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El Salvador-Right-Wing Extremism

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El Salvador Index


The death squads that became active in the late 1970s had their historical roots in El Salvador's three security forces, which often functioned as a law unto themselves. Each security service had its own special unit charged with assassinating suspected "subversives." The PH's intelligence section, the S-2, in particular was persistently linked to the political killings and kidnappings that became commonplace in the 1970s and early 1980s. Immediately after being appointed PH director general in 1984, Golcher disbanded the S-2 unit. Within six months, he had replaced it with a new forty-member police force trained by the PN in intelligence work.

The extreme right responded to the left-wing terrorism of the 1970s and the growing militancy of the popular (or mass) organizations in a violent fashion. Paramilitary forces--first Orden, later civil defense--supplemented the military establishment. Ultra-rightists within the military, security forces, and oligarchy also organized death squads to eliminate leftist activists and sympathizers and to deter popular support through intimidation. Analysts generally agreed that right-wing death squads--often composed of active-duty military or security force personnel operating with the complicity of some senior officers of the armed forces--were responsible for thousands of murders in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, the regime's security forces themselves became increasingly violent.

Orden supplied recruits for the notorious White Hand (Mano Blanca), the death squad that Medrano organized in the late 1970s. Medrano's protege, D'Aubuisson, reportedly helped organize the White Warriors Union (Union de Guerreros Blancos--UGB), a group of death squads that emerged in early 1977 and became known for their terrorism against the Jesuit community working in El Salvador. Some military officers, particularly in the GN, privately supported and facilitated death squad killings during the Romero regime. The UGB reportedly was associated with the GN's intelligence branch (the G-2).

Extreme rightist political factions viewed the death squads as legitimate "counterterrorists" against the leftist guerrillas, and they did in fact do serious damage to the FMLN's urban base by 1982. In 1983, however, the death squads were used to challenge directly the influence of the United States in El Salvador. They forced at least one American journalist out of the country, threatened a prominent labor leader supported by the United States embassy, and even threatened to assassinate United States ambassador Thomas Pickering. Other death squad victims included bureaucrats and office workers, labor organizers, professionals, politicians, priests, and even soldiers.

Right-wing terrorism crested during the 1980-82 period. At the peak of the violence in late 1980, the monthly toll of politically motivated murders ran between 700 and 800. In the most publicized political assassination of this period, suspected rightists shot Archbishop Romero--an outspoken advocate of dialogue with the popular organizations and a critic of military repression--while he was saying mass on March 24, 1980 (see The Role of Religion , ch. 2). An extreme right-wing group calling itself the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade claimed responsibility for several assassinations of Christian democratic and Marxist leaders in San Salvador in 1980. Four churchwomen from the United States were murdered in December 1980. Several army officers were linked to the submachine gun killings of two land reform advisers of the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) in San Salvador's Sheraton Hotel on January 3, 1981, an act that was carried out by two GN corporals. After the cut-off of United States aid over the murders of the churchwomen, the Christian Democrats in the government were able to remove from command positions several key ultra-rightists, including Carranza, the deputy minister of defense and public security.

Data as of November 1988

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