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El Salvador

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El Salvador

Left-Wing Extremism

Background to the Insurgency

The FMLN insurgency was rooted in the 1960s when reform- minded groups emerged to challenge the alliance of the right-wing military and the landowning oligarchy. With the electoral option blocked by fraudulent presidential elections in 1972 and 1977, leftist groups resorted to militant demonstrations and terrorism to promote change. A pattern of mounting violence and polarization resulted (see The 1970s: The Road to Revolt , ch. 1). As in the early 1930s, the growing conflict had focused on the peasant population; most campesinos still lived at a subsistence level, and about two-fifths of rural families had no land at all (see Rural Life , ch. 2). The regime's token land reform of 1976 did little to address this longstanding problem. Political violence and the suspension of rights through the declaration of states of siege only served to further radicalize the left, including the Catholic groups increasingly influenced by liberation theology (see Glossary).

The Salvadoran guerrilla groups that emerged in the 1970s derived directly or indirectly from a 1969 split within the illegal, Moscow-line Communist Party of El Salvador (Partido Comunista de El Salvador--PCES) between the old-line Communists and a vocal minority faction of firebrand revolutionaries led by PCES secretary general Salvador Cayetano Carpio ("Marcial"). In April 1970, Carpio and his followers broke away from the PCES and founded the Popular Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Populares de Liberacion--FPL). Under Carpio's leadership, the FPL advocated doctrinaire adherence to a Vietnamese-style "prolonged popular war" strategy against "imperialism" and the Salvadoran oligarchy. During the FPL's formative years, the National University in San Salvador was the largest urban center for recruiting and training members of the FPL and its mass organization, the Revolutionary Popular Bloc (Bloque Popular Revolucionario--BPR). With the aid of the clergy, the FPL recruited its cadres mostly from the National Association of Salvadoran Educators (Asociacion Nacional de Educadores Salvadorenos--ANDES) and its rank-and-file mainly from the Federation of Salvadoran Christian Peasants (Federacion de Campesinos Cristianos Salvadorenos--Feccas) and the Union of Farm Workers (Union de Trabajadores del Campo--UTC).

In 1971 another group of PCES dissidents, disenchanted with the FPL's strategy of a prolonged popular war, left the party and joined with dissident students, religious activists, and PDC members to form the People's Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo--ERP). The ERP's "militarist" faction, headed by Joaquin Villalobos Hueso ("Rene Cruz"), contended that Sandinista-style popular insurrection could be sparked by dramatic armed attacks on the existing power structure. The ERP's "political" faction, led by Roque Dalton, a communist Salvadoran poet, emphasized the ideological preparation of the masses before undertaking major armed actions and the development of broad coalitions with other groups. After the Villalobos group passed death sentences on Dalton's followers, Villalobos reportedly murdered Dalton on May 10, 1975.

Under the leadership of Villalobos, the ERP advocated a strongly pro-Cuban, Marxist-Leninist ideology based on Ernesto "Che" Guevara's foco, or insurrectional center, theory of guerrilla warfare, as well as Maoist and West European revolutionary theories. Most of the ERP's cadres were of middle- class background, mainly university dropouts or professionals. They included considerably more women and foreigners than the other guerrilla groups. A leading ERP field commander, Ana Guadalupe Martinez, author of the propagandistic El Salvador's Clandestine Prisons, served as a main spokesperson on international affairs for the Revolutionary Democratic Front (Frente Democratico Revolucionario--FDR). Some cadres had radical Christian backgrounds. Rank-and-file elements generally were workers but also included some forcibly recruited peasants. Although the PCES and the other guerrilla groups that formed the FMLN in 1980 initially ostracized the ERP, Cuban leader Fidel Castro Ruz pressured the FMLN groups into including the ERP in the alliance.

Immediately after Dalton's murder, his followers broke away from the ERP and established the Armed Forces of National Resistance (Fuerzas Armadas de Resistencia Nacional--FARN). The FARN originated at the National University, and most of its cadres came from the middle class. Although led by a self- described Marxist, Eduardo Sancho Castaneda ("Ferman Cienfuegos"), the FARN developed close ties internationally with moderate social democrats and domestically with liberal members of the Salvadoran armed forces. On February 2, 1977, FARN and PCES dissidents, together with Salvadoran exiles living in Costa Rica, formed a Salvadoran branch of a Trotskyite regional organization called the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers (Partido Revolucionario de Trabajadores Centroamericanos- -PRTC). The PRTC recruited primarily from the National University in San Salvador, which PRTC leader Francisco Jovel ("Roberto Roca") had attended, and from the labor unions. Although the PRTC initially had a reputation for unpredictable radicalism and close ties to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea), it moved toward more orthodox Marxism-Leninism after joining the FMLN in December 1980. Nevertheless, it continued to advocate a nonaligned international stance.

