US involvement in the Salvadoran civil war: who is to blame for the atrocities?

The Salvadoran civil war is now remembered as a series of internationally condemned war crimes, human rights violations, and atrocities that were committed by the military or the communist FMLN (a combination of anti-government guerrilla groups). This article questions whether these groups can be blamed fully for the events of the civil war, and the extent to which US support facilitated the continuation of this war.


With US politicians such as Donald Trump recently branding El Salvador a ‘sh*t house’, the World seems to have forgotten the extent to which the $4 billion provided by the US to the Salvadoran military facilitated the civil war which arguably created the environment Trump criticises. 

The Salvadoran civil war was triggered by the failed US-supported coup on 15th October 1979. Following this, the US were influential in the implementation of a moderate civilian government with a land reform programme intended to isolate the far right whilst defeating their communist opponents. However, this actually led to the formation of far-right group ARENA, whose death squads were responsible for many of the war crimes such as kidnapping, torture, civilian murder etc. Upon the outbreak of civil war, ARENA affiliated against the FMLN with the Salvadoran government, and despite US politician Robert White claiming its leader D’Aubuisson was a ‘pathological killer’, others such as Reagan openly supported ARENA’s actions against the communists. Following the rape and murder of four American churchwomen the US temporarily suspended their funding to the Salvadoran government under President Carter. This suspension was however undone when Reagan was elected to Presidency in 1981. In direct contrast to US involvement, the FMLN was supported by the communist Soviets, Cubans, and Nicaraguans, and although financial support to the FMLN was minimal, support such as the help provided in medical care and training at the Gulf of Fonseca should not be overlooked or understated.

Another aspect of US involvement in the civil war is the military training and assistance provided to the Salvadoran government. Fifty American trainers (US deliberately avoiding the term adviser in the hopes to avoid similarities drawn between El Salvador and Vietnam) were in charge of the Salvadoran regime’s troops. With groups such as the Atlácatl Battalion (responsible for the El Mozote massacre) receiving three months of training in the US, it is especially important to highlight the impact that US involvement had on facilitating the human rights violations throughout the war. Alarming statistics such as 19 of the 26 officers held responsible for the murder of the Jesuits which shocked the international community into intervening and ultimately ending the war, having received military training in the US Army School of the Americas. The 1999 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights declared the 1989 Jesuits Massacre as a violation of international law.


Potentially the most shocking event of the civil war was the aforementioned 1981 massacre at El Mozote, when 533 child civilians were brutally murdered by the military, (248 of these being under the age of 6). Witnesses claim that infants were tossed into the air before being ‘impaled by bayonets’, entire school classes were ‘slaughtered’, and women and young girls were brutally raped before being murdered. This atrocity not only draws similarities with the US military massacring 500 civilians at Mỹ Lai in 1968, but again shows how US funding and support allowed for the Salvadoran military to commit human rights violations against civilians. Not only did the Atlácatl Battalion who committed the massacre receive three months of training in the US just before the event, but also US Army Sergeant Major Hazelwood accompanied the Battalion in its expedition, a participation that ‘in wartime activities is against our laws’ (Karl). Had this involvement been exposed at the time, the US would have been internationally condemned and forced to terminate all funding and support it continued to provide to the Salvadoran government. However, the US embarked on a mass cover-up mission to prevent this. Further emphasising how complicit the US were to the crimes of the Salvadoran military, the US Ambassador Hinton tried justifying the events of the massacre by arguing that the hundreds of civilians brutally raped and murdered were ‘subject to injury as a result of the combat.’ Forensic experts continue digging bodies at El Mozote, and in 2018 eighteen former military commanders finally went on trial for their involvement in the event.


Epitomising just how much the civil war was facilitated by international support and involvement, the war ended upon the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the FMLN lost important allies and the US lost their Cold War incentive to continue funding the corrupt government. The UN Truth Commission attribute 95% of the 75,000 deaths in the war to the security forces and the government. The UN have also argued that the US were complicit to the human rights violations continuously enacted by the government. In the mid-1990s President Clinton allowed the temporary protected status of thousands of Salvadoran refugees to expire, creating an influx of young men into a still very much war-stricken country. These men often formed nuclei in gangs, explaining the intense levels of gang violence persisting in El Salvador even now. Rather ironically, Donald Trump’s branding of El Salvador as a ‘sh*t house’ only highlights the continual consequences of his own predecessors support of a corrupt government and military. It is arguable that the civil war would not have been as extreme, as long, or may not have even been possible without the influence of external countries supporting the two opposing groups. Thus, revealing that although the US government were not directly to blame for the atrocities committed by the Salvadoran military, these atrocities might not have happened on such a large scale had it not been for the US funding. 

Featured Image: By aboodi vesakaran from Unsplash

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