Too often the history of El Salvador's civil war lets the United States off too easily

The Salvador Option by Russell Crandall

Cambridge University Press. 680p $39.99

The Salvador Option: The United States in El Salvador, 1977-1992 takes its name from a debate 10 years ago about how to stop the Sunni insurgency from gaining the upper hand in Iraq. American generals, politicians and pundits, following well-trod tradition, dusted off manuals from the “last war” to find solutions.

El Salvador was the largest U.S. counterinsurgency effort before the current conflicts and after Vietnam. For 12 years, Washington funded, trained and advised the Salvadoran military in a brutal war against Cuban-backed guerrillas. More than 1 percent of the population was murdered, most by government death squads and army units. As the Soviet Union collapsed, the long-stalemated conflict ended with a U.N.-mediated peace settlement, under which the rebels disarmed in return for far-reaching democratic reforms.

Opinions about that war remain polarized. For some, the “Salvador Option” represented successful democracy building that undermined the rebels, preventing the establishment of a Soviet satellite state in the U.S. backyard. For others, El Salvador was a shameful episode, in which Washington backed the perpetrators of a death squad bloodbath in a failed attempt to militarily defeat a homegrown leftist insurgency.

Russell Crandall promises a “third way” in this debate, “a thorough and fair-minded interpretation of available evidence.” But he relies too heavily on declassified U.S. documents badly compromised by wartime propaganda to succeed in this ambitious task. He quotes diverse opinions; but without a strong investigative narrative of events on the ground, he has no yardstick with which to measure their validity, leading to some deeply flawed conclusions.

U.S. policy is portrayed as a “surprisingly moderate” democracy-building effort carried out by “imperial ambassadors” and military advisors, focusing on elections, human rights and the professionalizing of the Salvadoran military. Crandall judges that the Salvador Option succeeded in containing Communist expansionism, although at high human cost. But he argues that the bloodbath could have been worse without U.S. involvement.

The over 40,000 killings and disappearances of government opponents are misleadingly blamed on shadowy death squads funded by oligarchs, which C.I.A. cables call a “fanatic fringe” of extremist army officers and moonlighting soldiers. One U.S. official, quoted without challenge, estimates that there were only about 25 death squad members. The United States, Crandall wrongly concludes, was not directly involved in this slaughter. Instead, he says the death squads, along with rural massacres of thousands of civilians, did more damage to the Salvador Option than the rebels ever managed.

Crandall’s vision of benign U.S. goals is at sharp odds with accounts from former rebels, police and Salvadoran government officials, few of whom were interviewed for The Salvador Option. At the war’s end, the country’s former president and close U.S. ally, Álvaro Magana, told me the one failing of the U.N. Truth Commission Report was that it left out U.S. involvement in the dirty war.

A Dirty War

The vast majority of death squad murders between 1980 and 1984 were actually carried out by Salvadoran security force intelligence units, following orders from senior colonels, who had full U.S. backing. The top officer most often named was Col. Nicolas Carranza, a deputy defense minister who was on the C.I.A. payroll and was later given U.S. citizenship.

It was a well-orchestrated dirty war against a committed Cuban- and Vietnamese-trained insurgency. Using infiltrators and extensive surveillance, police often rounded up dozens of suspects at once, torturing and killing many. It was not the work of moonlighting soldiers. The National Police was most active, rehiring the prewar military regime’s best agents. They called their intelligence unit the National Center for Analysis and Investigation, or CAIN, boasting that they were capable of killing their own brothers. From late 1980 onward, according to Salvadoran officers and officials, CAIN had advisors hired by the C.I.A.

“They would sit in one room writing out questions, leaving it up to Salvadorans to get the answers,” said Gerardo LeChevallier, the governing Christian Democrat Party’s liaison with the army at the time. He said he met several of these advisors, who were not part of the official U.S. military mission. Many of the C.I.A.’s hired advisors were U.S. citizens. They were experts in urban police intelligence or veterans of other anti-Communist campaigns who trained CAIN agents on conducting searches, surveillance and interrogation. But they also planned and took part in operations.

“No one from intelligence ever did anything unless there was a North American or Venezuelan with them,” said one former police captain.

The story of CAIN shows beyond all doubt that the police intelligence units and death squads were one and the same and that the C.I.A. was heavily involved. I investigated in great detail an operation described by senior police officers as “the most successful of the war.” Built around a top guerrilla commander who turned traitor, it repeatedly hit the rebel leadership structures over four years. Rebel survivors gave horrific testimony of being forced to watch other detainees being guillotined and put through a meat processing machine in the police headquarters in the western city of Santa Ana. Some heard U.S. and Asian voices among their interrogators.

In 1981, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, wrote horrified cables after 100 decapitated corpses were dumped outside Santa Ana. Hinton, who was genuinely trying to improve human rights, ordered autopsies. These showed the decapitations to be the work of a guillotine, possibly taken from a meat plant.

The C.I.A. policy to hire U.S. advisors for Salvadoran police intelligence units, like the Iran-contra policy, was kept secret because it was illegal. Police aid was banned before 1985 by U.S. law. The best description of the rationale was given later by Pentagon officials in briefings for a Newsweek article in 2005. There was a “still secret” C.I.A. strategy in El Salvador, they said bluntly, to “fund or support nationalist forces that allegedly included so-called death squads, directed to hunt down and kill rebel leaders and sympathizers.” This policy, which the officials also dubbed the Salvador Option, aimed to make the population “pay a price” for staying neutral, to “out terrorize the terrorists,” as Newsweek put it.

Hardline Reagan administration officials prioritized alliances with like-minded Salvadorans, completely undermining the authority of Crandall’s “imperial ambassadors.” Significantly, Salvadorans believed their tactics were supported by President Reagan, allowing them to ignore human rights sermons from other U.S. officials.

The central fault line of the war hinges on a question, still relevant, about whether extreme violence is effective or counterproductive against a violent insurgency. In El Salvador, it produced spectacular short-term results, but it backfired as badly in the long term, creating a recruitment pool that turned the Salvadoran guerrillas into Latin America’s most successful insurgency. The hatred and mistrust the policy engendered undermined democracy-building long after Washington reined in the death squads in 1983.

Crandall reaches other faulty conclusions. He wrongly argues Washington was always ready to negotiate the war’s end. Rebel attitudes were far more diverse than portrayed, ranging from frustrated social democrats, who favored more internal democracy, to admirers of Stalin who carried out violent purges, killing hundreds of rank-and-file rebels. Finally, The Salvador Option gives little explanation as to how in 1989 the rebels were able to launch their largest offensive despite a decade of U.S. involvement.

Crandall’s work shows the desperate need for a better narrative of what actually happened in El Salvador’s civil war, without which any meaningful assessment of U.S. policy is impossible.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.

The latest from america

This debut novel by 29-year-old Marieke Lucas Rijneveld won the 2020 International Booker Prize.
Diane ScharperJanuary 21, 2021
in Barack Obama's new memoir, readers get to know a host of colorful characters who played a role in the campaign for the presidency and Obama’s first term in office.
Molly CahillJanuary 21, 2021
Aaron J. Leonard’s new book draws from almost 10,000 pages of F.B.I. files on an array of folk artists. It aims to illustrate the considerable impact that the U.S. government’s campaign against Communism had on folk artists in the 1940s and early ’50s.
Joe PagettaJanuary 21, 2021
Eric Holthaus experiences climate change as a wound, a rending in the fabric of society and ecology.
Christiana ZennerJanuary 21, 2021