El Salvador’s sins a history lesson U.S. should heed

By Robert Jensen

Published in Houston Chronicle · November, 1999

[This article appeared in the Houston Chronicle, November 15, 1999, p. 25-A.]

AT dawn on Nov. 16, 1989, members of an elite Salvadoran military unit entered the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador and murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her 15-year-old daughter – eight victims added to the at least 70,000 others killed in El Salvador ‘s civil war of the 1980s, the vast majority at the hands of state security forces and death squads.

The 10th anniversary of this crime will no doubt be observed all over El Salvador , but it also should be highlighted in the United States, where government officials bear considerable responsibility for the murders, not only of those six, but of all those victims of the civil war. It was with U.S. funding and active U.S. support that the Salvadoran military and reactionary elements of that society carried out the atrocities. Simple moral decency demands that we understand our culpability.

This anniversary is more than just a history lesson; we should mark it also to remind us that the United States is continuing the same pattern in Colombia, where under the cover of the drug war we are arming a country with the worst human-rights record in the hemisphere in the 1990s.

Since its independence from Spain in 1821, El Salvador was ruled by a small oligarchy and a military noted for its brutal control of a poverty-stricken population. The harsh repression intensified in 1979, symbolized most notably by the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero by the military in 1980.

The brutality of the state forces we were funding and training didn’t bother U.S. policy-makers. President Carter ignored Romero’s pleas to stop the flow of weapons, and President Reagan increased funding, weapons and training. The Atlacatl Battalion that carried out the murders of the Jesuits was formed in 1981 when U.S. counterinsurgency specialists were sent to El Salvador to train what would become a notoriously savage unit that could take credit for some of the country’s worst massacres.

Rebel forces and the government signed a peace treaty in 1992, after the United States had funneled $6 billion over 12 years to the killers and tens of thousands of corpses had piled up. This year, with U.S.-backed atrocities safely in the past, President Clinton did acknowledge our role in such atrocities. But his heart-felt apology about the dark and painful period rings hollow, for two reasons:

First, it’s easy to be contrite when in the new global order the United States can more easily subjugate the economies of such countries through the use of international financial agencies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, which help break down resistance to domination by foreign capital. Increasingly, the dictators and torturers on whom the United States has traditionally relied are not necessary. As the region has sunk back into much of the poverty and inequality that sparked the wars, free trade has been adequate to do that job.

Second, U.S. leaders would not hesitate to support such brutality again if it were deemed necessary, as in Colombia. The Clinton administration wants to increase military aid by $2 billion over the next three years, hoping to sell the policy by claiming that the violence is primarily drug-related. The guerillas fighting the government fund themselves in part by providing protection for cocaine producers, and the guerillas have been responsible for human- rights violations, though on a far smaller scale than the government. But their struggle is rooted not in the drug trade, but in opposition to control of the country a small elite that sees nothing wrong with impoverishing everyone else.

The goal of the U.S.-funded counterinsurgency campaign in Colombia, just as it was in El Salvador and Guatemala, is to keep power in the hands of the rightful rulers — those who play ball with U.S. strategic interests and corporations. Amnesty International estimates that the government and its allied forces killed more than 1,000 civilians in 1998, but U.S. leaders have shown they do not care that government forces, and the paramilitaries tied to the government, are responsible for the vast majority of these political killings in Colombia.

Unless the American people demand a change, the United States will continue to fund, supply and train the killers, as it did in El Salvador .

The Jesuit intellectuals murdered by our proxies would have understood this simple moral choice. They would have exhorted us not to mourn only their deaths, but the countless deaths of the poor and invisible in these struggles. They also would argue that we not only honor the dead, but fight for the living who are the likely victims of the current repression.

If Bill Clinton is truly sorry for the atrocities committed by his predecessors, he would not knowingly commit the same sins in Colombia. It is clear that we cannot rely on his conscience, but on our own. Let us allow the memory of the murdered Jesuits to engage our conscience.