Death Squads in El Salvador:
A Pattern of US Complicity
by David Kirsh
Covert Action Information Bulletin #34 (Summer 1990)
In 1963, the US government sent 10 Special Forces personnel to El Salvador
to help General Jose Alberto Medrano set up the Organizacion Democratica
Nacionalista (ORDEN)-the first paramilitary death squad in that country. These
Green Berets assisted in the organization and indoctrination of rural "civic"
squads which gathered intelligence and carried out political assassinations in
coordination with the Salvadoran military. 
Now, there is compelling evidence to show that for over 30 years, members
of the US military and the CIA have helped organize, train, and fund death
squad activity in El Salvador.
In the past eight years, six Salvadoran military deserters have publicly
acknowledged their participation in the death squads. Their stories are
notable because they not only confirm suspicions that the death squads are made
up of members of the Salvadoran military, but also because each one implicates
US personnel in death squad activity.
The term "death squad," while appropriately vivid, can be misleading
because it obscures their fundamental identity. Evidence shows that "death
squads" are primarily military or paramilitary units carrying out political
assassinations and intimidation as part of the Salvadoran government's
counterinsurgency strategy. Civilian death squads do exist but have often been
comprised of off-duty soldiers financed by wealthy Salvadoran businessmen.
It is important to point out that the use of death squads has been a
strategy of US counterinsurgency doctrine. For example, the CIA's "Phoenix
Program" was responsible for the "neutralization" of over 40,000 Vietnamese
suspected of working with the National Liberation Front. 
Part of the US counterinsurgency program was run from the Office of Public
Safety (OPS). OPS was part of US AID, and worked with the Defense Department
and the CIA to modernize and centralize the repressive capabilities of client
state police forces, including those of El Salvador.  In 1974 Congress
ordered the discontinuation of OPS.
In spite of the official suspension of police assistance between 1974 and
1985, CIA and other US officials worked with Salvadoran security forces
throughout the restricted period to centralize and modernize surveillance, to
continue training, and to fund key players in the death squad network. 
Even thought the US government's police training program had been
thoroughly discredited, the Reagan administration found other channels through
which to reinstate police assistance for El Salvador and Honduras. Attached to
this assistance is the requirement that the president certify that aid
recipients do not engage in torture, political persecution or assassination.
Even so, certain members of Congress showed concern over the reinstatement of
police aid to repressive regimes. In a Senate Foreign Relations Committee
hearing, Senator Claiborne Pell (Dem., Rhode Island) asked, "I was talking
about cattle prods specifically. Would they be included or not?"
Undersecretary of State for Latin American Affairs Elliot Abrams replied,
"Well, I would say that in my view if the police of Costa Rica, with their
democratic tradition, say that for crowd control purposes they would like to
have 50 shot [sic] batons, as they are called in the nonagricultural context, I
would personally want to give it to them. I think that government has earned
enough trust, as I think we have earned enough trust, not to be questioned,
frankly, about exporting torture equipment. But I would certainly be in favor
of giving it to them if they want it."
Death Squad members testimony
Cesar Vielman Joya Martinez, a soldier in the First Infantry Brigade's
Department 2 (Intelligence), is the most recent Salvadoran to admit to his
involvement in death squad activity. At a November 1, 1989 press conference
Joya stated that certain military units in Department 2 carried out "heavy
interrogation" (a euphemism for torture) after which the victims were killed.
The job of his unit was to execute people by strangulation, slitting their
throats, or injecting them with poison. He admitted killing eight people and
participating in many more executions. He stated that the Brigade Commander
had sent written orders to carry out the killings and that the use of bullets
was forbidden because they might be traced to the military. 
Joya Martinez also claims that one of the US advisers working with the
First Brigade sat at a desk next to his and received "all the reports from our
agents on clandestine captures, interrogations ... but we did not provide them
with reports on the executions. They did not want to hear of the actual
killings." US advisers authorized expenses for such extras as black glass on
squad vans to allow executions to take place unobserved; provided $4,000 for
the monthly budget; and conducted classes in recruiting informants and
conducting intelligence reconnaissance. 
Another Salvadoran soldier, Ricardo Castro, is the first officer to come
forward with information about death squad activity. Castro graduated from
West Point in 1973 and was a company commander in the Salvadoran army. He
translated for several US advisers who taught, among other subjects,
interrogation techniques. Castro claims that one US instructor worked out of
the Sheraton Hotel (taken over briefly during the November 1989 FMLN offensive)
and emphasized psychological techniques. Castro recalled a class where
Salvadoran soldiers asked the adviser about an impasse in their torture
He was obviously against torture a lot of the time. He favored selective
torture ... When they learned something in class, they might go back to their
fort that night and practice ... I remember very distinctly some students
talking about the fact that people were conking out on them ... as they were
administering the electric shock. "We keep giving him the electric shock, and
he just doesn't respond. What can we do?" ... The American gave a broad smile
and said, "You've got to surprise him. We know this from experience. Give him
a jolt. Do something that will just completely amaze him, and that should bring
him out of it. 
