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Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador

UN Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador, Report, 15 March 1993, in UN Secretary General, Letter to the President of the Security Council (S/25500), Annex. (PDF link)





The main characteristics of this period were that violence became systematic and terror and distrust reigned among the civilian population. The fragmentation of any opposition or dissident movement by means of arbitrary arrests, murders and selective and indiscriminate disappearances of leaders became common practice. Repression in the cities targeted political organizations, trade unions and organized sectors of Salvadorian society, as exemplified by the persecution of organizations such as the Asociación Nacional de Educadores Salvadoreños (ANDES), 9/ murders of political leaders 10/ and attacks on human rights bodies. 11/

The Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) was formed in late 1980 and in January 1981, the first large-scale military offensive left hundreds of people dead. Starting in 1980, there was a succession of indiscriminate attacks on the non-combatant civilian population and also collective summary executions, particularly against the rural population. 12/ There were appalling massacres, such as those at the Sumpul river (14-15 May 1980), the Lempa river (20-29 October 1981) and El Mozote (December 1981). Organized terrorism, in the form of the so-called "death squads", became the most aberrant manifestation of the escalation of violence. Civilian and military groups engaged in a systematic murder campaign with total impunity, while State institutions turned a blind eye. 13/ The murder of Monsignor Romero exemplified the limitless, devastating power of these groups. This period saw the greatest number of deaths and human rights violations.


The Government of General Carlos Humberto Romero (July 1977-October 1979) was overthrown on 15 October 1979. The Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG) composed of Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutiérrez and Colonel Adolfo Majano announced its main goals: an end to violence and corruption, guarantees for the exercise of human rights, adoption of measures to ensure the fair distribution of national wealth and a positive approach to external relations. 14/

On 18 October 1979, elections were announced for February 1982. Measures were enacted restricting landholdings to a maximum of 100 hectares (Decree No. 43 of 6 December 1979). The organization ORDEN 15/ was dissolved on 6 November 1979 and the Salvadorian national security agency (ANSESAL) was dismantled. 16/

The political struggle between civilians and conservative military sectors intensified, against a backdrop of social upheaval and mobilization. Left-wing organizations such as the Bloque Popular Revolucionario (BPR), the Ligas Populares 28 de Febrero (LP-28) and the Frente de Acción Popular Unificada (FAPU), among others, held public demonstrations, occupied ministries and organized strikes demanding the release of political prisoners. Economic measures and land tenure reforms were adopted. The organizations BPR, FAPU, LP-28 and the Unión Democratíca Nacionalista (UDN) came together to form the Coordinadora Revolucionaria de Masas (CRM). 17/ On 22 January, the National Guard attacked a massive CRM demonstration, described by Monsignor Romero as peaceful, killing somewhere between 22 and 50 people and wounding hundreds more.

Anti-Government violence erupted in the form of occupations of radio stations, bombings of newspapers (La Prensa Gráfica and El Diario de Hoy), abductions, executions and attacks on military targets, particularly by the Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL) and the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP).

On 3 January 1980, the three civilian members of the Junta resigned, along with 10 of the 11 cabinet ministers. 18/ The Junta was again in crisis. The Agrarian Reform Act 19/ and the nationalization of banks were announced. On 9 March, José Napoleón Duarte became a member of the Junta when the Christian Democratic Party expelled Dada Hizeri, Rubén Zamora and other leaders from its ranks. The process of political polarization triggered an unprecedented increase in death squad activities.

On 6 February, United States Ambassador Frank Devine informed the State Department that mutilated bodies were appearing on roadsides as they had done in the worst days of the Romero regime and that the extreme right was arming itself and preparing for a confrontation in which it clearly expected to ally itself with the military. 20/

On 22 February, PDC leader and Chief State Counsel Mario Zamora was murdered at his home, only days after the Frente Amplio Nacional (FAN), headed by former National Guard Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, had accused him publicly of being a member of subversive groups (see the case in chap. IV).

