The Continuing Role of Armed Struggle

The FMLN and Democracy in El Salvador

By Charley MacMartin
February 1991; page 8; Volume 2, No. 4

For over a decade in El Salvador, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has successfully used the strategy of armed struggle to combat Salvadoran Army repression and to carve out political space for popular organizing in both the city and countryside of Central America's most densely populated country. After years of civil war and over 73,000 dead, though, El Salvador remains under right-wing and Army control.

Within this context, the FMLN defends the continuing role of armed struggle alongside the need to find a politically negotiated solution to the war. The upcoming elections in March 1991 provide a context for debate over the relationship between procedural democracy, negotiations and the FMLN's combatants.

Fighting Continues in New Year

In the early morning of January 10, the bombing and gunfire was plainly audible in the capital, San Salvador. Rebel forces of the FMLN spent the next six hours attacking police headquarters in the city of Suchitoto, thirty miles north of the capitol. By the end of the battle, FMLN troops had inflicted twenty-five casualties on the Salvadoran Army, captured six Army soldiers and downed an army UH-1H helicopter.

The FMLN campaign was launched, according to rebel communiques, to commemorate the 1981 "final offensive," the FMLN's first nationally coordinated campaign. More significantly, say political leaders in the country, the January battles served to underline the FMLN's capacity to neutralize the Army's air war, a process begun in the heavy fighting of November and December 1990.

The six week campaign brought down, according to FMLN sources, twenty-two Army aircraft. The Army admitted damage to over a dozen aircraft, but accused the FMLN of escalating the civil war through the use of surface-to-air missiles.

The FMLN's "coordinated military activity" in eleven of El Salvador's fourteen provinces severely damaged the confidence of the Salvadoran Air Force. Pilots refused to fly over the northern, rebel-controlled province of Chalatenango and demanded guarantees of pensions for dependents of killed pilots.

Fighting for Survival

FMLN commanders defend the continued fighting and the strategy of neutralizing the Army's air war. "The Army has used its planes," explains an FMLN leader in the central province of La Paz, "as a way to prolong the war and avoid negotiations. When the army can no longer do this, they will be forced to the negotiating table."

Fighting for Survival

The air cover had previously allowed Army soldiers on foot to move far into the countryside, harassing peasants and civilians accused to supporting the FMLN. "The Army has not been here since November," says Rolando Reyes, a cooperative leader outside the city of San Vicente. Reyes' predecessor was gunned down by Army soldiers in early 1990. During the last year, accuses Reyes, the Army had arrived at the end of each month to "enforce the draft," forcibly recruiting youth. "But now, [the soldiers] are so scared of being stranded out here and facing "los muchachos" with no helicopters to protect them, they don't dare."

The FMLN, though, lost political ground in the first two days of the new year when on January 1, Nicaragua's Sandinista Popular Army detained four of its own officers for smuggling anti-aircraft missiles to the FMLN. And on January 2, FMLN combatants in San Miguel province downed a U.S. military helicopter. Three U.S. military personnel died, possibly after the helicopter crashed.

"Systematic attacks on press freedom are stepping up as the campaign for March elections gets underway."

Investigation of U.S. Deaths

The U.S. Embassy and the Salvadoran Army accuse the FMLN combatants of killing the military personnel in cold blood. While the FMLN has detained two of its members in connection with the incident, the FMLN leadership maintains that the operation was a legitimate defensive action and that rebel combatants hold to a longstanding policy of avoiding U.S. personnel as targets.

In its January 9th edition, the respected Salvadoran newsweekly Proceso suggested as well that the use of U.S. forces based in Honduras for logistical support in El Salvador "constitutes ... an evident violation of the spirit and letter of [the] Esquipulas II [peace accords]."

A week later, the Bush administration in the U.S. seized on the two incidents to reinstate full military aid to El Salvador, which had been suspended in 1990 by the U.S. Congress.

Military analysts on both sids of the war admit that the reinstatement of $42.5 million offers the Army ranks more of psychological than a material boost. The question remains whether the boost can counterbalance the demoralizing effect on government soldiers of the FMLN's recent campaign.

Elections Without Democracy

On January 9th, the 1991 campaign season began for both National Assembly and municipal posts. Elections in the 1970s were vetoed by the Army, and during the 1980s elections helped the Army and the U.S. Embassy avoid negotiations to end the war. Some within the FMLN, therefore reject elections outright as a strategy for building popular democracy.

The primacy of negotiations remains the cornerstone of FMLN political strategy. FMLN leadership maintains that real democracy cannot commence in El Salvador until political accords are reached on structural issues; the Army should be under civilian control and Army war criminals are brought to trial. The Army demands that the FMLN lay down its weapons before any substantive accords are reached. Unable to agree on the order of events - cease fire first or political accords - the negotiated solution seems as far away as ever.

Hopes for Peace are Slim

As the U.N. Secretary General's special envoy to the negotiations, Alvaro de Soto, said in a January 11 guest column in the Wall Street Journal, a cease-fire is "not likely to come about without agreement on profound changes in El Salvador." Secret talks in January between the FMLN and the government have produced little hope for an end to the war.

Despite lack of progress in the negotiations, some sectors of El Salvador's labor movement, as well as communiques from the FMLN, suggest a flexibility with respect to the March elections. While no opposition party or popular movement organization endorses elections as a solution to the civil war, some union members are running as independent candidates for National Legislature seats. "We cannot afford to be dogmatic," suggest Julio Portillo, high school teacher and leader of the powerful teachers union, ANDES. "Elections do offer the space and the platform to educate and organize around what really is the solution to the war: peace with social justice."

The persisting strength of the FMLN despite the weakness of regional allies indicates to many observers the "indigenous nature" of the Salvadoran revolution. "The fact that the Cold War is over," argues the U.N. mediator de Soto, "and yet the Salvadoran war goes on, and even intensifies, says a thing or two about about the nature of the conflict."

Systematic Attack on the Press Precede Elections

As Polemicist goes to the presses, news emerges from El Salvador of renewed bloodshed. The Catholic Church has accused members of the Salvadoran Army's First Brigade of being involved in the January 1991 massacre north of San Salvador in the town of El Zapote. In the killing, over a dozen civialians were shot and then cut up with knives by men wearing black scarves and army insignia.

Next, in the early morning hours of Saturday, February 9, 1991, the offices of the San Salvador newspaper, Diario Latino, were destroyed by fire. Although there were no human casualties, the presses and other machinery were almost completely destroyed.

Diario Latino is a worker-run newspaper which is openly critical of the ARENA government and the Armed Forces. It has been one of the few media outlets, and the only daily newspaper, to regularly cover El Salvador's political opposition. In addition, Diario Latino was the only paper in El Salvador to publish the text of the "Moakley Report" on the involvement of the Salvadoran Army in the murder of six Jesuit priests and their two co-workers in November 1989.

Systematic attacks on press freedom are stepping up as the campaign for March elections gets underway. On February 2, 1991, eighteen journalists returning from Perquin, Morazan in El Salvador were detained by Col. Leon Linares of the Salvadoran Army's Fourth Military Detachment. Leon Linares confiscated their materials and threatened them. "If this happens again, you could all be dead."