Archived: Salvadoran Death Squads: A Pattern of US Complicity

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Rich Winkel

Apr 17, 1995, 3:00:00 AM4/17/95
Death Squads in El Salvador:
A Pattern of US Complicity

by David Kirsh
Covert Action Information Bulletin #34 (Summer 1990)

In 1963, the US government sent 10 Special Forces personnel to El
Salvador to help General Jose Alberto Medrano set up the Organizacion
Democratica Nacionalista (ORDEN)-the first paramilitary death squad in
that country. These Green Berets assisted in the organization and
indoctrination of rural "civic" squads which gathered intelligence and
carried out political assassinations in coordination with the Salvadoran
military. [1]
Now, there is compelling evidence to show that for over 30 years,
members of the US military and the CIA have helped organize, train, and
fund death squad activity in El Salvador.
In the past eight years, six Salvadoran military deserters have
publicly acknowledged their participation in the death squads. Their
stories are notable because they not only confirm suspicions that the death
squads are made up of members of the Salvadoran military, but also because
each one implicates US personnel in death squad activity.
The term "death squad," while appropriately vivid, can be misleading
because it obscures their fundamental identity. Evidence shows that "death
squads" are primarily military or paramilitary units carrying out political
assassinations and intimidation as part of the Salvadoran government's
counterinsurgency strategy. Civilian death squads do exist but have often
been comprised of off-duty soldiers financed by wealthy Salvadoran
It is important to point out that the use of death squads has been a
strategy of US counterinsurgency doctrine. For example, the CIA's "Phoenix
Program" was responsible for the "neutralization" of over 40,000 Vietnamese
suspected of working with the National Liberation Front. [2]
Part of the US counterinsurgency program was run from the Office of
Public Safety (OPS). OPS was part of US AID, and worked with the Defense
Department and the CIA to modernize and centralize the repressive
capabilities of client state police forces, including those of El Salvador.
[3] In 1974 Congress ordered the discontinuation of OPS.
In spite of the official suspension of police assistance between 1974
and 1985, CIA and other US officials worked with Salvadoran security forces
throughout the restricted period to centralize and modernize surveillance,
to continue training, and to fund key players in the death squad network.
Even thought the US government's police training program had been
thoroughly discredited, the Reagan administration found other channels
through which to reinstate police assistance for El Salvador and Honduras.
Attached to this assistance is the requirement that the president certify
that aid recipients do not engage in torture, political persecution or
assassination. Even so, certain members of Congress showed concern over
the reinstatement of police aid to repressive regimes. In a Senate Foreign
Relations Committee hearing, Senator Claiborne Pell (Dem., Rhode Island)
asked, "I was talking about cattle prods specifically. Would they be
included or not?"
Undersecretary of State for Latin American Affairs Elliot Abrams
replied, "Well, I would say that in my view if the police of Costa Rica,
with their democratic tradition, say that for crowd control purposes they
would like to have 50 shot [sic] batons, as they are called in the
nonagricultural context, I would personally want to give it to them. I
think that government has earned enough trust, as I think we have earned
enough trust, not to be questioned, frankly, about exporting torture
equipment. But I would certainly be in favor of giving it to them if they
want it."

Death Squad members testimony

Cesar Vielman Joya Martinez, a soldier in the First Infantry Brigade's
Department 2 (Intelligence), is the most recent Salvadoran to admit to his
involvement in death squad activity. At a November 1, 1989 press
conference Joya stated that certain military units in Department 2 carried
out "heavy interrogation" (a euphemism for torture) after which the victims
were killed. The job of his unit was to execute people by strangulation,
slitting their throats, or injecting them with poison. He admitted killing
eight people and participating in many more executions. He stated that the
Brigade Commander had sent written orders to carry out the killings and
that the use of bullets was forbidden because they might be traced to the
military. [6]
Joya Martinez also claims that one of the US advisers working with the
First Brigade sat at a desk next to his and received "all the reports from
our agents on clandestine captures, interrogations ... but we did not
provide them with reports on the executions. They did not want to hear of
the actual killings." US advisers authorized expenses for such extras as
black glass on squad vans to allow executions to take place unobserved;
provided $4,000 for the monthly budget; and conducted classes in recruiting
informants and conducting intelligence reconnaissance. [7]
Another Salvadoran soldier, Ricardo Castro, is the first officer to
come forward with information about death squad activity. Castro graduated
from West Point in 1973 and was a company commander in the Salvadoran army.
He translated for several US advisers who taught, among other subjects,
interrogation techniques. Castro claims that one US instructor worked out
of the Sheraton Hotel (taken over briefly during the November 1989 FMLN
offensive) and emphasized psychological techniques. Castro recalled a
class where Salvadoran soldiers asked the adviser about an impasse in their
torture sessions:

He was obviously against torture a lot of the time. He favored
selective torture ... When they learned something in class, they might
go back to their fort that night and practice ... I remember very
distinctly some students talking about the fact that people were
conking out on them ... as they were administering the electric shock.
"We keep giving him the electric shock, and he just doesn't respond.
What can we do?" ... The American gave a broad smile and said, "You've
got to surprise him. We know this from experience. Give him a jolt.
Do something that will just completely amaze him, and that should
bring him out of it. [8]

