The "Salvador Boys"
by Mark Cook
CovertAction Quarterly, Fall / Winter 1999
The Colombian weekly Semana took note in its August 23,1999,
edition of the remarkable number of U.S. veterans of the war in
El Salvador in the 1980s who have turned their attention to Colombia.
U S Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas
Pickering, who, as ambassador to El Salvador in 1984, justified
the widespread killing of civilians by the Salvadoran army on
the grounds that the civilians were masas (i e, part of the mass
social base of the insurgent FMLN) and were therefore "somewhat
more than innocent civilian bystanders."
Even the establishment human rights organization Americas
Watch was flabbergasted, and pointed out that the U.S. State Department
had condemned the bombing of civilian populations in the strongest
terms only a few months earlier. However, Americas Watch noted,
the State Department was speaking of Afghanistan, not El Salvador.
"When it comes to El Salvador, the State Department has
an entire]y different attitude," the Watch committee noted,
and quoted from Pickering's February 25, 1984, cable, which was
widely circulated in Congress and among right-wing columnists.
Pickering went on to jobs as ambassador to Israel, the United
Nations and Russia, where he was serving when President Boris
Yeltsin's military supporters drew up tanks to open fire on the
democratically elected parliament, with parliamentarians and staff
inside. Deaths were reported in the hundreds (according to some
reports, over 1,000). U.S. authorities and the transnational media
applauded the action as another advance for democracy.
Assistant Secretary of State Peter Romero, who worked on the
"peace process" in El Salvador. Like Pickering, he believes
that the "Salvador solution" can be the model for Colombia.
Romero was most recently in the news for proposing to the
Organization of American States the establishment of a "group
of friendly countries" linked economically and politically
which could intervene in internal conflicts in Latin American
countries as they saw fit. Romero called the proposal "preventive
diplomacy" The OAS rejected the U.S. bid, calling it paternalistic
and questioning who would decide if a crisis was serious enough
to warrant intervention. U.S. diplomats intend to reintroduce
the proposal next year.
General Charles Wilhelm, former military attaché in
the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, now head of the U.S. military
Southern Command, or SouthCom, which has responsibility for the
Caribbean and all of Latin America. As Nikolas Kozloff has noted
in a report on SouthCom, Wilhelm has acquired a reputation for
associating with the most murderous elements of the Colombian
army high command. One of them, General Harold Bedoya, was even
forced to resign by the Colombian government because of such extreme
human rights violations. "We took Bedoya out because of human
rights," former Colombian President Ernesto Samper told Human
As Kozloff reports, General Wilhelm has been leading efforts
to "protect" Panama from Colombian guerrillas and drug
traffickers. According to the June 24, 1999, Miami Herald, the
Panamanian government rejected U.S. intervention along the Panama-Colombia
border to guarantee the security of the Panama Canal, qualifying
as "inadmissible" a suggestion made to that effect by
General Wilhelm. (Canal protection is the only grounds for intervention
in Panama by U.S. troops, according to the Canal Treaty ) Panamanian
Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter told reporters that his country
rejects as "unacceptable" statements made before the
U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in which Wilhelm suggested
that the threat of drug trafficking and incursions by Colombian
guerrillas could warrant U.S. intervention in Panama. It is "inadmissible"
to cite the drug trade and problems along Panama's border with
Colombia to suggest that the Canal is in danger, Ritter said.
Andrew Messing, former commander of Green Beret Special Forces
in El Salvador, is now director of the National Defense Council,
an NGO pressing for more military aid and which, according to
Semana, advises right-wing Republican Congress members Dan Burton
and Benjamin Gilman on helicopters for Colombia.
Douglas Farah, Washington Post correspondent in Colombia,
previously worked in El Salvador and Nicaragua. His work in Nicaragua,
after the Sandinistas handed over power to the Chamorro government,
concentrated on depicting the Sandinistas and the Salvadoran FMLN
as international terrorists. He sought to imply, with deliberate
dishonesty that the Sandinistas were involved in the World Trade
Center bombing. He also gave sympathetic treatment to the idea
of overthrowing Violeta Chamorro, normally lauded as a savior
in the U.S. imperial media, because she was failing to live up
to what Washington expected of her.
