Military Youth Coup in El Salvador 1979

[ 1979 ]

[I]n a climate of extreme violence, sharp political polarization, and potential revolution, yet another generation of young officers staged a coup in an effort to restore order and address popular frustrations. This new Military Youth deposed President Romero on October 15, 1979, issuing a proclamation decrying the violent, corrupt, and exclusionary nature of the regime. Beyond their concern with preventing "another Nicaragua," the young officers also were motivated by a desire to address the country's critical economic situation. Their vague aspirations in this regard apparently revolved around the achievement of an acceptable level of political stability that would staunch the flight of capital out of the country and restore to some degree the smooth functioning of the economy. In this regard, the 1979 coup resembled those of 1948 and 1960. Where it differed, however, was in the realization that effective and radical (by Salvadoran standards) reforms would have to be included in their program even at the risk of alienating the economic elite.

The first junta established by the coup leaders included the officer who headed the reformist faction within the officer corps, Colonel Adolfo Arnoldo Majano Ramos, along with another officer of more uncertain political inclinations, Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutierrez. The other junta members were Ungo from the MNR, Roman Mayorga (a former president of the Jesuit-run Central American University Jose Simeon Canas), and Mario Andino, a representative of the private sector. This junta wasted little time in announcing and attempting to implement a reformist program. It enacted decrees to freeze landholdings over ninety- eight hectares and to nationalize the coffee export trade. It did not move immediately to effect agrarian reform, but it promised that such a reform would be forthcoming. Another decree officially disbanded Orden. The implementation of that decree, like that of many others during the period of the reformist juntas, was hampered seriously by the limited influence of the reformist faction over the more conservative security force apparatus. Perhaps the best indication of this limitation was the fact that the level of violence carried out by the security forces against members of the mass organizations increased after the installation of the junta.

The upswing in repression against the left reflected not only the resistance of conservative military and security force commanders but also the outrage expressed by elite landowners and the majority of the private sector over the reform decrees and the prospect of even more wide-ranging actions to come. Some observers have alleged that the campaign of terror waged by the death squads was organized and coordinated by conservative officers under the leadership of Major Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta, a member of the country's executive intelligence agency, with the financial backing of the oligarchy. Although the evidence for this sort of sweeping conspiratorial concept is inconclusive, the existence of ties between the economic elite and security force personnel seems undeniable.

The military's reaction in general to the junta's reformism was mixed. The reformists sought to incorporate new sectors into the political system but stopped short of including the mass organizations in that effort because of the radical ties of those organizations. Conservative officers, led by the defense minister, Colonel Guillermo Garcia, saw the reformists as playing into the hands of the left, weakening the military institution, and increasing the likelihood of a seizure of power by "extremist" elements. Garcia, abetted by Gutierrez, worked to undermine the reformists by excluding Majano's followers from key commands and positions through transfer or denial of promotion. The majority of Salvadoran officers seemed to fall into neither the reformist nor the conservative camp. Although they shared a generalized anticommunism and a strong commitment to the military institution, they were not sufficiently convinced that the kind of radical reform advocated by the junta was necessary. They opted for a sort of concerned neutrality and inaction that ultimately worked in favor of the aggressive conservative faction.

The first reformist junta eventually failed because of its inability to curb the increasing violence against the left. It was replaced on January 10, 1980, by a second junta. Majano and Gutierrez remained as the military representatives, but the civilian members now included two prominent Christian Democrats-- the party's 1977 vice presidential candidate, Morales, and Hector Dada. Jose Avalos was the third civilian, replacing Andino, whose departure left the government without significant ties to the private sector. Direct participation in the government by the Christian Democrats was by no means universally accepted among the party membership. It was viewed as a bad precedent by those who still clung idealistically to their commitment to the democratic process. Moreover, the actual commitment of the government to effective reform was still questioned by the more progressive members of the party. On a practical political level, some felt that casting the lot of the PDC with that of the junta represented too great a risk of the party's prestige (admittedly somewhat eroded at that point anyway) for too little possible gain. On the other side of the ledger, however, proponents of participation (including Duarte, who had by this time returned from Venezuela) saw it as an opportunity to effect the kind of reforms that the party had long advocated, to establish a political center in El Salvador, and to make a transition to a genuinely democratic system.

