Sunday, January 09, 2005

Another Salvador lesson for Iraq -- Death Squads

The online edition of Newsweek offers up a unique twist on the Iraq/El Salvador parallel. (Hat-tip to Bill Stanley) Entitled 'The Salvador Option', and written by Michael Hirsh and John Barry, this article lays out yet another Salvador lesson for Iraq -- one quite distinct from the "elections resolves insurgencies" model put forth by Rumsfeld, Cheney and Abizaid.

Here's the gist of it:
What to do about the deepening quagmire of Iraq? The Pentagon’s latest approach is being called "the Salvador option"—and the fact that it is being discussed at all is a measure of just how worried Donald Rumsfeld really is....

Now, NEWSWEEK has learned, the Pentagon is intensively debating an option that dates back to a still-secret strategy in the Reagan administration’s battle against the leftist guerrilla insurgency in El Salvador in the early 1980s. Then, faced with a losing war against Salvadoran rebels, the U.S. government funded or supported "nationalist" forces that allegedly included so-called death squads directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers....

Following that model, one Pentagon proposal would send Special Forces teams to advise, support and possibly train Iraqi squads, most likely hand-picked Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and Shiite militiamen, to target Sunni insurgents and their sympathizers, even across the border into Syria, according to military insiders familiar with the discussions. It remains unclear, however, whether this would be a policy of assassination or so-called "snatch" operations, in which the targets are sent to secret facilities for interrogation. The current thinking is that while U.S. Special Forces would lead operations in, say, Syria, activities inside Iraq itself would be carried out by Iraqi paramilitaries, officials tell NEWSWEEK.
Okay, so it's not US military officers who refer to Salvadoran military counterinsurgent operations as "death squad" activity, it's the authors of this article.

But still, what they describe as a potential strategy is in fact what the U.S. government supported in El Salvador, and many of the killings -- carried out by unidentified assailants -- were actually intelligence units of the Salvadoran military, not just in the early 1980s (as the Truth Commission rather timidly describes) but throughout the conflict.

At the time, the U.S. claimed that death squads were rogue operations, were funded by right-wingers in Miami, but had little to do with state policy (except for a period in 1983, which prompted a visit by then Vice-President George H.W. Bush to visit El Salvador and hand over a list of names of officers that should be transferred or cashiered).

But now it seems that the U.S. military (or the CIA?) is finally and rather brazenly owning up to its role in the Salvadoran conflict.

I have some first-hand experience with this issue. Just before I started working for Americas Watch, I carried out a series of interviews in Washington and El Salvador alongside Jemera Rone (my predecessor at AW) with César Vielman Joya Martínez, a former soldier in the intelligence unit of the First Brigade, who claimed to have participated in a death squad that operated there. AW (still not called Human Rights Watch, at that point) later published the findings in a short report, which essentially argued against the extradition of Joya Martínez back to El Salvador. That report noted:
Death squad activities in El Salvador, which commenced in the late 1960s, have involved hundreds of "operatives," yet until Joya Martínez surfaced, few have come forward or publicly revealed the inner workings of these murderous units. Although a tiny handful of members of the armed forces have described death squad operations in the early 1980s, Joya Martínez is the only one to have detailed their activities at the close of the decade.
Joya Martínez was a very shady character, and most people would probably feel quite queasy just sitting in the same room with him, but his story checked out in many ways. Here are the essential findings of the AW investigation:

Americas Watch's Investigation of Joya Martínez's Charges

Americas Watch interviewed Joya Martínez for several hours and reviewed transcripts of many other hours of testimony given about his personal knowledge of, and participation in, First Brigade death squad activities. We read the court records in the murder case for which Joya Martínez's extradition is being sought, up until the time those court records were, without explanation, removed from public scrutiny. We attempted to verify Joya Martínez's accounts of First Brigade death squad activities by field investigations of murders he alleged were conducted by this squad. We were already familiar, because of our presence since 1985 in El Salvador, with certain of the cases he mentioned and with the Apopa-Nejapa area north of
San Salvador, to which he was assigned.

We were convinced, and the Army has not denied, that Joya Martínez was indeed a case officer in the First Brigade's intelligence unit. He had a detailed working knowledge of the Apopa-Nejapa area and of cases there that had never been publicly denounced or reported to human rights groups, as well as of cases that had been denounced.

Of the several cases of death squad executions in which he said he had been involved, we were able to verify that one execution, of a person he was told was a former army informer, had taken place at the time and in the place and circumstances that Joya Martínez described. The coincidences between Joya Martínez's account and Americas Watch's investigation were very strong. His knowledge could not have come from public or human rights sources, because the family never filed any complaint; rather, they quickly buried the victim after the justice of the peace viewed the body and certified the death. Joya Martínez also had intimate knowledge of an execution of a person he said was one of his own informers; besides having received information on this death before meeting Joya Martínez, Americas Watch also located the case in the court records and verified through official documents that this person was indeed a military informant.

Americas Watch was not able to verify other cases described by Joya Martínez because they were never publicly denounced and because of the inadequacies of record-keeping in El Salvador. In fact, Joya Martínez's accounts make clear the military's intention to eliminate all traces of its victims, often by throwing their bodies over cliffs into the Pacific Ocean. There are some inconsistencies in Joya Martínez's recollections of these killings, and he has contradicted himself on some details in interviews with different people. We have no explanation for these discrepancies. However, Americas Watch believes that the many details of death squad operations he provides could only have come from someone with an intimate knowledge of their inner workings.
Among the inconsistencies were his varied accounts about what the U.S. role was in all of this. What he told us: "He has also alleged that U.S. advisors stationed in the First Brigade funded the unit's activities while insisting on being insulated from knowledge of its dirty work."

Finally, as a kind of back-handed confirmation that the Salvadoran military carried out a policy of assassinating insurgents (without necessarily claiming credit), I recall an anecdote from José Luis Quan, a former comandante of the Resistencia Nacional (RN) faction of the FMLN, whom I interviewed sometime shortly after the signing of the peace accords for research on the peace process.

In addition to arguing how the repopulation strategy of refugees from Honduras was one organized by the FMLN (that's another long story), "Chino" Quan asked me if I'd been to the FENASTRAS headquarters recently. (FENASTRAS was a trade union aligned with the RN during the war, and gained special notoriety when a bomb destroyed its headquarters and killed almost a dozen people shortly before the 1989 FMLN offensive.) At FENASTRAS, the walls were lined with photos of their fallen trade-union comrades over the years.

Perhaps with a bit of exaggeration, he said, "every single one of those comrades were FMLN urban commandos." Assuming that this is true, and assuming that many of their deaths had been reported as "death squad" murders of trade unionists (and without going back and reviewing each case, a pretty safe assumption), Quan provided just one more piece of evidence that the Salvadoran military had a highly developed capacity for targeting clandestine FMLN members. Tom Gibb, who reported for the BBC during the war, has an unpublished manuscript in which he credited the Salvadoran military with a very strong capacity for infilitrating FMLN organizations (the RN, in particular).

So, given all of this, it seems to me that, years later, the U.S. finally wants to take some credit for this strategy. It turned out to be quite effective in military terms in El Salvador, but it's also a morally abhorrent one.

In addition, such a strategy ultimately depends on the intelligence ability of the host country's military. Thus far, it seems to me that insurgents have done a far better job of infiltrating the Iraqi military, than the other way around.

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