Turning Death Squad Leader into Statesman

U.S. Seeks New Image for the Same Old Clothes

By Bill Stouffer
September 1991; page 12; Volume 3, No. 1

Roberto D'Aubuisson, president for life of the far right wing ARENA party, is dying of cancer in a hospital in Houston. One of the most well known symbols of the death squad terror of the 1980s, he was recently profiled in the New York Times as a "hard smoking, hard drinking man with a James Dean-like style and image ... once known for his rough treatment of captured leftists" [1].

The use of the term "rough treatment" here as a synonym for "torture" seems unusually bold even for the New York Times. The same article goes on to praise D'Aubuisson's credentials as a diplomat, claiming that he is "known as an astute politician in a country with few of those." While D'Aubuisson's real reputation is widely enough known that such pronouncements invite ridicule more than detailed refutation, the Times article has a clear political purpose that requires response.

Solidaridad p'siempre!

A vote on U.S. aid to El Salvador will be coming up in Congress as early as September and sanitizing the reputation of the extreme right wing deflects attention from the fact that there has been no visible improvement in the government's human rights record. Nonetheless, there have been striking changes over the last year in the situation in El Salvador of which D'Aubuisson's impending death is an appropriate symbol.

UN Observers Installed in San Salvador

After a shaky start at the beginning of the year in response to the uncertainties of the Gulf war, negotiations between the government and the FMLN made dramatic progress in April with the first concrete agreements on constitutional reform. Although the crucial issue of the cleansing of the military was not addressed, the April agreements raised hopes that a cease-fire could be reached by the end of the year.

Unfortunately, the subsequent round of negotiations showed little public progress as pressures from the right wing of ARENA led the government to backtrack from positions to which it had already agreed. Most recently the government has attacked the FMLN for not negotiating an immediate cease-fire even though such an action would be in violation of the Geneva Accords which established the framework for the whole negotiating process.

One of the central provisions of these agreements was to make a cease-fire subject to the prior achievement of political accords to make sure that the root causes of the conflict were addressed [2]. Thus the government is using the pretext of a humanitarian concern for a cease-fire to try to remove all substantive issues from the negotiating table. The next round of negotiations is set for mid-August but it is unclear whether any immediate progress is possible.

Ten days after the Bush administration stepped up aid shipments to the Salvadoran army, the offices of a key grassroots organization were ransacked and its night watchman brutally murdered.

In spite of stalled negotiations, UN mediation of the conflict moved from the negotiating table to the streets of El Salvador. The UN human rights observer mission (ONUSAL), created by a human rights agreement between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN a year ago, was finally installed on July 26. In response to strong international pressure, this mission of international human rights observers was established ahead of schedule and over the objections of the United States.

The agreement empowers ONUSAL to investigate human rights abuses and compliance with agreements made at the negotiating table. Both the government and the FMLN have pledged to provide the observers with unrestricted territorial access, cooperation, and safety. The observer force has been given the freedom to make unannounced visits anywhere in the country to observe the human rights situation and receive complaints. It can interview anyone in private and set up branch offices where it deems necessary. The mission will also study and work with the judicial system, design an educational campaign, have access to the mass media and regularly report on the Salvadoran situation to UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar [3]. It is still too early to determine precisely what impact the mission will have on the situation in El Salvador.

Shortly after ONUSAL's installation it was announced that the mission will confine itself to investigation of ongoing human rights abuses and will spend the first 60 days familiarizing itself with Salvadoran law. This statement provoked a critical response from both grassroots organizations and from the church which want investigations to begin immediately.

Resurgence of D'Aubuisson's El Salvador?

The arrival of the UN mission coincides with a rise in death squad activity. On July 7, ten days after the Bush administration stepped up aid shipments to the Salvadoran army, the offices of a key grassrools organization were ransacked and its night watchman brutally murdered. Matin Ayala Ramierez was found with his throat slashed, tied to a pillar at the office of the Council of Marginal Communities. His wife, Maria Leticia Campos, survived but her breasts, ears, neck, and right arm were mutilated by two men in olive green uniforms. She later identified her assailants as members of the National Police.

