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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)





Violations of life, physical integrity and security continued to occur in urban centres. The number of violations fell but was accompanied by greater selectivity. In 1982, 5,962 people died at the hands of government forces; by 1985 the number had fallen to 1,655. 54/

There began to be a marked decrease in the activities of the death squads. During a visit to El Salvador, in December 1983, Vice-President Bush publicly condemned the death squads. He demanded the removal of certain armed forces and security officers who were associated with human rights violations. The visit demonstrated that United States diplomatic pressure could bring about a reduction in the number of violations.

FMLN strengthened its structure and demonstrated strength in the military sphere. It carried out large-scale operations and exercised territorial control, albeit temporarily, in various parts of the country. In 1985, it began to use mines indiscriminately, causing many deaths among the civilian population. An intensive campaign for the destruction of economic targets unfolded, resulting in major property damage. Hostage-taking and murder, particularly of town mayors and government officials in areas of, or close to, the conflict became commonplace. The guerrillas sought thus to demonstrate, both within and outside the country, the existence of a "duality of power" in El Salvador.

During this phase, the military development of the war caused the armed forces to view the civilian population in the areas of conflict as "legitimate targets for attack". Indiscriminate aerial bombings, massive artillery attacks and infantry advances were carried out, all of which resulted in massacres and the destruction of communities in an effort to deprive the guerrillas of all means of survival. Because of the systematic use of this tactic by the armed forces, in violation of human rights, this phase was characterized by vast numbers of displaced persons and refugees. By 1984, there were reported to be 500,000 displaced persons within the country 55/ and 245,500 Salvadorian refugees abroad, bringing the total number of displaced persons to approximately one and a half million. Following much international criticism, the armed forces cut back on the use of air attacks against the civilian population.


On 4 May, the Constituent Assembly passed an Amnesty Law for civilians involved in political offences. 56/ In November, it was agreed that the presidential elections, originally scheduled for December 1983, would be held on 25 March 1984. On 15 December, following 20 months of debate, the new Constitution was approved. 57/

Talks began between the Government and FDR-FMLN, although no positive results were achieved. Delegations from both sides met on 29 and 30 August in San José, Costa Rica, and on 29 September in Bogotá, under the auspices of the Presidents of the Contadora Group. 58/ On 7 October, President Magaña announced that the next round of talks had been cancelled, citing the refusal by FMLN to participate in elections. That same day, Víctor Manuel Quintanilla, the senior FDR representative residing in El Salvador, was found dead, together with three other persons. The Brigada Anticomunista Maximiliano Hernández Martínez claimed responsibility. 59/

FMLN continued its campaign of economic sabotage and its escalation of large-scale military actions. Between 15 and 18 January, the guerrillas launched an offensive and temporarily occupied towns in Morazán. On 29 January, in a similar action, FMLN occupied Berlín, a city of 35,000 inhabitants, for a period of three days, destroying the Police and the National Guard headquarters. For its part, the Government responded with a large-scale counter-offensive. Some days later, Monsignor Rivera y Damas accused the armed forces of being responsible for the high number of civilians killed - estimated at between 50 and 170 - and the property damage caused. On 22 February, uniformed soldiers kidnapped and summarily executed a group of peasants from a cooperative at Las Hojas, Sonsonate; the number of dead was estimated at 70 (see this case in chap. IV). On 16 March, Marianela García Villas, President of the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (non-governmental) was executed by security forces. 60/

Between January and June, there were 37 large-scale military operations by government forces. On 25-26 September, FMLN attacked army positions in Tenancingo, and A-37 aircraft responded with aerial bombings; some 100 civilians were killed in this operation. 61/ In November, troops from Atlacatl Battalion invaded an area close to Lake Suchitlán under rebel control, and 118 people were reported killed as a result of the action. 62/ Towards the end of the year, FMLN embarked on its biggest military action against El Paraíso military base in Chalatenango; it is estimated that more than 100 soldiers were killed in the attack. On 25 May, the Clara Elizabeth Ramírez urban unit of FPL executed Marine Colonel Albert Schaufelberger, the second-ranking officer among the 55 United States military advisers in El Salvador. 63/

On 6 April, Mélida Amaya Montes (Commander Ana María), the second in command of FPL, was murdered in Managua. A few days later, on learning that a close collaborator of his had committed the crime, Salvador Cayetano Carpio, founder and leader of the majority faction of FMLN, committed suicide.

