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The Genesis and Internal Dynamics of El Salvador's People's Revolutionary Army, 1970–1976

  • ALBERTO MARTÍN ÁLVAREZ and EUDALD CORTINA ORERO

Abstract

Using interviews with former militants and previously unpublished documents, this article traces the genesis and internal dynamics of the Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (People's Revolutionary Army, ERP) in El Salvador during the early years of its existence (1970–6). This period was marked by the inability of the ERP to maintain internal coherence or any consensus on revolutionary strategy, which led to a series of splits and internal fights over control of the organisation. The evidence marshalled in this case study sheds new light on the origins of the armed Salvadorean Left and thus contributes to a wider understanding of the processes of formation and internal dynamics of armed left-wing groups that emerged from the 1960s onwards in Latin America.

A través del uso de entrevistas con antiguos militantes y documentos internos inéditos, el artículo reconstruye la génesis y la dinámica interna del Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP) de El Salvador durante sus primeros años de existencia (1970–6). Este periodo estuvo marcado por la incapacidad del ERP para mantener cohesión interna o un acuerdo sobre la estrategia revolucionaria, lo que se tradujo a su vez en una serie de cismas y luchas internas por el control de la organización. La evidencia aportada por este caso de estudio, arroja nueva luz sobre los orígenes de las organizaciones de la izquierda armada salvadoreña y contribuye asimismo a ampliar el conocimiento disponible sobre los procesos de formación y la dinámica interna de los grupos armados de izquierda surgidos desde los años sesenta en América Latina.

Através de entrevistas com antigos militantes e documentos até então não publicados, este artigo traça a gênese e dinâmicas internas do Exército Revolucionário do Povo (ERP) durante os primeiros anos de sua existência (1970–6) em El Salvador. Este período foi marcado pela inabilidade do ERP em manter uma coerência interna ou qualquer consenso em relação à estratégia revolucionária, levando a uma série de divisões e disputas internas pelo controle da organização. As evidências apresentadas neste estudo de caso oferecem uma nova perspectiva sobre as origens da esquerda armada salvadorenha, contribuindo assim para um entendimento ampliado dos processos de formação e dinâmicas internas de grupos armados de esquerda que emergiram a partir dos anos 1960 na América Latina.

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References

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1 See, among others, Enrique Herp, Baloyra, El Salvador en transición (San Salvador: UCA Editores, 1987); Byrne, Hugh, El Salvador's Civil War: A Study of Revolution (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996); Dunkerley, James, The Long War: Dictatorship and Revolution in El Salvador (London: Verso, 1982); Gordon, Sara, Crisis política y guerra en El Salvador (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1989); Grenier, Ivon, The Emergence of Insurgency in El Salvador: Ideology and Political Will (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1999); Santiago, Aldo Lauria and Binford, Leigh, Landscapes of Struggle: Politics, Society and Community in El Salvador (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004); Lungo, Mario, El Salvador in the Eighties: Counterinsurgency and Revolution (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1996); McClintock, Cynthia, Revolutionary Movements in Latin America: El Salvador's FMLN and Peru's Shining Path (Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1998); Montgomery, Tommie Sue, Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995); Pearce, Jenny, Promised Land: Peasant Rebellion in Chalatenango El Salvador (London: Latin American Bureau, 1985); Wickham-Crowley, Timothy, Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America: A Comparative Study of Insurgents and Regimes Since 1956 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1992); and Wood, Elisabeth J., Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

2 Antonio, ArquímedesCañadas, Sueños y lágrimas de un guerrillero: un testimonio sobre el conflicto armado en El Salvador (San Salvador, 2013); Cienfuegos, Fermán, Veredas de audacia (San Salvador: Arcoiris, 1993); Mira, Carlos Rico, En silencio tenía que ser (San Salvador: Universidad Francisco Gavidia, 2004); Sancho, Eduardo, Crónicas entre los espejos (San Salvador: Universidad Francisco Gavidia, 2002). Some recent works by academics contribute valuable information, although their aim was not to analyse either the ERP's formation process or its internal dynamics. See, for instance, Joaquín M. Chávez, ‘The Pedagogy of Revolution: Popular Intellectuals and the Origins of the Salvadoran Insurgency, 1960–1980’, unpubl. PhD diss., New York University, 2010; Kruijt, Dirk, Guerrillas: War and Peace in Central America (London: Zed Books, 2008); and Álvarez, Alberto Martín, From Revolutionary War to Democratic Revolution: The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador (Berlin: Berghof Conflict Research, 2010). There is also a recent journalistic work about the birth of the ERP: Galeas, Geovani, Héroes bajo sospecha: el lado oscuro de la guerra salvadoreña (San Salvador: Athena, 2013). The author hardly mentions his sources of information, however, so the book's utility as a source for historical knowledge on the Salvadorean revolutionary Left is quite limited.

