May 2, 2004, 6:41:19 PM5/2/04
Behind the Death Squads
An exclusive report on the US role
in El Salvador's official terror
by Allan Nairn
The Progressive, May, 1984
[From the Editor's page: "The rising level of political violence in El
Salvador and the increasing military involvement of the United States began
making front-page headlines in this country about five years ago. But as
Allan Nairn reports in his carefully researched article, the Central
Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon set their intervention in motion much
earlier. They have been actively aiding official terror in El Salvador for
more than two decades-often in violation of US law, always in violation of
Washington's pious rhetoric calling for an end to the violence.
Allan Nairn, a twenty eight year old free-lance writer, lives in New
York City but has spent much of his time these last four years in Central
America. His reporting from the region has been used by such varied
outlets as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New Republic, In
These Times, The Guardian of London, Multinational Monitor, and CBS News.
Nairn's work on this article, which he hopes to expand into a book,
began late last year and included a five-week stay in El Salvador, where he
conducted dozens of interviews with military officers, civilian officials,
members of the security forces, US diplomats, and other sources."]
Early in the 1960's, during the Kennedy Administration, agents of the
US government in El Salvador set up two official security organizations
that killed thousands of peasants and suspected leftists over the next
fifteen years. These organizations, guided by American operatives,
developed into the paramilitary apparatus that came to be known as the
Salvadoran Death Squads.
Today, even as the Reagan Administration publicly condemns the Death
Squads, the CIA-in violation of US law-continues to provide training,
support and intelligence to security forces directly involved in Death
Interviews with dozens of current and former Salvadoran officers,
civilians, and official American sources disclose a pattern of sustained US
participation in building and managing the Salvadoran security apparatus
that relies on Death Squad assassinations as its principle means of
Evidence of US involvement covers a broad spectrum of activity. Over
the past twenty years, officials of the State Department, the Central
Intelligence Agency, and the US armed forces have:
o conceived and organized ORDEN, the rural paramilitary and
intelligence network described by Amnesty International as a movement
designed "to use clandestine terror against government opponents."
Out of ORDEN grew the notorious "Mano Blanco," the White Hand, which a
former US ambassador to El Salvador, Raul H. Castro, has called
"nothing less than the birth of the Death Squads";
o conceived and organized ANSESAL, the elite presidential
intelligence service that gathered files on Salvadoran dissidents and,
in the words of one US official, relied on Death Squads as "the
operative arm of intelligence gathering";
o enlisted General Jose Alberto "Chele" Medrano, the founder of
ORDEN and ANSESAL, as a CIA agent;
o trained leaders of ORDEN in surveillance techniques and use of
automatic weapons, and carried some of these leaders on the CIA
o provided American technical and intelligence advisers who often
worked directly with ANSESAL at its headquarters in the Casa
o supplied ANSESAL, the security forces, and the general staff with
electronic, photographic, and personal surveillance of individuals who
were later assassinated by Death Squads. According to Colonel Nicolas
Carranza, director of the Salvadoran Treasury Police, such
intelligence sharing by US agencies continues to this day;
o kept key security officials-including Carranza, Medrano, and
others-on the CIA payroll. Though the evidence is less conclusive
about Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, presidential candidate of the right
wing ARENA party, some of his close associates describe him as a
former recipient of CIA funding;
o furnished intelligence files that D'Aubuisson used for a series
of 1980 television broadcasts in which he denounced dozens of
academics, trade unionists, peasant leaders, Christian Democrats, and
members of the clergy as communists or guerrilla collaborators. Many
of the individuals D'Aubuisson named in his television speeches were
subsequently assassinated. The broadcasts launched D'Aubuisson's
political career and marked the emergence of the paramilitary front
which later became ARENA;
o instructed Salvadoran intelligence operatives in the use of
investigative techniques, combat weapons, explosives, and
interrogation methods that included, according to former treasury
police agent, "instruction in methods of physical and psychological
o and, in the last decade, violated the Foreign Assistance Act of
1974, which prohibits spending US funds "to provide training, or
advice or provide any financial support for police, prisons or other
law enforcement forces for any foreign government or any program of
internal intelligence or surveillance on behalf of any foreign
Up to the early 1960's, El Salvador's security forces had been little
more than loosely coordinated barracks units in the service of local land
owners and political "caudillos." "They had very, very limited political
orientation, if any," says Robert Eugene Whedbee, who served as CIA station
chief in El Salvador from 1962 to 1964. That began to change with the
Kennedy Administration's Alliance for Progress, founded on the assumption
that national security systems working side by side with capitalist
development would preempt communist revolution in Latin America.
