Death squads in El Salvador

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Death squad victims in San Salvador, (c. 1981)

Death squads in El Salvador (Spanish: escuadrones de la muerte) were far-right paramilitary groups acting in opposition to Marxist–Leninist guerrilla forces, most notably of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and their allies among the civilian population before, during, and after the Salvadoran Civil War. The death squads committed the vast majority of the murders and massacres during the civil war from 1979 to 1992 and were heavily aligned with the United States-backed government.[1][2][3]


Pre-civil war[edit]

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, many political groups arose in opposition to the military government of the National Conciliation Party (PCN). The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) was the chief opponent of the PCN, gaining significant influence in the Legislative Assembly.[4] In the 1972 presidential election, PDC candidate José Napoleón Duarte, under the banner of the National Opposing Union (UNO), was declared to have won the election by 6,000 votes by the Central Election Board, but the result was canceled and the Legislative Assembly voted PCN candidate Arturo Armando Molina as president.[5][6]

Other, less political groups which appeared included the United Front for Revolutionary Action (FUAR), Party of Renovation (PAR), Unitary Syndical Federation of El Salvador (FUSS), and the Christian Federation of Salvadoran Peasants (FECCAS).[4] In order to combat the political and militant opposition to the government, President Julio Adalberto Rivera Carballo established the National Democratic Organization (ORDEN).[7] The organization was headed by General José Alberto Medrano and placed under the administration of the National Security Agency of El Salvador (ANSESAL). ORDEN was a group of several government controlled death squads which were used to arrest and torture political opponents, intimidate voters, rig elections, and kill peasants.[8][9][10] ORDEN claimed to have somewhere from 50,000 to 100,000 members at its peak in the late 1960s.[11]

During the civil war[edit]

During the Salvadoran Civil War, the Revolutionary Government Junta of El Salvador officially dissolved the National Democratic Organization, leaving its paramilitaries to break free and operate independently.[12] The paramilitaries openly targeted members of the FMLN and civilians, notably workers of human rights organizations.[13]

Despite officially having no connection to the government, the death squads and paramilitaries were almost always soldiers from the Armed Forces of El Salvador, meaning the death squads were indirectly funded and armed by the United States.[14][15] Further funding also came from right-wing politicians and businessmen.[16] Several death squads held fascist ideologies.[17]

Post-civil war[edit]

During negotiations to end the civil war in what are now the Chapultepec Peace Accords, part of the agreements were that the government of El Salvador would crack down on and suppress the paramilitaries that fought alongside them during the civil war. The accords stated that the government would "[s]uppress paramilitary entities (Civil Defense Patrols)."[18]

Most of the paramilitaries that existed in the country before and during the civil war have since ceased to exist but one notable exception, Sombra Negra, continues to operate in the country, targeting gang members of MS-13 and 18th Street Gang as a form of vigilante justice.[19]

Human rights violations[edit]

During the civil war, the paramilitaries, often labeled as death squads, came to public attention when on March 24, 1980, Archbishop of San Salvador Óscar Romero was assassinated while giving Mass.[20] The Salvadoran government investigated but was unable to identify who assassinated Romero. The investigation did identify Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, a neo-fascist who commanded several death squads during the civil war,[21][22] as having ordered the assassination.[23][24]

The US-trained Atlácatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army was responsible for committing two of the largest massacres during the civil war: the El Mozote massacre and the El Calabozo massacre.[25]

Sombra Negra tortured victims, mostly gang members, and killed them with a point-blank shot to the head.[26][27]

List of paramilitaries[edit]

  • Atlácatl Battalion (Batallón Atlácatl; BA)[25]
  • Anti-Communist Brigade of the East (Brigada Anticomunista de Oriente; BACO)
  • Anti-Communist Front for the Liberation of Central America (Frente Anticomunista para la Liberación de Centroamérica; FALCA)[28]
  • Anti-Communist Political Front (Frente Político Anticomunista; FPAC)
  • Armed Forces of Anti-Communist Liberation – War of Elimination (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Anticomunista – Guerra de Eliminación; FALANGE)[11][29][30]
  • Black Shadow (Sombra Negra; SN)[19][26]
  • General Eusebio Bracamonte Battalion (Batallón General Eusebio Bracamonte; BGEB)[18]
  • General Manuel José Arce Battalion (Batallón General Manuel José Arce; BGMJA)[18]
  • Group of Social Extermination (Grupo de Exterminio Social; GES)
  • Legion of the Caribe (Legión del Caribe; LC)[28]
  • Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Anti-Communist Brigade (Brigada Anticomunista Maximiliano Hernández Martínez; MHM)[31][32][28]
  • National Security Agency of El Salvador (Agencia Nacional de Seguridad Salvadoreña; ANSESAL)[33][32]
  • National Democratic Organization (Organización Democrática Nacionalista; ORDEN)[11][7]
  • Organization for the Liberation from Communism (Organización para la Liberación del Comunismo; OLC)[28]
  • Patriotic Association of Liberty or Slavery (Asociación Patriótica de Libertad o Esclavitud; APLE)
  • Salvadoran Anti-Communist Brigade (Brigada Anticomunista Salvadoreña; BACSA)[28]
  • Salvadoran Anti-Communist Command (Comando Anticomunista Salvadoreño; CAS)[28]
  • Salvadoran Proletariat Brigade (Brigadas Proletarias Salvadoreñas; BPS)
  • Secret Anti-Communist Army (Ejército Secreto Anticomunista; ESA)[32][28]
  • Squadron of Death (Escuadrón de la Muerte; EM)[28]
  • White Warrior's Union (Unión Guerrera Blanca; UGB, also called Mano Blanca)[11][32][30][28]

