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The Crucial Year, Bloody 1980: "They'll Kill Anybody"
July 16, 2007

Although no one knew for certain that 1980 would be the final year of the Carter presidency, it became increasingly clear that such would be the case as Carter's approval numbers plummeted and Ronald Reagan's climbed.

Meanwhile, the government's repression took a particularly bloody turn in El Salvador, undermining the reformist junta that rose to power after the November 1979 coup (see my Weekly commentary for 3-5-07), driving the remainder of the centrist and non-guerilla left further toward embracing the insurgency, and polarizing Salvadoran society.

The Murder of Mario Zamora and the February Coup Attempt: The violence began in late January, when the military fired on a mass demonstration, killing twenty-four. In February, Salvadoran attorney general Mario Zamora was assassinated at his home during a dinner party by a death squad that forced its way onto the premises, dragged him into the bathroom, and shot him in the face twelve times, a trademark of the White Warriors Union, led by Roberto D'Aubuisson. This almost caused the collapse of the government (see my Weekly commentary for 3-5-07), and a coup attempt that same month masterminded by D'Aubuisson failed only through the active intercession of Ambassador Robert White.

Zamora's brother Rubén resigned from the government, and formed a splinter group of Christian Democrats who could no longer support the government. This fragmentation of the governing coalition further enfeebled an already desperately besieged regime.

The Assassination of Archbishop Romero: Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated by these same rightwing elements the following month (see my Weekly commentary for 3-5-07 and 3-26-07). Army snipers opened fire on mourners during the archbishop's funeral, killing twenty-nine, with hundreds more injured either through gunfire or in the human stampede that followed in the resulting chaos.

The May Coup Attempt: A second coup attempt followed in May, but it was discovered by Colonel Adolfo Majano, the military leader of the 1979 reformist coup. With the assistance of Ambassador White, he was able to rebuff the coup and finally arrest D'Aubuisson for treason. (Among the evidence seized during his arrest were documents linking him to both the Zamora and Romero murders).

D'Aubuisson's arrest provoked 300 of his supporters to form a violent cordon outside Ambassador White's residence, blocking the entrance with automobiles, and vowing not to let the ambassador leave until D'Aubuisson was released. The standoff was ended only after U.S. marines fired tear gas into the crowd and the ambassador plowed through the blockade in an armored Cadillac. Later that day, unknown gunmen opened fire at the U.S. embassy with a heavy caliber machine gun and threw two bombs into the compound.

Attrition Among the Reformist Officers: As the year passed, Salvadoran officers who had supported the 1979 coup ("Majanistas," after their leader Col. Majano) were either reassigned (usually to posts overseas), or they lined up with their rightwing superiors, so that by year's end the government had become a brutally repressive military regime with a largely symbolic civilian face. Col. Madrano himself was repeatedly undermined by his superior, General Guillermo García, and survived an assassination attempt by rightwing gunmen in November, only to be ousted by the junta a month later while on a trip to Panama. He ultimately fled the country to escape further attempts on his life.

The Pentagon's Support for the Salvadoran Military: As the military was reverting from reform to repression, Pentagon officials kept battling with Ambassador White over sending weapons and advisors to the Salvadoran military. White was able to wrestle human rights conditions on some of these offerings, but the Salvadoran command would always respond with half-hearted compromises that the Pentagon unfailingly found acceptable.

The Murder of the FDR Executive Committee: On November 27, the leadership of the Revolutionary Democratic Front—the broad coalition of left-wing civilian opposition parties, including the mass organizations linked to all five guerilla armies, plus forty-nine labor unions and several student groups—met in a Jesuit high school in San Salvador. Suddenly, 200 armed men, some in the uniforms of the national police, others the Army Commandos, formed a secure perimeter around the building. Two dozen more heavily armed men in balaclavas and civilian clothes (but still wearing their combat boots), stormed into the school and forced everyone to lie face down on the floor. Five of the six members of the FDR's executive committee were taken away, including Enrique Alvarez, himself a member of the oligarchy and a former minister of agriculture. The next day their naked and tortured bodies were found dumped along a road outside the capital. Responsibility was claimed by a new death squad, the Maximiliano Hernández Martinez Anticommunist Brigade, named after General Martinez, who conducted La Matanza, "The Massacre," in 1932, during which anywhere from 10,000 to 50,000 campesinos were murdered (see my Weekly commentary for 2-19-07) in a counter-insurrection bloodbath that came to be the model for the military's redoubled repression from 1980 to 1982.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick, an advisor to now president-elect Ronald Reagan, responded to these killings with: "It's a reminder that those who live by the sword can expect to die by it," to which an American diplomat who served in the region during the Reagan presidency responded, "There is absolutely zero conception [by the Reaganites] of what these people [the Salvadoran elites and their military protectors] are really like, how evil they really are."