In El Salvador, the US State Department, the CIA, the Green Berets,
and the Agency for International Development (AID) all participated in the
effort to suppress dissent.
The United States was "developing within the civil security forces ...
an investigative capability for detecting criminal and/or subversive
individuals and organizations and neutralizing their activities," wrote
Byron Engle, director of the AID Public Safety Program, in a 1967 memo to
his staff. "This requires a carefully integrated effort between the
investigative element and the regular police, paramilitary or military
force, operating separately or in conjunction with each other." Engle,
himself a former CIA official, referred to thirty-three countries,
including El Salvador, in which the Public Safety Program was operating.
The landmark event in the formation of the national security apparatus
in El Salvador and the rest of Central America was the Declaration of San
Jose, issued on March 19, 1963, at the conclusion of a meeting of six
Central American presidents. "Communism is the chief obstacle to economic
development in the Central American region," proclaimed President Kennedy,
who had chaired the meeting.
The Declaration of San Jose triggered a series of follow-up meetings
among Central American ministers of the interior, who held jurisdiction
over police and internal security. These meetings-organized and run by
the US State Department with assistance from the CIA, AID, the Customs
Bureau, the Immigration Service, and the Justice Department-"were designed
to develop ways of dealing with subversion," recalls William Bowdler, who
represented the State Department at the sessions.
For El Salvador, Washington assigned a central role to General
Medrano, then a senior officer of the National Guard and the army general
Medrano is something of a legend in Salvadoran politics. Rank and
file National Guardsmen still revere him as a fearsome "jefe" and the hero
of the 1969 war with Honduras. To his supporters, he is "the founder of
Salvadoran nationalism." But to Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte,
Medrano is something else-"the father of the Death Squads, the chief
assassin of them all."
Medrano, now retired, prides himself on moving about El Salvador
unaccompanied by bodyguards. He drives through the countryside armed only
with a .45 caliber pistol and a glove compartment stocked with hand
grenades. In a recent series of interviews spanning some twelve hours, he
spoke freely about the origins and growth of the security system.
"ORDEN and ANSESAL-the Salvadoran National Security Agency-grew out
of the State Department, the CIA, and the Green Berets during the time of
Kennedy," Medrano told me. "We created these specialized agencies to fight
the plans and actions of international communism. We organized ORDEN,
ANSESAL, and counterinsurgency courses, and we bought special arms-G3
automatic rifles-to detain the communist movement. We were preparing the
team to stop communism."
The meetings of the interior ministers resulted in the formation of
ANSESAL and parallel domestic security agencies in Guatemala, Nicaragua,
Panama, Honduras and Costa Rica. These forces "would meet every three
months under the supervision of the State Department and exchange
information and methods of operation," says Medrano. "They had direct
radio teletypes from office to office."
According to a US advisor who helped install the teletype system,
known as the Central American Communications Network, it was part of a
broader plan "to reorganize the intelligence effort and get Central
Americans to work together against subversion. At the meetings, you'd say
to them 'Well, if I had this sort of equipment, I'd do this and this,' -
sort of ease them along."
The State Department and AID's Public Safety office in El Salvador had
administrative responsibility for establishing the ANSESAL network, Medrano
says, but the substantive day-to-day intelligence work was coordinated by
the CIA: "The CIA was already participating in connections with us. The
CIA would work with us and give us reports."
"Medrano was the CIA's boy," says one current State Department
official. Indeed, Medrano himself says he was on the CIA payroll, a fact
confirmed by ORDEN colleagues. "he came to my house regularly. He was a
close friend," recalls Raul Castro, US ambassador to El Salvador from 1964
to 1968. "And he was a good friend of the United States."
Medrano flew frequently to Washington for consultations at CIA
headquarters. In July 1968, he received a silver Presidential medal from
Lyndon Johnson "in recognition of exceptionally meritorious service."
Medrano refuses to discuss the particular service he performed though he
recalls Jonson's words as the President presented him with the medal: " 'I
know all about you Medrano. You're doing good work. I know your
pedigree'-like I was a bull!"
