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El Salvador Table of Contents

El Salvador

The Military in Power, 1931-84

A group of young officers--angered by Araujo and concerned about the increasingly organized peasant activism--overthrew the democratically elected president in December 1931 and promptly turned over power to General Martinez. The cohesiveness of the regular conscript-based army was adversely affected by the coup, and army units therefore played little part in la matanza of January 1932, which was attributed to the security forces (see The Security Forces , this ch.). Although the scale of the massacre would not be repeated, the use of indiscriminate violence as exemplified by la matanza nonetheless became part of Salvadoran military legend and was invoked by right-wing extremists in the late 1970s and early 1980s as a model for dealing with leftists.

By mid-1932 Martinez was in complete control of the army, the National Police (Policia Nacional--PN), and the National Guard (Guardia Nacional--GN). During his rule as absolute dictator (1932-44), the army remained subordinate to the more elite security services (the PN and GN). Under Martinez's system, the army answered to the minister of war, and the security services answered to the minister of government. After the 1944 coup, the minister of war assumed authority over all the security services, as well as the army.

Beginning with the Martinez regime, an almost unbroken succession of military governments ruled for five decades (see Repression and Reform under Military Rule , ch. 1). On December 14, 1948, a group of army majors belonging to the Military Youth (Juventud Militar) carried out what came to be known as the Revolution of 1948, also known as the "majors' coup." The young officers formed a corporate-style junta and forced all officers above the rank of lieutenant colonel to retire. After the coup, which was more concerned with establishing order than implementing reforms, the military established itself as a somewhat more independent force in politics by distancing itself from the oligarchy. The officers' movement also changed the army's own perception of its role in society by adopting new missions to uphold national law and safeguard the country's sovereignty. Thereafter, the military considered itself no longer merely the oligarchy's private army but rather the guardian of the people and the constitution. As such, it saw itself playing a legitimate role in virtually all aspects of government. It failed totally, however, to legitimize this role, because it did not challenge the oligarchy, implement reforms, or turn the control of the government over to civilians. Instead, it merely changed the pattern of military control of the political process by reaching a new accommodation with the oligarchy; establishing its own party, the Revolutionary Party of Democratic Unification (Partido Revolucionario de Unificacion Democratica--PRUD); and ensuring that PRUD candidates took power, usually through fraudulent elections. The military's continuance in power appeared to violate the 1950 constitution, which stipulated that the armed forces were to be nonpolitical and obedient to the government in power.

By the mid-1960s, another major shift had occurred in the Salvadoran military's perception of its own role in society and its view of civilian involvement in the security system. Beginning in 1961, United States military and civilian law enforcement advisers had encouraged the Salvadoran military, not entirely successfully, to abandon the traditional concepts of military professionalism that had guided it since 1941 and to adopt some elements of a counterinsurgency doctrine. Whereas in the 1940s and 1950s the United States had taught Salvadoran Army officers to resist civilian attempts to interfere with military prerogatives, counterinsurgency doctrine in the 1960s encouraged the expansion of the traditional military role to include nonmilitary tasks, such as civic action projects, and the establishment of semiautonomous, politically oriented paramilitary organizations (see The Security Forces , this ch.). At the same time, a reformist Military Youth faction in the Salvadoran military led by Colonel Adolfo Arnoldo Majano Ramos also became increasingly critical of the old authoritarian model favored by the military traditionalists.

The surge of patriotic fervor aroused by the 1969 war with Honduras focused a new public attitude of respect and esteem on the Salvadoran armed forces, especially the ground forces, which performed well during the brief confrontation (see The 1969 War with Honduras , ch. 1). Salvadoran troops, supported by an overwhelming superiority in artillery, penetrated up to twenty- nine kilometers into Honduran territory during the five-day conflict, in which 2,000 to 4,000 soldiers and civilians were killed. The ill-equipped Salvadoran Air Force, however, was no match for the Honduran Air Force, Central America's best. Within months after the end of hostilities, therefore, the Salvadoran Air Force began to acquire new aircraft. El Salvador's seventeen- year-old navy, not having participated in the war with Honduras, benefited little from the postwar expansion and reequipment of the Salvadoran armed forces.