The PCES, under its new leader, Jorge Shafik Handal, followed the Moscow line in the 1970s, supporting reformist, noncommunist governments and an electoral strategy. At its April 1979 party congress, however, the PCES, which already had begun organizing its own guerrilla group, the Armed Forces of Liberation (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion-- FAL), adopted an "armed struggle" policy. While serving in the reformist government that came to power in a civil-military coup in October 1979, the PCES continued to prepare for guerrilla and terrorist activities by sending its recruits to training camps in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Although commanded exclusively by PCES cadres, FAL was made up mostly, not of party members, but of rural-based guerrillas who had been gradually indoctrinated into serving as PCES followers. By the late 1970s, the PCES consisted primarily of middle-class elements and cadres of some workers' organizations. Although Handal espoused a "dialectical combination" of the ERP's insurrectional approach and the FPL's protracted popular war strategy, he remained more oriented toward the ERP.

During the 1977-79 period, the left-wing mass organizations conducted a campaign of civil disobedience, demonstrations, and takeovers of churches, government buildings, and foreign embassies. Much of this activity was perpetrated by the three largest mass organizations--the FPL's BPR, the FARN's United Popular Action Front (Frente de Accion Popular Unidad--FAPU), and the ERP's 28th of February Popular Leagues (Ligas Populares 28 de Febrero--LP-28). At the same time, the extreme left engaged in numerous significant acts of terrorism, such as the kidnapping of foreign businessmen for fund-raising purposes, political kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings. The FARN specialized in kidnapping and claimed to have raised US$60 million in ransoms in the late 1970s.

Most of the mass organizations rejected talks with the reformist junta that took power in January 1980. Instead, they consolidated their forces by forming the Revolutionary Coordinator of the Masses (Coordinadora Revolucionaria de las Masas--CRM) at the same time that the armed left increased its own efforts at greater coordination. In April 1980, the CRM allied itself with the Democratic Front (Frente Democratico)--an alliance consisting of disaffected Christian Democrats, Social Democrats led by Guillermo Manuel Ungo Revelo, and a small association of professionals. The merger of these two umbrella organizations created the FDR, which recognized the guerrilla movement as its "vanguard." Although the Romero assassination enabled the FDR, through the mass organizations, to mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators in the spring of 1980, the overall movement was hampered by a lack of arms, poor coordination between guerrilla and noncombatant forces, continued infighting, and severe repression by the security forces.

In May 1980, the guerrilla leaders met in Havana and formed a political-military command, the Unified Revolutionary Directorate (Direccion Revolucionaria Unificada--DRU), as their central executive arm for political and military planning. Unification of forces reportedly was a precondition for Cuban aid to the Salvadoran insurgents. The DRU established its headquarters near Managua and helped to direct planning and operations and coordinate logistical support for its forces in El Salvador. The fifteen-member DRU included three leaders from each of the five guerrilla groups: the ERP, FPL, FARN, FAL/PCES, and, beginning in late 1980, the PRTC. The DRU also included a five-member executive directorate, known as the General Command, consisting of the principal leaders of the five guerrilla groups: the ERP's Villalobos (the first among equals of the FMLN commanders), the FPL's Leonel Gonzalez, the FARN's Sancho, the PRTC's Francisco Jovel, and the FAL/PCES's Handal.

The guerrilla groups took a step toward closer unity in October 1980 by forming the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional-Frente Democratico Revolucionario--FMLN-FDR, which constituted an umbrella entity or alliance for operational and strategic coordination among the insurgent forces and their popular fronts. The FMLN had a leadership structure (DRU), a regional military organization (five guerrilla fronts), and a political-diplomatic front (the FDR). A self-described Marxist-Leninist movement with a generally pro-Soviet and pro-Cuban orientation, the FMLN-FDR committed itself to seizing power through a two-pronged military strategy of economic sabotage and a prolonged guerrilla war of attrition based on a combination of Maoist, Vietnamese, and Guevarist principles. It sought to entrench its rural guerrilla forces while developing urban support bases in preparation for an eventual general insurrection. During the 1980-82 period, politically related violence in El Salvador increased dramatically as the former terrorist groups completed their transition to primarily guerrilla organizations.

