The 1970S: The Road to Revolt

The 1970S: The Road to Revolt

The government of President Molina attempted to exert oldfashioned coercive control over the country, using a relatively new instrument, a peasant organization known as the Nationalist Democratic Organization (Organizacion Democratica Nacionalista-- Orden). Orden was established partially in secret in the early 1960s by then President Rivera and General Jose Alberto "Chele" Medrano in association with the GN, which provided some level of counterinsurgent training to peasant cells throughout the countryside. The counterinsurgent orientation of Orden was in keeping with the anticommunist tenor of the times and the general intent of military training and assistance provided to the armed forces of the region by the United States. Orden, however, never became a military force per se but functioned as a paramilitary adjunct and an important part of the rural intelligence network for the security forces. By the late 1970s, its membership reportedly totaled 100,000.

While Orden served as the eyes and ears of the security forces in rural areas, the military was confronted with a growing new phenomenon in the urban setting, that of left-wing terrorism. Soon after the failed coup attempt of 1972, kidnappings for ransom and hit-and-run attacks on government buildings and other targets became increasingly common in San Salvador. The groups claiming credit for the majority of these actions were the People's Revolutionary Army (Ejercito Revolucionario del Pueblo-- ERP) and the Farabundo Marti Popular Liberation Forces (Fuerzas Populares de Liberacion Farabundo Marti--FPL), both radical offshoots of the PCES (the ERP was the new designation of "the Group" that had killed Regalado in 1971).

In 1969 the initial split took place between the followers of party leader Salvador Cayetano Carpio ("Marcial"), a Maoist advocate of a revolutionary "prolonged popular war" strategy for achieving power, and those of Jorge Shafik Handal, who held to the prevailing Moscow-line strategy of electoral participation. By the end of the 1970s, however, political violence and instability had increased markedly, strengthening the position of those who advocated a violent path to power. The success of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution led by the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional--FSLN) apparently served to alter the thinking of policymakers in the Soviet Union, leading them to endorse the strategy of "armed struggle" long advocated by Cuba. By the end of the decade, no less than five Marxist guerrilla groups, including one directly affiliated with the PCES, were recruiting members for military and terrorist action against the government.

Popular support for radical leftist groups appeared to expand rapidly in El Salvador in the mid-1970s, although the ideological uniformity of that support was suspect. The vehicles for the mobilization of the "masses" behind a revolutionary program of radical reform were the so-called mass organizations (also known as popular organizations). Established and run clandestinely by the guerrilla groups, these organizations drew much of their leadership from radical Roman Catholic groups known as Christian Base Communities (Comunidades Eclesiasticas de Base--CEBs) that had been established by activist clergy throughout the country. The largest of the mass organizations was the FPL-affiliated Revolutionary Popular Bloc (Bloque Popular Revolucionario--BPR), with nine constituent peasant groups and an estimated 60,000 members. Other mass organizations included urban trade unions among their ranks. Through public demonstrations, strikes, seizures of buildings, and propaganda campaigns, these organizations sought to undermine the government and create conditions conducive to a revolutionary assumption of power by the left.

Right-wing reaction to the rise of the radical left took several forms. The Molina government made a belated and feeble attempt to appease rural demands for land by passing a law in 1974 calling for the forced rental or possible expropriation of unexploited or inefficiently used land, but the law was not enforced. The government, however, took another step toward reform in 1976, when it declared an agrarian transformation zone of some 60,000 hectares in San Miguel and Usulutan departments that was to be divided among 12,000 peasant families. Large landowners, incensed by this prospect, sent a delegation to meet with the president, who subsequently agreed to exempt from redistribution all lands fulfilling a "social function." This euphemism effectively encompassed all the land in question, and the redistribution never was effected.

Although efforts at small-scale reform were unsuccessful in the 1970s, the other side of the reform-repression coin was much in evidence. A new development was the rise in nonofficial repression from the shadowy right-wing bands that came to be known as the "death squads." Apparently bankrolled by the oligarchy and drawing on active-duty and former military personnel for their members, the squads assassinated "subversives" in an effort to discourage further antigovernment activities and to deter potential expansion of the ranks of the mass organizations and other protest groups. From the perspective of the Salvadoran right, the most urgent threat emanated from the CEBs, which by the mid-1970s had incorporated large numbers of people into politicized Bible study and self-help groups. The death squads targeted both religious and lay members of these groups.

The first of the squads to make itself known publicly was the Wars of Elimination Anti-Communist Liberation Armed Forces (Fuerzas Armadas de Liberacion Anti-comunista de Guerras de Eliminacion--FALANGE), a title obviously concocted more for its acronym than for its coherence. Others, such as the White Warriors Union (Union de Guerreros Blancos--UGB), would follow. These organizations found their inspiration in the severe anticommunist tactics of the military regimes in Guatemala (many Salvadoran death squad members had direct ties to the Guatemalan right) and Brazil. The example of extreme military reprisals against the left in Chile after the 1973 coup against Allende also was influential.

Official repression also prevailed during the 1970s. Crowds of antigovernment demonstrators that had assembled in the capital were fired on by the military in July 1975 and February 1977. The passage of the Law for the Defense and Guarantee of Public Order in November 1977 eliminated almost all legal restrictions on violence against civilians. Political scientist Enrique A. Baloyra has compiled statistics for the 1972-79 period showing a tenfold increase in political assassinations, a tripling in the prosecution of "subversives," and a doubling in the number of "disappeared."

The government's record in the electoral arena was equally discouraging for the opposition. The UNO coalition participated in the Legislative Assembly and municipal elections of 1974. Duarte even managed to slip back into the country to campaign briefly on behalf of coalition candidates. His efforts were wasted, though, as the balloting was manipulated even more flagrantly than that of 1972. In 1976 the opposition parties decided that electoral participation was pointless and declined to run candidates. Presidential elections in 1977 were too important to pass up, however. The atmosphere was too volatile to allow another run by Duarte, so UNO nominated retired Colonel Ernesto Claramount Rozeville to head its ticket. He was opposed by the official PCN candidate, General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena. Once again, electoral fraud was clumsy and poorly disguised. Claramount, his running mate Jose Antonio Morales Ehrlich, and a crowd of thousands gathered in the Plaza Libertad in San Salvador to protest Romero's election. Their assembly was the occasion for the February 1977 attack that left as many as fifty protesters dead. As he was taken from the scene in a Red Cross ambulance, Claramount declared, "This is not the end. It is only the beginning."

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