The second junta was dogged by the human rights issue no less than its predecessor. The continued high level of political violence was attributable not only to the actions of the death squads and the security forces but also to the decision by the left to shun cooperation with the junta in favor of a call for armed insurrection. The three major mass organizations, along with the UDN, issued such a call on January 11, 1980. They established an umbrella front designated the National Coordinator, subsequently amended to Revolutionary Coordinator of the Masses (Coordinadora Revolucionaria de las Masas--CRM), to advance "the struggle." The MNR endorsed the manifesto of the CRM, further undermining the legitimacy of the junta government. The heightened militancy of the CRM was manifested in stepped-up demonstrations, occupations of churches and buildings, and strikes. On January 22, a mass rally held in San Salvador was fired on by the police, and twenty-four demonstrators were killed. On February 25, PDC activist Mario Zamora and others were murdered, apparently because they had been denounced publicly as subversives by now ex-Major D'Aubuisson. Zamora's killing led directly to the resignation of his brother, Ruben, from the government. Ruben Zamora established his own political party, the Popular Social Christian Movement (Movimiento Popular Social Cristiano--MPSC), taking a number of other disillusioned Christian Democrats with him. Reflecting the intense renewed debate within the PDC over participation in the government, Dada resigned from the junta. His place was taken in a third junta by Duarte, who finally decided to take a direct role in the process that he had supported previously from behind the scenes.

In an effort to display its commitment to change and to exert its authority within the country, the third junta decreed the most sweeping reforms enacted to that time, expropriating landholdings above 500 hectares and nationalizing commercial banks and savings and loan institutions. At the same time, it declared a state of siege in an apparent effort to back up its reforms with a show of force against the insurrectionist left. There were some paradoxical aspects to this policy of coupling reform with a hard military line toward the mass organizations and incipient guerrilla forces. For one thing, it strengthened the hand of military conservatives led by Garcia and undercut efforts by Majano and others to reach an accommodation with wavering non-Marxist labor and peasant groups. It also helped frustrate the implementation of the agrarian reform program by facilitating reprisals by security force personnel or paramilitary groups (the now "unofficial" remnants of Orden) against the recipients of the expropriated acreage, much of which was distributed on a cooperative basis. Ultimately, the policies of the third junta seemed to do little to expand its popular base or enhance its legitimacy. As was the case with its predecessors, it also failed to rein in political violence, official or unofficial, originating from either side of the political spectrum.

That violence reached a dramatic apex in March 1980 with the murder of the archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdamez, on March 24, 1980. Romero, who had been selected as archbishop in part because of his moderate political views, was influenced strongly by the liberation theology (see Glossary) movement, and he was appalled by the brutality employed with increasing frequency by government forces against the populace and particularly against the clergy. In his weekly radio homilies, he related statistics on political assassination and excesses committed by the military. He frequently urged soldiers to refuse to carry out what he characterized as immoral orders. His high profile made him an important political figure, and he had used his influence to urge the PDC to pull out of the junta and to argue against United States military aid to El Salvador. Despite his stature as the country's Catholic primate, he was targeted for assassination; all indications are that the killing was carried out by the right wing.

Romero's funeral on March 30 produced a dramatic clash between demonstrators and security forces. The BPR, seeking to capitalize politically on the archbishop's assassination, organized an antigovernment rally in San Salvador's Plaza of the Cathedral. What had been billed as a peaceful protest, however, turned violent. Responsibility for the melee that followed never has been firmly placed. Shooting erupted, apparently from both sides, and the police opened fire on the crowd. The resultant news footage of unarmed demonstrators being gunned down on the steps of the National Cathedral had a strong impact abroad, especially in the United States. El Salvador became almost overnight a focus of international debate and scrutiny.

The violent incidents that drew foreign attention to the chaotic situation in El Salvador were played out against a backdrop of a continuing power struggle within the military. While Garcia continued to undermine the position of the reformist faction led by Majano from within the institution, other conservative commanders were plotting to stage a coup to force out the Majanistas once and for all. What at first appeared to be a preemptive strike against these conspirators on May 7, 1980, later proved to be the last nail in Majano's political coffin. A number of plotters, including D'Aubuisson, were captured by Majano loyalists during a planning session; incriminating documents also were seized at the site. The Majanistas, backed by the PDC members of the junta, demanded that D'Aubuisson and the others be tried for treason. The ex-major's release on May 13 and the subsequent failure of efforts to bring him to trial demonstrated the power shift within the military and the almost complete lack of PDC influence outside the reformist faction.

Majano's personal fall from power began with the announcement by Colonel Garcia on May 10 that Colonel Gutierrez was to function as sole commander in chief of the armed forces, a responsibility previously shared with Majano. The reassignment of Majanist officers, usually to foreign diplomatic positions, continued until September, when almost all remaining reformist officers were removed from their posts. Colonel Majano himself survived an assassination attempt by right-wing gunmen in November, only to be ousted from the junta on December 6 while on a visit to Panama. Majano returned in a vain effort to shore up his support among the ranks. By this time, however, he was practically bereft of support within the officer corps, the focus of real power in El Salvador at the time. Majano eventually fled into foreign exile rather than risk further attempts on his life. Many observers believed at the time that he took with him the last hopes of averting a major civil conflict through effective social and economic reform.

Related Conflicts

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