In 1983, the death squads continued operating; a high proportion of those murdered were leaders of the political opposition, trade union leaders, educators and church officials. According to a State Department briefing, death squad activities picked up again in May, and they became very active in October and November, primarily as a result of the continuing, though limited, dialogue between the Peace Commission and the left. 64/

On 1 November, the Brigada Anticomunista Maximiliano Hernández Martínez issued a death threat to Bishops Rivera y Damas and Rosas Chávez, warning them "to desist immediately from their disruptive sermons". In his farewell message, Ambassador Hinton referred to this event saying that he had never been able to understand the private sector’s silence with regard to the activities of the death squads. 65/

On 4 November, the new Ambassador, Thomas Pickering, referred to the pressure being put on the Government of El Salvador to take action against the leaders of the death squads, mentioning, inter alia, Héctor Regalado, Chief of Security of the Constituent Assembly; Major José Ricardo Pozo, Chief of Intelligence of the Treasury Police; Lieutenant Colonel Arístides Alfonso Márquez, Chief of Intelligence of the National Police and Colonels Denis Morán, Elmer Araujo González and Miguel Alfredo Vasconcelos. 66/

The most important event in this respect was the visit by the Vice-President of the United States, George Bush, to San Salvador on 9 December. Bush took the opportunity to state publicly that the death squads must disappear because they constituted a threat to the political stability of the Government. Later on he handed the Government a list of civilian and military personnel suspected of belonging to those clandestine organizations. 67/ From that time on there was a significant decrease in the activities of the squads and several government bodies announced that they planned to conduct investigations into the matter. 68/

On 25 December, Monsignor Gregorio Rosas Chávez reported that 6,096 Salvadorians had died in 1983 as a result of political violence. The number of people killed by the army and the death squads was 4,700; the number of army and security forces personnel killed was 1,300. 69/

In the interior of the country, the number of displaced persons climbed to 400,000; this, added to the approximately 500,000 Salvadorians which UNHCR estimated to be in the United States and the 200,000 in Mexico and Central America, represented 20 per cent of the country’s total population. 70/

In his annual report, the Special Representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, José Antonio Pastor Ridruejo, said:

"... the number of civilians murdered for political reasons in El Salvador continues to be very high. This is, unfortunately, the feature of the human rights situation ... which causes the greatest concern." 71/

The Commission on the Truth received direct testimony concerning 513 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1983.


PDC placed first in the March 1984 elections, with 43.41 per cent of the vote, followed by ARENA, with 29.76 per cent, and PCN, with 20 per cent. Since no party had obtained an absolute majority, a second round of balloting was held on 6 May between the two parties that placed highest. José Napoleón Duarte won 53.6 per cent and the ARENA candidate, Roberto D’Aubuisson, won 46.4 per cent. Duarte took office on 1 June and became the first civilian to be elected President in 50 years.

The trial of the members of the National Guard accused of murdering the American churchwomen in December 1980 was held during the interval between the elections and the time Duarte took office. The Government and institutions of the United States brought strong pressure to bear on the proceedings, for the United States Congress was considering emergency assistance to El Salvador. On 23 May, after finding them guilty, Judge Bernardo Rauda Murcia sentenced the five members of the National Guard to 30 years in prison. 72/

In October, President Duarte invited FMLN to talks. The meeting took place in La Palma, Chalatenango, on 15 October and was followed by a further meeting on 30 November in Ayagualo, La Libertad. Neither meeting was a success because of the positions taken regarding the conditions of a possible incorporation of FMLN into political life. 73/

As the war proceeded there was a decrease in the number of political murders but, at the same time, acts of war increased, as manifested by countless confrontations, acts of economic sabotage 74/ and massive counter-insurgency operations by the military in conflict zones. 75/

On 23 October, the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) tricked Colonel Domingo Monterosa, Commander of the Third Infantry Brigade, into locating and seizing what was thought to be the Radio Venceremos transmission centre. An explosive device which had been planted in the transmitter exploded while the unit was being transported by helicopter. The Colonel and those accompanying him were killed.