On 24 March, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero was shot dead by a sniper as he celebrated mass in the Chapel of the Hospital de la Divina Providencia 21/ (see the case in chap. IV). This crime further polarized Salvadorian society and became a milestone, symbolizing the point at which human rights violations reached their peak and presaging the all-out war between the Government and the guerrillas that was to come. During the funeral, a bomb went off outside San Salvador Cathedral. The panic-stricken crowd, estimated at 50,000 people, was machine-gunned, leaving an estimated 27 to 40 people dead and more than 200 wounded. 22/

On 7 May 1980, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson 23/ was arrested on a farm, along with a group of civilians and soldiers. In the raid, a significant quantity of weapons and documents were found implicating the group in the organization and financing of death squads allegedly involved in Archbishop Romero’s murder. The arrests triggered a wave of terrorist threats and institutional pressures which culminated in D’Aubuisson’s release. This strengthened the most conservative sector in the Government 24/ and was a clear example of the passivity and inertia of the judiciary during this period. 25/

Government measures 26/ and illegal repressive measures were taken to dismantle the country’s legal structure and neutralize the opposition. 27/

Between 12 and 15 August, a general strike called by FDR, a coalition of centre-left parties, was violently suppressed, leaving 129 people dead. 28/ On 27 November, Alvarez Córdoba and six FDR leaders were abducted. Their bodies were found later, bearing signs of torture (see the case in chap. IV). A few days later, the Brigada Anticomunista General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez issued a communiqué claiming responsibility for the killings.

Between October and November 1980, the five armed opposition groups - Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP), Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación (FAL), Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia Nacional (FARN) and Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores de Centroamérica (PRTC) - formed the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN).

In late 1980, as a change of Administration was taking place in the United States, the violence in El Salvador reached United States citizens. On 2 December, four churchwomen were arrested, raped and murdered by members of the National Guard (see the case in chap. IV). At the end of the year, Colonel Majano was removed from the Junta and Napoleón Duarte became President. 29/

The Commission on the Truth received direct complaints concerning 2,597 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1980. 30/


Individual extrajudicial executions continued and mass executions in rural areas increased. On 3 January, the President of the Salvadorian Institute for Agrarian Reform and two United States advisers were murdered in the Sheraton Hotel 31/ (see the case in chap. IV). This incident was part of a campaign of murders of cooperative leaders and beneficiaries of the agrarian reform.

On 10 January, FMLN launched the "final offensive" announced in late 1980. 32/ Attacks were launched on military targets throughout the country, leaving hundreds of people dead. Government sources reported that "at least 500 extremists" had died in the final offensive. Because of FMLN actions, the state of siege decreed by the Junta was maintained until October 1981.

The violence in El Salvador began to attract international attention and to have international repercussions. External political forces began to claim that the Salvadorian conflict was part of the East-West confrontation. Other forces worked for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. 33/ Many sectors began to envisage the possibility of a negotiated settlement, provided that the necessary resources were available. On 14 January, the United States Administration restored military aid, which had been suspended after the murder of the United States churchwomen. 34/ The United States Government also significantly increased its military and economic assistance. The increasing flow of resources was intended to train, modernize and expand the structure of a number of elements of the armed forces. The Rapid Deployment Infantry Battalions (BIRI), specialized in anti-guerrilla warfare, also began to be created (Atlacatl: March 1981, Atonal: January 1982, Belloso: May 1982, etc.).

Counter-insurgency military operations affected the non-combatant civilian population, causing a high death toll and the emergence of a new phenomenon - displaced persons.

On 17 March, as they tried to cross the Lempa river to Honduras, a group of thousands of peasants was attacked from the air and from land. Between 20 and 30 people were reported killed and a further 189 reported missing as a result of the attack. Something similar happened in October on the banks of the same river, on which occasion 147 peasants were killed, including 44 minors. In November, in Cabañas Department, a counter-insurgency operation surrounded and kept under attack for 13 days a group of 1,000 people who were trying to escape to Honduras. This time, between 50 and 100 people were reported killed. 35/ In late December, the Atlacatl Battalion carried out one of the worst massacres of the war, in various hamlets in and around El Mozote (see the case in chap. IV).

