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El Salvador

The Military under Democratic Rule, 1984-88


Army personnel in the field
Courtesy United States Department of Defense

In the 1984-88 period, the military largely adhered to its new constitutional obligations to remain apolitical and obedient to civilian rule (see Mission and Organization , this ch.). It made no effort to influence the outcome of the elections that brought Duarte and the Legislative Assembly into office. The elected leadership determined the country's domestic and foreign policy, generally without discernible interference by the military. President Duarte normally made the basic decisions on how to deal with the guerrillas, and he set the rules of engagement, which the military obeyed. Military leaders spurned attempts by antidemocratic right-wing extremists to incite coups, and by late 1988 no military coup attempt had been made. Nevertheless, there were occasions when civil-military relations were seriously strained. For example, in October 1985 a group of army officers accused Duarte of endangering the national security by allowing 123 rebels to go free in exchange for the release of his kidnapped daughter. Although the officers asked the High Command to consider replacing the president, a day-long debate in that body defused the dissent.

The military reportedly also still set its own rules of conduct much of the time, despite Duarte's efforts to strengthen civilian control. For example, the military resisted civilian efforts to force it to make a public accounting of the involvement of some officers in a multimillion-dollar kidnapping ring, a corrupt arms deal, and the murder of several United States citizens. In addition, some army officers with records of human rights abuses continued to be promoted. Moreover, with the exceptions of Vides and Blandon, who became identified with Duarte and his administration, the military kept its distance from the PDC government and cultivated its own ties with political parties, the Roman Catholic Church, and business and labor groups.

Although the armed forces remained a powerful institution, exerting a strong, behind-the-scenes influence on national security affairs during the Duarte administration, usually through the High Command, the military's direct political involvement decreased. Observers cited three reasons why a consensus toward a professional, apolitical military institution gradually developed. First and foremost, the military understood that its submission to civilian authority was essential for obtaining United States support to carry out its primary national security mission, namely counterinsurgency. Second, a more apolitical stance by the military was necessary if the country wished to end its international isolation and improve economic, diplomatic, and perhaps even military cooperation with West European and Latin American democracies. And third, most military leaders understood that the political appeal of the insurgency could best be neutralized by setting up representative civilian institutions and the infrastructure of a democratic society, even though these were historically alien to the country. Thus, the military's role in Salvadoran political life changed dramatically during the Duarte administration. The military publicly supported the democratic process and remained neutral in it; military leaders stated repeatedly that civilian officials were responsible for determining El Salvador's political, economic, social, and foreign policies.

In 1987 the Duarte administration's relations with the military were strained, however, by the government's long-range plans to build up a police force independent of the army, by the release of guerrilla prisoners, and by a brief unilateral ceasefire declared by the president in order to comply with the Central American Peace Agreement that Duarte signed on behalf of El Salvador on August 7, 1987 (see The Crisis in Central America , ch. 4). Although the High Command approved peace talks with the guerrillas in September 1987, the military's public support for the dialogue seemed less than enthusiastic.

Two events in late November 1987 further strained civilmilitary relations. One was the temporary return from exile of two leaders of the political front of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional--FMLN), the Revolutionary Democratic Front (Frente Democratico Revolucionario--FDR). Another was Duarte's release of new evidence purportedly linking Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta, the Arena leader, with the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez. In response to these two events, Salvadoran right-wing political leaders, including D'Aubuisson and Ochoa, began appealing for "patriotic action" by their traditional ally, the army. Ochoa stressed the duty of the military commanders in the field to defend El Salvador from both the "terrorists" and the Christian democratic government. These rightist leaders also attempted to appeal to the nationalism of army officers who resented the United States embassy's influence over their actions. One target of the rightists was Colonel Carlos Reynaldo Lopez Nuila, a senior army officer and the PN director general. Lopez Nuila had strongly supported Duarte, had tried to loosen the army's control over police forces in San Salvador, and had actively investigated human rights abuses and other crimes by some senior army officers.

In mid-1988 the military, like the government, appeared to be in a transitional period. Reportedly disenchanted with the Christian democratic government over its handling of the economy and its efforts at dialogue with the guerrillas, and uneasy over the potential investigation of military officers accused of crimes, the military appeared receptive to the assumption of power by the right and by Arena. The military was particularly worried that after the 1989 presidential election the country would still have a weak civilian government. By mid-1988 Lieutenant Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce Torres, commander of the army's First Infantry Brigade in eastern San Miguel Department, had become publicly critical of civilians, saying bureaucratic infighting and the political parties' inability to resolve their differences were weakening the war effort. Ponce's renewed efforts to win over citizens in zones of conflict worried some in the civilian government, who felt that the powerful, more cohesive military was usurping their functions.

The High Command held a series of meetings to define its position and also met with politicians to discuss the electoral dispute that delayed the convening of the Legislative Assembly elected in March 1988. Defense Minister Vides publicly dismissed the possibility that a coup would result from the political crisis that had developed by June 1988, when Duarte left the country to receive medical treatment for what was reported to be terminal cancer. Meanwhile, members of the military academy's class of 1966 (the so-called tandona, or big class), led by Colonel Ponce, were beginning to move into positions of power (see Officer Corps Dynamics , this ch.). By mid-1988, after five years on the job, General Vides and General Blandon appeared to be losing influence as younger, more aggressive officers, some of whose attitudes toward the democratic process were unclear, anticipated the generals' approaching retirement.

Data as of November 1988

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