Despite indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on the civilian population, the number of air attacks on the population dropped. At the same time, there was a marked decrease in the activities of death squads during the first months of the year. 76/ In April, however, Legal Protection reported that murders by death squads were on the increase again, following a two-month lull. 77/

In a document issued in September, Legal Aid reported that, during the first eight months of 1984, the number of civilian deaths attributed to the army, security forces and death squads came to 1,965. In his annual report, the Special Representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights stated that "... the persistence of civilian deaths in or as a result of combat weakens the favourable impression created by a decline in the number of political murders in non-combat situations." 78/

The Commission on the Truth received direct testimony concerning 290 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1984.


Elections for the Legislative Assembly and the municipalities were held on 31 March and the Christian Democrats won. The loss of relative political control by ARENA led to a process of internal realignments which culminated, on 29 September, in the election of Alfredo Cristiani as President of the National Executive Committee of that party.

In the course of the year, the dialogue process remained at a standstill, because of the non-acceptance of the proposal that talks should continue without publicity so that the peacemaking effort might progress.

There was a marked stepping up of violence in military confrontations and operations in the areas where guerrillas were active. At the same time, FMLN had been carrying out a series of abductions and summary executions. 79/ The action having the greatest consequences was the attack carried out on 19 June, on a restaurant in the Zona Rosa in San Salvador, by the Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores Centroamericanos (PRTC). Four United States Marines from the United States Embassy were killed in the attack, together with nine civilians (see this case in chap. IV).

During 1985, FMLN carried out a series of abductions of mayors and municipal officials and, by September, 20 mayors had been abducted. The army captured Nidia Díaz, Commander of PRTC, in combat and Commander Miguel Castellanos deserted (see the case in chap. IV).

FMLN abducted President Duarte’s daughter. 80/ Following several weeks of negotiation with the mediation of the church and foreign Governments, FMLN exchanged Inés Guadalupe Duarte and 22 mayors for Nidia Díaz and a group of 21 leaders; 101 war-wounded FMLN combatants left the country.

FMLN began to make widespread tactical use of mines in areas under its influence. As a result of this practice, a great many civilians were killed or maimed. Legal Protection put the number of persons killed by mines in 1985 at 31 and the Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (governmental) reported 46 people killed and 100 injured as a result of contact mines. 81/

No large-scale collective executions were carried out during the numerous military counter-insurgency operations. However, there were intensive aerial bombings and mass displacement of the peasant population in rural areas. 82/ Christian Legal Aid put the number of civilian non-combatant deaths attributable to government forces at 1,655. 83/ Legal Protection put the number of dead at 371. 84/

Death squad activity continued in 1985. Legal Protection cited 136 murders by death squads, as against 39 during the latter half of 1984. At the same time the Ejército Secreto Anticomunista (ESA) issued death threats to 11 members of the University of El Salvador and 9 of those threatened went into exile. Major D’Aubuisson, commenting on the squads, pointed out that they "had been operating in El Salvador since 1969, when the terrorist groups of the Communist Party were formed". 85/

Different sources cited different figures for the number of persons injured and killed as a result of the fighting. The actual number was probably around 2,000. 86/

The Commission on the Truth received testimony concerning 141 victims of acts of serious violence occurring in 1985.


The process of political dialogue on resolving the conflict remained deadlocked because of the radicalization of the parties. The war had a negative impact on production, and the process of recovery was slow. President Duarte adopted a programme of stabilization and reactivation of the economy; at the same time protests increased and the crisis deepened.

The Unión Nacional de los Trabajadores Salvadoreños (UNTS) and the Unión Nacional Obrero-Campesina (UNOC) began to act, organizing protests and popular demonstrations. They put forward economic demands and called for a dialogue between the Government and FMLN-FDR. UNTS and the Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios (FEUS), as well as other organizations, held three major protest demonstrations. In January, so-called "Operation Phoenix" began with the objective of regaining the Guazapa area from FMLN control. This operation continued throughout the year.

