Mark Danner

Staying on in El Salvador (Introduction)

Inward-gazing and self-absorbed, Americans tend to learn about the world only during times of crisis.

Inward-gazing and self-absorbed, Americans tend to learn about the world only during times of crisis.  Like a great searchlight, the power of America’s attention wheels about and focuses, illuminating some dark place, holding it in trembling captivity like a startled deer.  And so, over the past decades, almost despite themselves, Americans have come to know many far-off and unlikely places: of Korea, North and South; of Quemoy and Matsu, of Vietnam and Lebanon and Iran – and during the climactic Cold War years of the 1980s, of the Central American lands of Nicaragua and El Salvador.

If these diverse countries are knitted together by having endured the glare of that American searchlight, they have in common also a return, definitive and often abrupt, to obscurity.  The searchlight moves on; the changes wrought under its intensity, vast as they often are, linger on.

Perhaps nowhere is this more dramatic than in the case of Central America, the impoverished region where, a decade and a half ago, Alexander M. Haig, Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of state, vowed to “draw the line” against communist penetration in the hemisphere.  It was over El Salvador, an obscure, overpopulated land of six million, that the Reagan administration fought one of its most savage battles with the Democratic Congress; and it was to El Salvador that the administration and Congress eventually sent millions in military aid, financing the bulk of a civil war in which seventy-five thousand Salvadoran lives were lost.  For Salvadorans, this astonishing amount of money and astonishing loss of life have molded and shaped their country’s history forever; for Americans, the little country and the ruins left there by a war their taxes funded have been largely forgotten. The searchlight has passed on.

If one looks closely, though, one can discern the odd gleam of remnant light: here, a church group formed to learn about and aid Central America, still working hard; there, a small American city that “adopted” a Salvadoran town during the war, still sending delegations to visit and learn. And finally, the occasional artist determined to go on telling a story that those around him profess not to want to hear. Larry Towell is one such: for if the photographs on the following pages can be said to encompass one “theme,” that theme must be, in Towell’s words, “staying on.”

The first of Towell’s images dates from 1986, just past halfway through the civil war, the last from 1995, three years after the Salvadoran rebels and President Alfredo Cristiani came together in Chapultapec Palace in Mexico City and signed a peace treaty officially putting an end to the war.  But Towell’s decade of images is not self-contained: gaze for a moment at the Mothers of the Dissappeared holding their picture books of the tortured and the mutilated (page 52) and you will find yourself peering through a window directly into the early 1980s, the years of El Salvador’s “dirty war.”  Each morning, as the skies lightened over El Salvador’s cities, people would rise to find corpses littering their streets: sometimes the bodies were headless, or faceless, their features obliterated with battery acid or a shotgun blast; sometimes limbs were missing, or hands or feet chopped off, or eyes gouged out; women’s genitals were torn and bloody, bespeaking repeated rape; men’s were often cut off and stuffed into their mouths. Â

Beyond the gaudy wounds, however, there were the “signatures.” More often than not you would find, cut into the flesh of the back or the forehead or the chest of the victim, the telltale sign of the “death squad” that claimed the work: the Union of White Warriors, perhaps, or more frequently, the Maximiliano Hernández Martinez Brigade. The latter was named for a general who had taken over the country in 1931 during a time of rising leftist agitation and unleashed a campaign of repression so ferocious that it came to be known simply as la Matanza (the Great Killing). For month after month, National Guardsmen methodically lined peasants up against the wall and shot them down, and before the purge was over in this little country at least ten thousand – and perhaps as many as forty thousand – had been murdered. The rationale was quite simple: where the “infection” of rebellion had taken hold it must be rooted out, ruthlessly and thoroughly.

Now, a half century later, rightist officers who were themselves heirs of Martinez were determined to root out a new infection with equal thoroughness. A succession of generals had held power during those fifty years, but as the country’s small yet growing middle class began to demand its own voice in Salvador’s sclerotic political system, the officer corps came to show increasing signs of strain.  Already in 1960, “progressive” officers had staged a coup, which was quickly overwhelmed by a conservative counter-coup. A decade later, in 1972, a group of hard-line officers stole an election from what most everyone agreed was a winning Christian Democratic ticket, led by San Salvador’s mayor, José Napoleón Duarte. By the end of the 1970s, after yet another dubious election yielded another general-president, El Salvador’s politics had become utterly polarized: activists of the moderate Left, having been denied an electoral path to the presidential palace, joined populist forces to organize huge demonstrations, bringing hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans into the streets. National Guardsmen and other security officers responded with unflinching violence, shooting down scores of marchers. Meantime, several small guerilla groups had begun kidnapping businessmen, robbing banks, and, on occasion, assassinating prominent rightist leaders.