3 Webre, Stephen, José Napoleón Duarte and the Christian Democratic Party in Salvadoran Politics, 1960–1972 (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana University Press, 1979), p. 70.

4 Wickham-Crowley, Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America, p. 220.

5 The country's first private university, the Jesuit UCA, was created in 1965.

6 For a more in-depth analysis of how the social organisations formed, see Almeida, Paul D., Waves of Protest: Popular Struggle in El Salvador, 1925–2005 (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

7 Webre, José Napoleón Duarte, p. 76.

8 Webre, José Napoleon Duarte, p. 81. The PDC was founded in 1960.

9 Interview with Dr Jorge Cáceres Prendes, MESC founding member and former leader of the Federación de Estudiantes Universitarios Social Cristianos (Federation of Social Christian University Students, FRUSC), San Salvador, 14 Feb. 2012.

10 Among others, Lil Milagro Ramírez, Rubén Zamora and Jorge Cáceres Prendes took part in these.

11 Erik Ching, ‘Local Politics Meets a National Modernisation Project: How Teachers Responded to the 1968 Educational Reform in El Salvador’, paper presented at the 2007 Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Montreal, Canada, 5 Sep. 2007, p. 22.

12 Tangible proof of this is presented in Joaquín Villalobos' narrative of the 1969 death threats that he and Rafael Arce Zablah received from the National Guard when they were carrying out literacy activities among rural workers in the municipality of San Juan Opico (La Libertad department) under Father Alfonso Navarro's direction. See Villalobos, Joaquín, ‘Homenaje a Rafael Arce Zablah’, El Diario de Hoy, 28 Sep. 2005.

13 Interview with Dr Jorge Cáceres Prendes, 14 Feb. 2012.

14 Interview with anonymous informant, Mexico City, 4 April 2011.

15 Interview with Eduardo Sancho, former member of the leadership of the ERP and the Fuerzas Armadas de la Resistencia Nacional (Armed Forces of National Resistance, FARN), and of the FMLN's general command, San Salvador, 27 Jan. 2011.

16 The ERP went public for the first time wielding a slogan coined by Mao Tse-Tung: ‘Power grows out of the barrel of a gun.’ ERP, Communiqué No. 1, March 1972, MUPI archive, San Salvador, copy in the author's possession.

17 Interview with Ana Sonia Medina, former member of the ERP's political committee, San Salvador, 31 Jan. 2011. ‘Sebastián’ was Edgar Alejandro Rivas Mira's alias.

18 Interview with Eduardo Sancho, 27 Jan. 2011.

19 Sancho belonged to the avant-garde literary collective ‘La Masacuata’, based in San Vicente. All its members ended up joining one or another of the guerrilla organisations in the early 1970s. Sancho joined the ERP together with Alfonso Hernández (alias Arturo or Gonzalo), Luis Felipe Minhero (alias Tomás), Salvador Silis (alias Santiago) and Carlos Eduardo Rico Mira (alias Pancho). The new Salvadorean intellectual Left of the late 1960s played an important role in denouncing the military dictatorship, supporting the grassroots movement and promoting armed struggle. ‘La Masacuata’ is the perfect example of this, though not the only one: a poets' association working together on the publishing of ‘The Purple Onion’, in which Lil Milagro Ramírez and Alfonso Hernández were involved, is a similar case.

20 ‘Carta de Lil Milagro Ramírez en la que explica las razones de clandestinizarse’, Diario Colatino, 21 July 2003.

21 Interview with Eduardo Sancho, 27 Jan. 2011.

22 During the early 1970s the ERP and FAR maintained close cooperation and mutual support. The FAR kept up a strong presence in El Salvador at that time, most prominently at the UES.

23 Police identified the kidnappers by tapping their phone communications. After arrest warrants were issued, several of them were forced to go underground or leave the country. Several social Christian young people associated with El Grupo who supported the core members were arrested and tortured.