Opposition leaders saw the attack as a clear signal from the ruling ARENA party and the army. "It's a political act and part of a campaign to terrorize the grassroots movement," said a representative of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission. "This attack was against everyone; they want to take us back to the 80's," added Ruben Zamora, a leader in the opposition Democratic Convergence party. The attack is reminiscent of the events of the early 1980's when death squad killings multiplied to epidemic proportions.

Not even that atrocity has been able to derail the mainstream push toward peace, however. A recent visitor from San Salvador told El Salvador Perspectives the mood among democratic activists there is still relatively buoyant. "A few years ago we would all have felt a day closer to our own deaths after this kind of horrifying assault," he said. "Today, people see it as just one more desperate holding action, and we keep going about our work" [4].

Death squad threats have targeted not only activists on the left but even people who cooperate in any way with the UN mission, In one communique, the Salvadoran Anti-Communist Front (FAS) warned President Cristiani that it will never accept "impositions from the UN, ONUSAL, the CIA or the FMLN". The group threatens to unleash a "true and bloody civil war" against the "internationalists who try to impose their will."

Pledging support for the nation's army, FAS says peace will come after "expelling the communists, and the Machiavellian organizations that are helping them to chain developing countries," The communique indicates the 1989 murder of six Jesuit priests helped to balance out what it considers the erroneous U.S. counterinsurgency strategy used in the Salvadoran war [5].

Legislative Fight over El Salvador Heats Up

There was an early test of Congressional sentiment on continued aid to El Salvador in the Senate on July 24 with a critical vote on the Dodd-Leahy amendment to the FY 92 foreign aid authorizations bill. This amendment would strengthen restrictions on U.S. military aid to El Salvador and would include limitations on the president's current ability to release aid by simply announcing the discovery of human rights improvements.

Senator Dole attempted to shut off debate and table the amendment, but this move was blocked by a vote of 56-43. The fact that all Democratics present voted against the tabling motion is a sign of the growing party line split on policy toward El Salvador. Unfortunately, following the defeat of Dole's tabling amendment Republicans, led by McCain (AZ) and Helms (NC), began a filibuster of the Dodd-Leahy amendment. The filibuster could have continued indefinitely and jeopardized the entire foreign aid bill.

Dodd ultimately had to withdraw his amendment. However, the Administration was only able to garner 43 votes for its policy on El Salvador, despite phone calls to legislators from President Bush, Secretary of State Baker, and Central American presidents Cristiani, Chamorro, and Calderon. The debate now moves to the House and again to the Senate in September, when Senator Leahy will reintroduce the Dodd-Leahy amendment on the foreign aid appropriations bill, a bill which cannot be held hostage as easily by a filibuster.

In addition, an even stronger bill which would cut off all military aid to El Salvador is steadily gaining support in Congress. The Adams-McDermott bill has already managed to get 122 cosponsors in the House. As one key Central America lobbyist summarized the legislative situation, "If I were the Administration or the Salvadoran military, I'd be real worried."

Austin CISPES is planning an action for September 20 in support of a total cutoff of U.S. aid to the government of El Salvador. Also scheduled for this Fall, on October 26, is the second annual Austin-El Salvador work-a-thon which will raise medical aid for El Salvador and help repair low income housing here in Austin. The next scheduled event is a discussion of Negotiations and the Salvadoran Civil War which will take place Friday September 6 at 7:00 at Chubby's Restaurant at S. 1st and W. Elizabeth. For more information about any of these events call [defunct phone number redacted].



[1] NYT 7/22/91

[2] Venceremos! 6/7/91

[3] ESIO Radio News 8/2/91

[4] El Salvador Perspectives 8/5/91

[5] Salpress 7/17/91