Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 138 | Enero 1993


El Salvador

Controversy Swirls Around Armed Forces

The heart of demilitarizing is purging the army, and demilitarizing is the heart of the peace accords. Purging the Armed Forces is now the center of attention of all Salvadorans.

Omar Serrano

The issue of purging the Salvadoran armed forces has taken center stage for many Salvadorans. President Cristiani's non compliance with the recommendations of the Ad Hoc Committee, created as part of the Chapultepec Peace Accords to evaluate the human rights records of Salvadoran military officers, has met with widespread national and international repudiation. The only partial purging of the military has also generated a new crisis inside the armed forces and the FMLN, the two military protagonists of the long negotiation process.

According to the calendar for executing the peace accords, President Cristiani was to order administrative discharges for 102 military officers on December 31, 1992. The Ad Hoc Commission had determined that these men were responsible for committing serious human rights violations during the war. That presidential order was to be enacted on January 1, but Cristiani never issued it.

On January 1, the United Nations published a communiqué criticizing the Salvadoran government's lack of compliance. Different political and social forces within El Salvador began to express the same sentiment, and to demand that the officers be purged. In the face of this pressure, Cristiani issued a secret presidential order on January 4, which he appended to his incomplete general year end order, and sent his chief of staff Oscar Santamaría and General Mauricio Vargas to UN headquarters to explain the situation.

What, in fact, was this situation? After a series of comings and goings, Cristiani had only removed 87 of the 102 officers named by the Ad Hoc Commission. Of that number, 37 had been removed by questionable methods for instance, by sending them abroad to serve in diplomatic missions. The cases of 15 of the highest officers were left pending until May 1994. It is well known that these 15 include both Defense Minister René Ponce and Deputy Defense Minister Zepeda, other generals and colonels and the nucleus of the famous "Tandona" graduating class all officers long reluctant to negotiate, always waiting in the wings with the threat of a coup.

Fissures in the Armed Forces

Although the different positions generated within the armed forces by the non compliance were not made public, three distinct postures can be identified. The first is that of the 15 top level officers who have not been purged. By resisting this step essential to the overall demilitarization process they created tremendous insecurity for President Cristiani. The second is that of the younger officers, who see the removal of the 15 officers not only as an opening for their own ascent up the military ranks, but also as a way to clean up the armed forces' tainted image. There is pressure among this group for full compliance with the purging. And finally, there are the 87 officers who have already been removed and are predictably upset, particularly because of the 15 who remain unaffected.

The only dissonant voices have been the always controversial retired Colonel Sigifredo Ochoa and an anonymous officer, one of the 87 given his walking papers. Ochoa publicly criticized President Cristiani for not complying, while the anonymous officer declared his discontent because the government did not give him a chance to defend himself.

It is important to underscore that nobody in El Salvador really believed that the Ad Hoc Commission made up of three civilians would fully carry out such a delicate mission, virtually risking their lives. It is an unprecedented event in Salvadoran history to have military officers publicly accused by civilians. The honesty of the commission's work thus cannot be measured either quantitatively (how many were examined, how many should have been purged) or qualitatively (not all who should have been on the list were, and not all who were on the list should have been). But it was precisely those kinds of measures, paradoxically, that unleashed the crisis.

Conflicts in the FMLN

Five distinct organizations make up the FMLN, which was legally registered as a political party on December 14, just before the demobilization of the final 20% of its combatants and thus, the official end to El Salvador's armed conflict.

All five the Communist Party (PC), the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), the Revolutionary Central American Workers Party (PRTC), the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) and the National Resistance (RN) basically agree on four key points regarding the purging of the military. Those points are: 1) the UN Secretary General should be the judge in this historic affair; 2) the decisions made by the Ad Hoc Commission cannot be substantially modified, and if, for example, the removal of an officer is recommended, that person cannot be designated military attaché abroad; 3) the calendar can be somewhat flexible, extending the time frame in certain cases in the interest of national stability or to facilitate continuity in the execution of other, unconcluded agreements. (An FMLN spokesperson says that this flexibility is only applicable to 7 of the still pending cases of the 15 high level officers, since they were key players in the negotiation process.) And 4) the time limit for "flexibility" in the case of these 7 officers is six months.

Working with a very pragmatic logic and without taking sufficiently into account the political logic of the historical precedent it was setting, the ERP, in particular, its top leader Joaquín Villalobos, began negotiations with Cristiani about the terms by which the calendar could be made more flexible even up to May 1994 in exchange for a social economic package that would include issues unresolved or only partially resolved by the peace accords. Those issues included a more favorable position for the FMLN in terms of the new National Civilian Police, the reinsertion into civilian life of some 600 FMLN combatants, more radio and television time, and closing negotiations now on the best lands claimed by the FMLN in the inventory it drew up.

