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El Salvador

Curbing the Death Squads

In December 1983, the Reagan administration promised Magana an additional US$100 million in military aid if his government took action against the death squads and dismissed from their official posts or transferred abroad at least eight armed forces officers and one civilian who had been identified as death squad leaders. Vice President George Bush personally visited San Salvador, however, to deliver the more decisive message that aid would be cut off if the abuses did not stop. The United States specifically asked for a halt to secret arrests by the three security forces and demonstrable progress in the court cases involving the murders of the churchwomen and the AIFLD advisers.

In response, senior Salvadoran officials and the armed forces leadership pledged a major crackdown on right-wing death squad activity and asked the United States for technical and investigative assistance in dealing with these groups. The Salvadoran Army also quietly dismissed or transferred abroad the officers whose names were on the United States list of suspects. In addition, the PN arrested a captain who had been linked to the murder of the two AIFLD advisers, but he was held on charges unrelated to the killings.

Despite these actions, the existence of the death squads remained a controversial issue in the United States in the mid1980s . In congressional testimony in February 1984, former United States ambassador to El Salvador Robert E. White identified six wealthy Salvadoran landowners, then living in exile in Miami, as the principal financiers of the death squads. Critics of the Reagan administration's Salvadoran policy also alleged that the United States had indirectly supported the death squads. After a six-month investigation, however, the United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported in October 1984 that there was no evidence to support such allegations.

In 1984 and 1985, Duarte transferred to lesser positions several military officers with alleged links to death squads. During the 1984-88 period, the civilian government and armed forces reiterated their opposition to death squad activity and their commitment to dealing with the problem. As a result, death squad killings declined sharply. According to Tutela Legal, the annual totals of death squad killings were 225 in 1984, 136 in 1985, 45 in 1986, and 24 in 1987. Although violence continued to be endemic in El Salvador, the number of politically motivated deaths reported in the Salvadoran press averaged 28 per month during the first half of 1987, as compared with 64 in 1984 and 140 in 1983. These figures probably were inexact, but they indicated a general downward trend. Of the 183 political murders reported in the local press during the first nine months of 1987, most were attributed to the FMLN; only 2 were blamed on the extreme right and 5 on military personnel.

Death squad activities began to pick up, however, in late 1987 after the signing of the Central American Peace Agreement. The number of right-wing death squad killings reportedly continued to creep upward in 1988. According to Tutela Legal, suspected right-wing death squads killed thirty-two civilians during the first half of 1988.

Data as of November 1988