A bloody ‘war of extermination’

Anne Nelson November 17 1980

A bloody ‘war of extermination’

Anne Nelson November 17 1980

A bloody ‘war of extermination’


Anne Nelson

As Bishop Rivera Damas left his pulpit after mass—the pulpit once used by his predecessor, Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated by a right-wing gunman in March—a small cluster of journalists awaited him. In his homily, one pointed out, Damas had neglected to include the weekly death toll due to political violence. The prelate smiled wearily. “Two hundred and twenty-two,” he said. “The number sticks in my mind. It has three twos in a row.”

El Salvador’s military Christian Democratic junta celebrated its first anniversary on Oct. 15 with no abatement to the bloodbath in sight. Official church and Human Rights Commission figures place the number of dead at 8,000 so far this year in a country of fewer than five million inhabitants. But the actual figure may be nearer 12,000. There are many tales in the countryside of disappearances, of embankments of unburied skeletons. The church and human rights groups have been all but battered into silence. The archbishopric’s radio station has been bombed and dynamited six times by the ultraright over the past year, and the Jesuit order’s residence was destroyed late

last month. Earlier in October the press secretary for the Human Rights Commission, María Magdalena Henriques, was kidnapped, raped, tortured and murdered, and the commission’s administrator was shot dead in the street. Another casualty was the National University’s rector, Felex Antonio Ulloa, a well-known liberal.

It is against this sort of background that last week’s assassination attempt on junta Col. Adolfo Majano must be set—and these were only the prominent deaths. Over one recent 36-hour period more than 90 corpses were found, most bearing the trade marks of the National Guard (thumbs tied behind their backs) or such paramilitary groups as the Escuadrón de la Muerte (death squad) which carves the initials “EM” on victims’ chests.

Yet despite the official and unofficial repression, placatory and only partially successful attempts at land reform, and a massive public relations campaign, the junta’s base remains weak. Moreover, the line that divided the civilians and the moderates on the junta from the military hard-liners, always a shadowy one, has all but disappeared as the

The funeral procession of Cornell Martell, a notorious torturer slain by rebels (above); and guerrillas fighting in jungle (below right): slaughtering farm animals

church spokesman has called “a war of extermination against the civilian populace.”

The military’s official targets are the guerrilla wings of the country’s massive popular organizations. But the guerrilleros themselves are elusive, and all too often it is the organizations’ non-militant union or peasant supporters who bear the brunt. In the countryside, the military’s tactic has been to root out the guerrillas’ logistical base, as well as their strongholds—routinely killing suspected sympathizers, burning houses, slaughtering farm animals and making off with provisions, leaving the survivors little choice other than to leave, in search of food if not peace.

Church sources estimate that there are some 500,000 displaced persons in the country. The Salvadorean Red Cross

government carries out what one says that in October alone some 50,000 refugees were driven from their homes in a single province, Morazán, where troops mounted a major offensive against the guerrillas. Press, church and relief agencies have been barred from the area, and there are no official casualty figures. But troop strength has been estimated at more than 3,000, a third of the army, and refugees have reported attacks spearheaded by aerial machine-gunning and bombardment, followed by heavy mortaring of civilian townships as well as possible guerrilla retreats in the hills.

Unofficial estimates place the civilian casualties at more than 900, but Salvadorean military sources privately w concede their disappointment at the opü eration’s outcome. “They were told to go £ in and wipe out the guerrillas in four Œ days,” said one official. “They took the d territory, but the guerrillas slipped into ? the hills and out the back door into d neighboring provinces,” said another, í “After 20 days the army’s objective still ^ hasn’t been accomplished.”

Morazán’s real importance, however, may have been that it was probably the

first time that high-technology American methods of waging anti-guerrilla warfare have been used in Central America. The Salvadorean armed forces are using a number of French Alouette helicopters, assembled in the United States and then shipped onward, which are capable of carrying heavy machine-guns and missiles. There have also been persistent reports that American Huey (HU-iH) helicopters, used extensively against the Vietcong, have been dropping 500-lb. bombs and machine-gunning guerrilla hideouts. There is some doubt about their origin. Some reports say that they have been supplied to El Salvador despite restrictions imposed on arms exports to that country by the Carter administration. This is denied by the state department, but the Hueys could equally well come from

neighboring Honduras—and would be none the less lethal for that.

Earlier this year, the United States sent 10 helicopters to Honduras under a lend-lease program resuscitated from its last incarnation in Vietnam. In the words of state department specialist for inter-American affairs John Bushnell, they were “to patrol its rugged frontier and rapidly transport troops to areas where intruders are discovered”— meaning to seal the Honduran border to prevent its use as a refuge by the Salvadorean guerrilleros and to make it impossible to import arms from Nicaragua.

U.S. state department strategy was impeded by Honduras’ internal political difficulties and the official, if slightly absurd, continuation of the “Soccer War.”* Although the actual fighting in that border conflict lasted only a few days in 1969, the two countries have had limited trade, border crossings and diplomatic relations for the past 11 years. This inhibited joint counterinsurgency programs, as well as potential Salvadorean access to the $5 million in military aid the U.S. is rushing to Honduras — without “lethal or nonlethal” distinctions.

But the “hostilities” ended on Oct. 30 with the signature of a treaty in Lima, Peru, and later the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, publicly acknowledged that the United States had actively encouraged what Fabian Amaya, a spokesman for the Salvadorean archbishopric, described as a treaty that would apply “not to political alliances but to actions taken with the Honduran military to wipe out guerrilla encampments.” For the guerrilleros, that is bad enough. There may, however, be worse to come. In San Salvador last week, in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s victory, the word was that a rightwing coup could be expected to depose the junta very shortly.

*Economic and territorial conflicts between the two countries were aggravated in 1969 by rioting during a three-game regional playoff in soccer’s World Cup competition. A brief armed clash followed.