UN Truth Commission on Salvadoran Death Squads

In its final report, the U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission investigating human rights abuses presented a detailed history of the death squads. Excerpts from the report are presented below.

El Salvador has  a long history of violence committed by groups that are neither part of the Government nor ordinary criminals. For decades, it has been a fragmented society with a weak system of justice and a tradition of impunity for officials and members of the most powerful families who commit abuses. …

Violence has formed part of the exercise of official authority, directly guided by State officials. This has been reflected, throughout the country's history, in a pattern of conduct by the government and power elites of using violence as a means to control civilian society.  In the past 150 years, a number of uprisings by peasants and indigenous groups have been violently suppressed by the State and by civilian groups armed by landowners.

A kind of complicity developed between businessmen and landowners, who entered into a close relationship with the army and intelligence and security forces. The aim was to ferret out alleged foreign conspiracy. …

There were several stages in the process of formation of the death squads in this century. The National Guard was created and organized in 1910 and the following years. From its inception, members cooperated actively with large landowners, at times going so far as to crack down brutally on the peasant leagues and other rural groups that threatened their interests.

Local National Guard commanders "offered their services" or hired out guardsmen to protect landowners' material interests. The practice of using the services of "paramilitary personnel", chosen and armed by the army or the large landowners, began soon afterwards. …

In other words, from virtually the beginning of the century, a Salvadoran State security force, through a misperception of its true function, was directed against the bulk of the civilian population. In 1932, National Guard members, the army and paramilitary groups, with the collaboration of local landowners, carried out a massacre known as "La Matanza", in which they murdered at least 10,000 peasants in the western part of the country in order to put down a rural insurrection.

Between 1967 and 1979, General Jose Alberto Medrano, who headed the National Guard, organized the paramilitary group known as ORDEN. The function of this organization was to identify and eliminate alleged communists among the rural population. He also organized the national military intelligence agency,  ANSESAL. These institutions helped consolidate an era of military hegemony in El Salvador, sowing terror selectively among alleged subversives identified by the intelligence services. …

The reformist coup by young military officers in 1979 ushered in a new period of intense violence. Various circles in the armed forces and the private sector vied for control of the repressive apparatus. Hundreds and even thousands of people perceived as supporters or active members of a growing guerrilla movement...were murdered. Members of the army, the Treasury Police, the National Guard, and the National Police formed "squads" to do away with enemies. Private and semi-official groups also set up their own squads or linked up with existing structures within the armed forces. …

It should be said that, while it is possible to differentiate the armed forces death squads from the civilian death squads, the borderline between the two was often blurred. For instance, even the quads that were not organized as part of any State structure were often supported or tolerated by State institutions. Frequently, death squads operated in coordination with the armed forces and acted as a support structure for their activities. The clandestine nature of these activities made it possible to conceal the State's responsibility for them and created an atmosphere of complete impunity for the murderers who worked in the squads. …

The 1979 coup d'etat altered the political landscape in El Salvador. One of the competing factions directly affected by the coup was a core of military officers who sought to pre-empt the groups that had staged the coup and also any reform movement. ...The leader of this faction was former Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, who up until 1979 had been third in command of ANSESAL….

Former Major D'Aubuisson drew considerable support from wealthy civilians who feared that their interests would be affected by the reform programs announced by the Government Junta. ...The Commission on the Truth obtained testimony from many sources that some of the richest landowners and businessmen inside and outside the country offered their estates, homes, vehicles and bodyguards to help the death squads. They also used their funds to organize and maintain the squads, especially those directed by former Major D'Aubuisson. …

After the assassination of Monsignor Romero, which, in very closed circles, D'Aubuisson took credit for having planned, his prestige and influence grew among the groups that wielded economic power, gaining him further support and resources. …

…It must be pointed out that the United States Government tolerated, and apparently paid little official heed to the activities of Salvadoran exiles living in Miami…This group of exiles directly financed and indirectly helped run certain death squads.


Excerpted from pages 132-137 of the Truth Commission report             Site Map