Castro revealed that he held monthly briefings with then-deputy CIA chief
of station in El Salvador Frederic Brugger who had recruited him for
intelligence work after meeting at an interrogation class. Castro also claimed
to have knowledge of the perpetration of large massacres of civilians by Army
In December 1981, he met in Morazan Province with one of the officers that
the US instructor had advised. "They had two towns of about 300 people each,
and they were interrogating them to see what they knew. Since I ... knew
something about interrogations, he said he might want me to help. The Major
told me that after the interrogation, they were going to kill them all."
Castro was, however, reassigned and did not participate. Later, his pro-
government mother told him, "You know, son, these guerrillas, they invent the
wildest lies. They say that in December, 600 civilians were killed in
Morazan." "Oh, shit, I was hoping I'd been dreaming it," he thought. "I later
found out, they did go in and kill them after all." 
Rene Hurtado worked as intelligence agent for the Treasury Police, one of
the three Salvadoran paramilitary forces. After a falling out with an officer,
he fled to Minnesota, took refuge with a Presbyterian Church congregation, and
began describing routine torture methods used by paramilitary forces. These
included beatings, electric shock, suffocation, and mutilation. He described
techniques such as tearing the skin from "interrogation" subjects, sticking
needles into them, or beating them in such a manner that lasting internal
injuries but no telltale external marks would be sustained. According to
Hurtado, CIA employees and Green Berets taught some of these torture techniques
to the treasury police in Army staff headquarters. 
General John Vessey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was
particularly disturbed by the implication of the Green Berets and initiated an
investigation. The investigator from the Army Criminal Investigation Division
stated, "My job was to clear the Army's name and I was going to do whatever
[was] necessary to do that." Hurtado refused to cooperate with the
investigator on the advice of a member of Congress whom the church parishioners
had called upon. When the investigator was told this by the minister, he
responded, "Tell Mr. Hurtado that the Congressman has given him very costly
advice. When I went to El Salvador to investigate his allegations, at the
advice of the US Ambassador, I did not talk to members of the Salvadoran
military. If I go again and talk to the military, we don't know who will be
hurt, do we?" 
Following revelations of US involvement in death squad activities, the
House and Senate Intelligence Committees reported on allegations of US
complicity in death squad activity. The Republican-dominated Senate panel
confirmed that Salvadoran officials were involved, but denied any direct US
role, keeping certain portions of its report classified.  The House
Committee stated that, "US intelligence agencies have not conducted any of
their activities in such a way as to directly encourage or support death squad
activities." Rep. James Shannon (Dem. Mass), who requested the inquiry,
commented that the report was "certainly not as conclusive as the committee
makes it sound. 
Varelli, Carranza, Montano, and others
Frank Varelli is the son of a former Salvadoran Minister of Defense and
National Police commander. When Varelli's family came to the US in 1980,
Varelli started working as an FBI informant. Years later, he publicly revealed
his role in FBI covert operations against domestic organizations opposing
Reagan's Central American policy. He has also asserted that the Salvadoran
National Guard gave him death lists which he compared to lists of Salvadorans
in the US awaiting deportation back to El Salvador. He reported these contacts
with the National Guard to the FBI. 
Former Colonel Roberto Santivanez claimed that the then-chief of the
Salvadoran Treasury Police, Nicolas Carranza, was the officer most active with
the death squads.  Colonel Carranza is also alleged to have received $90,
000 annually from the CIA.  Carranza has confirmed the close working
relationship of the paramilitary forces with US intelligence. "[They] have
collaborated with us in certain technical manner, providing us with advice.
They receive information from everywhere in the world, and they have
sophisticated equipment that enables them to better inform or at least confirm
the information we have. It's very helpful." 
Carlos Antonio Gomez Montano was a paratrooper stationed at Ilopango Air
Force Base. He claimed to have seen eight Green Beret advisors watching two
"torture classes" during which a seventeen-year-old boy and a thirteen-year-old
girl were tortured. Montano claimed that his unit and the Green Berets were
joined by Salvadoran Air Force Commander Rafael Bustillo and other Salvadoran
officers during these two sessions in January 1981. A Salvadoran officer told
the assembled soldiers, "[watching] will make you feel more like a man." 
Above are the accounts of the death squad deserters. Non-military sources
have also reported participation of US personnel. For example, another (highly
placed anonymous civilian) source maintained that Armed Forces General Staff
Departments 2 and 5 (organized with help from US Army Colonel David Rodriguez,
a Cuban-American) used tortures such as beating, burning and electric shock.
 US involvement has also been asserted in sworn accounts by some victims
of torture. Jose Ruben Carillo Cubas, a student, gave testimony that during
his detention by the Long Distance Reconnaissance Patrol (PRAL) in 1986, a US
Army Major tortured him by applying electric shocks to his back and ears. 