In preparation for the FMLN's "final offensive" of January 1981 (the name of which seemed to contradict the FPL's long-term strategy), tons of modern weapons, primarily United States-made arms from captured stockpiles in Vietnam, were delivered covertly to guerrilla forces in El Salvador, mostly through Cuba and Nicaragua. Despite the substantial weapons deliveries, the 1981 offensive failed in its effort to incite a countrywide insurrection; the FMLN had greatly overestimated its popular support and the efficiency of its outside supply system. Salvadoran military and security forces, operating with minimal United States assistance (military aid had been suspended until then), beat back the offensive after about ten days of combat. The vast majority of Salvadorans ignored the FMLN's call for an uprising, much to the chagrin of guerrilla strategists. The FMLN tried and failed again to defeat the army in a general offensive in early 1982. After these setbacks, however, the five FMLN groups worked to increase their strategic and tactical coordination and made substantial progress during 1982 in overcoming logistical and communications problems. They began to equip their forces increasingly with United States-made weapons and equipment captured from the army or purchased in the international gray arms market. In addition, United States officials maintained that Nicaraguan supplies for the FMLN continued to be sent by sea, air, and land to El Salvador almost daily.

The FMLN overcame major factional disputes during 1983. At a January 1983 meeting of the FPL's Central Committee, the doctrinaire line of Carpio, a long-time opponent of close cooperation with other FMLN groups, reportedly was voted down in favor of greater FMLN unity of action, as advocated by another senior FPL leader, Ana Melinda Montes ("Ana Maria"). Nevertheless, the existence of a continuing deep division over policy within the guerrilla forces was revealed in April 1983 by the bizarre murder and suicide, respectively, in Managua of Carpio and Montes. The deaths weakened the FPL's influence in the FMLN in favor of the ERP, whose leader, Villalobos, had long advocated greater operational cooperation. In September 1983, however, the long-standing policy dispute within the FPL eased substantially with the consolidation of a position emphasizing unity with other FMLN groups and openness toward cooperation with outside groups. The FPL's policy shift reduced friction with the FMLN's four other military factions and with Nicaragua's ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional--FSLN). Furthermore, the FPL, which previously had operated largely independently of other FMLN groups, formally agreed to cooperate in a centralized military command (the DRU).

The relatively united FMLN again went on the offensive that September and decisively escalated the war from company- to battalion-level guerrilla combat, involving as many as 500 guerrillas in an offensive. Over the next five years, the conflict remained a military stalemate. The FMLN established a sophisticated internal communications system linking its fronts and became--allegedly with Cuban and Nicaraguan assistance-- better trained and armed. The organization, which by 1984 reportedly was receiving mostly ammunition, not weapons, from Nicaragua, also achieved important military tactical successes. By early 1984, the Salvadoran Army held less than a four-to-one advantage over a guerrilla force of at least 9,000 combatants, down from 10,000 to 12,000 in 1983 (military tacticians usually consider a ten-to-one advantage the minimum necessary to defeat a guerrilla insurgency).

Some commentators opined that the insurgents had failed decisively by the end of 1984 and that the war was winding down. The FMLN was put on the defensive in 1984 and 1985 when substantial United States military aid was rushed in and the Salvadoran Army expanded rapidly. Under heavy pressure in the rural area it once dominated, the FMLN committed itself to a new long-term strategy and began rebuilding its political bases-- peasant, labor, and student militant groups--in cities and towns. Many guerrillas hid their weapons and moved into San Salvador. By mid-1985 the FMLN had adapted to the army's new tactics and capabilities by breaking down its large guerrilla columns into smaller squads assigned to ambush and sabotage government targets. By late December 1985, the number of guerrillas dropped to between 5,000 and 7,000, of which at least 2,000 remained active in the rural areas.

The FMLN also reverted to classic guerrilla tactics and increased its use of land mines, which it called "popular armament." In mid-1985 the FMLN, in addition to kidnapping or assassinating numerous military and government officials, began kidnapping and assassinating mayors and burning their offices. It also targeted United States military personnel for assassination. In June 1985, PRTC terrorists assassinated four off-duty United States embassy Marine guards at a sidewalk cafe in San Salvador in a massacre that also left nine civilians, including two United States businessmen, dead and fifteen others wounded. According to the FMLN high command, the chief purpose of its raid on the army's basic training center in eastern La Union Department in October 1985 was to kill or capture United States soldiers serving there.

Data as of November 1988


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