The United States had always had a rocky political relationship with many of the countries of Latin America. However, the U.S. had been sending Special Forces troops to several decades and the decision to send U.S. Green Berets to El Salvador in 1981 would be the beginning of a relationship that was forged in the brutal civil war that raged there for many years and has stood the test of time.
El Salvador was on the brink in 1981, the civil war being waged against the communist insurgents in the FMLN was close to being lost, the country was wracked by right-wing death squads and the Salvadoran army was in tatters.
The Reagan administration had drawn its line in the sand. El Salvador was not going to fall under communist sway. With Castro in Cuba and a leftist regime in Nicaragua, the U.S. was going to do what it had to do to stem the flow of communism. The bloody civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala would receive United States support.
But in 1981, the Vietnam war ended just six years before, the country would not stand for another war with open-ended involvement with U.S. troops. So they cooked up a scheme where they basically pulled the wool over the people’s eyes. The troops would not be in a combat role, they would be strictly there as advisors and would only carry sidearms for personal defense.
When the first 12 Green Berets arrived, the U.S. Embassy and the MILGP Commander Colonel Eldon Cummings put on a dog and pony show for the press. They were invited out for a “photo op” where they were only allowed to shoot pictures of the Green Berets from the rear. No questions were allowed and then Cummings gave the men the briefing in front of the press that they were only allowed to carry sidearms in a defense posture only. It was a CYA moment for the government.
That rule wouldn’t last long.
The mission of the SF troops was to train and advise the Salvadoran army. And an even touchier subject was the mission to report human rights abuses. And several did, with always a threat to themselves if the host unit took exception to it. It was a very tricky situation.
Greg Walker, a senior non-commissioned officer with the 7th Special Forces Group went to El Salvador as both an advisor and later as a journalist. He’s been in more journals and newspapers than we can bother listing here. He wrote a book called “At the Hurricane’s Eye” and spoke about the U.S. SF men and the issues of reporting human rights violations.
I was the Special Forces advisor who reported being shown a guerrilla’s skull (at the unit’s base in El Salvador) that had been turned into a desk lamp. My report was delivered to the US Embassy in El Salvador at the time through the proper chain of command.
The vast majority of SF advisors serving in El Salvador did likewise as this was part of the mission statement. For example, there was a senior Special Forces advisor at El Mozote the day/night of the massacre (and only one). He attempted multiple times to dissuade Colonel Domingo Monterosa to spare the victims. When Monterosa ignored him, the advisor departed by foot and made his way, alone, back to San Salvador. There he made a full report to embassy officials of what the unit and Monterosa were doing in El Mozote.
Little if anything was ever done about the reports that the men risked their lives to report. Walker brings up a great point in that, the Special Forces advisor’s reputation for reporting any human rights abuses were recognized even by the enemy. He said that the peace accords had the FMLN wanting the SF troops to monitor it. We’ll add more to that below.
At the conclusion of the war as brokered under a UN peace agreement, it was the guerrillas of the FMLN that requested US “Green Berets” remain with Salvadoran military units during the early stages of the accord. This because the guerrillas had learned of our commitment to human rights, and the sometimes dangerous reporting we made to the US embassy regarding thugs like Monterosa.
The military decided to freeze the amount of “official” U.S. advisors at 55 for some arcane reason. Those men were spread about the country in pairs with the different brigades.Some remained at the MILGP in San Salvador. The advisors had a strict curfew that they had to be back in their bases every night by, checking in with radios and repeaters all over the country.
Other SOF and conventional training went on as well as at any given time there could be 200-300 troops there. But they were on very short TDY status. Many Special Forces teams would rotate thru El Salvador for just a 2-week TDY training mission.
Although not listed by the Pentagon as a “combat mission”, 22 soldiers were killed in El Salvador during the civil war there. One SF A-team, ODA-7 from 3/7, had their base attacked in San Miguel, which was the subject of an excellent piece from Dr. Charles H. Briscoe.
Still, the Pentagon persisted that the SOF troops there were not in a combat environment. Thanks to the efforts of men like Walker and others that wrong was corrected, but not until 1996.
The FMLN knew (as was stated above) that the SF soldiers would observe human rights which was why, they requested that they oversee the initial peace process to ensure that there were no issues. Another incident shows how much they did indeed respect that.
One of the “55” relayed a story that happened to him one evening. He was racing to get back to his cuartel (base) before the curfew hit. He was running late and speeding along the highway. Darkness was approaching and he knew he was going to be late.
Then he saw an older woman laboring with heavy bags walking up a long dirt road. The area was rife with bandits as well as guerrillas and he knew, her chances of being robbed or worse were high. F**K it, he said, I’m going to be late anyway. He stopped and drove this woman up a couple of miles to her tiny village. They made small talk and the woman said she was surprised anyone would stop, no less an American on that stretch of road.
He dropped her off and raced back to the cuartel without incident. Sometime later, this SF advisor and his El Sal soldier assigned as his security were in the small village outside the cuartel eating when they noticed a couple of men enter obviously armed under their shirts. Soon others entered, they were virtually surrounded by armed men and thought the chances of getting out were slim and none.
Then another man entered, flanked with two bodyguards. He made his way to the table and addressed the SF guy by name and asked if he could sit for a moment. He identified himself as a local FMLN commander and asked him about the incident with the woman and why he did that, knowing he’d be late for his curfew.
The SF advisor answered that the woman was someone’s mother and he’d hope that someone would pick up his if the situation was reversed. The guerrilla nodded and told him that he appreciated it because the woman was a relative of his. The subliminal message was that the woman was man’s mother.
He said that he knew Americans collect patches and pins and gave him a small box with FMLN patches and a pin mounted on black felt. He gave him a letter citing his “humanitarianism” in a time of war. He then motioned to his men who began peeling out of the small establishment. He made a wry smile, “Don’t leave for about 30 minutes.”
The message was you’re my enemy tomorrow, you’re my enemy tonight but there is a level of respect that can be shown. One FMLN local commander recognized that in the SF troops there was the respect for human rights in a civil war where they were at a premium. It is no coincidence that they requested SF troops be part of the peace process.
The SF advisors in El Salvador helped turned the tide in a civil war that appeared unwinnable in 1981 to a victory for the government and the people, where the FMLN came to the peace table after a long bloody conflict. It all began with the first group of Green Berets in 1981.
Photos: US Army