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El Salvador

Chapter 5. National Security


Salvadoran Army recruit

IN THE POST-COLONIAL, PRE-COFFEE ERA of the early nineteenth century, incipient army and police forces emerged primarily for the purpose of protecting the expanding indigo plantations (fincas) and controlling the rural population. In return for these services, a large landowner would assume the role of quartermaster or patron (patron) for his contingent of troops. Consequently, the interests of the military and paramilitary forces became closely identified with those of the economic elite.

The army developed gradually, aided in the late nineteenth century by the French military and in the first half of the twentieth century by other European and Chilean military influences. Spain played an important role in establishing the National Police and the National Guard in the World War I period.

After seizing power in 1931, the military continued to do the oligarchy's bidding, as exemplified by its brutal suppression of a communist-led peasant insurrection in 1932, an event that became known as la matanza (the massacre). For the next five decades, the military--in league with the large landholding interests--controlled El Salvador's political system through repression, rigged elections, and coups. The military allowed moderate social and economic reforms, however, depending on which of its liberal or conservative factions was in power. During the 1931-70 period, in which seven of nine military coup attempts succeeded, eight of the nine presidents were army officers. The one civilian president in that period served only four months before being replaced by an officer. The military presidents ruled with the tacit consent of the oligarchy. Although this informal alliance favored maintenance of the general status quo, it provided the country with four decades of comparative political stability and moderate social reforms.

Reformist military officers tried unsuccessfully on several occasions--such as in 1960 and 1972--to take control of the military and the government in order to end military corruption and repression, as well as to establish moderate reforms and democratic institutions. Hoping to avoid a Nicaraguan-style guerrilla war, reformist field grade and junior officers (colonels, majors, captains, and lieutenants) deposed the repressive and corrupt regime of General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena on October 15, 1979, and established a civil-military government. Under United States prodding, the military eventually stepped aside and allowed a transition to democratic rule.

Until the 1980s, the army's primary mission had been to defend the nation from external aggression. By 1981, after El Salvador signed a peace agreement with Honduras formally ending the 1969 war and the newly organized Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front launched a large-scale guerrilla offensive, the army's mission focused primarily on counterinsurgency. The Salvadoran military had to reorient itself, changing from a conventional force that was organized, trained, and equipped to defend the country against a traditional foreign rival, Honduras, into a more aggressive military capable of waging a counterinsurgency war against elusive guerrillas supported by Cuba, Nicaragua, and other communist or radical states. For assistance in combating the insurgency, the military relied almost totally on the United States. Although massive United States military assistance had averted a victory by the rebels, the conflict remained stalemated in late 1988, and peace talks between the government and the rebels--numbering between 6,000 and 8,000 armed combatants--were still at an impasse. Right-wing death squad groups were not nearly as active as in the early 1980s, but they continued to make their presence known in 1988 by killing several dozen individuals involved in human rights groups or left-wing activism.

Although the Salvadoran military had a long record of intervening in governmental matters and being arbitrarily repressive, corrupt, and inefficient, by the late 1980s it had become a more pragmatic and professional entity that was more apolitical, more respectful of human rights, and much better equipped and trained for counterinsurgency. Whereas in the early 1980s the military often disregarded human rights considerations in its pursuit of the guerrillas, counterinsurgency operations conducted in the late 1980s under the purview of the civilian government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte Fuentes were characterized by a general commitment to respect the human rights of Salvadoran citizens and conduct the war in a more humanitarian manner. For example, in compliance with Duarte's directive regarding the use of aerial fire support, the Salvadoran Air Force was careful to avoid indiscriminate bombing. Whereas mass killings as a result of indiscriminate attacks by the military were frequent in the early 1980s, they were rarely reported in the late 1980s. Moreover, the military had made no attempt to stage a coup against the Duarte government as of the last quarter of 1988, despite its lack of enthusiasm for Duarte's policies in dealing with the guerrillas.

The political violence of the 1980s further debilitated El Salvador's historically weak criminal justice system. Politically motivated homicides, in particular, were rarely investigated or brought to trial. Although the Duarte government tried to uphold the rule of law and reform the system, acts of vengeance and vigilantism had become rampant because of a lack of public confidence in the court system.

Data as of November 1988

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