El Salvador's Unreformed Military

By , James A. Goldston, an attorney, works at Americas Watch, a human rights organization.

THE recent ``disappearance'' of several vital pieces of evidence regarding last November's Jesuit murders in El Salvador confirms, for those who still needed convincing, that despite vast sums of United States aid the Salvadoran military remains impervious to human rights reforms. Once again, prosecution of army officers accused of a heinous crime is being squashed. Once again, we are urged that a change in US policy now will only make things worse. It is time, however, for Congress to end military aid to El Salvador. Since 1980, US officials have consistently offered three principal arguments to support a policy of military training and assistance in El Salvador. After a decade of unrelenting terror, these contentions are bankrupt.

First, we have long been told, ``things are getting better.'' The Bush and Reagan administrations have pointed to the numerical decline in human rights violations since the early 1980s - when 1,000 civilians were slaughtered every month - as evidence of an improving political climate.

But the statistics hide the cumulative impact of killing 30,000 persons in the space of three years, 1980-82. The very terror which prevailed then has meant, not only that there exist fewer political opponents to be targeted today, but also that sponsors of violence need kill less frequently in order to achieve the same level of fear and intimidation. The closure of political space following the slaying of six internationally known Jesuit priests is illustrative.

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Moreover, while the number of killings in recent years has not approached the earlier carnage, the trend has not been toward steady improvement. Targeted death-squad and government killings, as reported by the Roman Catholic Church's human rights office, increased from 96 in 1987 to 152 in 1988, and disappearances rose from 39 in 1986 to 101 in 1989.

A second argument favored by US administrations asserts both that the civilian government exercises substantial control over the military, and that civilian officials are not responsible for human rights abuses purportedly committed by runaway death squads.

Neither assertion comports with the facts. The sorry history of human rights prosecutions in El Salvador - not one military officer has been convicted - indicates that the army is not subordinate to the civilian government. Moreover, the sheer number of violations over the years belies the notion that a few rogue bands are committing the bulk of the violence.

US officials cannot have it both ways. Either President Cristiani is in control of the military apparatus, and must accept responsibility for its abuses, or he is not, and we should abandon the pretension of supporting ``civilian government.''

Finally, throughout the decade the American people have been led to believe that US training and military aid would produce a disciplined, professional army respectful of human rights. The military's behavior over the past 10 years suggests, to the contrary, that $1 billion in American military assistance has created an army powerful enough to resist all pleas for reform.

The record of the Atlacatl Battalion, created and trained by US Army Special Forces in 1981, is the most graphic proof that US backing has little effect on the Salvadoran army's respect for human rights. In the past nine years, Atlacatl soldiers have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed in the course of the war: 700 civilians killed in El Mozote in 1981, dozens in Tenancingo and Copapayo in 1983, 68 in Los Llanitos and 50 at the Gualsinga River in 1984. Just in the past year, soldiers of the Atlacatl were implicated in several killings, culminating in the murder of the Jesuits.

If US policy has failed to produce an army which respects the rights of its citizens, this should not be a surprise. US officials have never demanded that human rights concerns take precedence over winning the war when, as they often do, these goals conflict. So long as the US government continues to ignore or excuse atrocities, evidence will vanish, witnesses will be whisked away, and Salvadoran soldiers will continue with impunity to murder their own people.

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