• U.S.

The White Hands of Death

11 minute read
James Kelly

Can the new President curb his country’s murder squads?

He seems the very model of military rectitude. Sitting straight as a dagger behind his steel desk, hands clasped in front of him and mustache neatly trimmed, Sergeant José Antonio Rivas explains that he is the “maximum authority” in Metalio, a Salvadoran seaside village of 6,000. Several members of his ten-man army unit listen, fingering their weapons, as Rivas boasts that Metalio remains untouched by his country’s cyclones of violence. “This is a very peaceful place,” he says with a smile, his gold-capped teeth glinting in the light. “We treat the civilian population well, so we in turn are well treated. I am friends with everyone. Ask people. They will tell you.”

What the people tell is a far different story. According to some Metalio residents, Rivas and his crew make up one of the country’s dreaded escuadrones de la muerte, or death squads, responsible for more than 200 killings during the past four years. The terror comes not just from the horrible ways in which people die, but from the utter randomness of who is killed. Motives can range from suspicion of “subversion” to jealousy over a girlfriend to settling a grudge to no reason at all. Fear has bullied Metalio into an eerily subdued place of whispers and furtive glances. “Rivas and his men are animals—no, worse,” says a young man softly. “I wish I could tell them what I really think of them, but that would be like asking for a death sentence.”

Confronted with the accusation, Rivas moves uneasily in his chair. “I have not touched anyone,” he says. He insists that not a single homicide has occurred during his four years at Metalio. Glancing around at his men, Rivas adds, “We are all clean. We have not harmed anyone.”

The village of Metalio symbolizes one of the most daunting challenges facing President-elect José Napoleón Duarte: how to handle the country’s death squads, those bands of killers, some with links to the military, that have terrorized the Salvadoran people as much as the guerrillas have. A vociferous critic of the murderous crews, Duarte pledged during the campaign to set up a commission to investigate the most notorious killings. Duarte’s progress will be carefully monitored by Capitol Hill, where many legislators have tied their support of further military aid for El Salvador to progress in diminishing the violence. Congressional outrage has been fueled by the Salvadoran failure so far to bring to trial the accused killers of four American church women in 1980 and two U.S. land-reform advisers in 1981.

Duarte’s task is complicated by the fact that so much is unknown or unprovable about the squads. Even the death toll is a matter of debate. Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the archdiocese of San Salvador, claims that during the last six months of 1983, 2,615 civilians were killed “by the army, security forces, and paramilitary squads allied with them,” up from 2,527 during the first half of 1983. This year, the organization contends, the tide is still rising: 241 dead in January, 269 in February, 407 in March. Though State Department officials do not contest Tutela Legal’s overall statistics, they point out that the group lumps together all civilian casualties, including Salvadoran civilians killed during combat. Says a State Department spokesman: “There are two distinct problems. There are people killed by the military and paramilitary forces in bombings and shellings. We can’t verify that every bomb hits the right target, but this is very different from dragging people out of their houses.”

The State Department declines to combine all civilian deaths under one label while a war is going on. Its analysts put the 1983 total at 1,686. According to Washington’s figures, 96 people were killed by death squads last January, compared with 228 during the same month a year earlier, 279 in January 1982, and 665 in January 1981. Though the toll hit 100 in March, Administration officials claim the long-term trend is downward. “The figures are all guesstimates because there isn’t any system of justice left in El Salvador,” says Richard Millett, a Central American expert at Southern Illinois University. “Anybody can be killed with virtual impunity. You do not want to investigate because you might find out, and finding out can itself be fatal.”

The problem with all these figures is that they are useless in determining how many of the killings are political. In the climate of violence that has characterized El Salvador for decades, the pettiest disputes are settled permanently by gun or knife. In many cases the death squads have murdered people not for ideological reasons but for personal ones. In other cases, death squads have no role whatsoever. Rumors occasionally circulate about how this businessman or that official found with EM (for escuadron de la muerte) carved on his chest was actually killed by a jealous husband or business rival. Sometimes the only thing clear is that something unspeakably horrible has happened. In one incident, three soldiers were arrested for raping and killing a young girl in the provincial capital of San Vicente in late 1983. They claimed the victim had been a “subversive,” but according to the girl’s family her only crime was that she had repeatedly resisted the advances of one of the soldiers.

A full accounting of death squad activity is impossible, but patterns can be discerned. While President Reagan has suggested that the left is sponsoring squads to smear the right, both the U.S. embassy and Tutela Legal put civilian deaths attributable to the guerrillas at a fraction of those assigned to right-wing packs. Nonetheless, the rebels frequently execute alleged army collaborators, including villagers who gave either information or food to passing patrols. A hit team from a major guerrilla group, the Popular Liberation Front (FPL), killed U.S. Navy Lieut. Albert Schaufelberger last May, while a splinter faction called the Revolutionary Workers’ Movement has claimed credit for murdering two politicians.

The rightist death squads are not a monolith controlled by a diabolical handful. Some are composed of soldiers, while others are made up of “off-duty” policemen, sons of wealthy landowners or simply hired thugs. Though some of the military brass may sympathize with and tolerate the teams, a chain of command has never been proved. Last fall, peasant union leaders accused the directors of the intelligence departments of the treasury police, the national guard and the national police of being linked to the squads; after Washington pressed for their removal, Defense Minister Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova transferred them.