The US government also sent Medrano on a three-month tour of Vietnam,
were he traveled with Army units, the Green Berets, and CIA operatives. As
he recalls it, Medrano "studied every aspect of warfare from primitive
jungle fighting to psychological civic action to strategic bombing."
Medrano gave Washington ample return on its investment. In El
Salvador, he organized an intricate, many-tiered intelligence and
paramilitary network that extended from the remotest mountain hamlets to
the presidential palace. The rural component of this network was ORDEN
(Spanish for "Order"), a group funded in Medrano's words, to "indoctrinate
peasants regarding the advantages and the disadvantages of the communist
Green Beret Colonel Arthur Simons was instrumental in the development
of ORDEN, says Medrano. In 1963, Simons, then commander of the 8th Special
Forces group in Panama, dispatched a team of counterinsurgency trainers to
El Salvador. (According to his service record, Simons had recently
completed a stint as commander of the White Star Mobile Training Team, a
Green Beret unit that had been sent to Laos to work with indigenous troops.
Previously, he had served as chief of staff at the Army Special Warfare
Center in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which was originally called the
Psychological Warfare Center and was later renamed the John F. Kennedy
Center for Military Assistance.)
"Colonel Simons sent me ten men to begin training us," recalls
Medrano. After "talking among ourselves and with Simons, the idea occurred
to us to catechize the people. We talked about how we had to indoctrinate
the people, because he who had the population wins the war.
"The army can easily annihilate guerrillas in the urban zone," says
Medrano, "but the peasants are tough. They are good in the mountains.
They can walk at night, see in the dark, see among the trees. We couldn't
let them be deceived the guerrillas."
Medrano says the Green Berets helped him plan the structure and
ideology of ORDEN, and then stayed on to train a team of Salvadoran
soldiers, among them Colonel Carranza, who now heads the Treasury Police,
and Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, currently chief of the Third Brigade and El
Salvador's star combat commander. The soldiers went to the countryside to
instruct civilian ORDEN leaders, who in turn established the organization's
local chapters. At its peak, ORDEN membership reached and estimated
100,000. "It was almost like a religion," Medrano recalls.
ORDEN had the dual mission of teaching anticommunism and gathering
information on individuals deemed suspicious. "You discover the communist
by the way he talks," says Medrano. Generally, he speaks against Yankee
imperialism, he speaks against the oligarchy, he speaks against military
men. We can spot them easily." Once identified, they would be reported to
ORDEN's central office, where a staff of eighty would record the
information and relay to ANSESAL. There, "we could study it and pass it on
to the president, who would take appropriate action." says Medrano.
"In this revolutionary war, the enemy comes from our people," Medrano
says. "They don't have the rights of Geneva. They are traitors to the
country. What can the troops do? When they find them, they kill them."
Sometimes the killings were carried out by ORDEN itself, other times
by the army, the National Guard, or the "Mano Blanco" Death Squad. Former
ambassador Castro says Mano Blanco was an offshoot of ORDEN, and the same
people in ORDEN were to some extent the same people in the Mano Blanco.
Even today some of the same people are in the Death Squads. That was the
According to US and Salvadoran officials, the close relationship
between the security forces and the US government was sustained over the
next twenty years.
Edgar Artiga, a civilian leader of ORDEN, says he and eighty other
ORDEN officials participated in a two-month CIA course in 1969. The
course, held at the headquarters of the Salvadoran National Guard, was
taught jointly by General Medrano and three CIA instructors from the US
embassy, who brought along movies about life in the Soviet Union. The
curriculum says Artiga, included "anti-communism, democracy, detection and
identification, and self-defense." Trainees were instructed in the US of
9-millimeter revolvers and such weapons ad the M-16 rifle, which was not
yet generally available. All the students were paid daily in cash,
according to Artiga. A number of Artiga's classmates continued on the CIA
payroll after the course was completed, he says.
Training was also conducted in the United States. Among those who
received such schooling was Carlos Sosa Santos, the leading explosives
expert for the Salvadoran armed forces, who was instructed by the AID
Public Safety Program. Sosa has trained dozens of army and security force
members in "techniques for secretly placing bombs in houses, cars, and
individuals' personal belongings," according to a National Police
intelligence officer who studied under Sosa.
The US contribution extends far beyond training. American
intelligence services have actually furnished the names, photographs, and
whereabouts of suspected dissidents, say Salvadoran security officials.
