OPINION

Little brown men

In the 1980s the US spent some $5 billion in El Salvador; then with the communist menace defeated, it went away

On the morning of November 16, 1983, I was walking with five other journalists along a trail in the hills of Chalatenango, El Salvador. Passing a number of fresh graves, we saw a stone house, roofless. Covering my nose against the stench, I stuck my head in the door, and out flew 30 vultures (I counted them as they sat in a tree, waiting for us to move on). The floor was carpeted with a mass, red, white, and black, of human remains. About 20 skulls.

Aquilino, a 10-year-old survivor, told me what had happened. "The soldiers put the children with their mothers in the house and started shooting. I played dead under my mother's body until they went away." These soldiers belonged to the Atlacatl Batallion, a corps of the Salvadoran army created, trained and directed by US officers for the purpose of curbing communist "expansionism" in Central America.

This was my own baptism of fire in El Salvador; after which I spent some years covering the civil war there, one of many between armies of the right and guerrillas of the left in those years. A few weeks ago I was back there, for the first time in decades. The country was celebrating the 20th anniversary of the peace accords that ended the war, in which 75,000 people died. If I needed to recharge my batteries of rancor against the United States, a brief look at El Salvador today did the job.

El Salvador is still at war. Not a political war, but a criminal one, in which the climate of fear is much the same. Here the drug gangs rule, corrupting all the public institutions and taking a death toll not far short of open war. If, in the 1980s, some feared the country would become a Cuba, now the fear is that it will be a new Somalia, plunged into anarchy, much like Guatemala and Honduras. But the United States, which bears its share of responsibility for this country's traumatized culture of violence, couldn't care less about what is happening in its "backyard."

No, I am not about to write a diatribe about imperialism and colonialism. But when something happens that Washington perceives as an emergency, it goes in like an elephant in a china shop. When the emergency is over and its apparent needs have been covered (including electoral ones back home), it disappears from the scene, leaving the natives to clean up the mess. As in Iraq today; as in Afghanistan tomorrow.

In the 1980s the US spent some $5 billion in El Salvador, most of it on military ends. The army burgeoned from 15,000 to 60,000 men and officers, with 55 US military advisors, embittered veterans of Vietnam, telling them what to do. Once the communist menace was dead and buried, they went away. Today the country has a small police force, entirely inadequate to deal with the crime problem. A man fairly high up in the CIA told me that if the US spent in El Salvador in a year what it was recently spending per day in Iraq ($400 million), the country's problems could be cleared up; "but we know that's not going to happen."

Another friend there told me of a conversation with a retired general. Why did they kill all those children (the above massacre being no exception, but typical of many)? "We did exactly what the gringos told us to do," said the general.

In the old days, when I was there, the chief of the US military advisors, a colonel, used to give off-the-record press conferences to the journalists, pregnant with rhetoric about bringing democracy to El Salvador. But there were illuminating flashes of reality, as when he was asked about the Salvadoran army's habit of pushing captured guerrillas out of helicopters. "Well," said the Vietnam vet, a bit perplexed at the question, "this whole war is just a matter of little brown men shooting little brown men."

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