According to the Fundación Salvadoreña para el Desarrollo (FUSADES), by 1981 there were 164,000 displaced persons. The number of displaced persons leaving the country in search of refuge also increased, according to the report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). 36/ Furthermore, Christian Legal Aid reported 12,501 deaths in 1981. 37/

The Commission on the Truth received direct testimony concerning 1,633 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1981.


The 60-member Constituent Assembly 38/ adopted a new Constitution and elected an interim Government. Although PDC won the most votes (40.3 per cent), ARENA (29.3 per cent), in alliance with the Partido de Conciliación Nacional (PCN) (19 per cent) and other minority parties, won control of the Assembly. Roberto D’Aubuisson was elected President of the Constituent Assembly and two PCN members were elected Vice-Presidents. The Assembly ratified the 1962 Political Constitution. 39/ It also elected Alvaro Magaña Provisional President of the Republic and Raúl Molina Martínez (PDC), Gabriel Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro (ARENA) and Pablo Mauricio Alvergue (PCN), Vice-Presidents.

Decree No. 6 of the National Assembly suspended phase III 40/ of the implementation of the agrarian reform, and was itself later amended. The Apaneca Pact was signed on 3 August 1982, establishing a Government of National Unity, whose objectives were peace, democratization, human rights, economic recovery, security and a strengthened international position. An attempt was made to form a transitional Government which would establish a democratic system. Lack of agreement among the forces that made up the Government and the pressures of the armed conflict prevented any substantive changes from being made during Magaña’s Presidency.

FMLN attacked the Ilopango Air Force Base, destroying six of the Air Force’s 14 UH-1H helicopters, five Ouragan aircraft and three C-47s. 41/ The guerrillas stepped up their activities against economic targets. Between February and April, a total of 439 acts of sabotage were reported 42/ and the number of acts of sabotage involving explosives or arson rose to 782 between January and September. 43/ The United States Embassy estimated the damage to the economic infrastructure at US$ 98 million. 44/ FMLN also carried out large-scale operations in the capital city and temporarily occupied urban centres in the country’s interior. According to some reports, the number of rebels ranged between 4,000 and 5,000; other sources put the number at between 6,000 and 9,000. 45/

Combined land-air military operations by the armed forces sought to regain control of populated areas controlled by the rebels. In one of these operations (31 January), 150 civilians were reported killed by military forces in Nueva Trinidad and Chalatenango. On 10 March, some 5,000 peasants were fired at from helicopters and shelled as they fled the combat zone in San Esteban Catarina. In August, a military campaign of "pacification" in San Vicente reported 300 to 400 peasants killed. 46/ In late November, 5,000 soldiers took part in a 10-day counter-offensive in northern San Salvador. The Ministry of Defence reported at the end of the operation that four districts had been recovered, with 20 soldiers and 232 guerrilla fighters killed. 47/

On 31 August, the Comisión Nacional de Asistencia a la Población Desplazada (CONADES) reported that there were 226,744 internally displaced persons. By June of that year, the number of Salvadorian refugees in Latin American countries totalled between 175,000 and 295,000. 48/

The United States Embassy reported a total of 5,639 people killed, of whom 2,330 were civilians, 762 were members of the armed forces and 2,547 were members of the guerrilla forces. Christian Legal Aid reported that during the first eight months of 1982, there were a total of 3,059 political murders, "nearly all of them the result of action by Government agents against civilians not involved in military combat". 49/ The same source reported that the total number of civilian deaths in 1982 was 5,962. 50/

The death squads 51/ continued to operate with impunity in 1982. On 10 March, the Alianza Anticomunista de El Salvador published a list of 34 people who had been condemned to death for "discrediting the armed forces". Most of them were journalists. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, referring to the discovery of clandestine graves of death squad victims, reported that on 24 May the bodies of more than 150 people had been dumped at Puerta del Diablo, Panchimalco. 52/ On 27 May, the bodies of six members of the Christian Democratic Party were found at El Playón, another clandestine mass grave used by the death squads. 53/ President Duarte publicly denounced the extreme right wing, holding it responsible for the murder of hundreds of PDC members and mayors. Four Dutch journalists were killed on 17 March 1982 (see the case in chap. IV).

