The face of American policy in Latin America.
Through the 1980s, I wrote extensively about the impact of US policies in Central America, particularly in El Salvador and Guatemala, which included the training and funding of brutal dictators, corrupt politicians, and paramilitary death squads — iron-fisted rulers who ravaged and tortured their people, and murdered tens of thousands of those who tried to resist — teachers, farmers, campesinos union people, priests and nuns and church workers, and generally speaking the very poorest of the poor.
In El Salvador, US-supported neo-Nazis such as Major Roberto D’Aubuisson raged regularly about Jesuit Communist scum that needed to be eradicated by any means necessary. D’Aubuisson studied unconventional warfare in the U.S. and Taiwan. He once told European journalists, “You Germans were very intelligent. You realized that the Jews were responsible for the spread of communism, so you killed them.” Former U.S. Ambassador Robert White called D’Aubuisson a “pathological killer.”
Many of those named by D’Aubuisson and other military death-squad activists would end up at the bottom of a ravine, hanging from a tree, or just lying akimbo in the street, shredded and providing an abundance of food for the vultures. The bullets that tore their bodies to shreds were often paid for by US tax dollars.
In her newly released book, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, noted poet Carolyn Forche offers an eyewitness account of the kind of abject violence supported and encouraged by the US in general, and closely supervised at the time by pardoned Iran Contra criminal Elliot Abrams, who was at the time the assistant secretary for Inter-American Affairs.
At one point, Forche and a Salvadoran friend come upon a scene so horrific it almost defies description, although through the 1980s it wasn’t unusual. “Turkey vultures hopped from corpse to corpse grunting and hissing…. They pull flesh in long strips from the corpses … a ribbon of intestine hangs from a beak … they are so fat with flesh they are unable to fly….”
Francisco Herrera was also an eyewitness to the brutal US-supported dictatorship. He first went to El Salvador in 1980 as a young Jesuit, and then through the 1980s he led human rights fact-finding missions and humanitarian aid missions to the war-ravaged country.
Trump’s new attorney general, William Barr, was the one who pardoned Elliot Abrams, after all this mass murder, while he was attorney general under George H.W. Bush. So we can thank Barr that Elliot Abrams still influences US foreign policy.
For many years, Herrera, now a noted folk singer and revered human rights activist in the Bay Area, had repressed some of the worst scenes of terror in order to go on with his life. But he is outraged about the cleansing of Abrams’s role in supporting ten years of mass murder in Central America and his recent elevation to special adviser to the Trump administration for the so-called US democratic intervention in Venezuela.
I spoke to Herrera in Oakland, California, on February 27th about his experiences in El Salvador through the 1980s even as Abrams covered up one documented massacre after another and the mainstream media and US politicians continually played it down.
Dennis Bernstein: Welcome, Francisco Herrera. Thank you for your willingness to talk about your eyewitness experiences in El Salvador through the 1980s — what you witnessed and your ability to overcome your own fear in order to bring medical aid and comfort to the many Central American victims of US foreign policy. Tell us when you first learned about Abrams and what some of the results were of the kind of policies he was overseeing there.
Francisco Herrera: I first became aware of the work of Elliot Abrams in 1981, when we were commemorating the first anniversary of the murder of Archbishop Romero, who was killed by the military under the leadership of Abrams and folks like him. I was in San Diego working in a Jesuit parish. From 1981 through 1985, we regularly collected medicines and received refugee families in San Diego, in LA, and in San Francisco and Oakland. We dealt with the trauma of people who had seen their relatives cut into pieces or burnt alive, who had survived horrific torture. I first went to El Salvador itself, coming from Panama, in 1985. I spent a few days there and then began preparing to work at Jesuit Refugee Services, which was operating internal refugee camps in El Salvador, helping people who had been displaced by war. It was basically a copy of the Phoenix Operation in Vietnam, where they were bombing the countryside and forcing survivors into refugee camps, kidnapping children and selling them off, just like they had done in Argentina. Ironically, this is what is happening again with the kids that Trump has separated from their families, and who are now being given up for adoption and put in foster care. From 1985 to 1992, I was either working there or taking delegations in and out of El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala.
DB: Let’s talk a little about the kinds of things that were happening in El Salvador as a result of the policy imposed by, among others, Elliot Abrams. This was a slaughterous military trained by the US government. Many who fled did so because the United States supported this so-called anti-communist slaughter.
