The era of the 1980s thru the mid-1990s was a great time to be a member of the U.S Army’s 7th Special Forces Group, 7th SFG(A). The unit barely escaped the ax during the post-Vietnam drawdown and survived the malaise during the Carter years, where Special Operations and specifically Special Forces was a four-letter word. Being an SF officer in those days was the kiss of death for an officer’s career.
By the early, to mid-1990s the SF troops that advised the Salvadoran battalions had become so well known as professionals, their enemies in El Salvador asked that the Green Berets be kept on during the peace process, to ensure that everyone’s human rights were upheld. But before that, Latin America was close to being lost to Communism.
But all of that began to change in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected President and Latin America was a hot spot in the globe. Marxists had taken over in Nicaragua and they were looking, like the Cubans, to export their vision of Communism to the rest of the hemisphere. Reagan was not going to stand for that and there were plenty of places for the Green Berets of 7th SFG to practice their training. Or as my first team sergeant said, “Do Green Beret shit.” El Salvador and Guatemala were embroiled in bloody civil wars, Honduras had a Phase 1, which was a “latent and incipient” insurgency, which no one but the Group believed existed.
Active civil wars were ongoing with insurgents in Colombia (FARC), Peru (Shining Path/Sendero Luminoso) and to a lesser extent in Bolivia, however, all three had further issues with narco-terrorists that further destabilized the host nation governments. Other countries such as Argentina and Paraguay it seemed had military coups far too frequently.
El Salvador, in particular, was the first area where the President drew a line in the sand. The government was weak and ineffective, the military was backward and committed numerous human-rights abuses and little professionalism. In 1980, the country was on the brink of falling. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), an umbrella organization formed in 1980 of five separate Marxist-Leninist groups had the government on the precipice.
In 1981, the Salvadoran Army numbered around 11,000 and was a poorly led, poorly equipped and badly trained army. They were basically a static, defensive force. The FMLN was close to winning the war militarily and their forces operated freely in much of the country and owned the night.
Slow Beginnings and Limits on Troop Support:
The U.S.’ first priorities were getting them updated vehicles and equipment, and then improve the quality of the forces through training and better tactics. By 1990, the size of the Salvadoran military had quadrupled to more than 45,000. And by the mid-1980s, the training of the troops had progressed to where the army was capable of conducting offensive operations, they moved into previously held FMLN areas and maintained a firm hold on the population centers. While doing so, they whittled the FMLN down to size, from a high of about 13,000 in 1980 to about 7,000 in 1990.
The FMLN resorted to kidnapping and assassinating. Town mayors were a frequent target, in 1989 alone 214 of 262 were threatened with assassinations. A total of 12 were actually carried out. 90 mayors resigned.
The FMLN launched a desperate country-wide offensive in November 1989 in a final attempt to take over by encouraging the citizens to rise up. It failed and over 2000 guerrillas were killed.
Beginning in 1983, following the recommendations of Green Beret. trainers, the Salvadoran armed forces adopted better COIN strategies and tactics to better deny the FMLN to gain popular support. For example, the Salvadorans adopted tactics that attacked the insurgents’ sanctuary, movement, and supplies; deployed smaller, air-mobile units; and used small units to patrol more frequently at night, when most guerrilla activity occurs. But we have jumped ahead…
When it came to the trainers, the U.S. was in a vastly different place politically than it is today. We had just pulled out from Vietnam a few years prior, the country was not going to tolerate another long-drawn-out conflict with massive amounts of troops involved. Beginning in 1981, the first U.S. trainers were an A-Team of 12 Green Berets who were only “permitted” to carry sidearms for protection.
Congress decided to cap the number of trainers at just 55. There could be only 55 men dedicated to the training of the Salvadoran forces. They would assign two Americans to each Brigade.There were very strict rules for the training advisors. But the SF community found ways around that as well. A-Teams and other conventional troops would be brought in for just the ridiculously short time span of two weeks to conduct whatever training could be accomplished before the teams would be forced to leave.
The U.S. skirted around the Congress limit by bringing Salvadoran battalions to the United States for training by members of the 7th SFG. First the Atlacatl Battalion at Ft. Bragg, NC. That was kind of a quick reaction, counter-insurgency battalion during the dark days of 1981. They later brought more battalions to the U.S. but a better alternative awaited just over the border with their traditional enemy, Honduras.
The U.S. set up a Regional Training Center in Trujillo, Honduras, where Salvadoran units could rotate thru for training. Later the training was added for Honduran troops as well.
The cost was high for a “peacetime” effort. During the war there, 22 U.S. troops died in the country, defending El Salvador, one SF advisor, Greg Fronius was the subject of an earlier piece here:
Congress and the Pentagon, in an effort to snow the American public as to what exactly the advisors in El Salvador were dealing with, refused to admit that the troops were in a combat situation, even though, combat pay was authorized back in 1981. Fronius was denied a combat decoration and instead was awarded a Meritorius Service Medal (MSM) which is a peacetime award.
One excellent story about how an SF A-Team “not in combat” defended a Salvadoran cuartel centered around ODA-7 from 3/7th SFG in Panama who had their base attacked in San Miguel, which was the subject of an excellent piece from Dr. Charles H. Briscoe.
Human Rights Record:
The Salvadoran Army had a terrible human rights record dating back to 1980. One of the things that the trainers accomplished was to incorporate human rights training in all levels of the military.
And it also meant that at times, at peril to the advisors themselves, they’d report abuses by the military to the MILGP in San Salvador. Greg Walker, who was one of the 55 advisors on the ground there detailed one such incident.
I was the Special Forces advisor who reported being shown a guerrilla’s skull (at the unit’s base in El Salvador) that had been turned into a desk lamp. My report was delivered to the US Embassy in El Salvador at the time through the proper chain of command.
The vast majority of SF advisors serving in El Salvador did likewise as this was part of the mission statement. For example, there was a senior Special Forces advisor at El Mozote the day/night of the massacre (and only one). He attempted multiple times to dissuade Colonel Domingo Monterosa to spare the victims. When Monterosa ignored him, the advisor departed by foot and made his way, alone, back to San Salvador. There he made a full report to embassy officials of what the unit and Monterosa were doing in El Mozote.
The subject was a very touchy one, but the Green Berets made their reputation known. Even amongst the FMLN. In Walker’s book, called “At the Hurricane’s Eye” Walker tells the story about the FMLN asked for the U.S. SF to remain during the initial peace process to ensure everyone was protected.
At the conclusion of the war as brokered under a UN peace agreement, it was the guerrillas of the FMLN that requested US “Green Berets” remain with Salvadoran military units during the early stages of the accord. This because the guerrillas had learned of our commitment to human rights, and the sometimes dangerous reporting we made to the US embassy regarding thugs like Monterosa.
Walker was one of several SF soldiers who led the fight for the men who did their time in El Salvador to finally be recognized for what they were, combat tours. Everyone who rotated thru there is now eligible for an Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal while many are authorized CIBs and combat awards. The men of ODA-7 were finally recognized 14 years later with CIBs awarded and four Bronze Stars with “V” device and an ARCOM with “V” device.
The 7th SFG record in El Salvador was one of great success. The country was on the brink of falling and thru the combined military and political efforts of many Americans, this one was an example of how a small group of dedicated SF soldiers can turn the tide in a brutal civil war.