Green Berets in El Salvador
By 1987 "our guys simply stopped reporting...up through the chain [because] they were reporting things they felt were absolute violations, and were absolutely wrong, and they were not seeing any action taken. ...It was up to the State Department to arrest those people or to investigate those at fault... .You couldn't go up to people and say '40 persons got themselves whacked over here because they were thinking of forming a workers' union. And the landowner is not into that at all, so he asked his buddy the Colonel to send a squad over and take care of the problem. ' [If] you did that, it was real easy to find yourself on the receiving end of a grenade, or a bomb, or a rifle bullet. So...our guys...reported the information and then just saw it disappear into that great void."
An ex-adviser in El Salvador says senior U.S. officials covered up the combat role of U.S. advisers and hid a pattern of human rights violations by the Salvadoran army.
Greg Walker was a U.S. military adviser in El Salvador, and he is not happy with the people who assigned him there. Walker is the director of Veterans of Special Operations, which, he says, represents an estimated 4,500 U.S. advisers, pilots, medics, and other personnel who served in El Salvador during the 12-year war. But, according to Walker, since the Pentagon denies that U.S. military personnel in El Salvador served in a combat situation, it refuses to give them proper compensation or recognition. That refusal means lower pay, no combat military decorations such as the Purple Heart, and less chance of promotion. Walker, a Green Beret who volunteered for El Salvador, says that’s not fair.
Fairness is a different kind of question for those Salvadorans who survived the 75,000 killings and the consistent pattern of human rights abuses that marked the U.S.-sponsored war. What bothers Walker, however, is that although this spring’s U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador laid the blame for the majority of these human rights crime on U.S.-backed Salvadoran Armed Forces, U.S. personnel are being tarred with the same brush. Walker served as a Green Beret Army Special Forces adviser in El Salvador from 1982 to 1985 when the Salvadoran military, after substantial U.S. training, committed some of the worse violations.
Walker maintains that although he and other U.S. advisers secretly took part in combat, they regularly reported extra-judicial killings and other crimes to the U.S. Embassy and their military superiors. Those senior officials there and in Washington routinely covered them up.
President Clinton has ordered the CIA, Pentagon, and the State Department to pursue an “expedited review” of all documents relevant to 32 specific violations in El Salvador in response to the U.N. report.
Frank Smyth: What was your mandate while you were in El Salvador? What exactly were you doing?
Greg Walker: Well, the mandate of the entire military assistance program, if there was a single mandate, was to reorganize, restructure, and reform the Salvadoran army.
FS: Were there any restrictions placed upon you and other personnel about what it was you were and were not allowed to do in terms of participating in combat or going into the field?
GW: Well, the restrictions and the limitations essentially were placed upon us by the United States military through Congress. For example, where did the 55 advisers limit come from? That limitation did not come from Congress. That limitation came from the military itself when they sent a colonel to the country in the very early ‘80s to reassess what was going to be necessary to upgrade the military and to keep America’s involvement to a minimum.
FS: You mean Fred Woerner?
GW: Fred Woerner, Joe Stringham, any number of officers went down there. …Beginning in 1983, there were always no more than 55 U.S. military special operations advisers, as per the mandate in-country. But, at the same time, especially with the Army Special Forces advisers, we are trained in a multitude of different military skills such as communicators, medics, etc. So you saw a lot more highly trained, highly skilled special operations advisers in El Salvador because they were slotted into those MILGROUP staff slots. ...So, probably at any one time, we had as many as 300 conventional and soft advisers working in-country at any one time, carrying out mobile training teams. Quite a bit more than when you were given the big 55 number. But you just have to understand the mechanics; it was no secret, it was just that people simply did not explore and know the right questions to ask.
FS: What about military limitations?
GW: The limitations that were placed upon the military adviser in the very early stages were that they would not carry long guns or assault rifles or things like that, and were restricted to essentially carrying only a sidearm, which at the time was either a .45 or a 9mm pistol. It was typical of the State Department policy process that if we didn’t look like we were in a war, then the other side would take it that we weren’t really there to be a in war.
…In 1982, when I first went into the country, we were provided with long guns, or assault rifles, by Salvadoran commanders who refused to be responsible for our safety out in the “training areas” or in the field, or going between the cuartel [military base] to the capital, [or] any kind of transportation or movement whatsoever. Simply because they knew what the reality of the war was for both themselves and for us out there. At that time I was working out of Sonsonate, and we were pulled out because of the Las Hojas massacre, and moved over to the Caballo Rio where the cavalry was down the street of Atlacatl [Battalion]. Certainly in 1983, when [Lt. Cmdr. Al] Schaufelberger was killed, we were at that time given permission through the MILGROUP commander by the State Department, the Embassy, whoever you want to cal it, to be fully armed.