This March, during a tour of the political intelligence archives of
the National Police Center for Analysis and Investigations, I spoke with
Captain Rafael Lopez Davila, who displayed files on leftist political
leaders. The dossiers included entries reporting on their travels to
foreign cities, specifying what flights they took, whom they visited, and
where they stayed. The CIA provided such information, Lopez says.
According to General Medrano, the CIA regularly kept ANSESAL posted on
the activities of Salvadorans working or studying abroad. In important
cases, the CIA supplied photographs and tapes of conversations.
A Salvadoran who served as an aide to a senior intelligence official
in the 1970's says he was shown CIA photographic and electronic
surveillance reports on many dissidents. "With this information, we knew
exactly what we were doing, who was who," he says, adding that many of the
subjects were later assassinated by Death Squads.
A former staff member of the Casa Presidencial reports that an
American CIA officer told him the CIA and the Salvadoran forces kept
Rutilio Grande, a prominent Jesuit priest, under surveillance before his
March 1977 assassination. The CIA agent claimed to have seen the dossier
on Father Grande, which reportedly included photos and accounts of his
visits to other Central American countries as well as his activities in his
home parish of Aguilares. A former Treasury Police officer who goes by the
name of Rene Hurtado says that he was told by ANSESAL members that their
agency was responsible for killing Grande.
When a reformist junta briefly came to power in El Salvador in 1979,
it abolished ORDEN and ANSESAL and condemned the organizations for
committing human rights abuses. Since then the Salvadoran military have
continued to maintain and expand their surveillance and record-keeping
activities. And as in the 1960's and 1970's, when US agents and
technicians invented and oiled the intelligence machine, US personnel
remain at the center of the system.
According to a Salvadoran colonel involved in the process, the United
States routinely receives copies of all major political surveillance
reports compiled by Salvadoran security officers. In turn, US officials
provide the security forces with information. Colonel Carranza confirmed
"The Americans would directly receive all the information on a case
even before we had developed the activity, before we had decided how we
would terminate a case," Carranza says, referring to the procedure in
effect before 1983. "Now we give everything-in relation to captures that
the Treasury police have made-to the general staff and THEY give it to the
US intelligence officials "have collaborated with us in a certain
technical manner, providing us with advice," says Carranza. "They receive
information from everywhere in the world, and they have sophisticated
equipment that enables them to have better information or at least confirm
the information we have. It's very helpful." Carranza says he processes
the information with "a small computer, and we also work with the general
staff's computer for developing a workable inventory and index."
Colonel Adolfo Blandon, the armed forces chief of staff, says "six or
seven" US military advisors-several of them specialists in intelligence
and psychological warfare-are currently working with the general staff.
The National Guard now concentrates on monitoring "unions and strikes
and the penetration of the education system, where they are brainwashing
our students," says Colonel Aristedes Napoleon Montes, director of the
National Guard. Reynaldo Lopez Nuilla, director of the National Police,
says he has an intelligence staff of 200, including a thirty-man
"operations group." He too, cites unions as an area of concentration, but
also mentions the Salvadoran Human Rights Commission (the nongovernmental
one, that is; the government maintains its own "human rights commission,"
of which Lopez Nuilla is a member). And the Catholic organization Socorro
Juridico (legal assistance), "we know to be organized precisely by the
guerrillas," says Lopez Nuilla. "it's evident in the things they say."
In the National Police political intelligence archive, originally
organized by US AID Public Safety advisors, Captain Rafael Lopez Davila,
the investigations chief, showed me a special section on unions and their
members. The three story filing room also contained a "library of
subversive literature," which along with Karl Marx's "Das Kapital" and
Lenin's collected works, held the publications of UCA, El Salvador's
According to the Salvadoran armed forces "Guide to Normal Operating
Procedures," a confidential policy manual, each army and security force
outpost is required to maintain a "Special Archive of S-2 Intelligence."
