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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 312 | Julio 2007
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El Salvador

Beware the President’s Inner Soldier

On Soldier’s Day, El Salvador’s President Saca, who is also Commander General of the country’s armed forces, surprised the nation with a speech that expressed his vision of the Salvadoran army’s past and present work . In doing so he revealed his inner soldier, which can only be a cause for alarm.

During his Soldiers’ Day speech on May 7, President Elías Antonio Saca warned representatives from the three branches of the country’s armed forces of the threat from what he termed the “new and dangerous populist waves,” at the same time stressing the role played by the armed services during the war against “communist aggression.” When questioned during a press conference days later, the President made it quite clear that for him the concepts of populism and communism are synonymous.

These events increased concerns inside and outside the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) about the intentions of both the President and retired high-ranking officers either linked to or close to the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). They appear bent on installing a military militia to police society, as in fact happened for more than 70 years during the 20th century. Saca took on this vision even before the elections that bought him to power and he has already included it in the rousing speeches he has made to military leaders, troops and society in general on May 7 for the past three years.

The common denominator in all three messages are three aspects that call into question the Salvadoran leadership class’ commitment to the Peace Accords, which include a new institutional conception of the military’s role in the post-war period. The aspects in question are the lack of distancing between the past and present generations of officers, the idea of assigning the army a potentially active role in ARENA’s scheme of ideological combat, and the reinforcement of the war-mongering iconography that persists in the FAES. This can be demonstrated by reviewing the prevailing legal framework and the presidential diatribes on military matters.

A rookie’s slip in 2005?

On May 7, 2005, just eleven months after taking power, Saca tried to present a unifying perception of Salvadoran society by referring to the integration “of different sectors and ideologies.” But he did so with the aim of creating a culture of defense and national security. While he failed to refer to the unification outlined in the Geneva Agreement of 1990, based on the unconditional respect for human lives that includes truth and justice for the victims and the country’s democratization, his long-winded speech didn’t fail to mention the three aspects of his own dangerous perspective.

He thanked the retired soldiers “who fought and gave their lives to preserve this democracy that we enjoy today.” And referring to Salvadoran troops serving abroad, he clarified what he supposes to be the fundamental mission of the FAES: “The conservation of the republican system.” However, this particular attribution was eliminated over 15 years ago on January 30, 1992, following the signing of the Peace Accords. Before being reformed, the second paragraph of article 211 of the 1983 Constitution established that the Armed Forces particularly had to defend “the preservation of the Republican form of Government and the representative democratic regime, the non-violation of the norm of alternation in the Presidency of the Republic, the guaranteeing of freedom of voting and respect for human rights.”

This constitutional mandate was never complied with because the military dedicated itself to fostering and carrying out coups d’état, taking key public administration posts and systematically violating the human rights of the civilian population that opposed or was suspected of opposing the regime. The “conservation of the republican system” depends on the political rights of the citizenry. And the electoral authorities are responsible for ensuring the transparency of the elections, with or without the cooperation of the FAES, which has no mandate in this respect in the current Constitution. Giving him the benefit of the doubt, the rookie President may have just slipped up during his first Soldiers’ Day speech.

A slip of the mind in 2006?

A year later, Saca called the armed forces a “professional institution that ensured democracy during the war and now defends democracy and peace.” It seems to have slipped his mind that the Truth Commission accused the very same institution of responsibility for almost 60% of the cases of human rights violations it received. If we add to that violations attributed to the former police and para-military forces under the Defense and Public Security Ministry at the time, the figure rises to 80%, even without adding the “work” of the death squads linked to the FAES.

In 2006, Saca also declared himself in favor of “the creation of a human and productive society, a tolerant and cohesive society open to healthy debate and always ready to combat foreign doctrines.” This time he was referring to the retrograde vision contained in article 158 of the 1962 Constitution, which prohibited—within the limits then deemed acceptable—the dissemination or existence of any kind of propaganda on “doctrines that are either anarchic or contrary to democracy,” including communism and any criticism of military or civilian-military governments. That article served as an excuse for the military command to order and justify all kinds of human rights violations. In 1983, when Saca was just 18 years old, that restriction of the freedom of expression was amended to “the relative limitation of the subversion of the public order.” This phrasing is still in force, alongside other clauses prohibiting prior censorship and interference from any military authority.

