FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Salvador Option: the US is Once Again Supporting Death Squads in Central America

Photo by Alison McKellar | CC BY 2.0


The United States has been quietly funding and equipping elite paramilitary police units in El Salvador accused of extrajudicially murdering suspected gang members, according to a forthcoming United Nations report reviewed in advance
by CNN.

Beginning with George W. Bush in 2003, successive US administrations have provided tens of millions of dollars in aid for Salvadoran military and police in support of the government’s “Mano Dura” (“Firm Hand”) security program, an aggressive campaign to combat out-of-control gang violence in a country with one of the world’s highest homicide rates.

“Mano Dura” aid increased significantly during the Obama administration, which compared the effort to Plan Colombia, the decades-long anti-drug campaign in which billions of US aid dollars funded mafia-like army units that, along with allied paramilitary death squads, kidnapped, tortured and murdered thousands of innocent civilians with impunity. As was the case with Plan Colombia, the new UN report will accuse Salvadoran security forces, in this case some of its elite police units, of “a pattern of behavior by security personnel amounting to extrajudicial executions” and a “cycle of impunity” in which such killings go unpunished.

One police unit, the Special Reaction Forces (FES), killed 43 suspected gang members during the first half of 2017, according to the UN report. While FES officers were executing suspects in the streets, the US government continued to fund and equip the unit. Washington’s total assistance increased from $67.9 million in 2016 to $72.7 million last year. The deportation of members of MS-13 — formed in Los Angeles by young Salvadoran refugees fleeing civil war in a homeland ruled by a US-backed military dictatorship — and other gangs has further exacerbated the crisis.

A spokesman for the US Embassy in San Salvador assured CNN that “the US government takes allegations of extrajudicial killings extremely seriously,” that it has “consistently expressed concerns” regarding human rights abuses and that it heavily vets units receiving aid. These assurances ring hollow to many Salvadorans who recall how the Ronald Reagan administration covered up horrific human rights violations in order to keep military aid flowing to the anti-communist military regime during the 1980s civil war.

That aid, which included forming, training, funding and arming military death squads, began during the Carter administration and dramatically increased under Reagan. Officers, troops and police were trained in kidnapping, torture, assassination and democracy suppression at the US Army School of the Americas (SOA), also known as the School of Coups and School of Assassins because it produced so many of both.

SOA graduates and other US-backed Salvadoran security forces planned, ordered and committed the most heinous atrocities of the 12-year civil war, including the kidnapping, torture, rape and murder of four American nuns and church volunteers in 1980, the assassination of the country’s beloved Catholic archbishop, Oscar Romero, that same year and themassacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989. After the four churchwomen were slain, the Reagan administration undertook a shameful effort to place blame on the victims.

The most notorious Salvadoran army unit, the Atlacatl Battalion, was created in 1980 at the SOA and hailed as “the pride of the United States military team in El Salvador.” As a rite of passage its new troops collected roadkill carcasses — “dogs, vultures, anything,” according to one former member — and boiled them into a soup they all drank. Atlacatl Battalion’s human victims fared even worse than the dead animals its recruits consumed. The unit committed countless massacres, including the slaughter of 117 men, women and children at Lake Suchitlan in 1983 and the mass murder of 68 civilians, many of them children, at Los Llanitos the following year.

But even these massacres paled in comparison to Atlacatl’s deadliest crime, the wholesale slaughter of more than 900 villagers, mostly women, children and the elderly, at El Mozote on December 11, 1981. There, soldiers shot, stabbed, hacked, smashed, and hung helpless villagers to death. They gang-raped women and girls before killing them. They skewered babies on bayonets. They dropped large rocks on the bellies of pregnant women. When the raping and murdering finished, they burned El Mozote to the ground, reducing the village to what one witness called “a moving black carpet” of scavenging vultures, flies and dogs feasting on the victims.

The day after El Mozote made front page headlines in the US, President Reagan officially certified that El Salvador was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights,” and was working to “bring an end to the indiscriminate torture and murder of Salvadoran citizens.” Meanwhile, Elliott Abrams, then a State Department human rights official who was later convicted in the Iran-Contra scandal before serving as a special assistant to President George W. Bush,  helped lead an effort to deny the El Mozote massacre ever happened.

US aid to El Salvador was doubled, and heinous atrocities continued through the end of the civil war.

It wasn’t just El Salvador. The United States also supported or covered up death squad activity throughout Central and South America in the 1970s and ‘80s. In Guatemala, it backed right-wing military dictators including Efraín Ríos Montt, who recently died facing genocide charges, as well as brutal death squads like the army’s elite Kaibiles unit, which tortured, raped and murdered more than 200 villagers at Dos Erres in December, 1982.

In Honduras, Reagan’s ambassador, John Negroponte, supervised the creation of the notorious Battalion 316, which was tasked with eliminating students, academics, labor unionists, clergy, journalists, indigenous rights activists and others deemed a threat to the dictatorship. Negroponte also played a key role in supporting the US-backed Contra army as it waged a terrorist war against the people of Nicaragua.

