El Salvador: Ghosts at the Polls
Editor’s Note: Three decades ago today, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered in cold blood while saying Mass, an event that marked a troubling turn toward violent right-wing extremism in El Salvador and beyond, a pattern that continues to this day even in the threatening tone of U.S. politics.
Romero was gunned down on March 24, 1980, because he had emerged as an impassioned voice for impoverished peasants seeking greater justice. The assassination of a high-level Catholic cleric soon became a signal to global right-wing forces to do whatever was necessary to reverse trends toward equality.
In El Salvador and across Central America, Romero’s death was followed by a bloodbath of extrajudicial killings. By November of that year, right-wing oligarchs and their security forces rejoiced at the victory of their U.S. ally, Ronald Reagan, who then helped train their troops and provided weapons to make their violent campaigns even more efficient.
It would take a dozen years for El Salvador to emerge from its bloody nightmare and nearly three decades before Romero's political heirs finally gained control of the country via elections. In a story from last year, Don North, who had covered the Salvadoran conflict as a war correspondent, returned to witness that moment of Romero’s posthumous victory:
“If they kill me, I shall arise again in the Salvadoran people,” said Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980, just two weeks before he was gunned down by a sniper while saying Mass.
Today, many Salvadorans believe that Romero’s prophecy has been fulfilled with the election and inauguration of Mauricio Funes, the FMLN’s candidate for president, the first time the Left has won a national election in El Salvador’s history.
Romero’s assassination by a rightist death squad in 1980 marked the beginning of a 12-year civil war between government forces and the guerrillas of the FMLN, the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, which now holds power as a political party.
In my new documentary “Yesterday’s Enemies,” I open with a song by Kris Kristofferson from 1983, the first year I reported from the war zone around the Guazapa volcano in central El Salvador. “They killed so many heroes, but the dreams they left behind them ain’t as easy as a man to blow away,” the lyrics said.
That appears to have proven true with Archbishop Romero, whose spirit seemed to hover above the 2009 election campaign, both as inspiration for Funes and the FMLN and as a reminder of the grisly history behind ARENA, the longtime rightist governing party.
In 1993, a United Nations truth commission determined that ARENA’s founder, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson ordered the assassination of Romero, who had emerged as a powerful voice protesting the repression of the country’s many poor and dispossessed.
Much as Romero became the inspiring symbol for El Salvador’s Left, D’Aubuisson, a boyish-looking former intelligence officer who ran death squads on behalf of El Salvador’s wealthy oligarchy, became the face of El Salvador’s Right.
After Romero’s murder, D’Aubuisson death squads (often government soldiers dressed in plain clothes) systematically slaughtered leftist politicians, labor activists, students, intellectuals and clergy. Eventually, the opposition retreated to the countryside and took up arms as guerrillas under a coalition known as the FMLN.
Fearing the spread of leftist revolution in Central America, the Reagan administration brushed aside complaints about the government’s human rights abuses and threw U.S. support behind the Salvadoran military in what often was a scorched-earth campaign against the guerrillas and their suspected civilian sympathizers. El Salvador’s civil war killed an estimated 75,000 people.
Though notorious as a death squad commander, D’Aubuisson in 1982 founded the rightist ARENA (National Republican Alliance), which grew to be El Salvador’s dominant political party even after the civil war ended in 1992, the same year D’Aubuisson died of throat cancer.
In 1993, the United Nations truth commission found that Salvadoran government military units and death squads had been responsible for 85 percent of human rights abuses during the war. Rebel FMLN forces were blamed for 5 percent, while 10 percent were declared undetermined.
Amazing to many outsiders – given D’Aubuisson’s key role in the carnage – ARENA continued to honor its founder. A bronze statue of D’Aubuisson – bedecked with red, white and blue balloons – graced ARENA headquarters in San Salvador during the election.
On the other side, the FMLN adopted Archbishop Romero as its symbol. Funes frequently quoted Romero and his statements about El Salvador’s poor during the presidential campaign.
It was as if two ghosts were on the ballot, with Romero finally prevailing over D’Aubuisson, the man accused of his assassination.