The file covers "the disposition of the subversive delinquents (their
location ... styles of action and mobilization)," lists "militants and
sympathizers," and carries a miscellaneous "register of personalities of
Names enter the archive through surveillance reports from officers and
informants or through reports from troops who have detained an individual
for questioning. To qualify for a place in the files, and individual may
commit such divers offenses as "carrying or moving subversive propaganda of
whatever type ... insulting authority ... carrying notebooks, papers or
symbols related to subversive organizations [or] traveling in cars destined
for points of concentration of the subversive delinquents-unauthorized
demonstrations and rallies, etc., especially if the attitude is
Surveillance reports compiled by local intelligence units are retained
for their own files while a copy os forwarded to the central archives of
the service involved. Individual subjects are interrogated, says Colonel
Montes, first at the local post and then, if the case warrants it, at the
intelligence section of the security force. "All of this information is
then turned over to the general staff, with whom we retain a very close
coordination," Montes says.
This intelligence system serves as the nerve center of Death Squad
operations. "We worked with written orders," recalls one former National
Guardsman, a fifteen-year veteran who says he went on Death Squad missions
while stationed in the province of La Libertad. "We got names and
addresses and were told to pick them up, get information, and kill them
later." In important cases, he adds, special troops or security force
agents would come from San Salvador with the lists.
"Every garrison of any size had Death Squads. It's that simple," says
a US official in San Salvador who studied the Death Squads last year. "All
of this comes out of a military intelligence function."
When the Reagan Administration launched a publicity campaign against
the Death Squads last December, it pointed a finger at individual officers,
leaking their names to the press and demanding their removal. Three of
those officers were the directors of the intelligence departments of the
Treasury Police, the National Guard, and the National Police.
Asked why the Administration chose to blame those specific individuals
while leaving the institutions untouched, the US official in San Salvador
responded: "Things generated in Washington create certain necessities that
don't necessarily reflect the true problems here, but are done for
political purposes up there, and this is a good example." The official,
heavily involved in the publicity campaign, considered it a success.
"These men were done an injustice," says Colonel Blandon, the chief of
staff. "We kept asking the embassy for proof against them but they never
gave it. The American's sacrificed them to avoid their own problems."
The use of the term "Death Squad" has, in some respects, fostered a
profound misunderstanding of El Salvador's official terror apparatus. It
conjures up images of discrete bands of gangsters randomly cruising the
countryside in search of opportunities to kill. In fact, the term more
meaningfully applies to a system that can dispatch a soldier at any time to
kill a selected victim.
Another misunderstanding about the Death Squads arises from the fact
that they came to public notice in the United States in connection with the
spectacular emergence of Roberto D'Aubuisson as a powerful political
figure. US officials who want to shield the Salvadoran government from
culpability in the Death Squads, as well as some liberals who want to
undermine D'Aubuisson's electoral prospects, have promoted the mistaken
notion that the Death Squad phenomenon-this sprawling institution with a
twenty year history and tens of thousands of victims, is the personal
instrument of one diabolical man.
In March, Roberto Eulaio Santivanez, a former colonel who had been
paid $50,000 by critics of US policy in El Salvador, began circulating to
the mass media a detailed account of Death Squad operations. Speaking as
an unnamed source from "the highest level of the security police,"
Santivanez told The New York Times that D'Aubuisson was "the man who
organized and continues to direct the Death Squads."
Santivanez charged that former Defense Minister Jose Guillermo Garcia
and Colonel Carranza, director of the Treasury Police, helped organize and
operate D'Aubuisson's Death Squad network. In a CBS News interview with
Walter Cronkite, Santivanez said Carranza had been on the CIA payroll. The
New York Times confirmed the CIA connection, citing US intelligence
sources. They reported that Carranza had received $90,000 per year for the
past five or six years. (Two colleagues of Carranza had said he was a CIA
agent weeks before Santivanez did.)
According to Santivanez's version as reported in The Times, the Death
Squads did not exist before D'Aubuisson rose to prominence in the wake of
the 1979 reformist coup. Because of a commitment to protect Santivanez's
anonymity, the story identified him as a source with "personal knowledge of
these crimes because his government post had put him in direct contact with
top military leaders." In fact, Santivanez was the director of ANSESAL and
D'Aubuisson's immediate superior from 1977 to 1979, a period of mounting
government repression that culminated in the fall of the Carlos Humberto
Romero government and the abolition of ANSESAL for its role in the Death
Santivanez was "Romero's black man," says the US embassy official who
studied the Death Squads. "He kept the files and took care of people when
there was dirty work to be done. His hands are as bloody as anybody's."