The Commission on the Truth received direct testimony concerning 1,145 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1982.


9/ The Asociación Nacional de Educadores Salvadoreños (ANDES) reported that in the period January-June 1981, 136 schoolteachers were executed. United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 1981.

10/ The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, quoting the United States Embassy, reported that the average number of political murders in El Salvador was approximately 300 a month in 1982. According to the Catholic Legal Aid Office, the figure was 500 a month. OAS-IACHR, Annual Report, 1981-1982, p. 121.

The Archbishop Oscar Romero Christian Legal Aid Office reported the following numbers of civilian victims:

1980: 11,903

1981: 16,266

1982: 5,962

Source: Central American Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), Los Derechos Humanos en El Salvador durante 1985, vol. II, José Simeón Cañas Central American University, San Salvador, 12 April 1986, p. 39.

11/ In September 1980, the house containing the office of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador was blown up. Damage was considerable and the bodies of three young people, showing signs of having been brutally tortured, were found at the front door of the office. OAS-IACHR, Annual Report, p. 124.

Attacks against the non-governmental Human Rights Commission were systematic during this period:

On 3 October 1980, Maria Magdalena Henríquez, press secretary of the Commission, was abducted by uniformed police. Her body was found later. On 25 October, Ramón Valladares, the Commission’s administrator, was murdered. On 4 December 1981, security forces abducted the Commission’s director, Carlos Eduardo Vides, who then disappeared. In August 1982, the Treasury Police abducted América Perdomo, Director of Public Relations, who also disappeared. On 16 March 1983, Marianela García Villas, the Commission’s President, was killed when a military patrol ambushed a group of displaced persons.

Americas Watch, El Salvador’s Decade of Terror. Human Rights since the Assassination of Archbishop Romero, Yale University Press, 1991, pp. 44-45, 144-148.

12/ According to Christian Legal Aid, 16,266 people, 7,916 of them peasants, were killed between January and December 1981.

Source: Archbishop Oscar Romero Christian Legal Aid Office. See Central American Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), Los Derechos Humanos en El Salvador durante 1985, San Salvador, April 1986, p. 41.

13/ On 11 November 1981, the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador reported that in recent months the bodies of over 400 people had been dumped at the place known as El Playón.

14/ The General Secretary of MNR, Guillermo Manuel Ungo, the Rector of the Central American University, Román Mayorga Quiroz, and businessman Mario Antonio Andino became part of the Junta. Colonels José Guillermo García and Nicolás Carranza were appointed Minister and Deputy Minister of Defence respectively. Other members of the cabinet included Salvador Samayoa (Education), Enrique Alvarez Córdoba (Agriculture), Colonel René Francisco Guerra y Guerra (Under-Secretary of the Interior), Héctor Dada Hirezi and Héctor Oquelí Colindres (Foreign Affairs).

15/ The Organización Democrática Nacionalista (ORDEN) was a civil defence body set up by General Medrano in the 1960s to keep an eye on the peasant population. It became one of the precursors of the death squads.

16/ The Agencia Nacional de Servicios Especiales de El Salvador (ANSESAL) was the State intelligence agency set up by General Medrano. Its last director was Colonel Santibañez. National Security Archives, El Salvador: The Making of US Policy, 1977-1984, Chadwick-Healey, Inc., Alexandria, VA, p. 73.

17/ The Bloque Popular Revolucionario was the largest coalition of organizations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was established in 1975 and the sectors represented in it included peasants (the Federación Cristiana de Campesinos Salvadoreños (FECCAS) and the Unión de Trabajadores del Campo (UTC)); teachers (the Asociación Nacional de Educadores de El Salvador (ANDES); shanty-town residents (the Unión de Pobladores de Tugurios (UPT); and students (the Movimiento Estudiantil Revolucionario de Secundaria (MERS)).

