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El Salvador-Officer Corps Dynamics

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El Salvador Index


Salvadoran Army officer and soldier
Courtesy United States Department of Defense

In the Salvadoran officer corps, personal ties and political orientation have traditionally been more important than military competence. The 1948 revolution institutionalized a caste-like "old-boy network" within the army by bringing to power a tanda, or military academy graduating class, for the first time. Henceforth, the members of each tanda traditionally were bound to lifelong loyalty to one another. A tanda formed a tight clique, with its members taking their first commands in the expectation that they would one day be running the country. A tanda was important throughout an officer's career, which by law could last thirty years. Tanda loyalty counted more than political or personal differences. The importance of a tanda increased with seniority, as its leaders moved up into positions of power and wealth. Members of one tanda often formed alliances with those of another, although, as Richard L. Millett has observed, not with the class one year ahead that had mistreated them during their first year, nor with the class one year behind that they had themselves harassed.

The 1963 tanda of D'Aubuisson, a former army and GN intelligence officer and an ultraconservative politician, dominated the army in the early 1980s. His tanda held eleven of the top twenty field commands, controlling four of the country's six infantry brigades, four of its seven regional garrisons, the artillery brigade, and the mechanized cavalry battalion. D'Aubuisson carefully cultivated this network. Merely having classmates in so many key positions did not mean, however, that he had their automatic support. Many of his classmates were opposed to his extreme political viewpoint. The importance of D'Aubuisson's tanda connections lay in the entree they gave him into the cuarteles (barracks), where he also had the support of a number of junior officers.

Some observers believed that the tanda system was declining in importance by the mid-1980s because the much larger class sizes and the smaller amount of time that classmates were together were not conducive to developing strong bonds. The emergence in the late 1980s of the forty-six member tandona of 1966 appeared to contradict that view, however. The so-called reformist members of the tandona who played significant roles in the political system in the late 1970s and early 1980s included Defense Minister Garcia, his deputy Carranza, and the PN head, Colonel Lopez Nuila. These officers advocated a hard line against the opposition.

The promotion, transfer, or retirement of at least thirty senior officers in early July 1988 marked the start of the ascension of the tandona to command posts. As a result of the changes--in which younger, more conservative officers replaced those more closely identified with President Duarte--the tandona held five of the six prestigious infantry brigade commands; controlled five of the seven military detachments, the three security forces, and the intelligence, operations, and personnel posts in the High Command; and occupied numerous other key slots. The leading member of the tandona, Colonel Ponce, was promoted to the position of chief of the Joint General Staff in November 1988 and thus assumed the counterinsurgency command. Although most of the top hierarchy was expected to be replaced by March 1989, tandona members were moving into the top posts slowly because the traditional seniority rule did not allow them to displace officers who had graduated before them. The sweeping command changes, however, angered many younger officers, who viewed the colonels' unusual consolidation of control as a power grab that blocked others' chances for promotion. Officers above and below the tandona bitterly resented it because of its size and influence.

Data as of November 1988

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