During Bush’s “social justice” tour of Latin America, he didn’t stop in El Salvador, a nation sorely needing some social justice. His military planners, though, had the small Central American country on their minds.
The same day Bush talked about the U.S. being “generous and compassionate” on his Latin American tour, Pentagon officials and military consultants discussed a fallback strategy for Iraq based on counterinsurgency tactics used in El Salvador.
The U.S. government spent millions of dollars to support the Salvadoran military throughout the 1980s as part of its Cold War strategy of propping up anti-Communist forces. Reagan also sent fifty-five Green Berets to train Salvadoran troops, led for several years by James Steele.
After the 1992 peace accords, the United Nations Truth Commission investigated human rights abuses that occurred during the conflict. The vast majority were committed by the Salvadoran military or rightwing death squads. As Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine on May 1, 2005, these human rights violations, according to Amnesty International, included “extrajudicial executions, other unlawful killings, ‘disappearances’ and torture. . . . Whole villages were targeted by the armed forces and their inhabitants massacred.”
One of the most notorious military units was the Atlacatl Battalion. It was trained by the United States.
This discourse on death squads is nothing new for the Bush Administration. Cheney has been jawing about El Salvador in the 1980s as a model for Iraq for more than two years.
But this time the Salvador Option resurfaces just a few days after the death of Rufina Amaya. Amaya saw Salvadoran troops slaughter her family and others in her village of El Mozote in 1981. The U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion tortured and executed at least eight hundred people in El Mozote and five surrounding hamlets.
The Salvadoran and American governments denied that civilians were killed. But Rufina Amaya told another story. So did the mass graves unearthed after the war ended.
Journalist Alma Guillermoprieto, writing for The Washington Post, interviewed Amaya a month after the butchery took place, and, along with Ray Bonner of The New York Times, broke the story.
Twenty-five years later, Guillermoprieto recalled the only witness to speak about the El Mozote massacre: “Rufina Amaya managed to slip behind some trees as her group was being herded to the killing ground, and from there she witnessed the murders, which went on until late at night. An army officer, told by an underling that a soldier was refusing to kill children, said, ‘Where is the sonofabitch who said that? I am going to kill him,’ and bayoneted a child on the spot. She heard her own children crying out for her as they met their deaths. The troops herded people into the church and houses facing a patch of grass that served as the village plaza. They shot the villagers or dismembered them with machetes, then set the structures on fire. At last, believing they had killed all the citizens of El Mozote and the surrounding hamlets, the troops withdrew.”
Amaya escaped the Atlacatl Battalion. But the Atlacatl Battalion escaped prosecution, thanks to a general amnesty passed in 1993. And James Steele is back prosecuting another counterinsurgency conflict, this time in Iraq.
But the similarities between U.S. military involvement in Iraq and El Salvador don’t end there. In order to circumvent Congressionally mandated limits on the number of U.S. military personnel on the ground, the Pentagon outsourced the work to private contractors. Some of the same private military contractors, such as DynCorp, now hold contracts for security work in Iraq.
The use of paramilitaries and mercenaries led to the deaths of thousands of people in El Salvador. This is not a decent option for the people of Iraq.
Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor of The Progressive magazine. She writes about activism, politics, music, books, and film.