidnappings and really does not want the war to end so they can continue to profit from US assistance and other opportunities for corruption.
One fallen oligarch summed up what appeared to be the general sentiment: “We want to go back to our country more than anything else. But we cannot until we are reasonably certain we can do so with the knowledge that if something happens we can seek recourse. Now it is impossible to know who is your enemy.”

0 030242Z MAY 84

At meeting with D’Aubuisson at his request, Poloff found that the Helms letter was only peripherally the reason for the meeting. D’Aubuisson said he had a problem he hoped could be straightened out and asked whether Kevin Brown was known to Poloff. Poloff said he was, that Brown was a member of the political section who last week had left El Salvador on reassignment. D’Aubuisson said it had been reported to him that Brown had visited Santa Ana (sic) prison where he had spoken with an inmate arrested on kidnapping charges. Inmate, D’Aubuisson noted, was a former employee of the legislative assembly security force. Note: The force was reputedly a death squad working for D’Aubuisson under direction of assembly security chief, Hector Regalado. D’Aubuisson says former guard now alleges he was offered money and other inducements by Brown in return for testifying that D’Aubuisson was involved in death squad activity.
D’Aubuisson asked what Poloff knew about this matter. Poloff replied Brown had worked largely on judicial and human rights matters and had visited many prisons and it would not be surprising if his name were known within the prison population. D’Aubuisson volunteered that the inmate could have concocted the allegations in an effort to gain relief through Arena and gave no indication he intended to pursue the matter further.
Comment: the Brown matter is not fully invented but it is completely distorted in the D’Aubuisson version. It is possible that Brown was seen speaking with BLANK and that (D’Aubuisson) was fishing.

0 092113Z OCT 85

TOPIC: D’Aubuisson--“I am not an assassin.”
D’Aubuisson and Alfredo Fredy Cristiani, Arena president, met with Ambassador Corr at the residence Oct. 5 at their request. D’Aubuisson said he did not want to talk about “politics” or Arena and then proceeded to do so for two hours.
Topics included the kidnapping of Duarte’s daughter, strong criticism of Duarte government, alleged U.S. interference in Salvadoran political process.

It was D’Aubuisson’s name in cables that usually offered the best insights into how perverse U.S. policy in Central America could be, while revealing that arrogant defense of D’Aubuisson and that policy. A cable, and then Helms address the Senate, provide examples.

0 022351Z SEP 90

Arena honorary president-for-life Roberto D’Aubuisson is many things to many people: as assasin, a savior, a bully, an inspiration, a menace, a hero. Depending on one’s perspective, D’Aubuisson may be all of the above. In any case, regardless of the adjective used to describe him, D’Aubuisson is a reality in Salvadoran political life, despite many wishes to the contrary.
Asked whether politicians or people in general fear D’Aubuisson, many contacts did not hesitate to say yes. His image and history apparently are enough to intimidate both opponents and allies alike.

Here is Helms addressing the Senate at a Jan. 18, 1989, morning session attended by the secretary of state:
“Mr. Secretary, The major news media in this country never mention Roberto D’Aubuisson’s name without saying, ’said to be connected with the death squads.’

“But I have tried for years to find justification for that. I have talked with the CIA and of course I cannot discuss what they said but I will say that they have indicated to me that they have no such evidence.

“But I would like to ask you as secretary of state as soon as may be practicable to release whatever information, good or bad about Mr. D’Aubuisson. I do not know the man beyond two or three visits with him. One time I west over with George Shultz to El Salvador on a little mission suggested by President Reagan to try to unify the political forces down there and I think that happened.

“But be that as it may, I hope that, in fairness to the man, whether he is guilty or not guilty of what the press continually says, and the television in particular, that whatever the facts are, that they be laid out.

“In 1984, when he was running against Mr. Duarte, he carried 10 out of 14 states and he lost the election in San Salvador where Mr. Duarte’s son was the mayor, and that sort of thing.

“But in any case, Mr. Secretary, in 1984 I asked the State Department about reports that I had received, and they were credible reports, that the CIA was covertly pumping money into the presidential campaign of Mr. Duarte. The purpose was obviously to defeat the centrist party in El Salvador and that happened.

“Now the State Department said, oh, this is not so, did not happen, we do not know anything about it. But subsequently it was substantiated and confirmed that they pumped about $2 million into that election.

“And by the way, the ARENA party platform was a little left of the Republican Party platform and I call that a centrist party.”

Human rights; pacification; Reagan and Shultz

Reviewing the period 1980-1991, there are many ways to assess how desperate was the Salvadoran people’s plight. Even in the unemotional cable traffic, the torment -- and politicking -- in a conflicted society comes through. It is important to note, too, in the Nov. 1980 cable, the fact that “one or two more” Jesuits were already marked for assassination.

R 0617308 MAY 80

In a portion of his homily May 4 devoted to events of the week, Apostolic Administrator Bishop Rivera expressed grave concern over the increase in violence not only in the number of victims but also the brutality and cruelty with which they were killed, especially those who were members of the popular organizations.

R 2413241 OCT 80
At Oct. 22 meeting, Bishop Rivera said the JRG (the ruling junta) in effect had accepted the episcopal conference mediation offer of Oct. 18 and that the request for a written proposal would soon be met. “A small but influential group with the church” according to Revelo, is politicized and entirely committed to the leftist agenda.

O R170100Z NOV 80

This week was marked by a level of violence similar to last week. At least 202 people were killed during the week, among them the leader of a large, democratic labor union, Filipe Zaldavar. Also during the week, guerrillas succeeded in injuring several policy by landing a grenade in their truck, were able to take over at least one town and several radio stations for short periods and, according to Bishop Rivera Damas, killed at least 11 people in one town in retribution for the killing of of several guerrillas by the national guard. Rightest killers were also active. The bodies of 12 victims of the death squadron were found near the road between San Salvador and Santa Ana. The close embassy contact told us that rightists are intent on killing JRG Magano and one or more Jesuit priests.

Always, the State Department was mindful of “finding the right words.”

OCT 8 81

The primary purpose of our meeting it to discuss US policy in El Salvador (with) Thomas Hammarberg, secretary general of Amnesty International since Nov. 1979.
Talking points:
-- We share your concern about violation in El Salvador -- the US condemns the violence of both the right and the left
-- our efforts to bring to justice the murderers of our own citizens signify our concern with indiscriminate violence from any origin in El Salvador
-- in this regard we have made our views know repeatedly to GOES officials.
Amnesty International has urged the U.S. not to provide the current GOES with military assistance.
Talking points:
-- any political solution would be more difficult if the GOES were denied outside aid while the insurgents continue to receive arms, destroy the economy by their current terrorist tactics, and impose their military solution.
-- a major objective of our military assistance to ESAF is to increase their professionalism, discipline, and adherence to the GOES government’s own code of conduct.
-- our security assistance goes only to the Salvadoran regular army, air force and navy, none is given to the Salvadoran security force.

And nothing the human rights advocates could do or say was about to influence the State Department.

OCT 9. 1981

SUBJECT: Human Rights Opposition to Administration’s Foreign Policy.
Opponents of the Administration’s foreign policy are beginning to use human rights as convenient policy around which they can organize.
The human rights reporting requirement recently attached to the appropriations for assistance to El Salvador is a reminder that human rights related issues can stand in the way of important security interests.

Despite all this, the United States was not making much progress. Reagan was prevailed on to talk turkey, politely, to junta President Magana.

NOV 19 82

This is your first meeting with President Magana. It comes at a critical juncture in US-El Salvador relations. Over the past 18 months Salvadorans with our help have made considerable progress militarily and has moved to put into place a democratic government. Human rights violations, although a serious problem, have diminished steadily. More importantly, the momentum has shifted away from the foreign supported guerrillas, the short-term survivability of the GOES ELSAL is no longer at stake.
However, serious problems remain. In the past few months the direction of the GOES in implementing land reform, in bringing to justice those implicated in the murder of US citizens, in curbing human rights abuses and in establishing a dialogue with the left, has been obstructed by politicians and military officers of the far right.
Magana, with the help of MINDEF Garcia, has been successful in overcoming some of these problems. But rightist opposition continues to severly limit his flexibility on dialogue with the left ...
The influence of the far right has also made MINDEF Garcia’s position somewhat shaky.
President Magana also faces a severe economic situation. Guerrilla sabotage has had a devastating effect on the economy. ... In addition, the guerrillas have particularly targeted the economic infrastructure in order to foment dissatisfaction between the government and business and labor.
Your meeting with Magana provides the opportunity to commend Magana for a moderate course he has maintained. Your expressions of concern for further progress on human rights and in the administration of justice for the slain U.S. citizens will give Magana the opportunity to re-emphasize our policy to other key leaders.
Although we remain fully committed to supporting the GOES in its drive to defeat the guerrillas, the seminannual certification process will make this difficult without Salvadoran progress in bringing those who ordered the death of the AFL-CIO workers to justice and in the successful prosecution of the case of the slain U.S. churchwomen. Guerrillas continue to mount hit-and-run operations against military convoys and to attack small isolated security force garrisons. However, the Salvadoran military, with our help, has demonstrated marked improvement in its counterinsurgency operations. But our continued assistance depends on certification. It is in the interest of El Salvador to have this aid continue in order that further military training will have desirable long term effects.

And Magana responded with an invitation to a day out in the countryside for the U.S. Ambassador.

O 0320691 JAN 83
At invitation of President Magana some of my family and I spent Dec. 30 at Apaneca with hime and his family. President was relaxed, confident adn in my view somewhat overly optimistic about the future. He clearly loves his simple -- wood cook stove -- but comfortable country home and delights in showing off its marvels, orchids he grows, oddities such as his Ecuadoran tomato tree and Chocha Mesina, his wife’s extensive huerta complete with multiple varieties of lettuce, asparagus and super strawberries.
... in course of this day I ran through with him points contained in reftel. I also left with him some papers of your specific hopes I earlier gave to Gen. Garcia.
He thought action on Lopez Sibrian could be possible. In recent five-hour meeting with military commanders he had reviewed importance of the case and he thought they understood detention would be necessary. He stressed to me then, however, detention meant detention not trial. He asserted that evidence would not convict Lopez Sibrian. To try him would result in his being freed once again. I said my instructions were to seek detention.
Regarding amnesty, he remarked he has wanted to go to San Jose meeting with President Reagan with amnesty law and peace commission in place.