The murder of the FDR's executive committee sabotaged any hope for a negotiated end to the escalating violence—which was probably its intent. Ambassador White had hope to woo the FDR back into the government to build a broad-based centrist coalition as a bulwark against both the reactionary right and the revolutionary left, but now the only centrists still standing were Christian Democrats loyal to José Napolean Duarte, and they were increasingly seen as mere figureheads whose power would dissolve without the support of the United States.

The Reagan Team Steps In (from "Total Surrealism" to "Malice and Stupidity"): The Central American right saw Reagan's election as a sign that they could disregard the Carter administration's continued attempts to bolster the Christian Democrat center. Long contemptuous of Carter—whom the military leader of Guatemala derided as "Jimmy Castro"—and equally disaffected with Ambassador White, the regional right saw Reagan's election as a green light to renewed counterinsurgency efforts unhindered by concerns about human rights. Death squad killings escalated immediately throughout the region. Two murdered bodies found outside San Miguel, El Salvador, the day after Reagan's election, bore a note reading, "With Ronald Reagan, the miscreants and guerillas of Central America and El Salvador will be finished."

As the killings mounted, seventy-one church leaders petitioned Reagan, asking him to denounce the violence and embrace a policy respectful of human rights. He refused, saying the petition was "one-sided," since it didn't condemn human rights abuses in Communist countries. (Why he was in any way constrained from decrying human rights abuses regardless of the political stripe of the guilty actor is unclear. He did state during the campaign that he did not believe aid to loyal but repressive regimes should be restricted on the grounds of a difference of opinion on what constituted human rights, a generosity he did not extend to left-wing regimes, though he never faulted himself for being "one-sided" in such instances.)

Meanwhile, Reagan's transition team was sending a clear signal to Salvadoran business men and military leaders that military aid would be resumed under the new presidency and a new more aggressive anticommunist program would be in force throughout the region. When the centrist President Duarte secretly flew to Washington to press his side of the issue, he was greeted with rudeness and disdain. The left was held in nothing but contempt—and not just the Salvadoran left. So visceral was the Reagan team's contempt for Carter that they refused to even invite State Department staff to a transition meeting in Mexico City, which one career diplomat described as "total surrealism."
Note: This contempt for career diplomats and other long-term government officials would blossom into the theory of the "unitary executive," espoused by conservative legal thinkers under the Reagan presidency and embraced with verve in the administration of George W. Bush. Under this conception of the executive branch, career officials, who are routinely seen as too leftwing by conservatives (who else but a liberal would commit himself to long-term public service, instead of private sector wealth?), are deemed to undermine the unrestricted authority of the president to conduct the executive branch solely as he sees fit, which unitary executive proponents see as the president's Constitutional mandate. Its detractors claim this theory has led to the increased politicization, if not the corruption and enfeeblement, of the Justice Department, the State Department, the Department of Health, the EPA, and other agencies under the purview of the presidency during the Bush regime.
One of the worst excesses came from Cleto DiGiovanni, a former CIA officer who represented himself as a member of Reagan's transition team (he had co-authored an article slamming Carter's support for Duarte). DiGiovanni informed Salvadoran leaders that any statements by the transition team to the effect that they would not support a rightist coup should be ignored. Learning of this, Ambassador White was livid. He accused the transition team of "malice and stupidity," to which the Reaganites responded by disavowing that DiGiovanni had any legitimate role in the transition, claiming "We have about half a dozen pretend emissaries all over the world who are complete hoaxes." This response gained no traction with White, Ambassador Pezzullo in Nicaragua, and Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia M. Derian, who noted that the Reagan team's undermining of Carter policies had been going on for some time.

The Murder of Four American Churchwomen: No incident more dramatically underscored the escalation of violence attributed to the Reagan team's tacit blind eye to human rights abuses than the murder of three Catholic nuns and a lay missionary, at the hands of National Guardsmen in December, 1980.

Two of the slain, Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, were Maryknolls, an order known for its work among the poor, and thus already a target of the government. The colonel of the local garrison (Ford and Clarke worked in Chalatenango) told Ford that the church is indirectly subversive because it's on the side of the weak. The third sister, Dorothy Kazel, was an Ursuline, and she worked with lay worker Jean Donovan in La Libertad.

The day of their murders was particularly tense because the next day was scheduled for the funerals of the slain FDR leaders. Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel were obliged to drive their white van to the airport twice to pick up four sisters arriving from Nicaragua, one in the early afternoon to pick up the first two, then later to pick up Ford and Clarke who arrived on a later flight. This back and forth aroused the suspicion of a National Guardsman, who reported to his superior, Subsergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Alemán, that the sisters were acting suspiciously. Colindres ordered his squad of five guardsmen to change into civilian clothes, then had traffic from the airport held up while the white van was allowed to go through. Colindres and his henchmen were waiting up the road. They stopped the van, questioned the four women, then told them to drive into the countryside near the village of Santiago Nonualco where they were first raped, then shot at pointblank range. Their bodies were left by the side of the road, and the van was driven twenty miles back in the opposite direction and torched after its license plates were removed. Asked later why he ordered the churchwomen killed, Colindres replied, "They were subversives."

