Israel and El Salvador


From its earliest attempts to establish itself as an arms exporter, Israel had enjoyed the patronage of the military of El Salvador, which ruled that small, densely-populated country on the Pacific side of the Central American isthmus on behalf of a powerful plantation oligarchy.

In 1973 Israel took orders from El Salvador for 18 Dassault Ouragan jet fighter aircraft. Israel had obtained these planes from France for its own use. Refurbished and delivered to El Salvador in 1975, they were the first jet fighters in Central America, representing a significant jump in the level of military sophistication in a region where war had flared between Honduras and El Salvador in 1969.

Other aircraft ordered from Israel by El Salvador in 1973 included six French-made Fouga Magister trainers and 25 Arava short-take-off-and-landing aircraft. The Arava is produced by Israeli Aircraft Industries (IAI) and is advertised for a variety of uses from hauling cargo, to medical evacuation, to transporting troops in counterinsurgency warfare. The Salvadorans also bought a quantity of small arms, ammunition and rocket launchers.

Military links with El Salvador actually began around 1972, when the Israeli Defense Ministry carried out a youth movement development program there. Alongside their arms sales, the Israelis also sent advisers to El Salvador. Former Salvadoran Army Col. and Undersecretary of the Interior Rene Francisco Guerra y Guerra recalled that during the 1970s ANSESAL, the Salvadoran secret police, had security advisers from Israel. According to Guerra, as a low-ranking ANSESAL officer, Roberto D'Aubuisson, who would later rise to prominence as leader of a far-right faction linked to death squads, was a student of the Israeli instructors.

At least one Salvadoran officer, Col. Sigifredo Ochoa was taught by Israeli trainers in El Salvador and also went to Israel for training in the mid- 1970s. Ochoa, who was credited with a massacre of civilians in 1981 i° made no secret of his preference for his Israeli mentors over the U.S. advisers who came to El Salvador after 1981. The Americans, he noted scornfully, "lost the war in Vietnam." During the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982, Ochoa proffered an "Israeli solution" for Central America: a combined assault by El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and the anti-Nicaragua contras against Nicaragua.

When the Carter Administration took office in 1977 it wasted little time putting into practice a principle enunciated during the presidential campaign and by Congress in 1976: U.S. aid would be cut off to recipients who were gross and persistent abusers of human rights. The idea was to encourage dictatorial regimes to modify their behavior and reinstate themselves in Washington's good graces.

It was a fairly reasonable assumption; after all, many of these tyrants had been through U.S. military programs and had adopted the anticommunist line that a succession of U.S. governments had encouraged. Washington had sired both the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan regimes, and ~ was not without profound influence in El Salvador.

In the 1960s, the U.S. had presided over the foundation of CONDECA, a regional military council intended "to coordinate and centralize military command of the region under U.S. military supervision." In El Salvador, the Kennedy Administration set in motion a series of meetings among Central American leaders that led to the establishment of the feared ANSESAL secret police and its "parallel domestic security agencies in Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, Honduras, and Costa Rica." Years later the CIA connections of ANSESAL would come to light in close connection with the death squads which have terrorized El Salvador since the 1970s. Also in the 1960's AIFLD, (the American Institute for Free Labor Development, the AFL-CIO's foreign operation dedicated to foiling the formation of left wing unions) tried to organize a "tame" network of rural cooperatives in El Salvador. According to one report the project was budgeted at $ I .6 million and had the assistance of the Israeli Histadrut labor federation.

Even the prideful way that El Salvador and Guatemala responded when their aid was terminated-both preempted the U.S. move by cutting military ties with the U.S.-might have been expected to blow over. That was without reckoning on Israel, which was quick to fill the gap. Indeed, one analyst believes the "surprisingly defiant position" of the Central American clients was based on their advance knowledge that they could maintain their military capacity by dealing with Israel.

El Salvador simply began to buy its weapons from Israel. Between the 1977 U.S. cutoff and the resumption of U.S. aid in 1981, El Salvador obtained over 80 percent of its weapons from Israel. The balance came from France and Brazil. The earlier aircraft orders still in the pipeline were delivered and small arms and ammunition from Israel undercut the intent of the Carter policy. By 1979 came the first report that Israeli advisers had been giving the Salvadoran military counterinsurgency training both in Israel and El Salvador.