After winning the election, Funes said, “I will govern like Monsignor Romero wanted the men of his time to govern, with courage, but with prophetic vision. Bishop Romero asked the rulers to listen to the cry of justice from the Salvadoran people.”
Confronting the Past
An hour before his inauguration, Funes prayed at Romero’s tomb. The new president – a 49-year-old former journalist who never carried a weapon in the civil war – also has promised legislation that would honor the archbishop’s principal causes.
While vowing fiscal austerity, Funes is raising spending on education and health care. To address unemployment, Funes wants to create 100,000 jobs in 18 months through construction projects. He's also cracking down on tax evasion to make the wealthy pay their fair share.
Though winning the election with only 51 percent of the vote, a recent poll found that Funes now has the support of nearly 72 percent of Salvadorans, suggesting that some of the residual fear of ARENA has faded.
Since taking office on June 1, President Funes also has cracked down on alleged ARENA party corruption, such as “ghost” jobs that drained money from the treasury. But more militant factions of the FMLN want Funes to pursue justice for Romero and the thousands of Salvadorans killed, tortured or “disappeared” by death squads during the war.
It has been suggested that an independent Latin American Human Rights Truth Commission be formed to investigate and publish evidence of crimes committed during the civil war. However, one obstacle is that just days after the UN truth commission released its report in 1993, ARENA rushed an amnesty law through the Legislature pardoning those responsible for war crimes.
The attitude of many Salvadoran political leaders is similar to the “look-forward-not-backward” approach that many U.S. politicians, including President Barack Obama, have taken toward holding former senior U.S. officials accountable for past crimes.
However, as author Noam Chomsky has observed, “Historic amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon, not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity, but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”
Like Obama, Funes is torn between a responsibility to see justice done for past crimes and a need to cope with pressing social and economic problems.
Funes knows that his ambitious reform plans already face an uphill struggle in these difficult economic times. Although the FMLN won the most seats in the January elections with 35, it does not have anything close to the two-thirds majority needed to pass important bills.
If the conservative parties – ARENA and PCN (Partido de Conciliacion Nacional) vote together – they will control 43 seats, representing a majority in the Senate and thus able to block any legislation perceived as being too liberal. So, Funes must sway centrist votes to give him a fighting chance to pass the FMLN’s agenda.
Some analysts contend that prosecuting war criminals could deepen divisions and undermine chances of getting legislation passed, an argument also heard in the United States. Some also note that Romero – while facing his impending death – spoke in a forward-looking way.
“You can tell the people that if they succeed in killing me, that I forgive and bless those who do it,” Romero said. “Hopefully, they will realize they are wasting their time. A bishop will die, but the church of God, which is the people, will never perish.”
Yet, even if the martyred archbishop and Mauricio Funes might be inclined to forgive, the Center for Justice and Accountability, an organization that pursues human rights abusers in the United States and Spain, is not so lenient.
In the U.S., the center brings civil lawsuits under the Alien Tort Statute and the Torture Victim Protection Act against violators who live in the United States. Among the almost three million Salvadoran exiles in the U.S., hundreds are suspected of crimes during the civil war.
In January 2009, 14 Salvadoran military officers were charged by the center in a Spanish court for the murder of six Jesuit priests in 1989.
In March 2009, the U.S. Court of Appeals affirmed a jury verdict holding Memphis resident Colonel Nicolas Carranza, former Vice-Minister of Defense in El Salvador, liable for the torture and killings of four Salvadorans. A $6 million dollar judgment was entered against Carranza.
During the trial, former U.S. Ambassador Robert White testified that Colonel Carranza was a paid informant for the CIA.
Earlier, in September 2004, the Center for Justice and Accountability won a case against Alvaro Saravia, an alleged accomplice in Romero’s murder. The judge ordered Saravia to pay $10 million to the plaintiff, a relative of the archbishop. But Saravia, a resident of Modesto, California, fled.
Besides the question of the historic violence during the civil war and today’s economic troubles, Salvador also is beset with widespread criminal violence, as an average of 12 killings a day make El Salvador the murder capital of South America.
In the past 20 years, ARENA’s “iron fist” police policies have not been able to control crime, which critics say has been accelerated by government corruption, mafia control and the influx of lawless gang members who were deported from Los Angeles.