Father Paul Schindler, who oversaw the mission in La Libertad, knew something was wrong when Donovan and Kazel did not appear for morning meetings. He notified the embassy then searched the area around the airport, and finally discovered the van. The villagers of Santiago Nonualco discovered the bodies (not a rarity in the area, except these were foreigners), and reported them to the authorities. The National Guard arrived on the scene, and had the four churchwomen buried in a shallow, common grave. The local parish priest notified his superiors, who in turn notifed the embassy. Ambassador White arrived at the scene, where he found Fr. Schindler, who'd been contacted by the parish priest.

As the four women were exhumed, three sisters knelt in prayer by the graveside while photographers recorded the grisly work. Jean Donovan's face had been destroyed by the high velocity round fired into the back of her head. Ambassador White said later:
We already knew they would be dead, but when you saw the flies, the ropes, when you saw them uncovered, it was horrible and pitiable. . . . You see people you love beaten and broken, and you realize something important about El Salvador. They'll kill anybody.
Carter suspended $25 million in economic and military aid pending an investigation into the killings. He sent two diplomats to investigate—one of them a veteran of the Ford administration, for the sake of credibility with the Reagan transition team and the Salvadoran right, which no longer cared what Carter thought. Meanwhile, D'Aubuisson and his rightwing allies were using the murders and the cut-off of aid as but another spur for a coup attempt. Carter responded by demanding that the military be transferred to civilian control, rightist officers transferred out of control positions, and an end to death squad killing, before any resumption of aid—a strategy proposed earlier but scrapped in light of Reagan's victory. It mirrored almost exactly the Christian Democrat agenda, and helped bolster the regime against the coup attempt. The military even conceded to the demands placed upon it, at least nominally. Twelve notorious rightists were scheduled for reassignment, but only a few actually left their posts. Once Carter left office, nothing more was heard of the military's promises. But before that happened, Carter resumed aid on the basis of the military avowed concessions, and even agreed to phased-in lethal aid if the government made "tangible progress" to reassign officers suspected of human rights abuses, to reduce political killings, and to investigate the murders of the four churchwomen.

Meanwhile, the Reagan camp decried even the temporary suspension of aid, with Jeanne Kirkpatrick leading the rhetorical charge. She considered it grossly unfair that the Salvadoran armed forces were accused of brutality, and believed their commitment to "moderation and democratic institutions" was too often overlooked:
I think it's a terrible injustice to the government and the military when you suggest that they were somehow responsible for terrorism and assassination.
She was even more blunt regarding the four slain churchwomen. She claimed they weren't simply innocent nuns, but political activists working on behalf of the frente (the FDR-FMLN), and they were killed by people using violence (justifiably, if excessively) to oppose the insurrection. She supplied no evidence to support this claim, and none was ever provided. In fact, at the time, the State Department acknowledged it had no evidence to suggest that the work the sisters were doing went beyond religious instruction and social welfare. Kirkpatrick was unmoved, and she stated unequivocally that she did not believe the government was involved in the killings. On this she would subsequently be found to be unequivocally wrong.

Regardless, her attempts to cast the murders in a forgiving light were unsuccessful. The images on the nightly news of the nuns' exhumation, their half naked bodies on the ground, bits of brush arranged to offer a token of modesty, shocked the Americans public and discredited the Salvadoran regime as never before.

The Murder of the Two AIFLD representatives:

As though the murder of the four churchwomen were not enough, on January 3, 1981, two American representatives with the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) were murdered while sharing dinner with José Rodolfo Viera, one of the key government officials overseeing the Christian Democrat efforts at agrarian reform.

AIFLD was an agency of the AFL-CIO that helped form non-communist labor unions in Latin America. Jointly funded by the government and the labor movement, AIFLD was often charged with being nothing more than a straw man for U.S. foreign policy, and on several occasions acted as a front for CIA covert operations (which led to the sobriquet, heard often on the Marxist left, "AFL-CIA").

Viera, frustrated at the government's inability to actually enforce its agrarian reform policy—or even protect agrarian reform workers from military death squads—was ready to resign from the government. The two Americans were there to avert this crisis, since land reform was a cornerstone of America's strategy for helping the Salvadoran government win the hearts and minds of its people.

At about 11:30 that night, two gunmen walked up to their table in the coffee shop of the Sheraton Hotel and opened fire with submachine guns, then calmly walked out, undeterred by hotel security staff. Viera and one of the Americans died instantly; the other American died on the way to the hospital.

Though nowhere near as gruesome as the murder of the four churchwomen, this killing was more surprising, because the anticommunist credentials of the two Americans were impeccable. This only served to underscore the truth of Ambassador White's remarks regarding the Salvadoran right: They would indeed kill anybody.

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