Letter to the Editor: On El Salvador

March 1, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

To the Editor:

In the article “Hoover panel talks tech, security” (Feb. 26, 2019) former chief of naval operations Admiral Gary Roughead is reported to have made the ludicrous statement that U.S. military intervention in El Salvador was a strategic success.

In the Salvadoran Civil War that erupted in 1980, the Reagan administration spent some U.S. $6 billion to support the Armed Forces and the coffee oligarchy against a coalition of leftist and progressive guerrilla groups led by the FMLN. The war finally ended in 1992 after Latin American countries pushed the right-wing ARENA government to sign a peace agreement with the guerrillas under the auspices of the United Nations (facilitated by the fact that the secretary general at the time was a former Peruvian minister of foreign affairs). The FMLN became a political party and by the late 1990s had won the mayoralty of San Salvador and various other large Salvadoran cities. In 2009, the FMLN candidate even won the Salvadoran presidency. He was succeeded in 2014 by Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former FMLN guerrilla fighter.

The war left some 75,000 people dead and forced a million Salvadorans to flee their country.  Many ended up as refugees in Los Angeles and the Washington, DC suburbs. Some of those who arrived in the U.S. as infants or young children eventually grew up and joined gangs like MS-13 or 18th Street. In the 1990s, the Clinton administration began deporting convicted gang members back to a country whose devastated economy was incapable of offering meaningful employment opportunities, and even less so to young men with a criminal record. Most of those deported from the U.S. spoke Spanish poorly (if at all), had no job skills and were estranged from whatever relatives they may have still had in El Salvador. Not surprisingly, a large number regrouped into local branches of U.S. urban street gangs. Eventually, they turned El Salvador into a living hell of mass homicides, kidnappings, robbery, extortion and rape that has contributed to the current outflow of refugees once again fleeing to the United States.

Given that Admiral Roughead finds himself on the Stanford campus as the Robert and Marion Oster Distinguished Military Fellow at the Hoover Institute, it would behoove him to attend the March 5 program sponsored by the WSD Handa Center for Human Rights on the 1981 massacre at El Mozote of some 1000 mostly women and children civilians carried out by the U.S. trained and equipped Atlácatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army.

The sad fact is that every U.S. military (and a host of covert) interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean that began in the early 20th century has been an unmitigated disaster whose negative repercussions continue to haunt the U.S. decades into the future. If the U.S. political and military leadership actually studied and learned the lessons of those interventions in the Western Hemisphere, what Admiral Roughead correctly labels the failures of Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq might have been avoided.

— Thomas Andrew O’Keefe

Lecturer, Program in International Relations


Contact Thomas Andrew O’Keefe at taokeefe ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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