Nicolás Carranza, head of the treasury police, admits that some of the intelligence-gathering cells under his command evolved into hit squads, but he denies direct knowledge. National Police Director Colonel Carlos Reynaldo López Nuila insists that he knows nothing about the murders, but nonetheless, suspects are tortured and killed in police compounds. Even Defense Minister Vides Casanova is not untainted: from 1979 to 1983 he served as director of the national guard.

Still scarred by the rash of kidnapings in the late 1970s, many of the wealthy employ bodyguards, who may turn into killers. Policemen, who earn about $70 a month, can be hired to perform a beating for $ 10 or a murder for $20. Settling a dispute by legal means is practically unheard of. Says Historian Thomas P. Anderson, author of several books on Central America: “Where we in the U.S. would go to court to settle a claim, down there they just shoot them.”

Death gangs run by the security forces are more visible in the countryside, where, as in Metalio, they can brutalize an entire town. Rivas and his men allegedly don civilian clothes and masks before conducting a nighttime hit, while other times they show up at a house in broad daylight and full uniform to take someone away for “questioning.” A favorite dumping ground is a shallow estuary near by, but sometimes the burial technique is grislier. Several heads were once discovered stuffed in cloth bags and neatly aligned in a field, while the bodies were scattered around the town. Rivas reportedly told one person of how ten bodies from Metalio were heaped in a nearby village last year, prompting the military commander to complain, “If you are going to kill them in your area, dig your own holes.”

Many of the murders are carried out by clandestine teams from the intelligence-gathering departments of battalions called Section 2 (S-2), specially trained soldiers who make their rounds dressed in civvies and often wearing wigs. They rely on town spies, or orejas (ears), to tell them of suspicious persons, who are then picked up for what is often a fatal interrogation. Says a Salvadoran who served in a battalion until last month: “It is not good to ask about them, because they will even kill other soldiers who they think are too curious.”

The ties between the police forces and the death squads are rooted in Salvadoran history. Created in 1912, the national guard often acted as a private security force for the country’s landowners, who helped to pay the salaries; when peasant uprisings got out of hand, the landlords organized bands of vigilantes to assist the guardsmen. In 1932, when Farabundo Marti, the father of El Salvador’s revolutionary movement, led a revolt, paramilitary squads were sanctioned to aid the army in squashing the rebellion. The estimated toll: at least 10,000. The lines between official and illegal violence blurred further after the National Democratic Organization (ORDEN) was formed in the mid-1960s. ORDEN’s dual purpose was to teach peasants about the evils of Communism and train them to watch out for subversives. But under the direction of a fistful of national guard intelligence officers, the group had deteriorated into a ruthless militia numbering between 50,000 and 100,000. One of the commanders: Roberto d’Aubuisson.

Violence assumed the proportions of a national policy in the 1970s, when the government was besieged by the right and the left. ANSESAL, the Salvadoran national security agency, targeted victims, while ORDEN carried out the killings. Military and police intelligence officers were in touch with both groups, and occasionally they received assistance from right-wing political organizations alarmed by the rising level of anarchy. Out of this explosion of terror came a death squad trademark that is branded forever in the psyche of the nation: mano bianco, a pair of painted hands splattered across a door or wall announcing a fresh kill. The reformist coup of 1979 brought an official end to ANSESAL and ORDEN, but by then most army battalions and police brigades had their own intelligence departments devoted to tracking down and often eliminating “subversives.” Present and former members of these crews, along with goons hired by private groups, are responsible for most of the death squad killing today.

D’Aubuisson has never been conclusively linked to death squad atrocities. He retired after the 1979 coup, but within weeks he was appearing on television, his time paid for by rich landowners, naming opponents inside and outside the new government as “subversives.” A disturbing trend developed: some of those he mentioned were murdered shortly afterward. Calling D’Aubuisson “a pathological killer,” former U.S. Ambassador Robert E. White has accused him of masterminding the March 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. White could never prove his charge, but allegations continue to haunt D’Aubuisson and his associates. Several members of his ARENA party are suspected of ties to the murder teams, as is Héctor Antonio Regalado, the former security chief for the Constituent Assembly. Again, nothing has ever been proved.

Last December, Vice President George Bush read the riot act to government and military leaders in San Salvador, privately naming names and demanding action by January. Yet even State Department officials who defend the Administration’s overall position acknowledge that Washington has sent too many “mixed signals.” Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Nestor Sanchez, for example, has stated repeatedly that the U.S.’s first priority is the protection of El Salvador against Communism, a remark that some Salvadorans have interpreted to mean that the Administration, feeling forced to pick between two evils, would tolerate death squads rather than see the country fall to the guerrillas.

In a region scarred by violence, El Salvador is the most blood-drenched country by far. Duarte’s success in crushing the squads will hinge on how well he establishes his authority over the armed forces. No civilian in Salvadoran history has ever won control over the military, but Duarte’s U.S. backing, from both the White House and Congress, gives him unprecedented clout. Duarte has promised to start rooting out the deadly henchmen by disbanding the treasury police, allegedly the most brutish of the security forces. Bringing the killers to justice, however, is another story. The saddest legacy of El Salvador’s recent past may be how many have been cowed into silence. As a villager in Metalio put it, “The best thing to do is forget about it, because if you open your mouth you are asking for death.”

—By James Kelly. Reported by Ricardo Chavira/San Salvador and Barrett Seaman/Washington

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