Weakness and Deceit

AMERICA AND EL SALVADOR'S DIRTY WAR


RAYMOND BONNER

“A landmark book . . . Bonner reveals the full extent of Washington's complicity with a murderous regime bent on eliminating even its mildest critics. This story not only sets the record straight, but, as importantly, it also speaks to the future, serving as a fresh warning of the perennial perils of American engagement in secret wars.” —Alan Riding, author of Distant Neighbors: A Portrait of the Mexicans; former Mexico City bureau chief, The New York Times

Weakness and Deceit vividly depicts the failure of U.S. policy to take human rights seriously in Central America in the 1980s. Its lessons are more relevant than ever today as policy-makers struggle to respond to crisis situations in the Middle East, and elsewhere. For three decades Bonner's relentless pursuit of the truth has set the gold standard for investigative journalists everywhere.” —Michael Posner, professor of Ethics and Finance at New York University, former
U.S. assistant secretary of state

“Thirty years ago, Raymond Bonner wrote a fundamental book about the United States and Latin America. Here it is again, a major work by a big-hearted reporter, with new and fascinating details about the tragedy of U. S. interventionism during the Cold War, and the lies we have been told.”
—Alma Guillermoprieto, author of Looking for History: Dispatches From Latin America, and The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now

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About the Book

A land and culture poorly understood by analysts, politicians, and voters in the far-off United States. A regime permeated with corruption; a country in the steel grip of a few families that disdained any system which might give a voice to the millions who kept them in comfort: guarding their children, watering their lawns and putting food on their tables. A brutal and remorseless police force and army trained in America, armed with American guns, and fighting a bloody proxy war against anyone who might conceivably be an American foe—whether or not they held a gun.

Sound familiar?

This was Central America in the 1980s, at a time when El Salvador was the centerpiece of a misguided and ultimately disastrous foreign policy. It resulted in atrocities that took the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and destabilized a region that has not recovered to this day. At a time when the Reagan Administration’s obsession with communism overwhelmed objections to its policies, Ray Bonner took a courageous, unflinching look at just who we were supporting and what the consequences were.

Now supplemented with an epilogue drawing on newly available, once-secret documents that detail the extent of America’s involvement in assassinations, including the infamous murder of three American nuns and a lay missionary in 1980, Weakness and Deceit is a classic, riveting and ultimately tragic account of foreign policy gone terribly wrong.

Publication April 7, 2016 • 392 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-26-5 • E-book 978-1-682190-27-2

About the Author

raymond bonner author photo
Photograph © Hazel Thompson

After graduating from MacMurray College and Stanford Law School and serving in the U. S. Marine Corps (including a tour in Vietnam), Raymond Bonner practiced public interest law for several years before turning to journalism. He has been a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter for The New York Times, a staff writer at The New Yorker, and has written for The New York Review of Books. He has reported from more than a hundred countries. He is the author of four books and the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a shared Pulitzer, and the Louis M. Lyon award for Conscience and Integrity in Journalism from the Nieman Fellows at Harvard.

Read an Excerpt

El Salvador is a tiny nation, with a population under five million. No larger than New Jersey. Go up in a helicopter, and at 9,000 feet you can see the entire country, as Ambassador Robert White was fond of saying. Yet in the 1980s, El Salvador was at the top of list of Washington’s foreign policy concerns and fears in a way that Iraq, Iran, Syria are today.

Include neighboring Nicaragua, where in the Reagan Era a Marxist-led revolution had recently overthrown the decades-old, American-backed Somoza dictatorship, and the combined population of the countries concerned was under eight million, their total territory one-third that of Iraq. Obsessed by the “domino theory,” after the “loss” of Nicaragua, Washington was determined that El Salvador should not be next.

The “-ism” feared then was not Islamism or jihadism. It was Communism. But there are parallels. Then, as now, there was brutality and butchery. ISIS beheads journalists, aid workers, Christians, and Muslims from other sects. In El Salvador it was the American-backed government and its henchmen that murdered a Roman Catholic archbishop, American nuns, Dutch journalists, Jesuit priests, aid workers, and political leaders who challenged the government. Government “death squads” seized students, tied their thumbs behind their back, shot them in the head, and left their bodies beside the road or behind shopping malls. Soldiers with automatic rifles cut down students and workers who dared demonstrate for democracy, and peasants as they forded rivers to flee the civil war, or who were considered the enemy because they lived in guerrilla-held areas of the country.

And just as senior American officials “dissembled” to take us to war in Iraq, so, too, American officials routinely “dissembled” about events in El Salvador, about who killed the nuns, who was responsible for the violence, about the government’s horrific human rights violations. The deceit was necessary to maintain congressional and public support for American involvement in the tiny country.

Disproportionate to its size, El Salvador has played a major role in American foreign policy, a bridge between Vietnam and Iraq. As the Reagan Administration increased military aid and sent military advisors to El Salvador, administration officials sought to assure Congress and the American public that we were not wading into another Vietnam, and supporters of the policy saw El Salvador as the place we could rid ourselves of the collective doubt brought on by the defeat in Vietnam.