Casualty head counts have always been a problem of perspective for the United States. Something bordering on optimism seemed called for when the daily political death count in El Salvador dropped to around five or six a day.

O 05667Z JAN 83

Deaths attributable to political violence continue to decline during the past six months, in fact monthy statistics showed dramatic improvement compared to average 500 during 1981. Monthy totals in last six months never exceeded 200. There is an increasing realization within the Government of National Unity that the reconstruction of the criminal justice system is imperative if further progres on human rights is to be achieved. As Ambassador Hinton stated in his speech to the AMCHAMCOMMERCE on Oct. 29: “Further improvement in human rights climate largely rests on the government to reconstruct an honest judicial system, free of intimidation.”

Pope John Paul II made a finger-wagging trip to yet another Central American country, El Salvador.

O 06093851 MAR 83

In a strong and impassioned plea for Christian reconciliation Pope called for dialogue, but not dialogue which would be a truce to fortify for war, but rather a sincere effort for a solution. He decried the shattered homes, the refugees, the orphans, the lives of murdered religious workers, especially the “heavenly and martyred Archbishop Romero whose tomb I just visited.” Wagging his finger at the crowd, he attacked those who played politics with the Archbishop Romero, saying, “no ideological tendency must lessen his sacrifice as a pastor. ... invest yourselves with the tender understanding of benevolence, suffer one another and forgive each other, mutually if oe has come complaint against another.”

Duarte and Elliott Abrams then had a tète-a-tète.

R 020438Z JUN 81

In a May 18 meeting with Assistant Secretary Elliott Abrams, El Salvador Christian Democrat leader Napoleon Duarte said that he expected to win the December presidential election. Duarte has said he favored the postponement of the Congressional elections because this would give the newly elected president time to improve the human rights situation and thus improve the possibilities of later inducing the left to participate in the legislative elections.
Duarte said that Archbishop Rivera Damas has “matured.” When he first assumed office he was complete surrounded by leftist priests. Now, however, he has become more independent and has reduced the influence of the left on him. He now also blames the extreme left for human rights violations.

The United States showed its concern when River Damas’ life was threatened.

O 071722Z JAN 85

I spoke with Duarte about information available to us on possible threat ot life of Archbishop. I told him we must take the threat as serious and that the consequences for him and the country would be serious as well. He agreed fully. I told him I had requested an appointment to see the archbishop. Duarte said he too would speak to the archbishop and clearly indicated he felt a responsibility to do what he could to assure the archbishop’s security.

How widespread was the presence of U.S. military personnel in El Salvador and what were their functions? That cable traffic was not made public and the available State Department documents denied any active role by U.S. “trainers” in the country.


I am writing ... concerrning one of your constituent’s report(ed) allegations that U.S. trainers in El Salvador tortured Salvadoran civilians. The allegations are not true. The Department of Defense interviewed all 19 trainers in El Salvador at that time. All emphatically denied witnessing any torture sessions. In at least one account, Carlos Gomez, a Salvadoran deserter who was the source of a December New York Times story on the incident, alleged the Americans wore camouflage fatigues and green berets. U.S. trainers going to El Salvador are prohibited from using camouflage fatigues or green berets.

Polical murders were not solethe the province of the Salvadoran right.

P 181717Z JAN 85

The FMLN’s Clara Elizabeth Ramirez Front (CERE) death squad has claimed authorship of four political murders since the beginning of 1985. Four other apparently political killings took place during the past two weeks and another person was gravely wounded in the fifth incident. We suspect the left in at least three of these five cases.

In 1983, Reagan sent Vice President Bush to El Salvador to remind the military that Congress -- not Reagan -- might cut off aid if the habit of tolerating a wide range of abuses did not cease. By 1988, the American embassy in San Salvador was seeking a repeat performance by a high-ranking administration official, but one to be played in a softer key. Two cables provide insights. In time, Secretary of State Shultz would go. The second cable is the embassy’s suggested outline for Shultz’s private performance to the Salvadoran armed forces high command.


The indiscriminate killings by Salvadoran security force continue and are further eroding public and Congressional support of the Administration’s polices in El Salvador. If the Administration is to arrest this erosion of support, Administration initiatives must bge undertaken to end such killings. With that in mind, and in order to shore up Congressional support for the present policy, I would suggest that consideration be given to sending to San Salvador a senior Administration official who could speak with the authority of the President and of the Secretary ... to convince the Salvadoran High Command to undertake the necessary measures to end the indiscriminate killings. ...

O 241450Z JUN 88

This will probably be the most sensitive meeting you will have in El Salvador. The Salvadoran Armed Forces (ESAF) has accomplished a great deal since 1979 in terms of its capabilities as a warfighting force, in human rights and in its support for democratic progress. Yet I am particularly concerned that the human rights improvements may have leveled off and that we may even be slipping backwards.
The ESAF is in a turmoil at present over command changes being forced by the colonels.
It is important you not give the impression that you have called the military leaders together to chew them out. This meeting is not meant to be a repeat of the 1983 visit by Vice President Bush. We do not wish to threaten but as partners to describe why abuses are wrong and counterproductive. I recommend we keep the U.S. participation at this meeting to a minimum, yourself, Elliott Abrams, myself, your interpreter, and the highest ranking military office we can find. USCINCSO Ge. Woerner or Army Chief of Staff Vuono would be good choices.