The official nonetheless confirms that Santivanez's account of involvement
in the Death Squads by Carranza and the high command was "substantially
correct," though he says it exaggerated D'Aubuisson's personal role.
The story of the relationship between the US government and the
D'Aubuisson branch of the contemporary Death Squads is complex,
paradoxical, and far from complete.
D'Aubuisson, a Medrano protege whom the General remembers as "a fine
officer who was loved by the people," made his mark in the ORDEN-ANSESAL
network, organizing ORDEN chapters as a National Guard officer and rising
to second in command of ANSESAL under Santivanez.
"Roberto was an officer of ANSESAL, which is affiliated with the CIA,"
says Major Oscar Serrato, one of a small group of Salvadorans who began
secretly collaborating with D'Aubuisson soon after the reformist junta came
to power in October 1979. Two years later, Serrato helped found ARENA, the
rightist political party D'Aubuisson heads. "He worked with the CIA for
years, and that's how he was able to learn all the machinations, the
people, national as well as international, that were working to establish
the communist scheme."
Two of D'Aubuisson's former associates from the National Guard and
ANSESAL claim he received US government money, one saying it came from the
CIA, the other from either the CIA or the Defense Intelligence Agency.
State Department officials in El Salvador during the 1970's say that
although D'Aubuisson had "a disturbingly close relationship" with one US
military attache (who could not be reached for comment), they did not know
whether he had received payments.
When D'Aubuisson officially left the army after the 1979 coup, he
launched his political movement with a series of television speeches. He
assailed the junta for abolishing ORDEN-"born in the bosom of the armed
forces," D'Aubuisson declared. "ORDEN has ceased to function with that
name," he said, "but its principles live and are newly serving the
fatherland with the Frente Democratica Nacionalista (Democratic Nationalist
Front, D'Aubuisson's new political organization)."
D'Aubuisson openly defended the security forces for their role in the
spate of disappearances and assassinations in late 1979 and early 1980.
"In no moment should you feel culpable for fighting these terrorists," he
said. "If our commanders have captured people like this, they are
committing no fault." And he quoted from Napoleon: "Nothing done to defend
your country is against the law."
Having established the principle, D'Aubuisson got down to specifics,
marshaling charts, photos, videotapes, and computer graphics for an
intricately detailed, name-by-name, face-by-face tirade against "El
Salvador's terrorist conspiracy."
D'Aubuisson denounced union leaders, priests, academics, peasant
organizers, students, professionals, government officials, and Christian
Democrats. Among those he named was Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom he told,
"You still have time to change your ways." He also attacked Mario Zamora,
a leading Christian Democrat and member of the government who-like others
identified in the broadcasts-was assassinated in a matter of weeks.
"Unfortunately, when we mentioned a person, POOM, they'd shoot them,"
says Alberto Bondanza, a D'Aubuisson intimate and one of the founder of
ARENA. "Then they started linking us with the Death Squads. If by chance
the army arrived and happened to shoot one of these people in a battle,
then everybody threw the blame on us."
D'Aubuisson was pointing out the communists so the troops could kill
them," Medrano says. "He had good information. He was speaking the
"He had everything-photos and complete personal histories-direct
from the ANSESAL files," says Major Serrato, who participated in the
planning meetings out of which the broadcasts grew. He said D'Aubuisson
made copies of the ANSESAL material shortly before the agency was dissolved
and its archives transferred to the general staff. "The proofs he
presented were concrete and irrefutable: photos and documents that were
prepared by the CIA, documents from the archives of the CIA. All of the
material was passed back and forth constantly."
D'Aubuisson maintained CIA contacts in 1980 and 1981, according to
Jimmy Nixon, an American citizen and ARENA activist who ferried visitors
and private messages to D'Aubuisson while he was staying in Guatemala
during that period. Nixon says he is uncertain of the current
Another American closely associated with D'Aubuisson, Billy Murphy,
complains of the treatment ARENA received at the hands of the US embassy
under the Carter Administration and its last ambassador, Robert White.
"Those sons of bitches were doing everything they could against us," he
But Murphy adds that ARENA enjoyed amiable relations with one
political officer at the embassy who "would always let us know in advance
what was going to happen in the junta. "He and other D'Aubuisson aids, met
regularly with "good friends" from the US military group and the embassy's
military attache, he says. "You had a wonderful man here" in the Military
Group, says Murphy. "He did his best, but he couldn't do anything."