Various sources have reported the use of US-manufactured torture
equipment. Rene Hurtado, for example, explained, "there are some very
sophisticated methods ... of torture ... [like the machine] that looks like a
radio, like a transformer; it's about 15 centimeters across, with connecting
wires. It says General Electric on it ..." 
Many other documented accounts of brutality by US-trained and advised
military units exist. Indeed, the elite Atlacatl Battalion has been implicated
in several massacres over the past ten years  and members of the battalion
have been indicted for the November slayings of the six Jesuit Priests and two
It is widely accepted, in the mainstream media and among human rights
organizations, that the Salvadoran government is responsible for most of the
70,000 deaths which are the result of ten years of civil war.  The debate,
however, has dwelled on whether the death squads are strictly renegade military
factions or a part of the larger apparatus. The evidence indicates that the
death squads are simply components of the Salvadoran military. And that their
activities are not only common knowledge to US agencies,  but that US
personnel have been integral in organizing these units and continue to support
their daily functioning.
[David Kirsh is author of the booklet, "Central America Without Crying Uncle."
It is available for $2 (ask about multiple copy rates) from Primer Project, 107
Mosswood Court, Chapel Hill, NC 27516]
1. Allan Nairn, "Behind the Death Squads," The Progressive, May 1984.
Reprints are still available.
2. Michael McClintock, "The American Connection," Vol 1 (London: Zed Press,
3. The "Interdepartmental Technical Subcommittee on Police Advisory
Assistance Programs," US State Department, June 11, 1962, cited in "The
American Connection," Vol 1, op. cit., n. 1. "In general [the] CIA endeavors
to develop the investigative techniques and AID (Agency for International
Development) [develops] the capabilities of the police to deal with the
military aspects of subversion and insurgency."
4. Op. cit. n. 1
5. "The Central American Counterterrorism Act of 1985," hearing of the Senate
Foreign Relations Committee, November 5 and 19, 1985, p. 19.
6. "Army Deserters' Testimony Reveals US Role," Alert! November 1989, p. 6;
David Bates, "Blood Money: assassin says he slit throats while US wrote checks,
" In These Times, November 15-21, 1989.
7. "Salvadoran Killings Cited-Deserter Links US Advisors to Army Unit,"
Washington Post, October 27, 1989; op. cit. n. 6.
8. Allan Nairn, "Confessions of a Death Squad Officer," The Progressive,
March 1986; Associated Press, February 13, 1986.
10. Op. cit., n.1; "Church-protected refugee says he raped, tortured,"
Minneapolis Star and Tribune, July 8, 1984. US Special Forces and other
military units are well-trained in torture techniques: see Donald Duncan, "The
New Legions" (New York: Random House, 1967), pp. 156-161; and "The Navy:
Torture Camp," Newsweek, March 22, 1976.
11. Allan Nairn, "Assault on Sanctuary," The Progressive, August 1985.
12. "Officials in El Salvador Linked to Death Squads," Associated Press,
October 12, 1984.
13. Robert Parry, "Panel reports CIA did not support death squads," Associated
Press, January 14, 1985.
14. Carlos Norman, "Frank Varelli & the FBI's Infiltration of CISPES," Our
Right to Know (publication of the Fund for Open Information and
Accountability), Spring/Summer 1987; Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1987.
15. Dennis Volman, "Salvador death squads, a CIA connection?" Christian
Science Monitor, May 8, 1984. Santivanez was cited as the (at the time)
anonymous military source for the article.
16. New York Times, March 22, 1984. Colonel Carranza's CIA salary was
confirmed by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
17. Op. cit., n. 1.
18. Raymond Bonner, "US Advisers saw 'Torture Class,' Salvadoran Says," New
York Times, January 11, 1982.
19. Christian Science Monitor, op. cit., n. 15.
20. "Torture in El Salvador," CDHES (the Commission for Human Rights in El
Salvador), September 1986. The PRAL has received assistance from CIA officer
Felix Rodriguez, good friend of George Bush and Donald Gregg, Z Magazine,
December 1989, p. 57.
21. Op. cit., n. 1; Also See Michael Klare and Cynthia Arnson, "Supplying
Repression" (Washington, DC Institute for Policy Studies, 1981), p. 6, about
the US supplying torture equipment.
22. "The Central American Counterterrorism Act of 1985," House of
Representatives, hearing of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, October 24 and
November 19, 1985, p. 165. This is the same Atlacatl Battalion referred to in
1985, by then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Nestor Sanchez as, "The
unit that has received the most intensive US training ... [and] conducts itself
with the populace in such a way that it gains their support."
23. Lindsey Gruson, "Salvador Army Is Said to Seize Rebel Positions," New York
Times, November 16, 1989.
24. House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing, op. cit., n.
22, pp. 66-73; "Exiles Linked to Salvador Death Squads; Ex-Envoy Says Miami-
Based Refugees Direct and Finance Groups," Los Angeles Times, February 7, 1984;
"US on trial - A class-action suit cross-examines the administration's entire
policy on El Salvador," In These Times, February 18-24, 1987.