By late 1979, the situation appeared to be spiraling out of control – particularly as viewed from Washington, where, only months before, officials had found themselves watching in impotent horror as Nicaragua’s venerable Somoza dictatorship, American-installed and a half-century old, collapsed before an insurrection led by the leftist Sandinista Front. Now El Salvador – with its vast street demonstrations and National Guard machine guns, its death squads and assassinations and kidnappings – seemed to have become the next domino, teetering before the fall. In October, with tacit American support, a group of young officers who called themselves the juventud militar – the “military youth – seized power and formed a “progressive” junta, which included politicians of the moderate Left. Â

And so we come to the Mothers of the Disappeared and their terrible picture books.  One notices first of all that they are many, these books, and that their pages are bound loosely, with spiral binders, to allow for the insertion of ever more photographs. For during those terrible years of 1979 and 1980 and 1981, as the cars without license plates cruised the streets of the capital each night and the bodies appeared on the streets each dawn, the numbers of dead went on mounting, until the photographers of the Human Rights Commission became unbearably busy – for on the streets of San Salvador each month no fewer than eight hundred mutilated corpses could be found.

Against the urban infrastructure of the Left – the network of political organizers, labor leaders, and activists who had put together the great demonstrations of the late seventies – the death squad onslaught proved devastating. The Christian Democrats, in particular, saw their party decapitated, with the murder of several hundred activists. By the end, however, the killing had become less discriminating – any “proflie” that seemed to identity leftists would do; and so one morning a pile of corpses was found that proved to consist entirely of young women wearing tennis shoes and blue jeans: apparently, some intelligence officer had concluded that such a profile – women dressing in this casual way- reliably separated out subversives, and thus the young women had been seized and tortured and liquidated with all the others.

Though the United States embassy resolutely maintained the fiction that “rightist vigilantes” or “independent anticommunist groups” were beind the death squads – and not the Salvadoran army to which Washington was giving increasing amounts of aid – there can be no doubt that Salvadoran army to which Washington was giving increasing amounts of aid – there can be no doubt that the dirty war was organized and directed by Salvadoran officials. With a few exceptions, intelligence officers in the various government security services and in the army brigades organized the death squads, recruiting National Guardsmen, Treasury Police, and regular soldiers who were interested in moonlighting for extra money and supplying them with lists of people who were to be picked up. One such officer, who eventually fled El Salvador, described to the American journalist Allan Nairn what went on between the time Salvadorans were seized and carried off by the hooded men, and their mutilated bodies discovered on San Salvador’s streets:

If the person is important- if he’s, let’s say, a journalist or a teacher or a labor or student leader, or if he’s a person with some leadership or has something to offer- he isn’t treated cruelly at the beginning.  Well, of course, they may hit him at some time, but after that, when he’s taken to one of the interrogation rooms, you start by talking to him as a friend…
When the actual physical torture begins, there are a lot of different methods: cutting off pieces of his skin, burning him with cigarettes…Or sometimes you just beat his hands and beat him in the stomach, either with fists or with heavy sticks.  Beat him, and beat him, and beat him.

After that, if he still doesn’t talk, you take him to a toilet filled with excrement.  You put on gloves and shove his head for thirty seconds or so.  You pull him out, then his head in again.  You do this over and over.

The you wash him and take him to the electric shock room. There’s a special torture room in the Treasury Police; only the intelligence section can enter. …It’s soundproof so they don’t hear anything outside.

You learn how to give electric shocks, shocks to the brain, shocks to the stomach.  There are some sophisticated methods for this kind of torture…
In general, you will kil the prisoners because there’s an assumption they shouldn’t live.  If we pass them to the judge, they’ll go free and we’ll maybe have to pick them up again.  If there’s lots of pressure- like from Amnesty International or some foreign countries- then we might pass on to a judge, but if there’s no pressure, then they’re dead.  When it’s over, you just throw them in the alleys with a sign saying Mano Blanco or Maximiliano Hernández Brigade.