In the mid-1970s, as left-wing guerrilla and terrorist activities escalated, the military began to focus more on internal security than on political manipulation. Consequently, elements of the military adopted the doctrine of national security, emphasizing anticommunism, state autonomy, and limits on the exercise of civil liberties through heavy reliance on the state of siege and other security decree powers. Civil-military relations changed accordingly. In an attempt to reassert its control and protect its own institutional integrity from leftist subversion and rightist attempts to take power, the military tried to increase the distance between itself and civil society. The oligarchy encouraged the government's efforts to reinstate policies that characterized the traditional authoritarian model.

In 1979 a group of junior and field-grade military officers staged a successful coup and ousted the regime of General Romero. These officers quickly forced sixty senior officers to retire and temporarily exiled all of the generals and most of the colonels. Recognizing the need for social, political, and economic reforms, they formed the left-of-center, civilian-military Revolutionary Governing Junta (Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno--JRG), which included two army officers: Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutierrez and Colonel Majano. The JRG then formed a largely civilian cabinet that included, as defense minister, Colonel Guillermo Garcia, a participant in the coup. The junior and field-grade officers who constituted the Military Youth also created the Permanent Council of the Armed Forces (Consejo Permanente de las Fuerzas Armadas-- Copefa) to ensure that the proclaimed objectives of the reformist coup were not subverted and to serve as a policy consultative body for officers. The younger Copefa members distrusted the older commanders--particularly Garcia and his deputy, Colonel Nicolas Carranza--whom they viewed as corrupt, reactionary, and more interested in the political loyalty of key military officers than their military competence. Nevertheless, it soon became apparent that the real power lay in the military High Command (Alto Mando), not in the governing Civil-Military Directorate (Directorio Civico-Militar). Garcia and the High Command consolidated power by purging the young reformist officers from Copefa on December 18, 1979, and replacing them with old-guard loyalists. After another junta reorganization in December 1980, which resulted in Majano's exile, Gutierrez retained sole command of the armed forces, and junta member Jose Napoleon Duarte Fuentes became provisional president.

Before the 1982 election for the Constituent Assembly (see Glossary) Defense Minister Garcia issued a public order requiring the military to defend the voting process. Thus, in an important break with the past, the military protected rather than manipulated an election. The High Command reportedly used its influence to prevent the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista--Arena) from excluding the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democrata Cristiano--PDC) from the provisional government headed by Alvaro Magana Borja, a political centrist, who succeeded Duarte as interim president. Nevertheless, the prospect of civilian government disturbed many in the military, including senior army officers. Although Garcia forestalled a coup in early November 1982 by transferring or dismissing dissident senior army officers, criticism of him among the military hierarchy eventually turned into open rebellion.

Garcia's most vocal military critic was Lieutenant Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, military commander of Cabanas Department. On January 6, 1983, a day after being ordered by Garcia to leave his command to serve as military attache in Uruguay, Ochoa began a six-day mutiny, placing his troops on alert. Ochoa accused Garcia of corruption and called for his resignation. Part of the conflict between Ochoa and Garcia stemmed from differences over counterinsurgency strategy. Ochoa and his supporters advocated a more professional approach, emphasizing aggressive, small-unit actions and patrolling combined with political pacification (civic action projects). In response, the defense minister required all senior officers to sign a document condemning Ochoa's action as a violation of "the principles of discipline and obedience which men of the armed forces must observe at all times." Twenty-eight senior officers signed. Ochoa ended his rebellion after six days and accepted the president's offer of an assistant defense attache post in Washington. Under increasing pressure from within the officer corps, Garcia finally resigned on April 18, 1983, and was succeeded by General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, the GN director general since October 1979. Ochoa eventually resigned from the army in June 1987, in part to protest what he viewed as interference in military affairs by the Duarte government and the United States but also to join Arena and serve as a deputy (diputado) in the Legislative Assembly.

In a major military reorganization in November 1983, Vides, the new minister of defense and public security, reassigned many commanders and reorganized the army in an effort to enhance its professionalism; his action also rendered the army's leadership more politically conservative. Until the reorganization, twenty- six separate commands had reported directly to the defense minister. The appointment of six brigade commanders reduced the number of subordinate commands significantly. One of Vides's key appointments was that of Colonel Adolfo Onecifero Blandon Mejia as army chief of staff. By the time the elected Constituent Assembly completed the new Constitution in late 1983, a military code of conduct had also been drafted (see Military Justice , this ch.).

The inauguration of Duarte as president on June 1, 1984, ushered in a new era of elected civilian rule. On taking office, Duarte promoted Blandon to brigadier general and made him chief of staff of the Joint General Staff (Estado Mayor Conjunto--EMC).

Data as of November 1988

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