During this period as well, Israeli technicians began installing a computer system able to monitor utilities usage, thus giving the military the ability to pinpoint houses where the telephone is heavily used, presumably signifying that political organizing is going on. (A similar system provided by Israel to Guatemala does the same with water and electricity use. According to former Col. Guerra, the Israelis began work on the system in 1978. As an electronic engineer familiar with El Salvador's telecommunications installations, he did not believe that another company would be brought in to finish the work, despite two changes of government and the reentry of the U.S., following the installation of the Reagan Administration.

It is quite certain that installation was completed. A CIA source described a telephone-monitoring computer system to a journalist in El Salvador, and Arnaldo Ramos of the FDR (the Democratic Revolutionary Front, the political grouping fighting against the U.S.-backed government) has spoken of another use to which the Salvadoran regime puts the computer equipment:

They periodically block several downtown areas and take the ID's of people, just to check who they are. If they find the person happens to be downtown in an area where he's not supposed to be too often during the week, that right away makes him a suspect.

Once the new human rights policy was implemented, little attention was paid in the U.S. to what was going on in El Salvador. The Carter policy had the virtue of slackening the long embrace between Washington and Central American dictatorships; it had the obvious fault of not offering redress for the century of manipulation of Central American governments by the U.S. government and corporations. And it had the predictable ground-level threshold for tolerating a strengthening of the left-which in El Salvador would bring Washington running to the assistance of the old order in 1980. But in the early years of the Carter Administration there was little fretting over El Salvador and even less over the fact that Israel had quickly filled the traditional U.S. shoes.



In March 1985, El Salvador's Deputy Minister of Defense and Public Security Col. Reynaldo Lopez Nuila visited Israel. Lopez was the strongest advocate in the Duarte cabinet of "citizens defense committees" to guard plantations and businesses against insurgent attacks. By July 1984, the Salvadoran Assembly had passed a law approving the creation of such units. In 1985 an enthusiastic Col. Sigifredo Ochoa began establishing "self-defense" committees in Chalatenango province, in towns which the military had succeeded in occupying. In May, Ochoa boasted that his troops had organized 30 such committees. These forces, argued Lopez Nuila, "have worked in many other countries." Later Lopez Nuila and the director of the Salvadoran police academy visited Guatemala for advice on counterinsurgency; while there they set up permanent links with their counterparts. Israel has long advised the Guatemalan military and police. It is more likely, however, that Nuila's mission was related to the "self-defense" forces which the Salvadoran government was trying to set up.

These attempts came in the context of efforts the U.S. had been making to establish the same kind of rural "pacification" program that it had employed in Vietnam, the well-remembered Phoenix Program of winning hearts and minds with a combination of civic amenities and murder. In El Salvador it was called the National Plan. Begun in 1983, the program in San Vicente province was a monumental failure. "Guerrillas stole medicines from National Plan hospitals and held night classes at National Plan schools." Corruption in the ranks of Salvadoran officials accomplished what the insurgents could not.

The military then began an intensified bombing campaign to depopulate areas whose residents were thought to support the rebels. It developed its own pacification plan, and it was probably inevitable that Israel would become involved.


On New Years Day in 1986, El Salvador's ambassador to Jerusalem presented his credentials to the Israelis. (Ambassador Enrique Guttfreund Hanchel was a former president of the Jewish community in El Salvador and also of the Central American Confederation of Jewish Communities. The following month Israel's ambassador in El Salvador said, "We will be reinforcing our technical cooperation in the agricultural and community development fields, in which we are considered specialists." By that mouthful of euphemisms the ambassador meant that Israel would help El Salvador strip the last shreds of dignity and hope from thousands of civilian victims.

Harking back to the scorched earth military pacification plan which Israel had helped Guatemala implement a non-governmental community development worker spelled out the nature of Israel's specialization: "Once you have Israeli technicians coming into the country, you can have military trainers coming in under the guise of agricultural technicians. That is what they did in Guatemala." An adviser to President Duarte said the government hoped that Israel's agricultural assistance would prop up the agrarian reform program and "keep thousands of peasants from joining rebel ranks out of frustration." The Israeli ambassador said that his country's aid would be channeled through the government agency supporting the military's relocation projects, Dideco.


Israel watch

Middle East Watch