Herrera: One of the things Elliot Abrams brought to El Salvador was cocaine. I remember the number of testimonies of soldiers who were traumatized after being forced to inhale cocaine so that they would be ready to go and kill unarmed children and families. The cocaine enabled soldiers to commit the atrocities they did. I remember one night I was counting the bombs I could hear in the distance. Within an hour, I had already recorded hearing over 250 explosions. It was very commonplace to see bodies along the roads. I remember one guy in his early twenties the death squads had left for dead. They had injected him with poison and dumped him in one of the dumps where they would throw human beings. He was able to drag himself to a house that rescued him. Every night we would have to clean his wounds and we had to put a rag in his mouth because we couldn’t afford to have him yelling and risk that a neighbor would hear and report us to the government. You never knew who would accuse you of being a communist or whatever.
I remember another young man in the refugee camp who had shrapnel in his spinal cord and was in such pain that we had to keep him on suicide watch. One woman couldn’t take it anymore and finally refused to eat. Two days later she was dead. I remember another man whose throat was cut and was also left for dead. He was able to literally hold his head in position and run to a convent. He survived but was unable to speak and suffered from epileptic seizures.
For a period of four months in this refugee camp, every single day we had to go through a military checkpoint to get in or out of the camp. I remember on January 16, 1988, they came with a list of twelve people they were going to take away. It was breathtaking to see the courage of those who refused to let others be taken away. Eventually the soldiers left without taking anyone, but the next day they circled us and fired countless rounds and threw in grenades.
DB: Bullets and grenades facilitated again by US policy. Wasn’t Abrams one of the US officials who minimized and covered up the slaughter of the Jesuit priests in 1989?
Herrera: The Jesuit University in El Salvador had a very good team of directors, and the president of the university did very powerful work in the area of reconciliation, bringing forth issues that would force dialogue. He was not at all someone advocating for the FMLN, he was organizing dialogue. On November 16, 1989, the military entered the house where the president lived on the university campus. They tortured some people and then shot all of them in the head. This is when the military was being dismantled and the US was facing defeat, so they staged several of these desperate acts. It was shocking because it involved leaders of the intellectual community, but this happened to hundreds of thousands of people. I remember how a young man with mental disabilities, a neighbor of ours, was burned alive. It was an unbelievably sadistic act. I spent some time in Guatemala and while I was there I heard how the military went into one town and actually ripped open the heart of one of the leaders and bit into it, in order to subdue the community.
DB: And let’s be clear, this is not something exceptional. This is an example of the kind of unbelievable savagery that the United States supported through Elliot Abrams, which led to the fleeing of very significant populations of these countries.
Herrera: The US then created these gangs of young people who had survived the torture and deported them to El Salvador, which accounts for the extreme violence which survives to this day. They created a situation in which drug smuggling could thrive. A friend of mine who was working for the DEA was brutally murdered and cut up in Mexico, and the tapes of his torture were sent to his mother. He was murdered because the CIA didn’t want to be caught smuggling drugs.
DB: I confirmed that policy through a DEA agent named Selerino Castillo III, who documented weapon shipments and cocaine shipments operated from Ilopango Airport. There was a deal between the United States government and drug traffickers whereby they would be able to bring their drugs into the US and then fly weapons to the so-called Contras. So that at the same time they are supporting the slaughter in El Salvador, they are working to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.
By the way, the person who Trump just appointed the new attorney general, William Barr, was the one who pardoned Elliot Abrams, after all this mass murder, while he was attorney general under George H.W. Bush. So we can thank Barr that Elliot Abrams still influences US foreign policy.
Herrera: Yes, what they are trying to do now in Venezuela is what they practiced in El Salvador, in Guatemala, and in Honduras. This continues to be a horrific piece of history. Still today, if you go to Mission Street, you are going to find a lot of Salvadoran veterans whose lives were destroyed. They are alcoholics, doing drugs, sleeping in the streets. Understandably, they have a hard time dealing with what they did to their own populations.
DB: It is hard to describe the suffering, how vicious it was. And there were always CIA observers there. There were always CIA officials observing the torture and the killings. I don’t know how you had the courage to live through that. Frankly, every time I think about this there’s a sort of traffic jam between my mind and my heart. I almost can’t take it, and I wasn’t even there, I was witnessing it in other ways.
Herrera: I have to say that what made a very big difference was that people in the United States refused to participate. And this is what we have to do now, we have to force the United States to stop their stupid sanctions against the democratically elected government of Venezuela. It is our job to get out on the streets, to call Congress and tell them that this cannot be done in our name.
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(Commoner Call cartoon by Mark L. Taylor, 2019. Open source and free for non-derivative use with link to www.thecommonercall.org )