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Salvador death-squad leader becomes right's hope

The dashing, tough-talking politician galvanizes his crowd in this small western El Salvador town to cheer, chant, and sing.

His rousing political rallies -- held every weekend in country towns and cities - look at first blush like signs of democracy flowering in this nation run by a joint military-civilian junta.

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But this popular politician is Roberto d'Aubuisson, a former Army major who built his reputation as chief of the paramilitary esquadron de muerte -- the death squad. US diplomats are not hopeful that a victory by his Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in elections March 28 would signal a green light for democracy.

At a rally here in Santa Ana the loudspeaker blares the ARENA marching song, which says, ''El Salvador will be the tomb where we bury the Reds.''

The main target of D'Aubuisson's words, however, are not communists or guerrillas, but the Christian Democratic Party (PCD), which governs the country in cooperation with the Army.

D'Aubuisson calls the Christian Democrats the ''right wing of the Communist Party,'' and compares them to watermelons -- green outside and red inside.

He flays the ruling party for the nation's economic crisis, asking the crowd, ''Do you live better than you did before the Christian Democrats came to power?''

''We will let the Army go and finish off the communists in six months'' if ARENA wins, d'Aubuisson says.

On his speaker's platform, ARENA's leader looks like a hero -- lean and handsome. He appears younger than 38 and still cuts the image of the dashing young officer. He wears a pistol on his hip. Muscles bulge when he takes off his embroidered guayabera shirt, exposing a tight T-shirt emblazoned with the party emblem.

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D'Aubuisson's bold campaign style and tough reputation are winning support for ARENA among those who oppose the reform path of the Christian Democrats and the leftist revolt. His earliest supporters were landowners, middle-class professionals, and retired military officers. Much of his grass-roots support comes from the officially disbanded, but still very active, anticommunist paramilitary group, ORDEN, once a force of 100,000.

ARENA is the only party to take its campaign into towns and cities with publicized rallies. Other candidates say they won't announce rallies in advance for ''security reasons.''

Former US Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White has called d'Aubuisson a ''pathological killer'' and accused him of ordering the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Roman Catholic primate of San Salvador, in 1980. D'Aubuisson denies the charge.

ARENA's leader was a major in the armed forces and head of the Salvadoran National Guard intelligence service until he was cashiered in 1978 for brutality and plotting a coup.

Although D'Aubuisson is winning support in the countryside, he is a target of opposition as well: In San Salvador, ARENA's party headquarters were machine gunned Feb. 26. The following day d'Aubuisson aborted a helicopter landing in San Sebastian when guerrillas attacked the town. His convoy was attacked while returning from the airport the same day.

D'Aubuisson was slightly wounded in the right arm in the assault, but there is some question about how the injury was inflicted since he was traveling in an armored station wagon and the attack came from the left side.

About 100 people waited for d'Aubuisson in his Santa Ana campaign office, a large white Spanish colonial style house on a quiet downtown street the day this reporter visited.

D'Aubuisson drew a well-dressed crowd: young men and women in designer jeans; ladies with pearls around their necks; and middle-aged men in fancy embroidered guayabara shirts. They ate pastries and drank punch while waiting for their leader.

For these people the key issue is the government's land reform program. They are afraid they will lose their plantations; some already have lost their land and want it back.

Sitting modestly on a bench at one side are a handful of peasants, their sunbrowned faces and clean, pressed, unstylish clothes a contrast to the rest of the crowd. ''I came because Mr. Ricardo (his boss) brought me, and also I don't like communism,'' one man says.

Finally the bulletproof jeep rolled up and everyone was on their feet chanting, ''d'Aubuisson, d'Aubuisson.'' The gunmen in the crowd tense up and grip their carbines, sawed-off shotguns, submachine guns, and assault rifles.

In the next town on the day's campaign swing, Atiquezaya, a shopkeeper declines to say what she thinks of ARENA or the rally except to say, ''It's all the work of the Castro family.''

''Who are they?''

''Oh, they are the town's biggest landowner.''

After the rally, attended by some 200 banner-waving supporters, and a few more who were simply curious about the rightist figure, d'Aubuisson met with reporters in the Castro family's living room. He slipped his pistol out of his waist band onto the sofa. The hammer was cocked for instant use.

He speaks about law, order, and democracy. He says the left may participate in the March 28 elections for a constituent assembly if they put down their guns first. If not, ''they can go to Cuba or Nicaragua or we will finish them.'' The left, however, is boycotting the election.

A Salvadoran leftist now in exile says, ''in November 1980 we had one of last public meetings. The paramilitaries came and hauled all of the leaders of the 'revolutionary democratic front' away and killed them. If I had been there they would have killed me, too. I think d'Aubuisson could have been involved in that but I have no proof.''

D'Aubuisson, as an Army officer, served in the Salvadoran National Guard and the National Police, specializing in intelligence and internal security. In 1970 -71 he studied at the International Police Academy near Washington. In 1975, he was accused of torture by some radicals who were arrested. The major then was moved to the armed forces general staff.

He was discharged in 1978 for opposing the Army's early effort at land reform; he had helped to form a rightist opposition group with wealthy landowners. Then death squads started; their first targets were government functionaries promoting the land reform.

D'Aubuisson was one of the first to publically oppose the 1979 coup that put a reform-minded military-civilian junta in power. In 1980, he was briefly jailed for plotting a counter-coup.

The Christian Democrats have been unable to control the violence from the right or the left and have been unable to carry out some of their economic and agricultural policies. Some of their former supporters are neutral now; some even support the left.

If the Christian Democrats fail to gain a majority in the assembly, the right-wing parties will probably form a coalition.

The consequences of this could be serious. A leader of the Salvadoran Communal Union, a pro-government peasant organization assisted by the American Institute for Free Labor Development says, ''Right now the peasants are quiet, waiting to see if the land reform continues. If it doesn't and the right tries to roll it back, there could be civil war. Then there would be two fronts: the left and the organized peasants.''

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