Now [New York Times correspondent] Lydia Chávez, are you familiar with her? Lydia was probably one of the most gutsball reporters I have ever met down there, and the morning after Schaufelberger was killed, Lydia ran into myself and the Special Forces captain over at Estado Mayor [military headquarters]. We had two visiting military dignitaries with us, we were armed with an M-16 shotgun and submachine guns, and Lydia to her great credit, asked the question as she was staring at us in our vehicles. “What happened last night? Are you guys armed any differently?”
Well, we had managed to stuff everything that was short and ugly under the seat because we saw Lydia was coming. Lydia had a good reputation for ferreting things out like that, but one individual who should have known better, but didn’t, left his M-16 fully exposed on the back seat with a magazine in it. And being good Special Forces troopers, we immediately lied to the media and said, “No, although they just killed the director of security for the entire embassy, there’s no difference at all in our armed attitude.” And Lydia, with her photographer there, clearly saw that rifle and simply told us, “You guys take care of yourselves” and did not take pictures, which she said she could have, and did not report that. But we were dully armed immediately after Schaufelberger was killed.
As far as contact, in 1984, during the elections, we were under continuous fire from the FMLN because we were manning reporting sites all over the country in all the nice places like El Paraíso and Usultán. I was in Usultán then, and we took fire in the cuartel every other night. In ’84, you have to understand that the military base at Palmerola in Honduras served as an aviation launch platform for U.S. Air Force aircraft to include AC-130 gunships which flew rescue missions for us specifically, so that if we got hit in the cuartels or had to get out of the cuartels and go into an escape and evasion mode and had to get picked up either by rotary aircraft or be covered by AC-130s.
FS: Did the officers or military personnel involved get combat credit for these actions, but it was not made public? Is that correct?
GW: No, they don’t get credit if it’s not acknowledged that it’s combat. At the same time, we have advisers in El Salvador who were being paid hostile fire pay as early as 1981.
FS: Where did people come under fire in El Salvador, inside of cuartels or in the field?
GW: U.S. advisers down there came under fire most in the cuartels. As a matter of fact, some of the major battles that U.S. advisers were involved with took place in cuartels, but we came under fire in the field as well, and quite obviously came under fire in the urban areas, as Schaufelberger’s experience dictates. The thing that is forgotten here, thanks in part to the lack of coverage by the American media, is that El Salvador is a country that was taking part in a guerilla war, and anybody who studies anything about guerilla warfare knows that there are no safe havens. So we were subject to fire at any time, any place.
For example, where do you train people to do fire and maneuver things? Where do you train people how to patrol? Where do you train people how to use anti-tank weapons, anti-bunker weapons and things like that? In a place like El Salvador, you have to train them outside of the cuartel area, which means you have to go to the field, and you have to specifically find areas if at all possible where there are no or minimal inhabitants, which is difficult because it’s so intensely populated. Well, in other words, you’re out exactly where the guerillas are and they have a tendency to really kind of get a little P.O.’d when their property is invaded by folks like us.
FS: Were all these contact with the enemy outside cuartels reported to MILGROUP commanders in San Salvador?
GW: In every incident, to my knowledge, there was a very strict reporting system and it went up the chain of command up to the U.S. MILGROUP.
FS: When I was in El Salvador, the American Embassy only admitted, as late as right before the offensive in 1989, that only on three occasions had U.S. military advisers come under fire.
GW: There is a big difference in what the U.S. military advisers, who were conventional Army, Air Force, Marine, as well as special operations forces representing all the services, were required and trained to do, what they actually did, and what the State Department or the Embassy did with that information afterwards. So if that was your experience, all I can tell you is they did a very good job, because three times under fire--that’s pretty good. …That’s clearly not only a misrepresentation of the facts, but it’s a lie.
FS: When these individual members of the military testified before Congress and gave reports underestimating the level of engagement with the enemy, were they acting of their own volition, or on orders from superiors?
GW: …Was there an orchestrated, very carefully structured program of downplaying, misleading, misrepresenting, not quite giving the right answer if the precise question isn’t asked? Quite obviously, the answer is, yes, there was.
FS: From your perspective, why wouldn’t you want to let this rest? What is it that you feel the American military personnel in El Salvador are being cheated out of because of this policy?
GW: Well, we’re not letting it rest because it’s not the right thing to do…In today’s political and military politics, it would appear to be a very simplistic answer, but in a nutshell, approximately 4,500 or 5,000 American military personnel served in El Salvador over a 12-year period. To my knowledge, and certainly we’ve heard from a great many folks, and from what we’ve been able to see, we know that we are serving in a war. We had friends who were both wounded and killed in that war. We had a vital commitment that was handed to us to go down there and do the best job possible under extremely difficult diplomatic and wartime constrictions and restraints, and we did this job. To turn around and see that effort sullied by a formal attitude that there was no war…dishonors everything we though we were representing and involved in. And certainly, a [current] example of that is the U.N. human rights report, which essentially is not being clarified by the proper authorities in the government and is making the military personnel that were involved down there look somewhat like we were involved in things and training and teaching things that were not at all honorable, and that is not the case. What are we being cheated out of? Our just and due acknowledgement for a job well done.