Clandestine US ties with the Salvadoran security apparatus remain
firm, and appear to have been strengthened in the 1980's. National
Guardsmen Luis Alonzo Bonilla claims that US military and civilian
personnel helped train members of the security forces as bodyguards in
1980. Bonilla, who says he took a similar course in 1985, says it included
instruction in combat and ambush techniques. A National Police detective
and member of the elite explosives unit established by AID's Public Safety
Program says four of his associates visited the United States for an
explosives course in November 1983.
"I've been visited by some members of the embassy with whom I've
always maintained good relations," Carranza told me last september, "and I
have the promise that they are going to help us train our personnel." He
said he also needed investigation and interrogation equipment, and was
unruffled by the fact that US law prohibits such aid.
"Yes," he remarked, "but by means of other ways, by let's say
friendship with some members of the American embassy, I think I can get not
only equipment but training." He said he would obtain them through
"outside channels," adding, "I don't know whether it would be wise to put
this out for the knowledge of the American people."
Once the Treasury Police received the lie detection, fingerprinting,
and ballistic equipment he requested, "we would have a better way of doing
an investigation than putting pressure on the victim," Carranza said. "Now
when you have a prisoner, you have to put pressure on him, questioning him
again and again, day and night."
This March, Francis Stanley Martinez a corporal in the National Police
intelligence department, said he and nine colleagues in the security
forces-three from the Treasury Police, three from the National Guard, and
three from the National Police-were about to depart for an in-depth CIA
training course in the United States. He subsequently said the departure
date had been postponed until some time in April. The course would cover
investigation, surveillance, weapons, and interrogation, Martinez said.
"You have to know all the aspects to work in intelligence here," he
said. "It's very different from the United States. Here intelligence is
hard to get, and the delinquent is very different. Here, the first thing
you have to do is grab them by the neck."
In the 1960's, when the United States was building a Salvadoran
security system based on surveillance and assassination, the enterprise
enjoyed unified support within the US government. With State Department
officials and CIA operatives presiding, General Medrano and his
counterparts from Anastasio Somoza's Nicaragua and Peralta Azurdia's
Guatemala would gather around a table and give speeches about "who the
communists were," as Medrano puts it, "what they were up to, and what we
should do about them."
Over time, changing political conditions opened something of a rift
between the State Department professionals and their Pentagon and CIA
colleagues. During the Carter Administration, their disagreements were
often clear and pronounced. Under Reagan, the State Department has been
brought back into line. Public and Congressional pressures, however, have
compelled the Administration to voice public criticism of the Death Squads
even as it secretly funnels aid and intelligence to the military and
security forces that run them.
US complicity in the dark and brutal work of El Salvador's Death
Squads is not an aberration. Rather, it represents a basic, bipartisan,
institutional commitment on the part of six American Administrations-a
commitment to guard the Salvadoran regime against the prospect that its
people might organize in ways unfriendly to that regime or to the United
This narrative is included in the same article:
"You Learn How To Torture ..."
Rene Hurtado is the pseudonym of a former member of the Salvadoran
Treasury Police who now lives in a Minneapolis suburb. In an interview in
late March, he said that the Treasury Police, a branch of El Salvador's
security forces, would routinely kidnap, interrogate, torture and then kill
political suspects. He claims to have participated in torture sessions and
provides a detailed account of the methods employed.
According to Hurtado, US personnel conducted an intelligence course for
Treasury officers that included training "in methods of physical and
psychological torture." He claims to have met with the US instructors.
Though he refuses to say whether he himself received training from them, he
asserts that some of his associates did.
The intelligence course was given for one month in 1980 at the
headquarters of the Salvadoran army general staff, Hurtado says. The
instructors did not observe or participate in actual torture sessions, nor
did they visit Treasury Police headquarters, he explains. But in the
classroom, he says, they discussed such techniques as psychological torture,
manual beating, and electric shock, occasionally supplementing the lectures
with Spanish-language written material that was more generalized than the
oral presentations. The instructors were sometimes in military uniform,
sometimes in civilian dress.
Hurtado, who gave his real name but asked that it not be used, showed
documents and photographs verifying his military and Treasury Police service.