Insulting the population in 2007

The last straw came on May 7 this year, when Saca improvised a response to the “enormous,” “high” and “double honor” of receiving a bust of deceased Colonel Domingo Monterrosa from the hands of National Defense Minister General Otto Romero. Monterrosa was responsible for genocide and accused by both the Truth Commission and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of being the main architect of the El Mozote massacre when he headed the Atlacatl Battalion. During that December 1981 massacre, close to a thousand women, children, elderly people and men were slaughtered.

But that didn’t stop Saca from going overboard with his praise for Monterrosa, describing him as “a soldier who was not only charismatic,” but also “loved his fatherland and defended it during the sad moments of communist aggression that this country suffered.” He declared himself an admirer of the colonel and the other military officers—some now dead and others retired—who stopped “foreign ideologies from invading this democratic country.” While improvising, Saca’s inner soldier emerged for all to see. The ample praise heaped upon a criminal like Monterrosa revealed Saca’s true colors as the “President of the victimizers” rather than of the whole Salvadoran population.

This impression was only confirmed by the presence in Saca’s audience that day of Generals René Emilio Ponce and Orlando Zepeda, the brains behind the execution in November 1989 of Elba Ramos, her daughter Celina and six Jesuit priests in San Salvador’s Central American University. Neither has ever been brought to book for this horrendous crime. Worse still, Ponce was allowed to play a leading role in this official insult to the dignity of the Salvadoran people by presenting National Defense Minister Romero, who has also been accused of human rights violations, with an official acknowledgement. The presidential tendency is clearly to give the army an increasingly leading role. This can only generate concern in view of the fact that members of the army high command are identified with the governing party and are the last generations of officers that actively participated in the armed conflict. This makes them permeable to the ideological discourse prevailing in ARENA’s current party campaign.

We must not forget

According to Norberto Bobbio, militarism is “a vast set of customs, interests, actions and ways of thinking associated with the use of arms and war, but which nonetheless transcends purely military objectives.” Those who adopt it try to expand it to all areas of national life so that its values and anti-values are assumed as natural. Through a continual succession of coups, threatened revolts, rigged elections and blatant electoral fraud, El Salvador’s public administration was run for over 57 years by top-ranking officers and civilians to the liking of the armed forces. Both dedicated themselves to loyally watching over the interests of political and economic power.

Before the armed conflict, the National Coalition Party (PCN) was the last institutional trampoline used by the military to place their man in the Presidency, starting with Colonel Julio Adalberto Rivera in 1962 and ending with General Carlos Humberto Romero’s overthrow in 1979. But the military actually controlled the country from December 1931, when General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez brought down the constitutionally elected government with White House encouragement. In fact, the Salvadoran army was trained on US soil to eliminate any trace of political opposition. All of this, added to other economic, political and social factors, led to the outbreak of the armed conflict. And during the war, with civilian-military juntas and front governments, military domination grew with the increasing intervention of the United States, which kept on equipping the FAES, turning it into another tool in its fight against “international communism.”

During that period of over half a century, it was not at all unusual to see the President of the Republic sporting both a military uniform and the presidential sash. These rulers lacked the legitimacy of being elected by the people. They enjoyed the trappings of power simply because they were part of the military class. It is symptomatic that while most of the PCN Presidents took off their military uniforms during election campaigns to appear like ordinary civilians in search of votes, the opposite appears to be happening now. On May 23, President Antonio Saca visited Salvadoran troops in Iraq, arriving in a US military aircraft and dressed in combat gear. Those who suffered under military dictatorships during must have had terrible memories stirred up by those images displayed during “times of conciliation.” Saca’s military garb was unprecedented in the history of the country’s civilian governors.

It is necessary to know this background to understand the difficult historical relations between civilians and the military in El Salvador. This is precisely why the first chapter of the Chapultepec Agreement was dedicated to developing a new doctrinal educational and institutional framework for the FAES, establishing the military as an instrumental and apolitical institution subjected to the main organs of government. It was also decided that the military’s educational system would provide professional formation that stressed human dignity, democratic values, respect for human rights and subordination to civilian power. This represented a historical success, achieved through the sacrifice of all the victims of the armed conflict and the result of long negotiations.

Signs of a leading role

Various expressions of the militarism that was supposedly buried continue to live on. According to US political analyst Samuel Huntington, causes external to the military institution cause its intervention in politics. During periods of social anarchy, for example, the armed forces offer themselves as the only institution capable of saving democracy. And in the middle of conflicts between two opposing groups, the one holding real power sees the military as the only option for defending the prevailing order against those trying to subvert it.

In El Salvador, the military has been playing a leading role in the first scenario for some time now. The growing influence of the National Defense Ministry in the “fight against crime” is just one sign of this. Faced with a sensation of chaos, the FAES has been paraded out to “impose order.” Both that task and its intervention in Iraq have fueled its demand for a bigger budgetary allocation and the conviction among certain civilian sectors that its participation in this respect is essential, despite its exclusion from “imposing order” back in 1992. With respect to Huntington’s second scenario, President Saca himself is invoking military participation, using his Soldiers’ Day speech to call on the troops to confront “the problems and challenges growing out of the new and dangerous populist waves.”

A wall of impunity

Other issues also suggest that the FAES’ commitment to the peace process and its acceptance of the current institutional doctrine are not all they should be. It quite evidently has no interest in helping clear up its serious human rights violations and its ongoing cult of the elite units dismantled after the armed conflict. The FAES has thus been the main obstacle to achieving one of the goals of the peace process established in the Geneva Agreement: the reunification of Salvadoran society.

It has tolerated and protected officers responsible for crimes against humanity, including torture, summary executions and forced disappearances. There are many examples and all are documented. For example, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recorded, with evidence, the February 22, 1983 massacre in the Las Hojas canton in Sonsonate in its report number 26/92. During that massacre, soldiers and officers murdered 74 people. The perpetrators of this and similar crimes continue to benefit from the prevailing climate of impunity.

It remains to be seen how the defense minister will “justify” this. Asked by a journalist investigating the murder of Monsignor Romero about the possibility of examining the archives of the former security forces, he that secrecy was still maintained to ensure “social stability.” He added that “the techniques employed by the Truth Commission were based more on rumor that scientific data,” opining that “85% of the report is pure rumor.” This official position is belied by abundant testimonies about the horrendous acts committed.

“The ones who do
most of the killing...”

The FAES’s Center for Communications and Protocol still includes images of the former rapid response battalions on its web site, presumably because they successfully achieved their mission “in the military campaign against communist aggression.” The site offers videos of their operations and of Colonel Domingo Monterrosa haranguing both the Atlacatl Battalion and the civilian population. Maintaining the violent symbols that characterized the FAES by displaying images of the old uniforms and insignia of the security forces and the Atonal, Atlacatl, Arce and Bracamonte battalions on a web site funded by taxpayers’ money is nothing less than a mockery of their victims.

In an interview a year after the UCA massacre, the university’s current rector, Jesuit priest José María Tojeira, referred to the same iconography now displayed on the web site. He cited a member of the military who explained the symbolism of the Atlacatl Battalion’s emblem: “The skull because we’re the ones who do most killing, and the lightning because we do it real quick.”

Are the armed forces still so proud of those images that they want to present them to the whole world on the Internet? It’s a very dangerous message for the new generations of officers for whom these symbols contain an echo of a “glorious” past still upheld by the current military commands. Those commands were direct actors in the war and continue denying all the accusations of institutional responsibility for human rights violations made by a wide variety of human rights organizations both inside and outside El Salvador.

A pending debt

Salvadoran society must become aware of the official tendency to increase the FAES’ role, exalting a past for which it will be held accountable sooner or later, as has happened in other Central American countries. Society has to criticize the improper use of its taxes for party electoral ends. Rather than defending genocide, messages anchored in the past and visits to Iraq by civilian officials disguised as soldiers, most of the Salvadoran population would prefer the Saca administration to work responsibly to overcome the violence, insecurity and lack of opportunities suffered by most people and which impede their full human development.

This will be achieved only when they have a strong civilian power that redirects the country towards “the attainment of justice, legal security and the common good,” to quote the first article of the current Constitution. That is the great debt pending with the victims of the outrages committed in the past and present but ignored in official speeches and with the victims that will continue to pile up if we maintain the current model based on exclusion, inequity and impunity.

This Text was written by the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University in San Salvador, El Salvador, and first appeared in the weekly magazine Proceso (Nos. 1242-43, May 2007).

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