Such things do indeed “happen in war,” but in El Salvador in the early 1980s they lay at the heart of a systematic and bloody response to a political rebellion, and in very rapid course this dirty war sent the country into a tailspin of lurid and very public violence. In March 1980, a death squad member shot down Archbishop Oscar Romero while he said Mass.  Nine months later, four American churchwomen were sexually assaulted and murdered by Salvadoran soldiers, and buried in a shallow grave. The following month, the head of the Salvadoran land-reform agency and two of his American advisers were assassinated as they say together in the cafe of the Sheraton hotel.

These very public atrocities, two of them involving the murder of American citizens, increased the squeamishness in Washington. President Carter, disgusted by the murder of the churchwomen, cut off funds; in January 1981, however, faced with the unleashing of the guerillas’ highly touted “final offensive,” the “human rights president” restored aid. Though the practical effect was negligible – within weeks a new and much less sentimental president would take power – the symbolic importance of Carter’s decision was enormous, and from our vantage we can see it hovering like a noxious cloud over the next decade of American policy making in Central America. For despite all the bitter public debates about atrocities and war crimes, and despite the Democratic Congress’s passing a law later that year requiring the Reagan administration to “certify” that the Salvadoran government was “making a concerted and significant effort to comply with internationally recognized human rights.” Carter’s step made one thing clear: when it came down to a decision between supporting a bloody-minded, murderous regime, and risking a rebel victory by reducing aid, America’s leaders – Democrats as well as Republicans – would always choose to support the devil they knew. Time and again throughout the Reagan years, as each new massacre was uncovered and each new aid budget approved, they would reaffirm that principle.

The collapse of the so-called final offensive sent the war into the countryside, and here the guerillas, ill equipped but highly mobile, quickly managed to dominate large chunks of territory.  On army maps, much of northern Chalatenango and Morazan, as well as areas closer to the capital such as the Guazapa volcano, were soon designated “red zones”- territory in which, despite the odd isolated army post in the larger towns, the guerillas moved freely about, dominating the countryside. (One of the many virtues of Towell’s book is that he manages to open a when a window on how people lived their daily lives in these guerilla-controlled areas; see, for example, pages 30, 46, 61, 68, and 72.)  Very rapidly the government found itself losing the war; its army was much too small; its soldiers – many of them no more than boys pressed into service – were badly trained and poorly motivated; its officers had always preferred politics to battle. And while United States officials and military advisers struggled to remedy these deficiencies, they found themselves severely constrained – by a Congress deeply worried over the advent of “another Vietnam,” on the one hand, and on the other, by Salvadoran officers covetous of their privileges and stubbornly resistant to outside pressure. Â

And so the era of the massacres began.  Sumpul River, Lempa River, El Mozote – each of these names designates a spot where the Salvadoran army carried out one of its many “scorched-earth” operations. One finds common elements: the officers would order their troops into one chunk of red zone to carry out a pincer movement, or a “hammer and anvil,” intending to trap all those within, sometimes (as at the Sumpul or the Lempa) by pushing them up against a river or other natural barrier.  But the guerillas, benefiting from excellent intelligence, almost always managed teo evacuate the zone before the soldiers arrived, leaving only civilians behind. It would be these civilians who were left to supply the army’s body count.

This they did well: at the Sumpul River six hundred, at the Lempa two hundred – at El Mozote alone perhaps eight hundred Salvadorans are believed to have died. But militarily the operations were worse than useless, for not only did they fail to kill guerillas, they increased support for them among peasants by demonstrating quite graphically that in the red zones it was impossible to remain neutral and survive. Most serious of all from the point of view of the government and of the Reagan administration, the massacres made the war more politically costly to fund in Washington.  Debates in Congress grew steadily more bitter as the Democrats came to recognize Central America, and El Salvador in particular, as a vulnerable point for the popular president.

Reagan administration officials responded by fashioning a two-strand policy, one that would endure for the difficult middle years of the war. First, the United States would develop, through massive injections of money, equipment, and professional advice, a competent Salvadoran military. (This was done with great determination; when, for example, Congress limited the number of American military advisers permitted to work “in country” to fifty-two Special Forces officers, the Pentagon simply flew entire units of the Salvadoran army to American military bases for training.)  Second, American diplomats would impose on the Salvadorans, after a painstaking and frustrating series of negotiations and pressures, a “political track” that would eventuate in nationwide elections, bringing to the presidential palace in May 1984 the same José Napoleón Duarte who had seen this prize stolen from him twelve years before.