This package was quickly dubbed the "Joaquín package," as news of it heavily laced with rumors and information gaps spread by word of mouth due to the secrecy surrounding the purge issue. It touched off a serious controversy within civil society and in the FMLN itself, since the party was involuntarily seen as giving the armed forces a seal of approval.

Salvadoran society in its majority demanded total compliance with the accords regarding the purges. Internationally, opposition to accepting any variation of the recommendations made by the Ad Hoc Commission was unanimous. The Group of Friendly Nations (Colombia, Spain, Mexico and Venezuela), the UN Security Council and even the United States made clear their rejection of any violation of the peace accords on this point.

The strong stance of the UN, which continues to demand the full purging and roundly refuses to mediate any negotiations with a new "package" on the table, together with the blow the "Joaquín package" received in Salvadoran public opinion, brought the FMLN back together after its undeniable crisis. FMLN general coordinator Shafick Handal reaffirmed the need for a total and rapid purging, characterizing it as "the heart and soul" of the peace process.

Some More Time

It is presumed that, when President Cristiani took office, he promised to keep General Ponce as Defense Minister throughout his term. On a number of occasions, Cristiani has said that Ponce was very helpful in moving the negotiations forward. But it can also be assumed that the 15 military officers whose purge is still pending have threatened Cristiani with revealing information that would involve him in human rights violations, especially in the case of the November 1989 murder of the Jesuits, in which the "intellectual authors" of the murders are still at large.

After the January crisis, most people both inside and outside of El Salvador are giving Cristiani a prudent amount of time to finally comply with the military purging. Remaining totally silent, the military officers themselves are hoping that, as time passes, the issue will be forgotten and the avalanche of statements from different social and political forces inside the country will not come to anything more for instance, to mass mobilizations within the country or perhaps a cut in or freezing of US or European economic assistance.

Division within the FMLN?

What is at the heart of the "division" within the FMLN that was expressed during this moment? There have always been contradictions, but this time they were flourishing anew, even though this is a less critical moment than some have been in the past. There are currently sectors within the ERP and the RN who view what is now taking place in Salvadoran society as a result of the peace accords as a "consensus" among social and political forces. They feel that, from here on in, it is important to insure that civil society has hegemony, which can only be reached through national consensus. To achieve a broader consensus, they argue, the FMLN should move towards the "center," because only from a center position can consensus be achieved and broader social and political sectors brought in.

With variations among them, the other three forces in the FMLN the FPL, PC and PRTC hold that what has been achieved with the peace accords is not a consensus and that the accords are the result of a particular correlation of forces between two clearly opposed forces. Thus, the FMLN must maintain this correlation of forces and tension, but from a clearly left position, since there are currently enough political parties in the country pushing a center one, including the Christian Democrats. The FMLN has the challenge of presenting itself as an alternative force, and from that position, attempting to incorporate other political and social sectors of the country. This difference could be one interpretation of the FMLN's "division."
It also has a lot to do with the emphasis that its different sectors feel should be given to concertación or confrontation. It is not easy to determine beforehand or always be clear about the precise emphasis that should be given to each of these two elements, because the whole country is coming out of a war and, at the same time, entering into a period of many accords (land, the new police force, etc.) and even the pre electoral period. Thus society as a whole, and the FMLN as part of it, face a wide range of challenges.

The Advantages of a purge

[Communiqué from the Central American University (UCA)
of San Salvador, January 7, 1993]

The purging of the military forces is the first break with the armed forces of the past and a precedent of what can be expected in the future if human rights are not respected.
This radical rupture is historically necessary because the ongoing presence in the armed forces of human rights violators and common criminals, particularly those most responsible for the different crimes, means consolidating impunity, as well as permitting the spread of corruption in an institution that should be distinguished by honesty and disinterested service to the nation.

Setting a precedent is also necessary because the graduating class of officers that will replace the current one does not, given its formation and experience, guarantee strict compliance
with the Constitution and international law.

It will be some years before military officers formed in accordance with new principles are in control of the army. Thus, the impact of the purge could have an exemplary affect on those officers waiting in line to ascend the military ladder.

The resistance to the purge that the armed forces high command is demonstrating is only more evidence of the need to set a precedent and clearly break with the past. President Cristiani's proposal shows that the armed forces still retain sufficient power to block a thorough purge.

In other words, the small group of top military officers who control the army have effective veto power over the decisions made by the President of the Republic and thus the armed forces continues to be a deliberative body, which is flagrantly unconstitutional.

With this power structure in place, a coup d'etat is unnecessary. In practice, the image of the President of the Republic is as a sort of "prisoner" of the armed forces.

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