A New York Times story ( 2/29/88) on pre-electoral violence in El Salvador asserted:
Villagers say guerrillas publicly executed two peasants in the town of Guatjiagua in Morazan department three weeks ago because they had applied for and received new voter registration cards According to the villagers, the guerrillas placed the voting cards of Juan Martin Portillo and Ismael Portillo in their mouths after executing them as a warning not to take part in the elections.
This incident, as reported by Times correspondent James LeMoyne, never happened. Rather it was invented by a Salvadoran army propaganda specialist in the Third Brigade barracks in the eastern province of San Miguel, who placed it with one of his contacts in the local Salvadoran media.
The voting card story sought to exploit the announcement by leftist guerrillas in mid-January that they wouldn’t permit the upcoming March elections to take place in areas under their control. Like all effective disinformation, it had a kernel of truth: Suspected army informers were executed and at least two mayors killed after guerrillas warned them not to run in the elections. “The guerrillas had executed an accused informant in Guatajiagua, the town where the disinformation story supposedly happened. Perhaps that gave the army psychological warfare expert the idea of inventing a killing with an election theme.
After it appeared in the local press, the US Embassy mentioned the story to several US journalists. At the same time, the Roman Catholic Church’s human rights office, Tutela Legal, sent a team to the town to investigate the story, and reported back that it was false. Only one of the two men pronounced dead actually exists, and he is still alive and well, according to local sources.
Had the voting card story appeared only in the Salvadoran press, it would have been deemed a success by those who planted it. But the story reached a much larger audience when it was picked up by the New York Times and cited by the US State Department. Without checking if the story was true, the State Department included in in its pre-election booklet to highlight the leftist guerrillas’ “campaign of intimidation and harassment.” The booklet was mailed to Congress, newspaper editors and other opinion makers.
The daily barrage of army and government disinformation has become a key component of the eight-year civil war in El Salvador. Despite President Duarte’s professed support for democratic ideals, Salvadoran officials have put together a huge propaganda apparatus, and the Reagan administration, obsessed with fighting “international Communism,” has instructed the army in propaganda techniques.
One of the most blatant cases of government disinformation was the attempt to blame the October 26 death squad-style assassination of Herbert Anaya, president of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, on the guerrillas. Anaya had been one of the most outspoken and effective critics of the government, frequently denouncing army human rights violations on the evening newscasts. He had previously been held in jail by the security forces for eight months on charges of being a guerrilla.
A month after Anaya’s assassination, the government produced a 19-year-old high school student, Jorge Alberto Miranda, who it claimed was an urban guerrilla who had participated in the killing. Paraded before TV cameras, Miranda stated that the guerrillas killed Anaya because he was no longer trustworthy or effective. President Duarte then called a press conference, saying he had a “moral conviction” of Miranda’s guilt.
Anaya’s killing had been the Duarte government’s biggest human rights embarrassment; with hearings on the subject due to begin in Geneva, the government sought to shift the blame to the guerrillas. Incredibly, much of the Western media fell for the story.
The Salvadoran government allowed four journalists to interview Miranda separately in jail, where he repeated his charges. The New York Times account (1/8/88) was the least skeptical of Miranda’s confession, although correspondent LeMoyne noted “past cases in which prisoners have confessed to crimes that they did not appear to have commit ted.” Other reports–in the Washington Post, the Los Angles Times and Reuters–found Miranda’s calm manner convincing, but included charges by family members that he was asleep at home at the time of the killing and that his confession was induced by police threats.
A month later, Miranda recanted, saying that he had confessed under psychological duress after being injected with drugs. Although Miranda admitted belonging to an urban guerrilla cell, he now disavowed any connection to the Anaya killing. (Miranda had originally been captured by police after attempting to burn a Pepsi Cola truck.) Miranda’s recantation had to be smuggled out of prison by his lawyer. After the initial stories, the government was not interested in permitting journalists to talk to Miranda.
While disinformation is useful to the Salvadoran government in its war against the leftist insurgency, it undermines one of the foundations of a democracy–a press that objectively informs the public. The propaganda-laden Salvadoran press remains the US Embassy’s main source for monitoring human rights in that country. The State Department has contributed to the propaganda war by attacking the country’s most widely respected human rights office, the Catholic Church’s Tutela Legal, as “unreliable” and “influenced by a strong anti-government bias.” Unfortunately, the US media continue to lean heavily on embassy sources in San Salvador and Washington officials for dubious story angles.
Chris Norton, a Salvadoran-based freelance journalist, writes regularly for various US newsdailies and weeklies.
Lies are a Key Tactic in Army Psyops
Army psychological warfare operations, or “psyops,” as they are called in the trade, seek to enhance the Salvadoran army’s image and discredit the guerrillas. Army “psyops” acknowledge that the Salvadoran military, considered one of the most brutal in the early 1980s, committed some “errors” but now respects human rights and protects the people. The guerrillas, despite their claim to fighting on behalf of the people, are now victimizing the people, say army propagandists.
Army and government propaganda have tried to take away the moral high ground from the guerrillas by focusing on civilian casualties from guerrilla landmines. In response to the escalated air war and the increased mobility of the US-supplied army, the FMLN has increased its use of landmines, causing heavy casualties to government troops and making the forcibly recruited soldiers less anxious to move aggressively on patrol. Civilians who ignore guerrilla warnings and walk in dangerous areas have also been hit by mines, although in far lesser numbers than soldiers who are the intended target. The most tragic cases are those of children who have lost limbs. Government propagandists have milked the issue, putting up billboards with pictures of disfigured children.
The US Embassy in San Salvador appears to have played a major role in developing the government’s anti mine campaign, assembling statistics if the number of civilian mine victims. The US Embassy depends on the local media as its principal sources for human rights reporting, and the local papers are filled with army disinformation that often blames the guerrillas for atrocities committed by the Salvadoran army.
Some examples of army disinformation:
• In June, the Salvadoran government information service reported that two children were killed by a “terrorist mine” and another four were injured. The mother of one of the dead children told church sources that the child had hit a hand grenade left by a soldier during a recent operation.
• On May 6, Calixto Bonilla, 68 years old, was picked up by soldiers, brought to his home near San Miguel and shot, according to family members. The corporal in charge told his family that Bonilla had committed suicide. The article in the rightist morning daily, El Diario de Hoy, reported that Bonilla had been “shot and killed by presumed terrorists.”
• On April 12, Cooperative leader Transito Gonzalez was taken from his house near Zacatecaluca by heavily armed men, according to his wife. His body was found the next morning by a road. The army press release says he was killed trying to blow up a bridge. The nongovernmental Human Rights Commission pointed out that the bridge had already been blown up.
• On February 17, an army mortar fired from Cacaopera, Morazan. hit a shack on the outskirts of town, killing a boy and severely wounding his mother. Press accounts blamed it on the guerrillas.
• Two peasants killed during an army operation following a guerrilla ambush last September 17 near Nejapa were described as “two subversives killed in combat.”