At one time, Hurtado held a sensitive position for which he was
carefully screened. Following a fight with a superior officer, he was
expelled from the military in 1981, he says. he resides in the United States
without legal immigration status and is being sheltered by the religious
sanctuary movement. He was contacted directly and independently after
another former member of the Salvadoran military provided his home telephone
What follows is Hurtado's account of the interrogation and torture
methods used by the Treasury Police:
First, you try to torture him psychologically. If he's a Marxist or a
revolutionary, it's not easy to make him talk, so you have to psychologically
harm the prisoner. If the person is important-if he's, let's say, a
journalist or a teacher or a labor or student leader, or if he's a person
with some leadership or has something to offer-he isn't treated cruelly at
the beginning. Well, of course, they may hit him at some time, but after
that, when he's taken to one of the interrogation rooms, you start by talking
to him as a friend, you try to convince him that you understand his idealism.
You might say: "Who are the companeros in your organization and why do
they kill us? How many people have you killed?" Things like that. You try
to trap the person psychologically. You'll say:
"Don't be a fool. Those bastards want to fuck you over, they're using
you. We could kill you right here and now, but we're not killers, we're not
your enemy. If you collaborate with us, we're going to get you out of the
country. Where would you like to go. Europe? Spain? England? We'll send
you to one of those countries. We'll give you money, but you have to talk to
us, because if you don't, we're going to fuck you over."
When you are trying to interrogate for the first time, you try to come
across as a sensitive decent person-not as a killer. You say you are not a
bastard like the other interrogators. You make friends with him. You offer
him a soda and some food. You ask him where his mom and dad live, you talk
about his wife and kids. It has a tremendous impact when he knows his kids
have been captured but he doesn't know where they are.
But after using these methods for a few days or a week or two, you start
getting tough. You will say:
"Look, those bastards are giving me a lot of shit. Because they want
you to talk, they're going to beat the shit out of you. And I don't want
those bastards to think I'm screwing up. So if you don't talk, I'm going to
turn you over to those fuckers and they're going to beat the piss out of
After these sessions, the physical torture begins. First, you put the
prisoner in a small, completely dark room, and you don't let him sleep. You
place him, naked and handcuffed, on a bed frame. The room stinks horribly
because of the urine and excrement of former prisoners, and you keep him
there for a week without sleep so that his nerves will be shot when you start
to torture him.
When the actual physical torture begins, there are a lot of different
methods: cutting off pieces of his skin, burning him with cigarettes. They
teach you how to hit a person in the stomach, but in a sophisticated way so
the person suffers a lot of pain but you don't see signs on the outside. Or
sometimes you just beat his hands and beat him in the stomach, either with
fists or with heavy sticks. Beat him, and beat him, and beat him.
After that, if he still doesn't talk, you take him to a toilet filled
with excrement. You put on gloves and shove his head in the toilet for
thirty seconds or so. You pull him out, then shove his head in again. You
do this over and over.
Then you wash him and take him to the electric shock room. There's a
special torture room in the Treasury Police; only the intelligence section
can enter, no uniformed men are allowed. It's soundproof so they don't hear
You learn how to give electric shocks, shocks to the brain, shocks to
the stomach. There are some very sophisticated methods for this kind of
torture. It's a little machine; you use a cord like a telephone, like an old
phone with a crank and you start turning the crank. You do it with different
wires; they're small. There's a more sophisticated one that looks like a
radio, like a transformer; It's about fifteen centimeters across, with
connecting wires. It says General Electric on it.
It's like if you have a stereo and you don't know how to use it, you
learn: This generates twenty volts, this forty volts, this will give a
serious blow, this less so, this one will kill a person.
You put the wires on the prisoner's vital parts. You place the wires
between the prisoners's teeth, on the penis, in the vagina. The prisoners
feel it more if their feet are in water, and they're seated on iron so the
blow is stronger. If you put mineral water on them and then do the shock,
In general, you will kill the prisoners because there's an assumption
they shouldn't live. If we pass them to the judge, they'll go free and we'll
maybe have to pick them up again. If there's lots of pressure-like from
Amnesty International or some foreign countries-then we might pass them on to
a judge, but if there's no pressure, then they're dead. When it's over, you
just throw him in the alleys with a sign saying Mano Blanco, ESA (Secret
Anticommunist Army), or Maximiliano Hernandez Brigade [three names commonly
used by Salvadoran Death Squads].
You learn how to torture, how to cut the balls off a person when he's
still alive. These are the things that happen in war.