Vast numbers of people were displaced from their places of origin when they fled the counter-insurgency operations. Those affected established the Coordinadora Nacional de la Repoblación (CNR), which sought to regain the right of the civilian population to live in the areas from which they had come. These resettlement movements had the backing of the Church.

President Napoleón Duarte proposed a new peace plan which FMLN rejected because the Salvadorian guerrilla movement refused to be compared to the Nicaraguan rebels. 87/ Throughout the year, President Duarte pressed for the convening of talks and the international community did likewise, in an effort to bring peace to the region. In June, after a second attempt to sign the Central American peace agreement failed, 13 Latin American nations made one final attempt to save the Contadora peace process. 88/ In September, President Duarte again proposed talks with FMLN-FDR in Sesori, San Miguel, but the guerrillas did not attend.

The violence continued. The counter-insurgency operations and repressive measures of the State security forces produced casualties as did abductions, summary executions, attacks on mayors’ offices and the laying of mines by FMLN. The activity of the death squads continued and the Ejército Salvadoreño de Salvación was born. In October, an earthquake in San Salvador caused hundreds of casualties and considerable property damage. A state of emergency was declared.

The Commission on the Truth received testimony concerning a total of 155 victims of serious acts of violence occurring in 1986.


54/ Archbishop Oscar Romero Christian Legal Aid Víctimas de la Población Civil desde 1977 hasta 1985, February 1986 (mimeo).

55/ Op. cit., Americas Watch, 1991, p. 108.

56/ Decree 210 of the Constituent Assembly referred to the Amnesty and Citizen Rehabilitation Act presented by the President of the Republic; 533 political prisoners were freed by 24 June. The Act also granted amnesty to any rebel who abandoned the armed struggle before 4 July.

57/ The Constitution contained 247 articles and provided for greater control over presidential power. It also reduced the impact of the land reform on landowners. According to a report issued in December by United States labour advisers, only 57,000 of the 117,000 who were eligible to benefit from the reform had exercised their right to purchase up to 17.5 acres of land which they were leasing; more than 10 per cent of those who did exercise that right were either displaced or murdered. The New York Times, 28 December 1983.

58/ The Government was represented by the Salvadorian Peace Commission set up by the Apaneca Pact. Possible participation of the rebels in presidential elections was one of the main issues discussed. The talks failed because FDR-FMLN rejected the conditions of the Peace Commission.

59/ The other bodies were identified as those of Santiago Hernández Jiménez, Secretary-General of FUSS, who disappeared on 25 September, José Antonio García Vázquez and Dr. Dora Muñoz Castillo. La Prensa Gráfica, "El conflicto en El Salvador", second edition, 1983.

60/ Op. cit., Americas Watch, 1991, p. 148.

61/ Op. cit., Americas Watch, 1991, p. 148. The Miami Herald, 1 October 1983.

62/ According to newspaper reports, a group of 20 women and children were surrounded in a dwelling and executed. Another 30 people drowned in Lake Suchitlán while being shot at by soldiers. Op. cit., Americas Watch, 1991, p. 148. The Christian Science Monitor, 21 November 1983.

63/ Congress had set the ceiling on the number of advisers at 55. Starting in June 1983, a contingent of 130 Green Berets stationed in Honduras began training a first group of 2,400 Salvadorian soldiers in anti-guerrilla tactics.

64/ Department of State press briefing, 29 November 1983.

65/ United States Embassy, San Salvador (06349), 18 July 1983.

66/ The New York Times, 5 and 19 November 1983, quoted in op. cit., National Security Archives, pp. 64-65.

67/ United States Embassy, San Salvador (11503), 12 December 1983, The New York Times, 15 December 1983.

68/ On 14 December, the High Command ordered all security forces to look into the existence of the death squads. On 19 December, Captain Eduardo Ernesto Alfonso Avila was arrested on orders of the High Command on suspicion of having participated in the murder of the United States advisers in the Sheraton case. On 21 December, Colonel Nicolás Carranza, Director of the Treasury Police, announced that his forces had captured one member of a squad, though no name was given. La Prensa Gráfica, "El Conflicto en El Salvador", second edition, 1983, pp. 61-62.