Enclosure -- talking points -- confidential.
-- You see me before you as the Secretary of State of the United States. But 45 years ago I was a Marine lieutenant taking fire and losing troops under my command. I well remember what combat is and I understand its frustrations.
-- I commend the ESAF for your remendous achievements. You have professionalized. You have expanded the size of your officers corps and troops.
-- with better training, equipment and movility, you have more than halved the number of fulltime FMLN combatants.
-- With a small military group, we have assisted with money, equipment and training. But it is you who are fighting and winning this war. As Secretary of State and a former Marine, I salute you.
-- I am concerned by reports that the ESAF and the security force are committing an increasing number of human rights violations. I do not presume that these charges are necessarily correct. The problem is that without genuine investigations of these charges the international community -- and many in the U.S. Congress -- will assume that the charges are true. And that worries me profoundly. We must find some way to make a ’strategic’ leap on human rights. I assume it is obvious why such activities are morally wrong. Experience has taughts us that mistreating civilians or captured combatants createsmore guerrilla sympathizers that it eliminates.
Observing human rights does not mean that you must endure a state of anarchy in the cities of El Salvador. No one will blame you for arresting violent demonstrators who are destroying public and private property. But they must be arrested applying the appropriate level of force -- and brought before a court of law.
-- Again I wish to congratulate you for all that you have accomplished. You have won my respect. You are winning the war. You have become an apolitical force and you have resisted the enticements of those who would use you to change the covilian government in contradiction to your constitution.
-- Civilians are a fractious lot. Democracy is inefficient. ... But is it without a doubt better than any other system of government.

And as the eight-year Reagan adminstration drew to a close, here is what had been accomplished, as reported from San Salvador.

O 291658Z JUN 88

Auxiliary Bishop Rosa Chavez backed up his pessimistic Dec. 1987 sermon by quoting Tutela Legal’s year-end statistic of 1,309 civilians who died violent politically motivated deaths in 1987.
Governmental rights commission (CDH) executive director Benjamin Cestioni since mid-May has been telling Embassy officers he is dismayed by what appears to him to be the beginning of the return ot the appalling human rights situation of the early 1980s.
Our hunch is that the increase in extralegal violence my be related more to the expiration of the State of Exception Decree in January 1987 than to any other single event. There are no quick fixes. This is not 1983 when Vice President Bush could meet with the military commanders and cause a strategic leap in the observance of human right standards.
Some academics distinguish between “command repression” and “institutional repression.” The former would be an officer drawing up a list of suspected terrorists and order his men to kill them. The latter would be a corporal feeling he can kill someone with impunity in order to steal his property. While “command repression” may be more repugnant morally, both types must be addressed in order to create the climate where citizens feel protected by the law and have some belief in equality before the law.
Contrary to reports in the U.S. press and questions which wwe are being asked by U.S. visiting delegations, the increased number of death outside combat look as if they may be due to the security forces, the army, or perhaps the para-military death squads, does not appear to be related to the Arena victory in the Mar. 20, 88 assembly elections.
As for the solution, there is no easy answer. While the human rights commission, CDH, has gone just about as far as it can in educational programs, once a human rights violation is committed there is little the CSH can do because it cannot present evidence in court.
We had high hopes of the new attorney general, but when he ran into problems with the military in the fall of 87, he backed off and his office is no longer making serious efforts to promise to prosecuted human rights abuses.

In the final analysis, it is interesting not only how little was achieved, but how little was leaned in the White House. As Reagan was working through his final year, his government was still lumping every critic -- no matter how knowledgeable -- together in something called “the left.”

This letter was from the head of Human Rights Watch to the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador in July 1988:
I have been informed that the Embassy has circulated in its press package several articles under the title of “leftist propaganda in the U.S.” It is my understanding that on May 5 the Embassy’s press digest included under this heading an article by a Human Rights Watch staff membver, Holly Burkalter, concerning labor rights in El Salvador and an article by journalist Chris Norton, also labeled “leftist propaganda in the U.S.” Mr. Norton’s articles appear frequently in the Christian Science Monitor.
Human Rights Watch stronly objects to the Embassy’s labeling and circulating articles in this manner. ... [T]he Embassy’s annuncing to the military that a working journalist living in San Salvador is a purveyor of “leftist propaganda” is irresponsible and my put Norton’s life at risk. ... We maintain an office in San Salvador which is directed by our counsel, Jemera Rone. The characterization of the organization as one which produces “leftist propaganda” is false, insulting and -- given the policial violence in El Salvador -- possibly dangerous to Ms. Rone.

The Jesuits

In a sense, the period under review in the released State Department documents, 1980-91, both opens and closes with Jesuits -- from the 1977 slaying of Jesuit Rutilio Grande to the Nov. 16, 1989, wholesale massacre of the six Jesuits and their housekeepers and the ensuing investigation and trial.

Assassinated were: Jesuits Ignacio Ellacuría, Joaquin López y López, Amando López, Ingnacio Martin-Baro, Seguno Montez, Juan Ramón Moreno and their housekeeper Julia Elba Ramos and her daughter, Celina.