24 The first time the organisation used this name publicly was in its Communiqué No. 1, in which it called for an armed action that was undertaken on 2 March 1972 at San Salvador's Bloom Hospital.

25 Interview with Rafael Velásquez, former member of the ERP'S political committee, San Salvador, 4 Feb. 2010.

26 Ibid.

27 Interview with Rafael Velásquez, San Salvador, 6 Oct. 1998.

28 Interview with Rafael Velásquez, San Salvador, 4 Feb. 2010.

29 Interview with Ana Sonia Medina, San Salvador, 31 Jan. 2011.

30 Ibid.

31 Ibid.

32 ‘Los Comandos Organizadores del Pueblo’, May 1973, MUPI archive, San Salvador, copy in the author's possession.

33 Interview with Francisco Jovel, former member of the FMLN's general command and former secretary-general of the Partido Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers, PRTC), San Salvador, 28 Jan. 2011.

34 See Martín Álvarez, Alberto, ‘Del partido a la guerrilla: los orígenes de las Fuerzas Populares de Liberación Farabundo Martí (FPL)’, in Juárez Ávila, Jorge (ed.), Historia y debates sobre el conflicto armado salvadoreño y sus secuelas (San Salvador: Fundación Friedrich Ebert, forthcoming).

35 Interview with Sonia Aguiñada Carranza, former member of the ERP's political committee, San Salvador, 11 Aug. 2009.

36 For a detailed narrative of this process, see Martín Álvarez, ‘Del partido a la guerrilla’.

37 Notably, the members of the Frank País cell, which operated at the UES Faculty of Medicine.

38 By March 1972, as Carlos Eduardo Rico Mira's narrative confirms, the ERP had two operational cells. One was made up of Gilberto Orellana, Leonel Lemus, Carlos Menjívar, Julia Rodríguez and Alfonso Hernández, and the second one of Carlos Rico Mira, Francisco Jovel, Armando Sibrián and Manuel Angulo. See Rico Mira, En silencio tenía que ser, p. 66.

39 Interview with Ana Sonia Medina, San Salvador, 31 Jan. 2011.

40 Interview with Francisco Jovel, San Salvador, 28 Jan. 2011.

41 Gilberto Orellana and Carlos Menjívar also died.

42 Interview with Francisco Jovel, San Salvador, 28 Jan. 2011.

43 Ibid.

44 The recently published testimony by Montenegro (Arquímedes Antonio Cañadas' alias) certainly makes clear that at that time he was a militant with little political training and had no significant influence or participation in the internal debates that were taking place. Something similar can be said about Jorge Meléndez. However, Vladimir Rogel was already powerful in the ERP as chief operating officer (military chief).

45 Interview with Sonia Aguiñada Carranza, San Salvador, 11 Aug. 2009.

46 Interview with Francisco Jovel, San Salvador, 28 Jan. 2011.

47 From an analysis of the existing documents, it seems that from 1971 onwards the ERP attempted to construct a political and military strategy that would allow the guerrilla group to infiltrate social organisations; however, this strategy does not appear to have been thoroughly formulated until mid-1972.

48 The document was most likely drawn up by Eduardo Sancho, alias Esteban: ‘Anteproyecto del Planteamiento Estratégico del E.R.P’, Aug. 1972, MUPI archive, copy in the author's possession.

49 Rico Mira, En silencio tenía que ser, p. 66.

50 The ERP's leadership consisted from early 1974 of Edgar Alejandro Rivas Mira, Eduardo Sancho, Vladimir Rogel, Jorge Alberto (Lito) Sandoval, Jorge Meléndez, Mario Vigil and Joaquín Villalobos. The latter was the last to join the leadership as part of the agreement reached with the COP. This group represented, at least in theory, each of the sectors that originally made up the ERP.

51 Interview with Marco Hernández, former ERP member, San Salvador, 10 April 2012.

52 The Resistance's official emergence is evidenced by the publication, from October 1972 onwards, of Por la Causa Proletaria.

53 Interview with Marco Hernández, San Salvador, 10 April 2012.

54 Roque Dalton joined the ERP in early 1973 in Havana, through an agreement with Edgar Alejandro Rivas Mira, and returned to El Salvador on 24 December that year.

55 By late 1973 and early 1974 there was a rapprochement between the ERP and FPL that led even to the publication of joint communiqués.