The Ligas Populares 28 de Febrero (LP-28) was a smaller, urban-based organization controlled by students. It took its name from the date - 28 February 1977 - when dozens of demonstrators were killed in protests denouncing electoral fraud in the elections in which General Carlos Humberto Romero became President.

The Frente Popular de Acción Unificada (FAPU), founded in 1974, was an organization composed of trade unions, student organizations, peasants and schoolteachers.

The Unión Democratíca Nacionalista (UDN), founded in 1969, was the legal mouthpiece of the banned Salvadorian Communist Party.

18/ By agreement between the Revolutionary Government Junta and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), the members who resigned were replaced on 10 January by PDC members Héctor Dada Hizeri and José Antonio Morales Elrich and independent José Ramón Avalos Navarrete.

19/ The Agrarian Reform Act decreed the expropriation of landholdings in excess of 1,250 acres. This affected some 372 landowners and a total of 625,000 acres of land. Approximately 85 per cent of the rural population were to benefit. To forestall a reaction by the landowners concerned, the Junta issued Decree No. 155 imposing a state of siege for 30 days.

National Security Archives, El Salvador: The Making of US Policy, 1977-1984, Janet Di Vicenzo, project editor, Chadwick-Healey, Inc., Alexandria, VA, 1984, p. 33.

20/ United States Embassy in El Salvador, cable 00837, 6 February 1980.

21/ In his last Sunday sermon, on 23 March, Monsignor Romero had said: "In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise up to Heaven more urgently with each day that passes, I beseech you, I beg you, I order you to stop the repression."

22/ United States Embassy in San Salvador, cable 02296, 31 March 1980. The Washington Post, 31 March 1980. Op. cit., National Security Archives, El Salvador: The Making of US Policy, 1977-1984, p. 34.

23/ National Guard Major and Director of ANSESAL until the 15 October coup, when he was forced to resign.

24/ On 12 May, Majano lost his influence when Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutiérrez, of the conservative wing, was appointed President of the Revolutionary Government Junta by the armed forces and, as such, became their Commander-in-Chief.

That same day, a communiqué from a group calling itself "death squad" was read out over the telephone to the press, demanding the release of Major D’Aubuisson and the others arrested at Santa Tecla and threatening to blow up any newspapers that did not publish the message. La Prensa Gráfica, 12 May 1980, p. 25.

25/ D’Aubuisson and the other detainees were never brought before the courts, despite the seriousness of the accusations about the death squads and the murder of Monsignor Romero.

26/ On 22 May, the Junta issued Decrees Nos. 264 and 265 amending the Code of Criminal Procedure. The first of these expanded the definition of terrorist activities and prohibited the occupation of public buildings, workplaces and religious establishments. The second decree prohibited bail for persons accused of or sentenced for political offences.

On 24 June, Decree No. 296 prohibited officials and employees of State bodies from taking part in strikes, and ordered immediate dismissal for anyone who promoted or organized work stoppages.

On 22 August, Decree No. 366 gave the executive branch the power to withdraw legal recognition from any State union for taking part in strikes or causing the interruption of essential public services.

On 3 December, the Junta issued Decree No. 507 giving military courts jurisdiction over political offences against the State.

27/ On 26 June 1980, after a national strike, the army and the National Guard attacked the National University, killing between 22 and 40 students and destroying facilities. The Rector of the University, Félix Antonio Ulloa, was assassinated on 29 October.

28/ Op. cit., National Security Archives, The Making of US Policy, 1977-1984, p. 35.

29/ After a brief period in detention, Majano went into exile in March 1981.

30/ The direct complaints received by the Commission on the Truth and referred to in this chronology concerned both parties to the conflict. Most complaints concerned violations committed by members of the armed forces or paramilitary organizations. Only those complaints which, in the Commission’s view, were sufficiently substantiated were processed (see annex 5).