The U.S. Embassy had always maintained regular contact with the Jesuits and the University of Central America, as these cables reveal. Interspersed with the cables is a partial chronology from NCR’s files.

0 311382Z MAR 83

Staffdels McCall, Hayes and Sklar, accompanied by Ambassador Hinton and Poloff, met with Central American University (UCA) rector Father Ignacio Ellacuria, Father John Cortina and Dr. Ricardo Stein on March 29, 1983, at the Embassy conference room. McCall requested views on where El Salvador is today and where it is going.
Father Ellacuria responded by saying he would contribute some comments on the situation. He then proceeded to read from well-prepared notes a careful, almost tautological analysis of the situation.
According to Ellacuria’s “personal opinion,” the Reagan Administration policies have yielded some good results but have not solved the real problem in El Salvador. The Administration has been successful in that the FMLN has not achieved power. There is a relative improvement in the human rights situation and there is more activity by the political parties.
But on the other hand, the FMLN’s position has not been weakened, its military strength is larger than two years ago. Neither has its potential diminished, nationally or internationally. Important political resources have been squandered in a futile search for a solution which is not nearer now than before, indeed, seems farther away. The cost of these efforts, however, has been tremendously high. According to Ellacuria, President Reagan’s new policy does not solve the problem of El Salvador because it relies on a failed scheme. The policy emerges from two assumptions: 1. that a Marxist regime is so unacceptable that anything, including war and repression, would be preferable, and 2. that the negotiated presence of the FMLN in a power-sharing or representation scheme will inevitably usher a Marxist regime into power.
Reagan’s new policy is characterized by two methods, 1. to seek the progressive military defeat of the FMLN and 2. to seek a political facade that is able to legitimize the military struggle and muster national consensus behind it. Ellacuria affirms that this policy will fail because Reagan’s Administration will not weaken the FMLN in the time it has left in power. There is also no reason to expect a rapid decline in the increasing military power of the FMLN. To ignore those facts necessarily implies continuation of the violence and carnage.
Ellacuria proposed that the US Administration shift policies and attempt a “pre-dialogue” with the FMLN through a personal, official and secret emissary from President Reagan. The rationale behind this proposal, Ellacuria stated, is that the US and the FMLN are the two real protagonists in this conflict. According to Father Ellacuria, the FMLN is now ready to speak seriously with any sector in this country which is not extremely rightist nor too directly involved in the killing. The FMLN is ready to speak to private enterprise and to the military as it now speaks to the top hierarchy of the church. The US Administration will be able to convince everyone -- except Arena -- to join in the dialogue. Ellacuria admitted that even though the FMLN is willing to negotiate, the two main guerrilla groups -- the FPL and ERP -- must still be convinced that it is not necessary to continue the war to win.

The next month, another meeting.

R 292305Z APR 83
Burke (meeting with Human Rights groups) noted that the number of civilians killed appeared to be on the decline. Ellacuria agreed that the numbers of deaths had come down, but that this did not mean the human rights situation had improved. Ellacuria attributed that decline to the following 1. there are simply fewer potential victims, this is simply because so many have been killed already, 2. because those who supported FMLN had been so terrorized by the security forces that they dare not manifest their support, 3. because many FMLN supporters have fled the country and 4. because of U.S. pressure.
Well-known figures such as himself are no longer targeted but the apparatus is still in place. Ellacuria gave his vision of an ideal government in a future El Salvador.
In his opinion, Salvador needed an authoritarian regime of the left to address the basic human needs of the nation whose population would reach 10 million in the year 2000. A democratic regime could not wield sufficient power to resolve these problems and the “trickle down” program of the rightist authoritarian government would not suffice. In the interest of helping the poor, Ellacuria was prepared to put his and the nation’s political liberties on the back burner for an indefinite period. A leftist authoritarian regime would want relations with the United States because the nation would depend on trade with the U.S. and foreign investment for economic recovery.

Deaths declined in 1984 to 3,400 from 6,100. In 1984, the dead included Lutheran pastor David Ernesto Fernandez Espino, whose mutilated body was discovered in January.

That same month, the Catholic Traditionalist Movement took a full-page advertisement in a San Salvador newspaper with veiled threats against Archbishop Rivera (“remember your predecessor”) and accusing him of “sowing class hatred and supporting Catholic communist progressivism.”

Internally, Salvador was chaotic, with more than 10 percent of the country displaced. The pacification attempt had thus far consumed $10 million from sources Reagan found and $23 million in U.S. Agency for International Development money. Congress charged the USAID money was “buying war,” with only 15 percent of the $1.7 billion that had gone into El Salvador since 1980 spent on reform or economic development.

That spring, Elliott Abrams denied the Salvadoran air force had engaged in indiscriminate bombing. The summer brought the Zona Rosa slayings of the marines and civilians.

The next year, 1985, D’Aubuisson’s ARENA party lost its majority in municipal elections and by October ARENA had dropped D’Aubuisson. It was at that time that some 2,500 Salvadorans held a peace march in the capital, that Duarte’s kidnapped daughter was released, and Duarte subsequently said no to resumed peace talks.

The U.S. Embassy was still assessing who mattered and who didn’t.