Castro revealed that he held monthly briefings with then-deputy CIA
chief of station in El Salvador Frederic Brugger who had recruited him for
intelligence work after meeting at an interrogation class. Castro also
claimed to have knowledge of the perpetration of large massacres of
civilians by Army Department 5.
In December 1981, he met in Morazan Province with one of the officers
that the US instructor had advised. "They had two towns of about 300
people each, and they were interrogating them to see what they knew. Since
I ... knew something about interrogations, he said he might want me to
help. The Major told me that after the interrogation, they were going to
kill them all." Castro was, however, reassigned and did not participate.
Later, his pro-government mother told him, "You know, son, these
guerrillas, they invent the wildest lies. They say that in December, 600
civilians were killed in Morazan." "Oh, shit, I was hoping I'd been
dreaming it," he thought. "I later found out, they did go in and kill them
after all." [9]
Rene Hurtado worked as intelligence agent for the Treasury Police, one
of the three Salvadoran paramilitary forces. After a falling out with an
officer, he fled to Minnesota, took refuge with a Presbyterian Church
congregation, and began describing routine torture methods used by
paramilitary forces. These included beatings, electric shock, suffocation,
and mutilation. He described techniques such as tearing the skin from
"interrogation" subjects, sticking needles into them, or beating them in
such a manner that lasting internal injuries but no telltale external marks
would be sustained. According to Hurtado, CIA employees and Green Berets
taught some of these torture techniques to the treasury police in Army
staff headquarters. [10]
General John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was
particularly disturbed by the implication of the Green Berets and initiated
an investigation. The investigator from the Army Criminal Investigation
Division stated, "My job was to clear the Army's name and I was going to do
whatever [was] necessary to do that." Hurtado refused to cooperate with
the investigator on the advice of a member of Congress whom the church
parishioners had called upon. When the investigator was told this by the
minister, he responded, "Tell Mr. Hurtado that the Congressman has given
him very costly advice. When I went to El Salvador to investigate his
allegations, at the advice of the US Ambassador, I did not talk to members
of the Salvadoran military. If I go again and talk to the military, we
don't know who will be hurt, do we?" [11]
Following revelations of US involvement in death squad activities, the
House and Senate Intelligence Committees reported on allegations of US
complicity in death squad activity. The Republican-dominated Senate panel
confirmed that Salvadoran officials were involved, but denied any direct US
role, keeping certain portions of its report classified. [12] The House
Committee stated that, "US intelligence agencies have not conducted any of
their activities in such a way as to directly encourage or support death
squad activities." Rep. James Shannon (Dem. Mass), who requested the
inquiry, commented that the report was "certainly not as conclusive as the
committee makes it sound. [13]

Varelli, Carranza, Montano, and others

Frank Varelli is the son of a former Salvadoran Minister of Defense
and National Police commander. When Varelli's family came to the US in
1980, Varelli started working as an FBI informant. Years later, he
publicly revealed his role in FBI covert operations against domestic
organizations opposing Reagan's Central American policy. He has also
asserted that the Salvadoran National Guard gave him death lists which he
compared to lists of Salvadorans in the US awaiting deportation back to El
Salvador. He reported these contacts with the National Guard to the FBI.
Former Colonel Roberto Santivanez claimed that the then-chief of the
Salvadoran Treasury Police, Nicolas Carranza, was the officer most active
with the death squads. [15] Colonel Carranza is also alleged to have
received $90,000 annually from the CIA. [16] Carranza has confirmed the
close working relationship of the paramilitary forces with US intelligence.
"[They] have collaborated with us in certain technical manner, providing us
with advice. They receive information from everywhere in the world, and
they have sophisticated equipment that enables them to better inform or at
least confirm the information we have. It's very helpful." [17]
Carlos Antonio Gomez Montano was a paratrooper stationed at Ilopango
Air Force Base. He claimed to have seen eight Green Beret advisors
watching two "torture classes" during which a seventeen-year-old boy and a
thirteen-year-old girl were tortured. Montano claimed that his unit and
the Green Berets were joined by Salvadoran Air Force Commander Rafael
Bustillo and other Salvadoran officers during these two sessions in January
1981. A Salvadoran officer told the assembled soldiers, "[watching] will
make you feel more like a man." [18]
Above are the accounts of the death squad deserters. Non-military
sources have also reported participation of US personnel. For example,
another (highly placed anonymous civilian) source maintained that Armed
Forces General Staff Departments 2 and 5 (organized with help from US Army
Colonel David Rodriguez, a Cuban-American) used tortures such as beating,
burning and electric shock. [19] US involvement has also been asserted in
sworn accounts by some victims of torture. Jose Ruben Carillo Cubas, a
student, gave testimony that during his detention by the Long Distance
Reconnaissance Patrol (PRAL) in 1986, a US Army Major tortured him by
applying electric shocks to his back and ears. [20]
Various sources have reported the use of US-manufactured torture
equipment. Rene Hurtado, for example, explained, "there are some very
sophisticated methods ... of torture ... [like the machine] that looks like
a radio, like a transformer; it's about 15 centimeters across, with
connecting wires. It says General Electric on it ..." [21]
Many other documented accounts of brutality by US-trained and advised
military units exist. Indeed, the elite Atlacatl Battalion has been
implicated in several massacres over the past ten years [22] and members of
the battalion have been indicted for the November slayings of the six
Jesuit Priests and two women.
It is widely accepted, in the mainstream media and among human rights
organizations, that the Salvadoran government is responsible for most of
the 70,000 deaths which are the result of ten years of civil war. [23] The
debate, however, has dwelled on whether the death squads are strictly
renegade military factions or a part of the larger apparatus. The evidence
indicates that the death squads are simply components of the Salvadoran
military. And that their activities are not only common knowledge to US
agencies, [24] but that US personnel have been integral in organizing these
units and continue to support their daily functioning.