FS: In terms of levels of engagement, are we talking dozens or hundreds?
GW: …[O]ver a 12-year period of time, [that] number is in the high hundreds to the low thousands. And I consider that a round fired where there was American military personnel in the area is coming under fire. [For example] in San Salvador when they were blowing the telephone and the power pole...you were under fire. So I would say, in that instance, American military personnel came under fire on an everyday occurrence.
FS: Have you any estimates, or perhaps the figures, on how many U.S. military personnel were killed in El Salvador?
GW: Fifteen were killed.
FS: You made a point earlier about human rights and some of the revelations that came out in the U.N. Truth Commission Report and you mentioned that this report somehow suggests that American military personnel were involved in things that cast them in a bad, dishonorable light. Could you explain what you meant by that?
GW: With respect to human rights, this needs to be made real clear, and this is one of the things that really is a sticking point for most of us who served down there, both Special Forces and conventional. We were mandated…to identify, to gather information, to root out those that possibly were involved in human rights violations,…who were actually taking part in death squad activities, in massacres, in any of the things that were mentioned in that report.
American advisers made every attempt to do this, often at risk to themselves, and in fact, we were, by 1984 and ’85, finding ourselves targeted by the extreme right for this kind of activity, as well as by the guerillas who were ticked off about our military involvement. Now, it was real easy to accept the guerillas trying to take us out, but it was a little difficult to accept that the folk we were supposed to be supporting in some cases were out for our scalps as well.
FS: And you were encouraging the Salvadorans not to commit violations according to the U.S. military policy on human rights?
GW: Well, you can’t lump the entire Salvadoran military into the same pot…We were to identify those Salvadoran military officers who were, in fact, very concerned with changing that policy, and were not taking part in, but were part of a system that had been involved in that kind of thing for years. And that’s endemic to that entire region. That’s historical fact, like it or not.
So we’d identify the senior officers within the military structure that you would want to preen, and to cultivate, and to bring to the forefront so you could replace the ones that were tainted, and at the same time, we were charged with training these young officers coming out of the officers school, the lieutenants, and the new and emerging Salvadoran non-commissioned corps, in the entire human rights process…[R]eporting did take place, and when my particular team was pulled out of Sonsonate, and pulled back in 1983 after Las Hojas was discovered, and those 70 peasants were discovered on my particular rifle range, we were held in check for ten days as a bargaining chip by the State Department to try to force the military structure to cough up the military personnel or the people responsible.
Now, what seems to be the bone of contention here is not that American military personnel weren’t doing a hell of a job as far as gathering information, intelligence, and turning it over to the people responsible for evaluating it and taking further action, but how much of that was shared when questions were asked by the Congress or by human rights groups or by reporters. That is the big stumbling block as far as El Mozote was concerned. When that was brought to the forefront by the media, the State Department turned around and just about said it absolutely didn’t happen, [it] couldn’t find any evidence, you’re just trying to muck up this whole thing for us down here. As we find out now, it most certainly did happen.
FS: Were there any instances, for example El Mozote or Las Hojas, or other cases of particular violations, where you were aware of information, or you personally or MILGROUP was aware of massacres that were then not made public? Or human rights violations or practices by members of the army which led to human rights violations which then were covered up in terms of specifics?
GW: We were aware of any number of things, not only on the Salvadoran Armed Forces side of the house, but on the FMLN's side of the house. We photographed Salvadoran soldiers who were shot down at San Sebastian, San Vicente, Puente de Oro, the other side of San Miguel. Both sides committed some pretty heinous acts all in the name of the common good, I guess. The only way to answer that, I guess, is to say that we did a hell of a lot of reporting, and by 1987, from what I've been able to ascertain from letters I've been sent by people down there, after a while, our guys simply stopped reporting. And the reason that they stopped reporting it up through the chain is that they were reporting things that they felt were absolute violations, and were absolutely wrong, and they were not seeing any action taken.
It was up to the State Department to arrest those people or to investigate those at fault. Now, the diplomats will say "You have to understand it's a long and involved process." But for somebody who's down there in the field and participating in the uncovering of these things, you see one body, or a group of bodies, and it's pretty difficult not to say, "Why can't you stop that now, with the information that we've provided for you?" And in fact, when you're being targeted by the right, when you have to watch your front as well as your back, and you're being told "Don't worry, it's been taken care of, just don't bring it up again," that takes a lot of the impetus out of the reporting. That's unfortunately human nature.