R 260007Z NOV 85

The Jesuit University (UCA) journal “ECA” has an impact beyond what its rather restricted distribution would indicate. It is widely read in professional and academic circles, as well as by top level government bureaucrats and politicians. It is useful as a rather accurate reflection of the thinking of the left-wing intelligentsia. Its publication of articles such as the editorial on Nicaragua and the justification of the Zona Rosa massacre, if nothing else, refute the charge that there is no freedom of the press in El Salvador and that there is no legitimate outlet for the printed expression of views opposing the government from the left.

As 1986 opened, Archbishop John Quinn condemned the bombing of civilians; two Salvadoran army officers accused of assisting death squads were promoted and two former national guard corporals were found guilty in the deaths of the AFL-CIO advisers.

Before the year ended, talks between the government and guerrillas were resumed.

A year later, October 1987, peace talks were back in the headlines and in November Archbishop Rivera Damas was lamenting that the increased number of murders “makes us think the death squads are returning.” A few weeks later, the Salvadoran government declared there was new evidence to link D’Aubuisson to Romero’s death -- provided by Saravia, the driver of the getaway car. His extradition to El Salvador from the United States was sought -- and fought.

Yet D’Aubuisson -- with George Bush in the United States campaigning for Reagan’s place in the White House -- won a stunning victory in the April national elections. Later, Bush won, too. In February 1989, a commission appointed by the Salvadoran government concluded that Roberto D’Aubuisson planned Romero’s assassination and that Helgado Regalado was the triggerman.

In May, the Jesuits’ Central American University was bombed. In retrospect it was a signal of what lay only months ahead. That summer, as the ARENA party stepped up its anti-Jesuit campaign, the long shadows from a decade earlier crept toward UCA. On Nov. 16, soldiers brutally blew away the lives and brains of six Jesuits and two women.

Who ordered the Jesuits killed? The U.S. Embassy in San Salvador was partly responsible for seeing that question answered. Instead, as time elapsed, it became extremely defensive and did not want the investigation pushed too far in the direction in which it was heading -- toward final responsibility resting with Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, Salvador armed forces chief.

The embassy grew increasingly protective -- or schizoid. It wanted to see those responsible in the high command brought to justice while not wanting to rock the leadership’s boat on the grounds it was in the interests of the United States to protect the FMLN-Salvadoran government dialogue.

Equally strange was the period when (0 125848Z OCT 90) “on Jan. 2 1990, Major Eric W. Buckland, US miloff in Salvador, approached his superior officer with the important news that Col. Guillermo Benavides Marino may have ordered the killing of the six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers on the morning of Nov. 16, 1989.

“According to Buckland, Col. Carlos Aviles, his ESAF counterpart, told him on Dec. 21, 1989, in an informal conversation in Aviles’ office that Benavides admitted his role in the crime to Lieut. Col. Manuel Rivas, the director of the SIU (special investigation unit), and asked for his help in obstructing the investigation.”

Buckland’s testimony -- he later retracted it and some of it did not hold up under lie-detector examination -- raised questions as to whether Buckland’s account was diversionary, diverting attention away from Ponce. One fact was clear, however: The armed forces were stalling the investigation and prosecution into who killed the Jesuits, and the U.S. ambassador was unwilling to push.

In a 1991 report to Congressman Joe Moakley, aides Jim McGovern and Bill Woodward, who uncovered material that implicated Ponce as ordering the murders, looked at the situation this way:
Perhaps the best summary of the current status of the case was provided by one Salvadoran government official who told us that “the Armed Forces wrote the first act in the Jesuits’ case by murdering the priests, now, they are writing the final act by controlling the investigation.”
Although we have more confidence now than after previous trips (that) Col. Benavides and others charged with murders may be convicted, we also believe more strongly than ever that the high command of the armed forces has successfully limited the scope of the investigation and protected certain officers from possible prosecution.“ (Ponce was the most senior.)
The Salvadoran military has grown so uncooperative in the case that the Bush administration secretly ordered a slowdown in delivering U.S. military aid this past August. The slowdown continued until November when a resurgence in FMLN military activity prompted renewed aid.
For this reason, both Salvadoran and U.S. officials familiar with the investigation stress the need for continued external pressure in the Jesuits’ case. Pressure to guarantee the integrity of the trial and pressure to develop more information about who ordered the murders, who planned them, and who sought to limit the investigation concerning them.
It is disturbing that President Cristiani proved either unwilling or unable to exercise his authority as commander-in-chief to require Col. Ponce and the other officers to testify in person.

In fact, Cristiani was not the only one unwilling to put Ponce on the spot. U.S. Ambassador William Walker, increasingly flailing about, was advising Bush’s secretary of state, James A. Baker III, that the United States “not jeopardize” the political progress “by what we do to solve past deaths, however heinous.”

Walker (031421Z) was extremely defensive of Ponce, placing a higher priority on reform of the military than on the Jesuit investigations:

“The ESAF’s institutional problems had been dramatically highlighted by the Jesuit case and its aftermath -- and the stigma of an arbitrary Armed Forces resistance to civilian authority remained. Ponce thus had an extremely narrow window to demonstrate that the situation had changed.”