69/ The Los Angeles Times, 27 December 1983.

70/ Op. cit., the National Security Archives, p. 63.

71/ Report of the Special Representative, 22 November 1983 (A/38/503).

72/ The following day the House of Representatives approved $67.75 million in emergency aid to El Salvador. Op. cit., the National Security Archives, p. 72.

73/ President Duarte offered to grant amnesty to FMLN and to recognize it so that it could participate as a political party in the elections, if it agreed to lay down its arms. FMLN responded with a counterproposal that would have involved its participating in a provisional Government that would call elections and would reorganize the armed forces. Op. cit., Americas Watch, 1991, p. 12.

74/ On 1 January, the rebels blew up Cuscatlán bridge, the longest in the country, connecting the eastern and western regions. On several occasions, the northern and eastern areas of the country were left without electricity as a result of continuing acts of sabotage. On 21 June, FMLN attacked and occupied the Cerrón Grande hydroelectric power station, leaving 120 people dead. On 30 July, following a number of attacks involving dynamite, train service in the country was suspended. Towards the end of the year, it was reported that FMLN attacks on the economic infrastructure had cost the country 238 million colones. Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, "El Conflicto en El Salvador", 1984.

75/ Between 17 and 22 July, 68 civilians were executed by army troops during a military operation in Los Llanitos, Cabañas. Between 28 and 30 August a further military operation by the Atlacatl Battalion in Las Vueltas, Chalatenango, resulted in the massacre of some 50 civilians on the banks of the Guaslinga river. Op. cit., Americas Watch, 1991, p. 148.

76/ According to a cable from the United States Embassy, no murder had been attributed to any known death squad since the end of 1983. United States Embassy, San Salvador (02547), 8 March 1984.

77/ Op. cit., the National Security Archives, p. 70.

78/ Report on the situation of human rights in El Salvador (A/39/636), 9 November 1984.

79/ On 7 March, Lt. Col. Ricardo Arístides Cienfuegos, Head of COPREFA, was executed. On 23 March, General José Alberto Medrano, former Director of the National Guard and founder of ORDEN and ANSESAL, was murdered. On 17 May, Mr. José Rodolfo Araujo Baños, military judge of the Court of First Instance, was killed in an attack. Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, "El Conflicto en El Salvador", p. 81.

80/ Inés Guadalupe Duarte Durán was abducted, together with her friend, Ana Cecilia Villeda. On the 16th, an organization calling itself Frente Pablo Castillo claimed responsibility for the abduction. Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, "El Conflicto en El Salvador", p. 81.

81/ Op. cit., Central American Human Rights Institute (IDHUCA), Los derechos humanos en El Salvador durante el año 1985, fascicle II, pp. 79-81.

82/ In a letter dated October 1985 to Monsignor Rivera y Damas, the population of Suchitoto reported that the following damage had occurred between May and October 1985: 39 bombings, 4 landings, 32 machine-gunnings, 28 raids, 252 captures, 26 dead, 9 wounded, 28 houses destroyed, 41 manzanas (approximately 25 hectares) of farmland and considerable quantities of corn destroyed. Op. cit., IDHUCA, Los derechos humanos en El Salvador durante el año 1985, fascicle II, p. 43.

83/ Op. cit, IDHUCA, Los derechos humanos en El Salvador durante el año 1985, fascicle II, p. 39.

84/ This list refers only to cases for which testimony from survivors has been received. Op. cit., IDHUCA, Los derechos humanos en El Salvador ..., p. 67.

85/ Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica "El Conflicto en El Salvador", p. 76.

86/ The figures given by the various sources are as follows: Legal Protection: 3,306; Legal Aid: 1,714; Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (non-governmental): 1,995; Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (governmental): 1,810; and United States Embassy: 1,855. Op. cit., IDHUCA, Los derechos humanos en El Salvador ..., p. 36.

87/ Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, "El Conflicto en El Salvador", p. 86.

88/ Op. cit., La Prensa Gráfica, p. 85.