56 Gordon, Sara, Crisis política y guerra en El Salvador (Mexico City: Siglo XXI, 1989).

57 Interview with Marco Hernández, San Salvador, 10 April 2012.

58 A summary of these events was published in Por la Causa Proletaria, 25 (March–April 1976), featured in Por la causa proletaria, a compilation published by the Costa Rican Socialist Party (San Salvador: CIDAI-UCA, undated), pp. 1–25, copy in the author's possession.

59 Eduardo Sancho has given an account of the deaths of Arteaga and Dalton: see Sancho, Crónicas entre los espejos, pp. 70–82.

60 Allison, Michael E. and Alvarez, Alberto Martín, ‘Unity and Disunity in the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional’, Latin American Politics and Society, 53: 4 (2012), pp. 89118.

61 The FPL's conception of a mass front was distinctly different from that of the ERP and FARN, and was also responsible for this division. On the other hand, ERP and FPL opposition to the presence of political parties in the FAPU would also have accounted for the latter leaving the group of PCS representatives in late 1974.

62 See Sancho, Crónicas entre los espejos, p. 79.

63 Dirección Política de la Escisión Divergente del ERP, ‘Boletín informativo número 1’, undated, Fabio Castillo Figueroa's personal archive, San Salvador, copy in the author's possession.

64 Melesia had joined the organisation through Eduardo Sancho, together with her sister Julia Rodríguez (an alias), and was politically close to the core group that originally came from the PCS youths. In 1976 she was also Vladimir Rogel's romantic partner. Interview with Julia Rodríguez, Mexico City, 19 May 2013.

65 See ‘Prensa Comunista: publicación especial’, Oct. 1977, MUPI archive, San Salvador, copy in the author's possession.

66 According to a document published by the ERP in October 1977, the death sentence was enforced on account of the ERP being ‘at war’, as it was deemed that the conditions necessary for an insurrection were present, and also on account of the risk that Rogel might head a factional struggle that could put an end to the organisation. See ‘Prensa Comunista: publicación especial’, Oct. 1977, MUPI archive, San Salvador, copy in the author's possession.

67 Dirección Política de la Escisión Divergente del ERP, ‘Otro vil asesinato de la burocracia troskista del PRS-ERP’, March 1976, Fabio Castillo Figueroa's personal archive, San Salvador, copy in the author's possession.

68 Dirección Política de la Escisión Divergente del ERP, ‘Boletín informativo número 1’.

69 See Martínez, Ana Guadalupe, Las cárceles clandestinas (San Salvador: UCA, 1996), p. 66.

70 To all this must be added the September 1975 death of Rafael Arce Zablah, one of the organisation's main ideologues, in a confrontation in Villa de El Carmen (La Unión department).

71 This group consisted of Joaquín Villalobos, Ana Guadalupe Martínez, Ana Sonia Medina, the Letona sisters, Juan Ramón Medrano, Claudio Armijo, Jorge Meléndez and Jorge González, together with others such as Dennis Bismarck Julián and Arquímedes Antonio Cañadas.

72 For a first attempt to develop this line of research, see Alberto Martín Álvarez, ‘De movimiento de liberación a partido politico: articulación de los fines organizativos en el FMLN salvadoreño (1980–1992)’, PhD diss., Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2004.

73 See, for instance, Wickham-Crowley, Guerrillas and Revolution in Latin America; Castañeda, Jorge G., La utopía desarmada: intrigas, dilemas y promesa de la izquierda en América Latina (Barcelona: Ariel, 1995); and Harmer, Tanya, ‘Two, Three, Many Revolutions? Cuba and the Prospects for Revolutionary Change in Latin America, 1967–1975’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 45: 1 (2013), pp. 6189.

74 Albeit with important nuances of their own, such as the key influence of liberation theology and the debates inside the Christian Left.

75 Martín Álvarez, Alberto and Rey Tristán, Eduardo, ‘La oleada revolucionaria latinoamericana contemporánea, 1959–1996: definición, caracterización y algunas claves para su análisis’, Naveg@mérica: Revista Electrónica de la Asociación Española de Americanistas, 9 (2012), available at http://revistas.um.es/navegamerica/article/viewFile/161591/141091 (last checked in July 2014).

76 Alberto Martín Álvarez and Eduardo Rey Tristán, ‘La oleada revolucionaria’.

* The authors wish to thank the four anonymous reviewers of the JLAS, whose excellent comments have contributed greatly to the final drafting of this article. We also want to express our debt of gratitude to our informants, whose testimonies have made this work possible.

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