[David Kirsh is author of the booklet, "Central America Without Crying
Uncle." It is available for $2 (ask about multiple copy rates) from Primer
Project, 107 Mosswood Court, Chapel Hill, NC 27516]


1. Allan Nairn, "Behind the Death Squads," The Progressive, May 1984.
Reprints are still available.
2. Michael McClintock, "The American Connection," Vol 1 (London: Zed
Press, 1985)
3. The "Interdepartmental Technical Subcommittee on Police Advisory
Assistance Programs," US State Department, June 11, 1962, cited in
"The American Connection," Vol 1, op. cit., n. 1. "In general [the]
CIA endeavors to develop the investigative techniques and AID (Agency
for International Development) [develops] the capabilities of the
police to deal with the military aspects of subversion and
4. Op. cit. n. 1
5. "The Central American Counterterrorism Act of 1985," hearing of the
Senate Foreign Relations Committee, November 5 and 19, 1985, p. 19.
6. "Army Deserters' Testimony Reveals US Role," Alert! November 1989, p.
6; David Bates, "Blood Money: assassin says he slit throats while US
wrote checks," In These Times, November 15-21, 1989.
7. "Salvadoran Killings Cited-Deserter Links US Advisors to Army Unit,"
Washington Post, October 27, 1989; op. cit. n. 6.
8. Allan Nairn, "Confessions of a Death Squad Officer," The Progressive,
March 1986; Associated Press, February 13, 1986.
9. Ibid.
10. Op. cit., n.1; "Church-protected refugee says he raped, tortured,"
Minneapolis Star and Tribune, July 8, 1984. US Special Forces and
other military units are well-trained in torture techniques: see
Donald Duncan, "The New Legions" (New York: Random House, 1967), pp.
156-161; and "The Navy: Torture Camp," Newsweek, March 22, 1976.
11. Allan Nairn, "Assault on Sanctuary," The Progressive, August 1985.
12. "Officials in El Salvador Linked to Death Squads," Associated Press,
October 12, 1984.
13. Robert Parry, "Panel reports CIA did not support death squads,"
Associated Press, January 14, 1985.
14. Carlos Norman, "Frank Varelli & the FBI's Infiltration of CISPES," Our
Right to Know (publication of the Fund for Open Information and
Accountability), Spring/Summer 1987; Los Angeles Times, February 21,
15. Dennis Volman, "Salvador death squads, a CIA connection?" Christian
Science Monitor, May 8, 1984. Santivanez was cited as the (at the
time) anonymous military source for the article.
16. New York Times, March 22, 1984. Colonel Carranza's CIA salary was
confirmed by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
17. Op. cit., n. 1.
18. Raymond Bonner, "US Advisers saw 'Torture Class,' Salvadoran Says,"
New York Times, January 11, 1982.
19. Christian Science Monitor, op. cit., n. 15.
20. "Torture in El Salvador," CDHES (the Commission for Human Rights in El
Salvador), September 1986. The PRAL has received assistance from CIA
officer Felix Rodriguez, good friend of George Bush and Donald Gregg,
Z Magazine, December 1989, p. 57.
21. Op. cit., n. 1; Also See Michael Klare and Cynthia Arnson, "Supplying
Repression" (Washington, DC Institute for Policy Studies, 1981), p. 6,
about the US supplying torture equipment.
22. "The Central American Counterterrorism Act of 1985," House of
Representatives, hearing of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, October
24 and November 19, 1985, p. 165. This is the same Atlacatl Battalion
referred to in 1985, by then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense
Nestor Sanchez as, "The unit that has received the most intensive US
training ... [and] conducts itself with the populace in such a way
that it gains their support."
23. Lindsey Gruson, "Salvador Army Is Said to Seize Rebel Positions," New
York Times, November 16, 1989.
24. House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing, op. cit., n. 22, pp. 66-73;
"Exiles Linked to Salvador Death Squads; Ex-Envoy Says Miami-Based
Refugees Direct and Finance Groups," Los Angeles Times, February 7,
1984; "US on trial - A class-action suit cross-examines the
administration's entire policy on El Salvador," In These Times,
February 18-24, 1987.

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