Further (0 152305Z): “I have reached the conclusion that the (U.S.) Embassy (in San Salvador) must cease the pursuit of unilateral overt information-gathering or face continued no-win decisions and criticism. I recommend that the Embassy be so instructed and that all further investigative effort be left to the GOES (government of El Salvador). SECRET.”

Walker believed (same cable), “the Embassy’s sustained efforts to support, stimulate and advance the GOES investigation of the Jesuits’ murders has again put it and an individual mission officer in a difficult, dangerous and virtually no-win situation -- risks that far outweigh the gains possible at this point.”

In conclusion, then, the United States involvement in El Salvador, as these cables relate it, was ending the decade much as it had begun -- by concerning itself first and foremost with its own interests.

The Salvadorans had little to show for the U.S. millions spent, the military battles fought on the ground and the political battles fought in Washington beyond a demoralized people, a dislocated population, the promise still of peace and 75,000 dead.


Margaret Swedish
Religious Task Force on Central America

NCR: How do you summarize what happened in El Salvador?
Swedish: The El Salvador tragedy began with (President) Carter. That special commission (Rogers-Bowdler) he sent after the four churchwomen were killed, came back and their public statement was, basically, the Salvadoran government is doing an honest job, a sincere job in trying to investigate. Military aid was then restarted. And that happened before Reagan came into office.

The Salvadoran military government (saw) the (1980) U.S. election results as a green light. I mean, incredible high-profile assassinations: the four (Salvadoran) FDR leaders, the four churchwomen, John Sullivan.

Reagan came into office. It was so quickly announced that countering terrorism would replace human rights in U.S. foreign policy, it became obvious in Salvador there wasn’t going to be much of a price to be paid for these high-profile assassinations. I remember hearing even in Guatemala that with Reagan’s election, people in the Guatemala government and military, for example, were throwing parties.

With Reagan in, was there any likelihood that responsible dissent was going to make a difference?
With folks like Alexander Haig, I don’t think we could influence the administration except through the purse strings -- that’s why so much of the effort was focused on Congress.

Congress as a whole never really signed on?
That’s right. Given the dominating ideology, people were extremely nervous about the “soft on communism” charge. It worked extremely well. Dissenting groups represented popular opinion, public opinion. Polls kept showing the skepticism about U.S. involvement and opposition to U.S. military aid. But it was an issue on which elections would be decided.

The religious right?
We know there were connections with people in the White House. The fact that none of that is coming out shows how informally they kept those relationships -- so that they wouldn’t come out. What really was the role of the Institute on Religion and Democracy?

What went on in the Reagan administration in the way they attacked the religious community is almost unprecedented. Faith itself actually became a theological debate. It was astonishing.

What is missing from the cable traffic?
We see very little, for example, about the role of the U.S. military advisers. People believe we had advisers in each of the garrisons and that there was a much more direct role being played by them in actually carrying out the war -- I mean strategically planning with the Salvadoran army. Some of the military personnel down there, I’m sure, were part of the intelligence agencies. This says little about the CIA role. That is a huge hole. We also have not seen much from the FBI and how they linked some of their domestic surveillance here with the El Salvador foreign policy. Another missing piece.

Why did it all come to an end?
A couple of things sort of gathered momentum. Bush was somewhat more pragmatic. I don’t think he was ever as ideologically bound up as Reagan, and the war was very costly and it was clear that Congress was not going to keep funding at those levels.

Then, on top of that, the FMLN launched its offensive Bush’s first year in office. It showed an amazing military capacity. It really did surprise everybody. The army was not able to defeat them; the FMLN was not able to defeat the army. Then came the killing of the Jesuits, in a sense, the straw that broke the U.S. camel’s back. And after all those years, the U.S. policy had not changed and the character of the Salvadoran army was the same.

Salvador’s future? Central America’s future?
I’m very worried, with ARENA in power and a president critical of many reforms and the peace accords. Unless the peace accords are fully implemented, Salvador could again be headed for an unstable period. My major worry is that the Clinton administration, seeing the Salvadoran elections sort of resolved, will think we don’t have to worry about it when precisely the opposite is the case. The U.S. is trying to help redefine the role for the army in Central America. A couple of years ago, we really hoped that demilitarization would become a major theme. State Department people will tell you demilitarization is not what we’re going for right now.

Robert White
U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, 1980-81

NCR: When the United States failed to move on Bosnia, people in the State Department’s Eastern European section resigned in protest. We didn’t see anyone resigning over U.S. Central American policy in the Reagan-Bush years. Why not?
White: Well, you had the communist-anticommunist struggle in which to place these things -- that occurs to me. Also, I think what you had (in those years) was a creeping policy -- you can’t point to any one happening where U.S. policy went awry. What you did have was a lot of foreign service officers fleeing ARA (American Republics Area), seeking assignment elsewhere.

Let me put it this way. The Vietnam War -- the Pentagon really learned something from that. There was a kind of catharsis that took place inside the Pentagon because of Vietnam. They learned the right lessons.

What is shocking, I believe, is that the State Department was perhaps the primary vehicle for the Central American policy and it’s clear that lessons that should have been learned have not been learned.

If no lessons have been learned, is all this going to happen again?
I was just in Mexico City talking to (Guatemalan) revolutionaries. There was talk about this Guatemalan truth commission. I said, it’s not only the Guatemalans who need a truth commission, it’s also the Americans.

Unless we get the entire story out about what our actions have been like in Central America over the last four decades, the danger is that this will be repeated. Now I don’t think it will be repeated immediately, but in 10 years? Who is to say?

What was the collusion level like? Helms-Reagan, the religious right?
Well, you had these Reagan ideologues driving this policy, right? And later on, you had Elliott Abrams. And then you had the U.S. Embassy more or less routinely trying to do its job -- occasional clashes like when (Ambassador) Deane Hinton got up and denounced “the guerrillas of the right” and got slapped down for it. But whatever reporting the embassy was doing had absolutely no effect on the ideologues back in Washington.

What finally finished the (Reagan-Bush) Salvadoran policy was the death of the Jesuits where the Congress just told the Bush administration no more money. And that was it. And that’s when the State Department basically got the mandate to bring it to an end.

Fr. William Callahan
Quixote Center

NCR: Stand back from the era and events, if you would, to provide a closing assessment that looks at El Salvadoran issues not really discussed in the released cables, yet vital to an understanding of the times: liberation theology, and where the U.S. religious right was in all this, and the Vatican’s generally invisible hand.
Callahan: It was clear in El Salvador and was true in Nicaragua that the “solidarity folks,” the U.S. church people, far from being the so-called naifs, have been absolutely right on target most of the time. We were lied to, cheated by the U.S. government.

The bottom line is liberation theology’s espousal of the poor. It was seen as a threat to U.S. strategic interests and to U.S. strategic allies. The (various administrations) didn’t care how religiously based it might be, it stood in the way. They had to be marginalized.

Since the days of the Banzer Plan of 1975, they’ve known what liberation theology was and what it claimed. They’ve known all along that Roman Catholics -- many of whom were killed -- were not communists in the sense of being loyal to Moscow, that type of thing.

Yet in their determination that the so-called leftist element would in no sense be allowed to share power, human rights -- even for Carter -- were not in any way a U.S. priority that would be allowed to come into conflict with strategic interests.

I guess I have another framework. The Salvadoran military, just as the Haitian military in the present day, was very shrewd. They read the Americans very clearly. I liken them to the Mafia or the Somoza national guard: Use corruption to eliminate the moral sense.

What I mean is, when you have an ally who has a queasy conscience, the way you can lock them in and join them to you is to make sure they enter into your corruption. If they don’t back out at that moment, they are stuck.

So kill Romero. The Americans protested, swallowed hard, and kept the aid coming. Once you’ve swallowed the assassination of an archbishop, how can you protest about the killing of some peasants? Escalate and kill some U.S. churchwomen. Another swallowing -- how can they protest Salvadoran deaths? Then you kill American labor people -- how can you protest assaults on journalists? Another swallow. And when they swallow, the moral outrage is basically gone away.

The only thing that could be mustered was in 1983 when George Bush went down and told them they were jeopardizing the strategic interests and had to stop.

The military control of the death squads was perfectly reflected in the fact that the violence dropped instantly.

And the religious right?
The religious right’s fingerprints were all over Central American policy, and it is a holistic policy -- a U.S. government-facilitated flight here, an encouragement there, and an affirming word that protects missionaries of the right pretty much from the harm that comes to liberationists.

The Vatican is one of the unspoken stories. I think the Vatican’s complicity has all kinds of unwritten chapters of which very little was more than hinted at in Central America. Every signal we see from the 1980s is that the Vatican remains a major player and from my vantage point, in practice, though never in words, an absolutely hateful player toward the poor and an absolute ally of the rich. I just haven’t seen many signs where anything on the Vatican diplomatic front resonated the scriptures.

Cynthia Arnson
Human Rights Watch

Was the best cable material on El Salvador withheld? “We’re not really sure,” said Cynthia Arnson, acting director, Americas at Human Rights Watch, Washington. “This is just a partial record of U.S. policy, but there’s some absolutely incredible stuff, CIA stuff -- you know, identifying Ponce, and the death squad participants.”

El Salvador was an Arnson project during the period for which the cables have been released. She believes that part of the importance of the documents is that while the U.S. government was always saying the killing was happening, the United States blamed the deaths “on extremes of left and right and that the Salvadoran government was gaining control. Now we know it was the (Salvadoran) government we were supporting that was doing this stuff.”

The Reagan and Bush administrations, she said, “never told the Salvadoran government, ‘You guys are thugs and murderers and if you don’t clean up your act we’re going to cut you off.’ What they said instead was, ‘These death squad murders are appalling and if they don’t stop, Congress might do it regardless of our desire to keep on helping you. Congress might pull the rug out from under us.’ ”

At the same time, “the human rights community and the church community in the United States,” she said, “were viewed almost as much the enemy as the guerrillas in El Salvador. Our characterizations of the situation in El Salvador threatened the ability (of the White House) to support the Salvadoran armed forces.”

The end came in Salvador, Arnson contended, “first because the military offensive by the FMLN reminded people there was a nonmilitary solution to this war; second, the killing of the Jesuits occurred after the fall of the Berlin Wall -- the Cold War rationale was no longer valid.”

In El Salvador today, there is a peace accord and still no guarantee of peace.

National Catholic Reporter, September 23, 1994

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