31/ The victims were José Rodolfo Viera, President of ISTA, and two AIFLD agricultural advisers, Mark David Pearlman and Michael Hammer.

32/ On 27 December, during one of the first large-scale attacks launched by FMLN on military garrisons, Commander Fermán Cienfuegos of FARN announced that a final offensive would be launched before Reagan’s inauguration on 20 January 1981. Op. cit., National Security Archives, El Salvador: The Making of US Policy, p. 38.

33/ On 28 August 1981, a communiqué issued by the Governments of Mexico and France referred to FDR-FMLN as a representative political force for seeking a political solution to the conflict.

34/ On 14 January, in one of his last foreign policy measures, President Carter announced the sending of US$ 5 million in military aid to El Salvador. Among the reasons cited was evidence of Nicaraguan aid to the Salvadorian rebels. Op. cit., National Security Archives, El Salvador: The Making of US Policy, p. 34.

Not long after the Government of Ronald Reagan took office, the State Department sent a cable to the Embassy in San Salvador instructing it to inform the Duarte Government that the United States was planning to launch a diplomatic offensive the following week in Europe and Latin America to demonstrate Cuban and Nicaraguan involvement with the insurgents in El Salvador. Department of State (draft), 2/4/1981.

35/ Op. cit., Americas Watch, pp. 48-49 and 146.

36/ The Miami Herald, 23 August 1981. Op. cit, National Security Archives, p. 42.

37/ Christian Legal Aid, San Salvador, 1984 report.

38/ The breakdown of the Assembly by party was as follows:

Christian Democratic Party: 24 members

Alianza Republicana Nacionalista: 19 members

Partido de Conciliación Nacional: 14 members

Acción Democrática: 2 members

Partido Popular Salvadoreño: 1 member

39/ Decree No. 3 of the Constituent Assembly. The Decree also repealed Decree No. 114, containing the basic legal provisions governing the agrarian reform.

40/ Phase III of the agrarian reform was launched by Decree No. 207 of the Revolutionary Government Junta and enabled peasants who were leasing small plots of land to buy them and gain title to them with financial assistance from the Government. Op. cit, National Security Archives, p. 79.

41/ The New York Times, 7 February 1982.

Newly elected President Reagan, citing the attack on the Ilopango Base, also signed an Executive Order on 1 February authorizing $55 million in emergency military aid for El Salvador (see The Washington Post, 2 February 1982).

42/ According to statistics, acts of sabotage focused on means of transport (46 per cent), the electricity distribution and supply system (23.7 per cent) and roads and railways (5.7 per cent). During the first quarter of 1982, the following bridges were destroyed or damaged: 4 in Santa Ana, 1 in San Salvador, 3 in Usulután, 2 in San Miguel and 1 in Morazán. Centro Universitario de Documentación e Información, Proceso, Año 3, No. 98, February-April 1982.

43/ Op cit., United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 1982, p. 33. Armed Forces of El Salvador, National Police, Datos estadísticos sobre atentados dinamiteros, incendiarios y sabotajes diversos realizados por las diversas agrupaciones terroristas con el fin de destruir la economía nacional, San Salvador, 22 September 1982.

44/ United States Embassy in San Salvador (cable 02165), 3 March 1983.

45/ United States Embassy in San Salvador (cable 00437), 3 December 1982. The information also indicates that the armed forces troop strength was 31,757.

46/ Op cit., Americas Watch, 1991, pp. 146-147.

47/ The Washington Post, 28 December 1982.

48/ Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR Information, Central America, June 1982, No. 5.

49/ Op. cit., United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, p. 20.

50/ Central American Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), Los Derechos Humanos en El Salvador durante 1985, vol. II, José Simeón Cañas Central American University, San Salvador, 12 April 1986, p. 41.

51/ "Death squads" is a generic term referring to the modus operandi of such groups. They were used as instruments of terror and introduced the systematic practice of massive human rights violations.

52/ Op. cit., OAS-IACHR, Annual Report, 1981-1982, pp. 115-116.

53/ United Nations, Report of the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights, 22 November 1982, p. 24.