From the beginning, Duarte’s area of influence was strictly circumscribed and generally stopped short of the military and security services. But his election did allow a civilian Salvadoran government to begin, the following fall, a series of talks with the guerillas, and the army to catch its breath and, in some areas, to go on the offensive. By now, the United States had succeeded in vastly expanding the military and in cultivating a handful of officers – Domingo Monterrosa and Sigifredo Ochoa come to mind – who not only proved themselves capable of leading troops into combat but seemed willing to hazard a “beans and bullets” campaign of civilian “political education” in reoccupied areas. (Notwithstanding his later conversion, however, it had been Monterrosa and his Atlacatl Battalion who had perpetrated the El Mozote massacre three years before; the celebrated commander was himself assassinated in a daring guerilla helicopter bombing in fall 1984.) In the countryside, the army might still commit the odd massacre, but now the dead could be counted by the score, not the hundred – and the story might never appear in the the North American papers. Indeed, by 1989, as President Reagan gave place to President Bush – and President Duarte, the moderate Christian Democrat, gave place to President Alfredo Cristiani, a wealthy member of the right-wing ARENA party – El Salvador no longer occupied much space in American newspapers. Attention had turned to other things, particularly to events, such as those in Eastern Europe, which seemed far from Central America but would prove very close indeed.

On November 11, 1989, the long dormant volcano of San Salvador erupted. It was the guerillas’ November Offensive (though as it happened “final offensive” – the name used prematurely eight years before- would have been more appropriate). For weeks, young fighters had been infiltrating the capital and now they rose up as one, from the poor neighborhoods of Soyapango and Mejicanos to the rich quarter of Colonia Escalon. Everywhere throughout the capital the guerrillas dug in and fought tenaciously; and soon the army commanders, taken utterly by surprise and sent into a virtual panic at the prospect of “losing” San Salvador after a decade of war, found themselves ordering the strafing and bombarding of their own capital. (Or rather the strafing and bombing of selected areas; in wealthy Escalon, for example, the officers showed more sensitivity, sending in troops to evacuate the residents and then extracting the guerillas house to house.)

In some ways, the November Offensive is the turning point in Larry Towell’s book, as it was the turning point in the war. He offers us images of the dead, true, by they might better be seen as images of power – and, in retrospect, of power shifting. Soldiers may mutilate dead guerillas, gaze down at them, put them on display for the edification of the city’s residents (page 59); but in fact those soldiers, like their officers, had failed to grasp the central point: if the officers had finally managed to prevail militarily, inflicting enormous damage on the guerillas, they had lost politically. And the loss of this battle – as with the Tet Offensive of 1968 – would prove to be the loss of the war. The world of 1989 was not that of 1981, nor was George Bush Ronald Reagan. The East Bloc was collapsing, the Soviets were in retreat; no reasonable person could now conceive a few Salvadoran guerillas as the spearpoint of a worldwide Soviet offensive. What’s more, in El Salvador the past seemed to be irrepressible, erupting out of the depths like a bloody nightmare – as happened on the night of November 16, when, at the blackest point of the guerilla offensive, soldiers of the elite Atlacatl Battalion invaded the campus of the University of Central America, rousted from their beds six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her young daughter, ordered them to lie face down on the grass, and blew their brains out with M-16s.

Bloody and disgusting as the crime was, what was perhaps most shocking was the impression it gave that in El Salvador nothing whatever had changed.  After all the American money, all the equipment, all the advisers, American-trained troops could still be found committing spectacular atrocities against unarmed civilians – priests and women no less. At one time, U.S. officials might have gritted their teeth and held on, intent on keeping the guerillas bottled up in the mountains. But the world had changed.  In late 1989, in the matter of El Salvador, George Bush was no hard-liner; he wanted a settlement. And in January 1992, after a long U.N.-brokered negotiations, that is what he got.

It is here, for most North Americans, that the story ends. Larry Towell, however, stays on. He shows us not only the war’s heart – the killings during the November Offensive, daily life in the guerilla-controlled zones, women mourning their murdered children – but its aftermath, the country that remains, marked irrevocably as it is by the brutal years of the 1980s. We see not only the stumps of severed limbs, the crippled children, the gravestones, but also the neediness and the desolation, an overwhelming rural poverty that was there at the outset of the war and that remains there still, a decade and a half and billions of American dollars later.  Amid all the changes in El Salvador, Towell shows us, there is far too much that has stayed the same: flocks of children still pick their way through the garbage dumps each morning, hoping to fill their stomachs. Of course, in America one no longer sees such images. In America the searchlight has passed on.