FS: The reporting was being stopped because nothing was being done. But did earlier reporting include specifics--names, and dates, and facts?
GW: Absolutely. As best as we could ascertain them. You couldn't go up to people and say 40 persons got themselves whacked over here because they were thinking of forming a workers' union, and the landowner is not into that at all, so he asked his buddy the Colonel to send a squad over and take care of the problem. Because if and when you did that, it was real easy to find yourself on the receiving end of a grenade, or a bomb, or a rifle bullet. And so it was something that had to be done very carefully, very slowly, and our guys put themselves at tremendous risk to accomplish that, and then reported the information and then just saw it disappear into that great void.
FS: Specifically, to whom was this information reported?
GW: Any kind of combat field info all went up your immediate chain of command. If I was, say, at Usulutan and got something like that, I would report it up one step above myself--in most cases to US. MILGROUP. From there it would be channeled through the deputy commander, MILGROUP commander, and from there, directly to the Ambassador,...[ and] directly from the military, right into the hands of those charged with conducting our foreign policy in that country.
FS: Then it presumably would have gone on to Washington?
GW: And from there it would have gone directly on to Washington. And that's a good point, too. Washington wanted to know what was going on in El Salvador, and did indeed know on an almost real time basis. In 1984, when had I had a tape recorder, I would have loved to have taped this one--the American advisory element in El Paraiso came under fire. An AC-130 gunship was scrambled from Honduras, and flown over El Paraiso to help pinpoint those guerrilla actions. This was all being monitored by the MILGROUP and the Embassy. Southern Command was called immediately and came on the line as well, and then a line went up to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And it was real interesting listening to all of these parties all over asking, "How are these five Americans, where are they, and what's going to happen to them?" The interest level in Washington was really high. They knew at any time exactly what it was that was going on, where we were, and what we were doing, throughout the entire war.
FS: And then at a certain point, people decided it wasn't worth trying to get this information, nothing was being done, and it was in fact dangerous to get it?
GW:It was very dangerous to get it, and it was just like you were feeding reports into this big report file, and if something was being done, it was taking an enormous amount of time, or it wasn't really happening at all, because[the] bigger picture was intruding upon the immediacy of what you were seeing or hearing.
FS: So your point in terms of honor of the role of U.S. military people on the ground is that it is not that the revelations of the U.N. Truth Commission aren't true. What you're saying is it wasn't the fault of the people on the ground that nothing was done; it was the fault of people higher up who didn't do anything with the information. Is that correct?
GW: That's correct.
War in Periods of Peace
During the Iran-Contra hearings, House chief counsel John Nields asked Lt. Col. Oliver North about a line in his notes referring to a "delicate stage of transition from 'blank' run operation to 'blank'-run."
Nields: Well you put in some blanks, you said "blank in two places, there's nothing classified about either of those words and one of them is CIA.
Nields: And the other is Southern Command.
The operation referred to was El Salvador. In his interview, Walker shed some light on what North meant about a "delicate stage of transition" from a CIA- to Southern Command-run operation.
Greg Walker: The mandate for the Central Intelligence Agency upon its creation in, I believe, 1947 is that the Agency has responsibility for military operations during periods of declared peace. In other words, they are responsible and indeed can direct, run, operate in these kinds of conflicts totally legally. During those times of declared peace, Special Forces are made available, by law, to the Agency, which is why Special Forces has always been the advisory arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. That is no big secret. The only time that that changes is a period when war is no longer considered to be a peace time.
I know this seems contradictory, war being undertaken during periods of peace, but that's when the transition goes from the Agency's direct control to the American military's direct control and when that happens, Special Forces, if they have been working with or under the auspices of the Agency, they flip-flop back under the control of the military and that I think is what you're seeing in that testimony.
The early stages of the war were very much Agency-directed and -oriented, and as the war and our commitment expanded, as our assets in Panama through the US. Southern Command and in Honduras became more and more and more involved, control was taken out of the hands of the Agency and turned back over to the formal military through the United States Southern Command.
1. The mostly indigenous peasants were executed at the Las Hojas fanning
cooperative in February 1983. An arrest warrant was issued for Col. Araujo in
1987, but never carried out. Col. Araujo was subsequently cleared of all charges
in a blanket amnesty issued by Pres. Jose Napoleon Duarte in October 1987.
2. The 1981 El Mozote massacre, in which the Salvadoran army killed hundreds
of unarmed villagers, was reported by Ray Bonner (New York Times) and Anna
Guillermoprieto (Washington Post). Embassy and State Department officials
denied the incident and after considerable pressure, Bomer was transferred off
the Central America beat and eventually left the Times. Eleven years later, the
U.N. Truth Commission report corroborated the accounts of the massacre and
the guilt of the Salvadoran army.
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