A generation later, El Salvador was held up by Donald Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration as a “success story,” the template for what America could accomplish in Iraq. There was talk of the “Salvador option” in Iraq, which was interpreted by some to mean there would be “death squads,” that opponents of the government would be rounded up, tortured and executed. “The Salvadorization of Iraq?” was the title of an article in the New York Times Magazine in May, 2005. “U.S. soldiers are increasingly moving to a Salvador-style advisory role” in Iraq, wrote Peter Maass, the journalist and author who also covered the war in Bosnia. “In the process, they are backing up local forces that, like the military in El Salvador, do not shy away from violence.”

The “violence” – a nice euphemism for torture and killing – we have recently come to associate with Abu Ghraib and American interrogation of suspected terrorists in the CIA’s secret prisons has antecedents in El Salvador. An illegal, inhumane and immoral form of warfare was waged with the knowledge and support of American officials and diplomats, but hidden from the American public.

Consider this cable sent by the American embassy in San Salvador in June 1982. The subject was simply “Torture.” It describes the ordeal of a forty-year old school teacher, a father of four, who devoted his free time to helping with the Salvadoran Green Cross, delivering food and medicines to refugees, tens of thousands of whom had been created by the civil war. He was seized as he was leaving the elementary school where he taught, blindfolded, his thumbs tied behind his back (standard operating procedure for the Salvadoran military at the time). He was taken to National Police headquarters in downtown San Salvador where he was interrogated and tortured in a “six-room soundproof suite of torture chambers,” the embassy reported to Washington.

In one session, “his hands and feet were bound to ropes on pulleys attached to the walls, while his testicles were tied to a wire pulley attached to the ceiling,” the embassy reported. “By controlling the ropes and wire, the torturer regulated the amount of tension and body weight placed on his testicles, until they were severely crushed.”

Another torture imposed on the schoolteacher seems to foreshadow waterboarding. His hands were tied behind his back, a sack containing lime was placed over his head. The torturers then delivered blows to his stomach, which caused him to inhale, “searing the air passages and lungs with lime.”

The man told the embassy political officer, who knew him well, that the “torture rapidly broke his psychological resistance” (which is, of course, what the architects of the torture techniques used on terrorist suspects sought to do), and he signed a “confession” (just as many terrorist suspects being held at the secret prisons confessed to knowledge of terrorist plots in order to stop the torture).

“We have no reason to doubt his story,” the embassy wrote in the cable. But the American government went out of its way to insure that the American public did not know about the atrocities committed by the American-back government in El Salvador, which had become the third largest recipient of American aid – after Egypt and Israel. The cable, sent in June of 1982, was classified “NoDis,” which is above “secret,” and means it was not to be distributed outside the upper levels of the State Department, CIA, NSC. Most documents pertaining to El Salvador and Central America in those years were over-classified because the policy was highly contentious, with strong opposition in Congress as well as the public, and the Administrations – Carter, Reagan, Bush – did not want leaks to congressmen or reporters. In 1993, some 12,000 pages were declassified and released.

Of all those documents that have now come to light, perhaps the most remarkable is a lengthy highly-classified cable written by Ambassador Robert White in March of 1980, at the beginning of what was to be a decades long civil war. Subject: “Preliminary Assessment of the Situation.” It was classified “NoDis,” and only fifteen copies were made, which is a tragedy. It was not shared with Congress. There should have been 1,500, or 15,000, copies made, because the debate, in Congress and the public, about American aims and methods in El Salvador and Central America would have been better informed had White’s analysis been part of it.

Since its declassification and release in 1993, the cable has been largely overlooked, just as the American wars in Central America have faded into history, replaced by the nationalist upheavals in the Balkans and now by revolutions and turmoil in the Middle East.

But White’s twenty-seven-page cable deserves to be accorded the same place and importance in history as George Kennan’s legendary “long telegram,” which analyzed the political landscape in the Soviet Union in 1946 and proposed the containment policy that was to guide the United States during the Cold War.

Washington was intent on blaming El Salvador’s revolution on outsiders, from Managua to Moscow, through Havana. White knew otherwise. “There is no stopping this revolution; no going back,” White began. In a sentence, he captured why. “In El Salvador the rich and powerful have systematically defrauded the poor and denied eighty percent of the people any voice in the affairs of their country.”

The government’s security forces must “stop torturing and killing any youth between fourteen and twenty-five because he may be involved with labor unions, church organizations, etc.,” White wrote. He added, “The daily total of dead, many among them teenagers bearing marks of brutal torture, result from right-wing terrorism.”

There was one thing White particularly wanted to be “well understood in Washington.” Yes, Cuba was providing training for some of the guerilla fighters, and Russia was supplying some arms. But neither of these countries has “created this threat of violent revolution but rather decades of oppression and a studied refusal on the part of the elite to make any concessions to the masses.”

White didn’t brush over the challenge from the left. “An extremist Communist take-over here, and by that I mean something just this side of the Pol Pot episode, is unfortunately a real possibility due to the intense hatred that has been created in his country among the masses by the insensitivity, blindness and brutality of the ruling elite.”

“The principal enemy of a moderate solution is the ultra-right and its allies within the [military] high command who are permitting the current campaign of torture and murder to continue.” But White’s timely warning was ignored, and more torture and murder would follow.

One of the key players in revolutionary El Salvador was Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, “a symbol of better life to the poor,” White noted. “The most serious threat to a moderate solution would be the assassination, whether by the ultra-left or by the ultra-right of Archbishop Romero.” He was sadly prescient. Five days later, the “ultra-right” assassinated Romero while he was saying a mass, and in the civil war that followed, more than 75,000 Salvadorans paid with their lives.