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Sunday, 24 March, 2002, 18:28 GMT
US role in Salvador's brutal war
Hundreds of Salvadoreans mark the anniversary of Monsignor Romero's death
Salvadoreans mark the anniversary of Romero's death
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By Tom Gibb
BBC correspondent in El Salvador during the civil war in the 1980s

There is a tremendous irony that President George W Bush has chosen to visit El Salvador on the anniversary of the murder of the country's Archbishop, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, 22 years ago.

A campaigner against the Salvadorean army's death squad war, Monsignor Romero was shot through the heart while saying Mass, shortly after appealing to the US not to send military aid to El Salvador.

US officials are saying that President Bush's visit is in part to celebrate a US success story in which his father was personally involved

The appeal fell on deaf ears and for the next 12 years, the US became involved in its largest counter-insurgency war against left-wing guerrillas since Vietnam.

Today US officials are saying that President Bush's visit is in part to celebrate a US success story in which his father was personally involved.

His father was president when the two sides in El Salvador finally negotiated a UN-brokered peace deal, signed in 1992.

US officials say that President Bush senior's policies set the stage for peace, turning El Salvador into a democratic success story.

However, it took more than 70,000 deaths and mass human rights violations, before peace was reached.

Archbishop Romero's murder is a good example.

War against rebels

It was, according to declassified US documents and other witnesses, carried out by Salvadorean police intelligence agents on the orders of Major Roberto D'Aubuisson.

President George W Bush and his father George Bush
Mr Bush's father was president when a peace deal was signed
He was at the time running the army's intelligence war and went on to found the right-wing Arena party which is in power in El Salvador today.

No-one was brought to justice and for the next decade, when President Bush's father was heavily involved in Salvador policy, the same police agents would be at the centre of US funded efforts to wipe out left-wing guerrillas.

To defeat the rebels, the US equipped and trained an army which kidnapped and disappeared more than 30,000 people, and carried out large-scale massacres of thousands of old people women and children.

Republican worries

Many of the colonels in charge of these policies, far from facing war crimes tribunals at the end of the war were later made US citizens.

George Bush's father, then US vice-president, also visited El Salvador in December 1983.

At the time the guerrillas were winning the war and the Reagan administration was deeply worried that a Democrat-controlled congress would cut military aid because of the Salvadorean army's dreadful human rights record.

In election campaign ads, President Bush senior later boasted that he "faced down the death squads in El Salvador".

In reality he met with the high command of the army - whose policies were behind the killings.

Priests murdered

The Salvadoreans were given a list of names of army officers the US wanted removed.

El Salvador has remained one of the most violent societies in the hemisphere

President Bush's aide, who personally handed over the list, was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North - later discredited for selling weapons to Iran to pay for the CIA's secret wars in Central America.

The war ended largely because Perestroika in the Soviet block forced the guerrillas to change their aims and opt for a democratic platform.

But the US only applied serious pressure on the government to negotiate after the rebels launched their largest offensive of the war in November 1989, showing that they were far from defeated.

At the same time an elite US-trained army unit murdered six Jesuit priests, the country's leading intellectuals, in cold blood.

The murders showed that after a decade of US instruction the army still had a lot to learn about human rights and democracy.

The priests were taken out of their house and repeatedly shot through the head with machine guns.

A US congressional investigation found strong evidence that the army's high command had ordered the murders, prompting a cut in military aid.

Model for Colombia?

Since the end of the civil war, El Salvador has remained one of the most violent societies in the hemisphere - with a murder rate rivalled only by Colombia.

A new civilian police force has struggled to cope with a crime wave in a country still awash with weapons and plenty of former combatants hardened by a decade of killing.

Today the model of US involvement in El Salvador is being put forward by some in Washington as a possible solution for Colombia's 30-year civil war.

Apart from the open agenda of free trade and immigration - wishing to raise support for a policy of more active US involvement in Colombia may be part of the real reason behind President Bush's choice to visit El Salvador.

However many would say it takes a serious re-writing of history to portray El Salvador as a US success story.

See also:

24 Mar 02 | Americas
Bush backs Peru's war on terrorism
25 Mar 00 | Americas
Salvadoreans remember slain cleric
07 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: El Salvador
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