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El Salvador

Military Service

Under Article 215 of the Constitution, military service for a minimum of two years is obligatory for all able-bodied male citizens between the ages of eighteen and thirty, although in practice youth from wealthy families avoided military service. In 1988 El Salvador had a manpower pool of 807,000 males fit for military service, and approximately 65,000 Salvadoran males reached military age (eighteen) annually. Prior to the guerrilla conflict and its attendant increase in military personnel, conscription was resorted to only rarely, and only one year of service was required. The services drew mainly young rural men whose lack of employment prospects made even low-paying, highrisk military service attractive. After 1979, however, the armed forces relied heavily on the draft. Conscripts (males only) were required initially to serve eighteen months at the age of eighteen or nineteen, but the period was soon increased to twenty-four months. On completion of their service, conscripts reverted to "active reserve" status until the age of thirty, or they could choose to remain for a longer period of time at a higher salary. The army, however, limited reenlistment to 20 percent because a draftee was paid only US$80 per month, as compared with US$300 a month for a soldier who had completed two two-year tours. From the ages of thirty to sixty, reservists were assigned to the second-line Territorial Service, a part-time, volunteer security force that mainly provided reserve manpower for the army.

Recruitment to the regular armed forces was carried out nationally but was decentralized down to the township level. Conscript classes were called up biannually, and each individual reported to the military unit nearest his home. Local boards-- consisting of officers, civilian officials, and medical personnel--examined prospective draftees and ruled on their qualifications and on requests for exemption or deferment. Each township received a quota of the vacancies in the regular service and filled them first with volunteers. After initial examinations, the local boards submitted a list of qualified volunteers to the departmental commander. Selections were made by lottery, in accordance with the choice of service indicated. Accepted candidates then reported to their new stations in the departmental regiment.

The army also frequently resorted to the impressment of young men into service, particularly in urban areas, in order to fulfill its manpower quotas. In the late 1980s, according to the New York Times, the armed forces were forcibly enlisting 12,000 youths a year. Those most affected by this press-gang system were usually from poor and rural families; often they were as young as fourteen. The military almost never forcibly recruited youths in wealthy neighborhoods. If recruited, they could generally buy their way out of the service with help from their families.

Historically, most women in the Salvadoran military served as nurses or were relegated to secretarial or domestic duties, such as cooking. In 1985 most of the 2,000 military nurses worked at the Military Hospital in San Salvador; few were assigned to field duty. At that time, the armed forces had six female officers, all of whom had received their commissions because of their foreign training. The highest ranking nurse was a captain, but none held any position in a chain of command.

In the early 1980s, thanks mainly to innovative commanders in the First Infantry Brigade in eastern El Salvador, the Ministry of Defense and Public Security allowed young women volunteers to begin basic combat training courses in San Miguel and Morazan departments. The initial seventy women recruits were organized into two all-women combat platoons. Most of the women recruits reportedly had either been displaced by the war or had had relatives kidnapped or murdered by the guerrillas. Although their basic training reportedly was rigorous and similar to that given male recruits, the women were not observed to be subjected to the same physical abuse. Those who successfully completed combat training qualified for the same pay as male privates, C450 (for value of the colon--see Glossary) a month, or about US$112. As of 1985, members of the two women's platoons reportedly were being integrated as replacements in previously all-male units.

Until the 1920s, officers were selected from the country's prominent families and constituted an elite caste. In time, the selection process became increasingly egalitarian, however, and by 1970 the officer corps was composed mostly of mestizos from farm communities. The officers came from segments of the population educated enough to qualify for the demanding officer training. All officers were career regulars, except for a small number of professional specialists, such as doctors.

In comparison with equivalent civilian standards, the conditions under which military personnel served were generally quite good. Officers, but not enlisted personnel, had separate family accommodations. Married noncommissioned officers (NCOs) received extra family allowances that were sufficient to enable them to procure local housing. Quarters, food, and pay were generally considerably better than the average campesino could find outside the service. Other benefits and advantages included medical care, accrued leave, retirement pay, and survivor benefits, although the latter were not always guaranteed. Special allowances were also available based on family size and the location of one's duty station; extra pay also was authorized for specialists and airborne and flight personnel. Retirement for disability, age, or length of service was either statutory or granted on request. Liberal leave policies allowed all ranks to accrue thirty days a year; there also were special provisions for emergency situations.

Data as of November 1988

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