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  Number 434 | Septiembre 2017
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El Salvador

The death of a CIA man

CIA informer Colonel Nicolás Carranza has died at 84, after having left El Salvador for the United States in 1985. In 2005 some of his Salvadoran victims filed charged against him. He was ultimately found guilty of both supervising and ordering crimes against humanity, extrajudicial killings and torture. Carranza was incensed less by the accusations against him, than by knowing he was on his own, found guilty alone, abandoned by the US allies who conspired with him to commit all those crimes.

Carlos Dada

Salvadoran Colonel Nicolás Carranza lived for 84 years, dying of natural causes on August 2, 2017, supported by his community in Memphis that appreciated him so much.

Like millions of Salvadorans both before and after him, Carranza emigrated to the United States in 1985. But to do so, he had to invent a new life for himself, concealing the one he had lived up until then. As El Salvador’s deputy security minister and head of the Treasury Police in the darkest years of that country’s war, he had enough skeletons and secrets in his closet to be chained with ten padlocks and buried.

Carranza and D’Aubuisson


Colonel Carranza had previously been director of El Salvador’s state telephone company, ANTEL, a post from which he operated intelligence and telephone tapping services. Following the 1979 coup he was promoted to deputy defense minister. As such, he controlled El Salvador’s feared public security forces: the Treasury Police, National Police, National Guard and Customs Police.

A long investigation into the Salvadoran death squads by journalists Laurie Becklund and Craig Pyes revealed that Carranza orchestrated Major Roberto D’Aubuisson’s exit from the army, helping him steal the records of the Salvadoran Security Agency (ANSESAL). While D’Aubuisson still answered to Carranza, it was preferable to have him outside the army while doing the dirty work. “The military had a favorable view of what D’Aubuisson was doing,” Carranza told Pyes. “There was no reason to persecute him while he was fighting the Communists.” Carranza facilitated D’Aubuisson’s recruitment of members from the Army barracks for his nighttime operations.

In the mid-1980s, Carranza told a US newspaper that “death squads first appeared in Brazil, made up of police officers who killed criminals. As we found our justice system wasn’t punishing terrorists, we took similar measures.”

Once named deputy minister, Colonel Carranza put Francisco Morán in charge of the Treasury Police. Morán, under direct orders from Carranza, served as liaison between groups of businesspeople and those who formed the death squads. Moran was responsible for the 1980 political murder of Attorney General Mario Zamora Rivas, also a leader of the left wing of the Christian Democratic Party.

The CIA informer’s new life


When he moved to the United States, Carranza concealed both his crimes and his personality, reinventing himself as a mild-mannered man. He even changed his religious affiliation, becoming a member of the local Baptist church. Carranza got a job as a security guard at the Brooks Museum of Art in Memphis, presenting himself as a kind, friendly employee, always willing to help others out. He quickly became recognized in this southern US
city as an outstanding member of both his religious and professional communities for his generosity, solidarity and understanding.

His is a story worthy of movies about secret agents or informants the CIA needs to hide, in which it changes their identity and name and sends them to live in a small town with a low-profile job. While Colonel Carranza didn’t in fact change his name, he did confess years later that he had been a CIA informer for many years.

Defeated and convicted


I met him one freezing morning in Memphis in 2005 when he was defending himself against a civil action brought by victims of his torture and by the widow of Manuel Franco, the Revolutionary Democratic Front leader Carranza had ordered murdered a quarter of a century before along with five other leaders of that group. During a break in the trial, I asked Carranza for an interview. He said no. His lawyer Robert Fargarson explained that he couldn’t make any statements while facing trial.

By then the colonel was already an old man. He would arrive at the trial very smartly dressed in an overcoat, scarf and hat to protect him from the cold and always walked arm in arm with his wife. He had a slightly lost look in his eyes and listened to the accusations against him with his head bowed. The colonel was a defeated man.

One afternoon, after a recess, we found ourselves in the same elevator for two floors. “Good afternoon, colonel,” I said. “Good afternoon,” he replied. That was all. His lawyer intervened: “He can’t talk to you.” The elevator doors opened and he walked out arm in arm with his wife.

Throughout the trial, Carranza listened to the accusations against him and the testimonies of his victims as if he were the object of a conspiracy he just couldn’t understand. Alejandro Dagoberto Marroquín of El Salvador’s National Civil Police travelled to testify that Carranza was so good with his prisoners that he frequently painted the walls of their cells to make them more agreeable. But Daniel Alvarado, one of the survivors of those torture cells, confirmed that, yes, the walls were painted, but always just before Red Cross visits in order to cover up the blood stains.

“My only regret is having worked for the CIA”


Carranza was found guilty of crimes against humanity, extrajudicial assassination and torture. The only people surprised by that were his Memphis Baptist Church acquaintances and his museum work colleagues. It isn’t that Carranza didn’t realize what he did, but rather that he didn’t get why he was being judged in the United States. “My only regret is having worked for the CIA,” he told the judge.

According to Carranza, US intelligence was familiar with absolutely everything being judged in that courtroom. Saying that wasn’t exactly news, either. Former Salvadoran National Security Agency (ANSESAL) director Colonel Roberto Santiváñez had already said it in 1985 when he was accused of setting up the paramilitary death squads together with Major d’Aubuisson. Soon after, it was revealed that Carranza earned US$90,000 a year for his services to the CIA.

Carranza’s involvement with the CIA was reiterated in an interview I did a few years later with Robert White, a former US ambassador to El Salvador. “I tried to get them to pull Carranza out of the CIA, but it isn’t easy to convince Langley,” White told me. “And they should also investigate the US ambassadors who concealed information about what was happening here.”

Other US intelligence service informants included Colonel Alberto Medrano, who founded ANSESAL and ORDEN [the National Democratic Organization, a Salvadoran paramilitary organization]; and Medrano’s protégée, Roberto d’Aubuisson, whom he referred to as “one of my three assassins.”

D’Aubuisson’s lieutenant, Álvaro Saravia, confessed that the CIA supplied arms to the paramilitary groups, which was subsequently revealed by both the capture of Eugene Hasenfus, a former US Marine who signed on as a mercenary to help fly weapons shipments on behalf of the US government to the contras in Nicaragua, and particularly by the investigations into Honduran drug trafficker Roberto Matta Ballesteros. In addition to arms trafficking, the CIA also participated in drug trafficking operations to fund the Nicaraguan contras.

Three other members of the Salvadoran military have also been tried and found guilty of human rights violations in the United States in addition to Carranza. They are Captain Álvaro Saravia, General José Guillermo García and Colonel Eugenio Vides Casanova. Colonel Inocencio Montano is currently detained in the US awaiting extradition to Spain to be tried for the murder of the Jesuit priests at San Salvador’s Central American University.

But apart from participants in the Iran-Contra operation, no US citizens have ever been judged for their role in violating the human rights of Central Americans, despite the fact that multiple examples have been duly recorded. The only ones punished have been their local informants and strategic partners, referred to as their “gorillas” by former US ambassador to El Salvador Deane Hinton.

In the end, Colonel Nicolás Carranza was defeated by his accusers, all of whom were victims of the abominable humiliations he both supervised and ordered. But more than the testimonies against him, the colonel was incensed by knowing he was on his own, judged alone, found guilty alone, unaccompanied by the people who conspired with him to commit all of those crimes: his US allies.


Carlos Dada is a founder and the director of the online digital daily newspaper El Faro.

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