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El Salvador Table of Contents

El Salvador



Helicopters on alert status, Ilopango Air Base
Courtesy Donald C. Keffer

From 1901 until 1957, four different Chilean military missions directed El Salvador's military training and operations on an almost continuous basis. In 1941 the Chileans founded the first war college, called the Command and General Staff School, and they directed its activities until 1957, when the Salvadorans took over its administration.

Although Germany was El Salvador's first European supplier of military equipment in the 1920s, France and Denmark also provided weaponry in the 1920s and 1930s. Small groups of Italian specialists trained Salvadoran military personnel in the handling of military equipment acquired from Italy during the 1930s.

United States military assistance to El Salvador began in the 1930s with the provision of some aircraft and ground forces equipment. In the closing stages of World War II, the United States transferred a few additional aircraft to El Salvador. After signing the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (the Rio Treaty) in 1947, El Salvador began benefiting from assistance provided by a United States air mission as well as from increased transfers of aircraft. The Salvadoran Air Force became equipped almost exclusively with United States aircraft.

Although the United States remained primarily responsible for El Salvador's foreign training assistance from 1957 through 1988, the aid program totaled less than US$17 million in equipment and training between 1950 and 1979. The US$7.4 million in Military Assistance Program (MAP) funds provided during that period was far less than that received by any other Central American country except Costa Rica. After the 1961 coup, the United States expanded its military mission, which by 1970 numbered sixteen personnel. In March 1977, after the United States administration of President Jimmy Carter criticized El Salvador for human rights violations, the country rejected further United States military aid.

El Salvador then turned to countries other than the United States for military materiel. Salvadoran land and air forces purchased modern counterinsurgency equipment primarily from Brazil, Israel, and France. In addition to acquiring numerous aircraft, El Salvador also completely reequipped its infantry with G3 rifles from West Germany, some of which were still in use in the late 1980s, and purchased quantities of West German wheeled armored personnel carriers (APCs). El Salvador also obtained some artillery pieces from Yugoslavia during the 1970s.

After reformist military officers overthrew the Romero regime in October 1979, the Carter administration, eager to improve contacts with the military, allocated to El Salvador a small amount of training funds and US$5.7 million in "nonlethal" foreign military sales (FMS) in FY 1980. Renewed United States military assistance began in November 1979 with the arrival of a six-man Mobile Training Team (MTT) to provide riot-control training. The Carter administration had hoped to use military aid to persuade the army to curb its human rights abuses, make basic reforms, and allow civilian rule. The murders of four churchwomen from the United States in December 1980, however, provoked the Carter White House into suspending US$5 million in military aid. After the FMLN guerrillas launched a major offensive in January 1981, United States military aid was renewed (see The United States Takes a Hand , ch. 1).

The new administration of President Ronald Reagan was alarmed by reports that military aid was being provided by the Soviet Union and East European countries to the guerrillas through Cuba and Nicaragua; the administration was also concerned about the prospect of "another Nicaragua" in Central America. Accordingly, in March 1981 it provided US$20 million in emergency funds and US$5 million in FMS credits for new equipment and supplies for the Salvadoran Army. A five-member United States advisory team helped the Salvadoran Army to reorganize its command structure, streamline planning, and develop intelligence and communications techniques. The United States also sent an additional 40 Special Forces trainers-advisers to El Salvador to train the first of four 1,000-man "rapid reaction" battalions, the Atlacatl Battalion. The United States military mission in El Salvador expanded in 1981 to include a naval element. That year the first group of 500 Salvadoran officer candidates participated in a general officer training course at Fort Benning, Georgia. The United States also began training Salvadoran NCOs in Panama. In 1982 Special Forces provided counterinsurgency training to the Belloso Battalion and the Atonal Battalion. By late 1983, the United States had trained 900 Salvadoran officers, or half the entire officer corps.

The United States also provided both indirect and direct warrelated assistance to help El Salvador in its war against the FMLN. The indirect aid accounted for about 44 percent of the total United States assistance program up to the mid-1980s. This category included cash transfers to sustain the Salvadoran government and economy, aid to displaced people, and assistance to rebuild infrastructure damaged by guerrilla sabotage. Some 30 percent of the total program consisted of funds used to expand the army, train the soldiers, and provide the equipment and facilities needed to conduct the counterinsurgency efforts.

The provision of military aid to El Salvador was not without its critics in the United States government. By 1982, when the Reagan administration had more than doubled direct military assistance to El Salvador to US$82 million, the United States Congress required the president to certify semiannually that the Salvadoran government was making substantial progress in controlling the military, improving its human rights practices, and implementing economic and political reform. Failure to issue such a certification would trigger a suspension of United States military aid. In 1983 Congress passed a continuing resolution that withheld 30 percent of the military aid until Salvadoran authorities obtained a verdict in the trial of the members of the GN accused of murdering the churchwomen from the United States. In 1984 Congress passed another continuing resolution that made aid disbursements conditional on the Reagan administration's consultation with Congress. The resolution also called for substantial progress in the reduction of death squad activities, elimination of corruption, improvement in the military's performance, and progress toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

The Reagan administration sought to establish a domestic consensus on United States policy toward Central America by way of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America (the Kissinger Commission). The commission concluded in January 1984 that the 37,500-man Salvadoran Army was too small to break the military stalemate with the 9,000 to 12,000 increasingly welltrained and well-armed FMLN guerrillas. It therefore recommended that the United States significantly and quickly increase military aid--conditioned on demonstrated progress in meeting specified human rights goals--to give the Salvadoran military the ability to carry out an effective and more humane counterinsurgency effort. The commission's recommendations were instrumental in securing increased levels of United States military aid for El Salvador. During the next four years, El Salvador received an average of US$100 million annually in United States military assistance. The assistance levels peaked at US$197 million in fiscal year (FY) 1984, then declined steadily, reaching US$89 million in FY 1988.

In 1983 and 1984, about 3,500 Salvadorans attended United States-taught training courses at the Regional Military Training Center (RMTC), operated by the United States forces at Puerto Castilla, Honduras, as an alternative to more costly training in the United States or an increase in the number of United States advisers in El Salvador. That September, however, the Honduran government banned Salvadoran troops from the facility, owing in part to a lack of progress in talks between Honduras and El Salvador over their longstanding border dispute. Honduras reportedly also was uneasy over the United States military training on Honduran territory of personnel from El Salvador, its adversary in the 1969 war. When Honduras and the United States failed to reach an accord over the training issue, the RMTC was closed in June 1985.

The United States began sending military advisers, officially designated "trainers," to El Salvador in 1983 to help instruct the army in basic skills and counterinsurgency tactics. The Reagan administration imposed a limit of fifty-five American advisers in El Salvador and adhered to that figure. In 1988 only half of the fifty-five reportedly were involved in training; the others performed administrative duties.

El Salvador also received military-related assistance from several other countries in the 1980s. In 1982 Argentina supplied a cadre of military advisers with a large order of Argentine-made infantry equipment. Israel reportedly provided assistance in the form of counterinsurgency training. Both Britain and Belgium offered military training to the Salvadoran army after the Honduran decision to bar Salvadoran military personnel. By the mid-1980s, West Germany was a major supplier of military assistance.

Data as of November 1988

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