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Beverley 1982, p. 67.
  2. ^ "La tormentosa fuga del juez Atilio". 15 September 2008. Archived from the original on 25 January 2020. Retrieved 25 January 2020.
  3. ^ Dutta, Sujit (1982). "El Salvador: Towards Another Vietnam". Social Scientist. 10 (2): 4–17. doi:10.2307/3516972. JSTOR 3516972.
  4. ^ a b Nohlen, D (2005) Elections in the Americas: A data handbook, Volume I, p276 ISBN 978-0-19-928357-6
  5. ^ Williams, Philip J. and Knut Walter (1997) Militarization and demilitarization in El Salvador's transition to democracy Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, pp. 80-81
  6. ^ Herman, Edward S. and Frank Brodhead (1984) Demonstration elections: U.S.-staged elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador Boston: South End Press, p. 94
  7. ^ a b Popkin, Margaret. Peace Without Justice (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000)
  8. ^ AI Annual Report 1978
  9. ^ Stanley, William. The Protection Racket State Elite Politics, Military Extortion, and Civil War in El Salvador (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996)
  10. ^ Library of Congress 1990, 229
  11. ^ a b c d Beverley 1982, p. 61.
  12. ^ Pastor, Robert (1984). "Continuity and Change in U.S. Foreign Policy: Carter and Reagan on El Salvador". Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management. 3 (2): 170–190. doi:10.2307/3323931. JSTOR 3323931.
  13. ^ "El Salvador Civil War - Military Junta - Salvadoran Civil War - TV Eye - 1981". ThamesTv. 13 March 1981. Archived from the original on 23 July 2020. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
  14. ^ Arnson, Cynthia J. "Window on the Past: A Declassified History of Death Squads in El Salvador" in Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability, Campbell and Brenner, eds, 88
  15. ^ Barry Goldwater (5 October 1984). "RECENT POLITICAL VIOLENCE IN EL SALVADOR, REPORT OF THE SELECT COMMITTEE ON INTELLIGENCE UNITED STATES SENATE" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 28 October 2020. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
  16. ^ Bonner, Raymond, Weakness and Deceit:: U.S. Policy and El Salvador, New York Times Books, 1984, p.330
  17. ^ "Archbishop Oscar Romero | Kellogg Institute For International Studies". Archived from the original on 25 December 2023. Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  18. ^ a b c Gaceta Militar (2002). "Cumplimiento AC-PAZ". Archived from the original on 1 April 2008.
  19. ^ a b "El Salvador Death Squads Still Operating". Archived from the original on 29 September 2011. Retrieved 13 November 2011.
  20. ^ "Salvador Archbishop Assassinated By Sniper While Officiating at Mass". The New York Times. 25 March 1980. pp. 1, 8.
  21. ^ Pyes, Craig (17 April 1994). "DEATH SQUAD DEMOCRACY". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Archived from the original on 22 September 2018. Retrieved 29 August 2022.
  22. ^ Los Angeles Times (9 January 1987). "The World". L.A. Times Archive. Archived from the original on 29 August 2022. Retrieved 5 January 2024.
  23. ^ O'Connor, Anne-Marie (6 April 2010). "Participant in 1980 assassination of Romero in El Salvador provides new details". Washington Post. Archived from the original on 8 October 2020. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
  24. ^ Anne-Marie O'Connor. "Participant in 1980 assassination of Romero in El Salvador provides new details," Washington Post, 6 April 2010.
  25. ^ a b Notorious Salvadoran Battalion Is Disbanded : Military: U.S.-trained Atlacatl unit was famed for battle prowess but was also implicated in atrocities. Archived 23 December 2015 at the Wayback Machine Los Angeles Times. 9 December 1992.
  26. ^ a b "MS-13 Doesn't Fear Trump, Rival Gangs, or the Police, But They are Terrified of la Sombra Negra". Fox News. August 2017. Archived from the original on 11 January 2020. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  27. ^ "Sombra Negra, The Vigilante Group That's Taking Back The Streets From MS-13". 20 April 2018. Archived from the original on 19 December 2019. Retrieved 7 January 2020.
  28. ^ a b c d e f g h i Central Intelligence Agency (17 March 2013), El Salvador: Significant Political Actors and Their Interaction (PDF), CIA, pp. 1–16, archived from the original (PDF) on 23 January 2017, retrieved 11 September 2020
  29. ^ Edgar de Jesús Velásquez Rivera. "Historia del paramilitarismo en Colombia" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 10 July 2020. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
  30. ^ a b Fisher, Stewart W. (1982). "Human Rights in El Salvador and U. S. Foreign Policy". Human Rights Quarterly. The Johns Hopkins University Press. 4 (1): 1–38. doi:10.2307/761988. JSTOR 761988.
  31. ^ "El Salvador: A Country Study, "Right-Wing Extremism"". Federal Research Division / Library of Congress. 1988. p. 235. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  32. ^ a b c d Allan Nairn (1984). "Behind the Death Squads: An exclusive report on the US role in El Salvador's official terror". History is a Weapon. Archived from the original on 30 November 2020. Retrieved 19 August 2020.
  33. ^ John W. Lamperti. Enrique Alvarez Cordova: Life of a Salvadoran Revolutionary and Gentleman. pp. 93–94.