It also wasn’t just in the past. After a 2009 military coup deposed the progressive Honduran president José Manuel Zelaya, Obama and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton backed the repressive right-wing regime even as reports of its brutality, which included forced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial executions of opponents, were revealed. Despite the assassination of high-profile critics including the environmental activist Berta Cáceres, the Obama administration lavished the Honduran coup regime and its murderous security forces with  tens of millions of dollars in military and other assistance.

The United States has long operated or supported death squads, from the CIA’s Phoenix Program in Vietnam (40,000 killed) through the implementation of the “Salvador option” during the recent invasion and occupation of Iraq. The latter effort was run by Col. James Steele, a decorated veteran of Central America’s dirty wars, including a stint training Salvadoran death squad units during the civil war. Unsurprisingly, secret prisons, torture and extrajudicial killings became commonplace throughout occupied Iraq.

It now appears that the “Salvador option” has made its way back home from halfway around the world, further terrorizing guilty and innocent alike in what was already one of the most frightful corners of the planet.

More articles by:

Brett Wilkins is editor-at-large for US news at Digital Journal. Based in San Francisco, his work covers issues of social justice, human rights and war and peace. 

June 18, 2018
Paul Street
Denuclearize the United States? An Unthinkable Thought
John Pilger
Bring Julian Assange Home
Conn Hallinan
The Spanish Labyrinth
Patrick Cockburn
Attacking Hodeidah is a Deliberate Act of Cruelty by the Trump Administration
Gary Leupp
Trump Gives Bibi Whatever He Wants
Thomas Knapp
Child Abductions: A Conversation It’s Hard to Believe We’re Even Having
Robert Fisk
I Spoke to Palestinians Who Still Hold the Keys to Homes They Fled Decades Ago – Many are Still Determined to Return
Steve Early
Requiem for a Steelworker: Mon Valley Memories of Oil Can Eddie
Jim Scheff
Protect Our National Forests From an Increase in Logging
Adam Parsons
Reclaiming the UN’s Radical Vision of Global Economic Justice
Dean Baker
Manufacturing Production Falls in May and No One Notices
Laura Flanders
Bottom-Up Wins in Virginia’s Primaries
Binoy Kampmark
The Anguish for Lost Buildings: Embers and Death at the Victoria Park Hotel
Weekend Edition
June 15, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Dan Kovalik
The US & Nicaragua: a Case Study in Historical Amnesia & Blindness
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Yellow Journalism and the New Cold War
Charles Pierson
The Day the US Became an Empire
Jonathan Cook
How the Corporate Media Enslave Us to a World of Illusions
Ajamu Baraka
North Korea Issue is Not De-nuclearization But De-Colonization
Andrew Levine
Midterms Coming: Antinomy Ahead
Louisa Willcox
New Information on 2017 Yellowstone Grizzly Bear Deaths Should Nix Trophy Hunting in Core Habitat
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Singapore Fling
Ron Jacobs
What’s So Bad About Peace, Man?
Robert Hunziker
State of the Climate – It’s Alarming!
L. Michael Hager
Acts and Omissions: The NYT’s Flawed Coverage of the Gaza Protest
Dave Lindorff
However Tenuous and Whatever His Motives, Trump’s Summit Agreement with Kim is Praiseworthy
Robert Fantina
Palestine, the United Nations and the Right of Return
Brian Cloughley
Sabre-Rattling With Russia
Chris Wright
To Be or Not to Be? That’s the Question
David Rosen
Why Do Establishment Feminists Hate Sex Workers?
Victor Grossman
A Key Congress in Leipzig
John Eskow
“It’s All Kinderspiel!” Trump, MSNBC, and the 24/7 Horseshit Roundelay
Paul Buhle
The Russians are Coming!
Joyce Nelson
The NED’s Useful Idiots
Lindsay Koshgarian
Trump’s Giving Diplomacy a Chance. His Critics Should, Too
Louis Proyect
American Nativism: From the Chinese Exclusion Act to Trump
Stan Malinowitz
On the Elections in Colombia
Camilo Mejia
Open Letter to Amnesty International on Nicaragua From a Former Amnesty International Prisoner of Conscience
David Krieger
An Assessment of the Trump-Kim Singapore Summit
Jonah Raskin
Cannabis in California: a Report From Sacramento
Josh Hoxie
Just How Rich Are the Ultra Rich?
CJ Hopkins
Awaiting the Putin-Nazi Apocalypse
Mona Younis
We’re the Wealthiest Country on Earth, But Over 40 Percent of Us Live in or Near Poverty
Dean Baker
Not Everything Trump Says on Trade is Wrong
James Munson
Trading Places: the Other 1% and the .001% Who Won’t Save Them
Rivera Sun
Stop Crony Capitalism: Protect the Net!
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail