Window on the Past: A Declassified History of Death Squads in El Salvador

  • Cynthia J. Arnson


During a brutal civil conflict between 1979 and 1991, the small Central American country of El Salvador, with a population of about five million people and a territory approximately the size of the state of Massachusetts, became virtually synonymous with human rights abuse and political terror. It is not difficult to understand why. World attention was riveted on El Salvador beginning in 1980 when a string of prominent assassinations speeded the country’s descent into full-scale civil war. In March 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, a champion of the poor who had antagonized the right by calling for an end to state-sponsored repression, was gunned down while saying mass in a hospital chapel. In November of that year, the entire leadership of the leftist political opposition was kidnapped from a press conference and then murdered, their mutilated bodies strewn about the outskirts of the capital. In December, three U.S. nuns and a Catholic lay worker were abducted, raped, and murdered, their bodies dumped in a shallow lapse in intelligence gathering and the fixation on leftist and not rightist threats to the survival of the Salvadoran regime constitute, in retrospect, one of the war’s most bitter legacies.


Briefing Paper Security Force National Police National Guard Truth Commission 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Early English-language histories of the conflict include Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution (Boston: South End Press, 1982); Cynthia Arnson, El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts the United States (Washington, D.C.: Institute for Policy Studies, 1982); Enrique Baloyra, El Salvador in Transition (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982); Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador (New York: Times Books, 1984); Michael McClintock, The American Connection: State Terror and Popular Resistance in El Salvador (London: Zed Books, 1985); and Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador, 2nd ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Westview, 1995). Recent comprehensive accounts include Hugh Byrne, El Salvadors Civil War: A Study of Revolution (Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 1996); William Leogrande, Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America 1977–1992 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998); William Stanley, The Protection Racket State: Elite Politics, Military Extortion, and Civil War in El Salvador (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996); Teresa Whitfield, Paying the Price: Ignacio Ellacuria and the Murdered Jesuits of El Salvador (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995); and Philip J. Williams and Knut Walter, Militarization and Demilitarization in El Salvadors Transition to Democracy (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 6.
    Quoted in Cynthia J. Arnson, Crossroads:Congress, thePresident, and CentralAmerica 1976–1993, 2nd ed. (University Park, Pa.: Penn State Press, 1993), 54, 56.Google Scholar
  3. 8.
    Concerning death squads, for example, senior administration officials stated in the early 1980s that they were a “spontaneous phenomenon,” that there was “not a structure that has a headquarters that gives commands,” that death squads represented a “phenomenon that was without a center,” and that “there is no campaign directed out of a headquarters somewhere, or several headquarters somewhere, in the government, associated with the government, to eliminate the following numbers of people.” Another claimed that “the assumption that the death squads are active security forces remains to be proved. It might be right, though I suspect it isn’t right.” See testimony of Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders in United States Congress, Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Presidential Certification on Progress in El Salvador, Hearing, 2 February 1983, 98th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983), 143, 544; and United States Congress, House, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Sub-committees on Human Rights and International Organizations and Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Policy in El Salvador, Hearings, 98th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1983), 18, 31, 16, and 42. The latter statement is by Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs Elliott Abrams, quoted in Christian Science Monitor, 3 August 1983, cited in Cynthia Arnson, Aryeh Neier, and Susan Benda, As Bad As Ever: A Report on Human Rights in El Salvador, Fourth Supplement (New York: Americas Watch, 1984), 52.Google Scholar
  4. 15.
    U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Thomas Pickering complained to Washington as late as April 1984 about “the lack of any systematic study” of the problem of the violence in El Salvador. “We rely on Washington agencies,” he said, “to integrate [embassy] data with what is available from other U.S. sources and to put it into historical perspective.” Such a comprehensive report was not produced by the CIA until February 1985. AmEmbassy San Salvador to SecState Wash DC, “Special Project to Analyze Salvadoran Violence,” 03831, 7 April 1984, 1.Google Scholar
  5. 30.
    Truth Commission Report, 133; AmEmbassy San Salvador to Sec-State WashDC, “Bio on Apparent Source for NYT Death Squad Article,” 02653, 12 March 1984, 2.Google Scholar
  6. 32.
    Craig Pyes, “Right Built Itself in Mirror Image of Left for Civil War,” Albuquerque Journal, 18 December 1983, reprinted in Salvadoran Rightists: The Deadly Patriots (Albuquerque: Albuquerque Journal, 1983), 5–9.Google Scholar
  7. 45.
    Douglas Farah, “Death Squad Began as Scout Troop,” Washington Post, 29 August 1988, Al.Google Scholar
  8. 66.
    See Philip Taubman, “Top Salvadoran Police Official Said to be a CIA Informant,” New York Times, 22 March 1984. The accusation was made by former ANSESAL director Colonel Roberto Santivanez, who in 1984 accused numerous military officials of being involved in death squads and political murder. See Fenton Communications, “Short Circuit: Inside the Death Squads,” News Release, New York and Washington, D.C., 21 March 1985, 1–14.Google Scholar
  9. 88.
    AmEmbassy San Salvador to SecState WashDC, “General Walters’ Talk with D’Aubuisson,” 05682, 19 May 1984, 2. Pickering and Walters met privately with D’Aubuisson and ARENA member Francisco Guirola. Walters told D’Aubuisson that “President Reagan was greatly disturbed by what he believed to be absolutely reliable information that ARENA people are plotting to assassinate Ambassador Pickering and others. He ordered me here immediately to express his concern and to seek reassurance that no such plots are underway.” D’Aubuisson stated that the reports were “part of a slander campaign against him” and insisted that the accusations were false.Google Scholar
  10. 90.
    Anne Manuel with Jemera Rone, Nightmare Revisited 1987–88 (New York and Washington, D.C.: Americas Watch, September 1988), 1.Google Scholar
  11. 100.
    AmEmbassy San Salvador to SecState WashDC, “Security Force Human Rights Abuses, Part Three: Torture,” 05535, 3 May 1989, 2; AmEmbassy San Salvador to SecState WashDC, “Security Force Human Rights Abuses, Part Two: Disappearances,” 05534, 2 May 1989, 2; AmEmbassy San Salvador to SecState Wash DC, “Security Force Human Rights Abuses, Part One: Murders,” 05553, 2 May 1989, 2–4. Ambassador William Walker issued an unusual disclaimer at the end of each of the four cables, calling into question the reliability of one source who was known to have extorted the family of a disappeared youth in exchange for information, and tasked “all elements of the mission” to investigate security forces’ involvement in human rights abuses (cable on “Murders,” 4).Google Scholar
  12. 104.
    AmEmbassy San Salvador to SecState Wash DC, “US MILGP Involvement with Questionable Civil Defense Training at First Brigade,” 1–2. In response to Walker’s complaint, the Defense Department terminated training of Los Patrióticos and ordered a review of U.S. involvement with the civil defense program. See Memorandum, Henry S. Rowen, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, to Secretary of Defense and Deputy Secretary of Defense, “MiIGP Training and Support to Salvadoran Civil Defense Units,” 5 November 1990, 1–2.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Bruce B. Campbell and Arthur D. Brenner 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Cynthia J. Arnson

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations