Tuesday, January 11, 2005

The "Salvador Option"

Newsweek reported over the weekend that the Pentagon is considering a plan for Iraq that would involve the creation of Iraqi death squads to target insurgent leaders. The name of the proposal recalls the government's use of death squads in El Salvador's civil war from 1980 to 1992. Recalling that tragic story should have put an end to any discussion of American-trained death squads, but Newsweek indicates that "the Pentagon is intensively debating" the proposal.

Consider the following:

  • One victim of the death squads was Archbishop Romero, gunned down while celebrating mass in the chapel of a hospital on March 24, 1980. (In September 2004, a federal court in Fresno, California entered a $10 million judgment in a civil suit filed under the Alien Tort Claims Act against Alvaro Saravia for the death of Romero.)
  • The human rights organization Americas Watch estimated that 30,000 Salvadorans (in a country with a total population of 5 million) were murdered by the government of El Salvador from 1980 to 1983.
  • In 1985, after international pressure had been put on the Salvadoran government to improve its human rights record, President Jose Napoleon Duarte boasted that there were "only" about 30 murders per month being committed by death squads. Outside observers placed the figure much higher.

For almost ten years I have been associated with El Rescate, an organization founded in 1981 to assist the thousands of Salvadorans who fled to the United States to escape war, political repression, and death squads. During the 1980s, the organization accumulated an enormous archive of materials documenting human rights abuses in El Salvador, including the thousands of murders committed by death squads. Thousands of people living in Los Angeles today--including some who work for El Rescate--left their homes in El Salvador because they were threatened or because loved ones had disappeared. When I traveled to El Salvador in 1994 to work as an election monitor in the first postwar presidential election, the fear of political violence remained palpable.

Perhaps someone in the Pentagon should ask a Salvadoran about the "Salvador Option."