This year’s ARENA presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila was the former director of the National Civil Police and his failure in that role undercut his campaign promise to control crime.
Eduardo Linares, the new top cop in El Salvador and a member of Funes’s Cabinet, is a former guerrilla in Chaletanango who was known as “Commandante Santamaria.” I interviewed him for my documentary “Yesteday’s Enemies,” which features former FMLN rebels at all levels.
At the time of the interview, two years ago, Linares was a San Salvador Police Commissioner strongly opposed to ARENA crime-fighting tactics. He is now Director del Organismo de Inteligencia del Estado, the chief of intelligence in the Funes administration.
“We have a problem with gangs,” admitted Linares. “It’s a result of many causes not just a result of poverty. Migration to the United States is fundamentally for economic reasons, not like during the war for political reasons and persecution.
“So many young people got involved in gangs. Then they were deported and they came back to strengthen the gangs that were already here. So what happened? The ARENA government didn’t promote social and economic plans for the majority of these young people. They didn’t offer alternatives, only the use of force… ‘Hard Hand,’ then ‘Super Hard Hand’ and ‘Anti-Murder,’ which was part of a strategy essentially being promoted by the United States.
“Just like in the previous conflict [the civil war], the U.S. has been advising in this case, but these plans never resulted in anything. Just the opposite.”
Linares said that over the past three to four years, about 19,000 young Salvadorans had been arrested, yet it was proven that only about 1,600 had committed crimes.
“So from government, through the police, comes this violation of the rule of law, enforcing laws that are unconstitutional, that violate rights, but at the same time don’t achieve the objective,” Linares said. “So what happens is that organized crime takes advantage of all this, recruiting these kids.”
Even two years ago, Linares envisioned the FMLN winning the presidency in 2009 and legislating new social concepts to fight crime. He said:
“The Right wants to associate the FMLN with the gangs. A tattoo isn’t a crime. We believe this phenomenon must be fought without turning to violating the rights of young people, but to seek opportunities for them. We can’t attack a social phenomenon with punitive measures.”
The Old Guard
Eduardo Linares is one of the few former FMLN commanders in Funes's Cabinet. Instead of looking to the old guard from the civil war, Mauricio Funes has turned largely to highly qualified experts, particularly in the economic realm. That has caused grumbling in some FMLN party ranks.
However, a gathering of former guerrilla leaders of the Guazapa front a few days before the inauguration demonstrated strong support for the new president. (Though not directly involved in the civil war’s violence, Funes lost his older brother who was killed in the war’s early days. Funes also has been touched by the random violence of street crime, losing his 27-year-old son, Alexander, who died of stab wounds from an altercation in Paris, France.)
The Guazapa conclave began as Francisco Acosta, who lost over 80 family members during the war and is now a director of the Oscar Romero University in Chaletanango, led a group of family members and war veterans to plant balsam trees on the slopes of Guazapa mountain.
With graying hair and beards and paunches overhanging their belts, the old guerrilla fighters gathered for lunch and to hail the new era in El Salvador under President Funes.
There were no threats or criticisms, only chants of “Si, se puede” – “yes, we can” – and “Viva Mauricio.” There was also the old wartime battle cry: “El Pueblo unido jamas sera vencido” – “The people, united, will never be defeated.”
The former guerrillas had invited some Americans, Mexicans and Canadians who had known them during the war. I was included because I had reported on their struggle from Guazapa in the bloodiest days of 1983.
Dr. Charlie Clements, who spent nearly two years tending to the wounded and later helping to send $3 million worth of medical aid, was there, too. Tom Cronin, former Philadelphia labor leader, and John Grant of Veterans for Peace were also honored. We were all presented with a “diploma de reconocimiento” and a round of applause.
It was an emotional time as I greeted old friends and contacts whom I had believed to have died – and together remembering those who were killed in the conflict.
Most of the aging guerrillas seemed to be prospering in teaching positions or working with security companies. Some were now fluent in English.
Alas, the only Spanish phrase I could recall from those days was “Hasta la Victoria Siempre!” – a revolutionary slogan that roughly translates as “Onward always to victory!”
Which was what this modest inaugural lunch was all about for those who had spent most of their lives fighting for it.