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El Salvador-Counterinsurgency Tactics

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El Salvador Index




Army civic action program, El Paisnal, San Salvador Department
Courtesy Ana B. Montes

Initially, the army used conventional warfare tactics against the insurgents. It typically would rely on massive frontal assaults or sweeps against guerrilla positions. These operations were less risky than the small-unit tactics urged by United States advisers but were ineffective against the more mobile guerrilla units, which easily evaded the army forces. At nightfall, the army invariably returned to the safety of its garrisons instead of pursuing the insurgents. Although army troops sometimes retook towns previously held by guerrillas, the army usually withdrew after a short stay, and FMLN forces returned.

United States military assistance helped to transform the army into a more capable force. During the second part of 1982, the Salvadoran government began deploying United States-trained and United Statesd-equipped "hunter" counterinsurgency battalions, consisting of 220 members. "Hunter" tactics called for operations in highly mobile small units, carrying out night patrolling and night attacks in place of the army's ineffective massed assaults.

The army was slow to adopt these new tactics and largely continued to conduct the war in a lackadaisical manner. It responded to attacks by much larger FMLN units in 1983 by abandoning the United States-inspired concept of the "hunter" battalions. It replaced them with the 580-man Antiterrorist Infantry Battalions (Batallones de Infanteria Antiterrorista-- BIAT) and 390-man Countersubversion Infantry Battalions (Batallones de Infanteria para Contrasubversion--BIC). Again, the guerrillas easily evaded these slow-moving forces in the field.

Badly needed organizational changes resulted from the May 1983 replacement of General Garcia by Vides. Within weeks, Vides's new chief of staff of the armed forces, Colonel Blandon, implemented United States-style organization and tactics in key combat units, adopting new counterinsurgency objectives of denying the guerrillas sanctuary, movement, and supplies. He also announced a 20 percent increase in troop strength for 1984 to bring the army's force level to 30,000. Blandon adopted more aggressive actions using small, air-mobile combat units. These moves turned the war in the army's favor, but subsequent adjustments by the FMLN frustrated government forces and again stalemated the conflict.

In mid-1983 the army also launched a United States-designed and United States-funded pacification program consisting of military sweeps followed by civic action programs designed to reduce political violence. The army plan was to coordinate military operations in two eastern departments with governmentsponsored economic development of the area and to establish local civil defense and social improvement programs. The persistent army presence, it was thought, would keep the guerrillas on the move and isolate them from the civilian population. The first phase of the program, called Operation Well-Being (Operacion Bienestar), focused on San Vicente and Usulutan departments, where guerrilla forces were particularly active. The program called for the organization of paramilitary networks and their integration into the counterinsurgency operations of the regular army and security forces. The army stationed 4,000 troops in central San Vicente Department with the objectives of forcing guerrilla units out of their bases in the northern sector and then establishing a buffer zone defended mainly by civil defense units.

In September 1984, Colonel Ochoa, then commander of the Fourth Infantry Brigade in Chalatenango Department, attempted a similar campaign to clear guerrillas from the two northern departments of Chalatenango and Cabanas. Villagers, however, believing their safety depended on remaining neutral, were uncooperative. By the end of 1985, the campaign had failed, largely because the guerrilla forces easily evaded the army troops and then frustrated implementation of civic action programs.

Frustrated at its failure to defeat the FMLN after five years of fighting, the army reportedly turned increasingly to the forced relocation of the rebels' civilian supporters, particularly in the Guazapa Volcano area some twenty kilometers north of San Salvador, in northern Chalatenango Department, and in the eastern departments. The Ministry of Interior's National Commission to Assist the Displaced Persons of El Salvador (Comision Nacional de Asistencia a los Desplazadas de El Salvador--Conades) reported in July 1985 that 412,000 of El Salvador's population of about 5 million had been displaced from their homes by the war since 1981. According to some estimates, an additional 500,000 had left the country altogether. Although army officers suggested that the government's main concern was to deprive the rebels of political and logistical support, Duarte claimed that the new policy was designed to ensure the safety of civilians.

In October 1986, Blandon introduced a second United Statesfinanced pacification plan, United to Rebuild (Unidos para Reconstruir). In addition to giving the military control over repopulation and reconstruction programs nationwide, it contained a public relations element that gave the military the potential to build a popular support base of its own. Although intended to reassert army control and begin economic recuperation in war-torn areas, it too failed as a result of a lack of resources, incompetence in its implementation, and insufficient cooperation from the population.

By mid-1988, according to some observers, the army had become burdened by conventional tactics, mediocre officers, overreliance on air power, and the need to defend against economic sabotage. For example, fully a third of the government's troops were tied down guarding bridges, electrical plants, and other economic targets.

That fall Colonel Ponce launched a new counterinsurgency campaign in rebel territory. Designed without the assistance of United States military advisers, it relied heavily on night patrols by fifteen-man groups of highly trained commandos. It also took a new approach to civic action efforts. Instead of merely handing out supplies to villagers, the new campaign, called United to Work (Unidos para Trabajar), put greater emphasis on forcibly evicting left-wing community groups and replacing them with new organizations responsible for allocating army donations of food and medicine. The army imposed two main conditions for this aid: that the village establish a civil defense unit and that it make its young men available for conscription. The army's civic-action efforts were not reassuring, however, to more than 7,000 Salvadoran refugees who had returned from Honduran camps since the previous October to abandoned villages in northern El Salvador. Suspicious of the returning Salvadorans, the army prevented church and other outside relief workers from delivering supplies to them.

Data as of November 1988

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