James LeMoyne, former reporter for the New York Times, whose
record of disinformation was so extreme that it finally discredited
him as a journalist. LeMoyne is now a U.N. official advising that
organization on the Colombian peace process.
While at the Times, LeMoyne attempted to turn an unsuccessful
contra attack on the Nicaraguan mining town of Siuna into a spectacular
contra victory (thereby depicting the contras as capable of taking
a town; their failure to do so had been jeopardizing their funding
from Congressmembers unconcerned about the morality of arming
the contras but worried that they were throwing money down a rathole).
LeMoyne also ran a fabricated story of Salvadorans found murdered,
with their voter registration cards stuffed in their mouths; this
was presented as evidence that the FMLN was terrorizing people
to keep them from voting. The story had come from a San Salvador
newspaper connected to the Salvadoran army and turned out to be
In another murder case, this time a real one, LeMoyne conducted
an interview with a prisoner being held incommunicado by the Salvadoran
authorities, who "admitted" that he had killed Herbert
Anaya, a prominent human rights activist, on orders from the FMLN.
The prisoner repudiated his confession, which Anaya's family quickly
had declared to be absurd, but which LeMoyne had treated as credible.
Anaya's family noted that they had seen a group of National Police
200 meters from the family's house, and that the FMLN would not
have attacked so close to the police. In his own defense, LeMoyne
later protested that the Washington Post had also conducted the
incommunicado interview with the prisoner.
Among these civil servants of the Empire, bitter divisions
continue over Colombia policy, not over ends but means. Both the
White House and the small group of Republicans in the Congress
with close ties to the Colombian military are agreed on what they
want: a Salvadoran solution.
In that arrangement, the military and its allied death squads
would cease their slaughter of people judged to be on the left,
but the economic structure would remain the same and the left
would be denied any real access to political power, control over
economic policy, or any real control over foreign affairs or military
THE SALVADOR SOLUTION
But the "Salvador Solution" has already been tried
in Colombia. In l985 the insurgent Revolutionary Armed Forces
of Colombia (FARC) made an agreement with the government of then-President
Romulo Betancur to lay down their arms and form the Patriotic
Union Party (UP). UP candidates enjoyed spectacular success in
the ensuing elections, winning thousands of local and regional
posts with a progressive political platform.
The victorious candidates were systematically hunted down
and murdered in the following years by army and paramilitary death
squads, to the point where today almost 5,000 have lost their
lives. Among those killed are the party's most viable presidential
The FARC is unlikely to accept such a deal again. In the view
of the U.S. right, Colombia may have to go through another ten
years of death-squad violence and aerial bombing of civilian populations,
as the U.S. did with El Salvador, in order to get the settlement
the U.S. wants.
Opponents of that strategy in Washington argue that the current
"Salvadoran solution" could have been had at the start
of the 1980s, without a decade of murder, and that the ensuing
decade will eventually come back to haunt the U.S. empire in Latin
Neither side raises the point that the current economic and
political arrangement in El Salvador and the rest of Central America
is no solution at all, given the staggering levels of unemployment
and the IMF-dictated destruction of health and education. Both
continue to espouse the view that U.S. business enterprises and
South Korean and Taiwanese maquiladora starvation-wage assembly
plants will eventually show success.
The truth is that the war against the left in Colombia has
already taken the form of a war against the Colombian labor movement.
One-third of all labor organizers killed worldwide over the past
few years have been killed in Colombia. The U.S. Embassy has excused
this type of behavior by coining the term "narco-guerrilla"
and implying that the labor movement is an extension of that "narco-guerrilla,"
as Thomas Pickering did in El Salvador.
Central America watch