Negotiating in El Salvador

William Steubner

Executive Director, Alliance for International Conflict Prevention and Resolution

Interviewed by Julian Portilla, 2003

This rough transcript provides a text alternative to audio. We apologize for occasional errors and unintelligible sections (which are marked with ???).

Q: Can you talk to me a little bit about your work in El Salvador. I know it is a question that you could sit here for two hours about, but sort of an overview?

A: I was more Track I, and I was an army officer at the time. I had actually fought in the war and was involved directly, there weren't many people that were.

Q: This is the civil war, not the war between El Salvador and Honduras?

A: No, this is the war in El Salvador that went on for twelve years. What we ultimately decided was that we had to find a way to end that thing. People were sick of the war. A lot of the time that is the way a conflict ends, people are just tired, they are worn out. They are like a drunk that has hit the bottom. You need to look at the relatively minor things that you have to do to actually put an end to it. What we did was we looked at, what do we want here? We decided what we wanted was a society where people decided that you change things in a ballot box and with advocacy rather than with a gun, and that you have a respect for the law. We said, "Well, why don't we have that?" We looked at the actors on both sides that were keeping us from getting to peace when the vast majority of the people wanted it, and then we had to look for ways to put pressure on those people to make them realize that peace could be more in their interest than continuing to fight. I think we were relatively effective there.

Q: That is basically a strategy of convincing the people who had the most to gain by the war that they could gain even more through peace?

A: Yes, and that they could lose a lot more by continuing to fight.

Q: How did you do that? Was that direct negotiations with the commanders of the rebelling armies?

A: We had a lot of leverage on the government's side, so by identifying the actors there who wanted to keep it going, we were able to use that leverage and put the pressure on them. We were convincing them that they were not going to be able to get the things that they wanted in the future. They weren't going to get to go to Miami, they weren't going to get a visa, and they were going to stay right there if they were going to mess this thing up.

Q: because they were going to go war trials if they left the country?

A: That was eliminated in the peace talks and it was eliminated by mutual agreement between the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation) guerillas and the military, they both needed amnesty and they gave each other amnesty. There was no recourse to that but having the proper people threaten certain people on the military side saying, "I will use every influence I possess to make sure that you are never aloud to enter the US, and you will not receive any more assistance and there will not be anything coming in that you can steal." On the guerilla side it was different, the top-level guerillas were not the problem, they were cocktail circuit revolutionaries. Most of them had hardly been in the country for ten years. They realized that the gravy train was over, the wall had come down, and they weren't going to get a lot of support any more; it was the mid-level guerillas.

The mid-level leader was the problem because there was nothing in it for him for peace. As a guerilla leader, as a mid-level commander he was a big man in macho society, he had the best weapons, and the prettiest girl for his radio operator. In war he had a place, usually he was a guy who wasn't really educated and didn't have any skills. If there was peace, even if his physical security was guaranteed, what was in it for him? We worked with NGOs a lot to see what would really motivate these guys to say, "Ok it is time for me to hang up the old kalashnikov." That is the way that we approached it.

Q: Do you remember some highlights of what those incentives were?

A: Number one, you had to put pressure on them, you had to make their life more uncomfortable because if we could look back over a period of years we would see that the FMLN guerillas were very professional, they kept of records almost like the Nazis, you could track everything. Over a period of years you could see these guys were never getting hurt, it was always the little guys that were getting hurt, and it was the same thing on the government side. You had to put more pressure on them and start making them feel insecure, to think, "If I continue this war then somebody is going to get me." You had to give them the incentive and you had to give them a rock hard guarantee that they weren't going to be murdered if they laid their weapons down, and then you had to show them what was a path to a new career for them. That was true even for lower level guerillas, because in an agricultural county, so many had been guerillas for so long, that they had never learned how to farm. You couldn't just give them land, seeds, and some tools. You had to teach them to farm, so that was part of what was built in the peace process.

Q: What kind of coordination between Track I and Track II during that decommissioning process.

A: We as Track I people didn't have the kind of access that the unofficial actors had because when you are in the government you cant just go talk to what is considered the bad guys. The NGOs, the Track II people, have more flexibility and access. Early on we couldn't go directly to the guerilla leaders to find out what would motivate them.

Q: Let me just clarify, you couldn't go there because it would be seen as sanctioning their existence?

A: And you are an official government person. You can't just go out and talk to Carlos H. Romero (?). Later we could, once the ice was broken, but initially we got the insights on the thinking of the guerillas about peace really from NGOs who were free to talk with them. A lot of times we didn't even talk with the NGOs, we took reports that they wrote. One time there was a really excellent report from the Wooshland Office in Latin America but I never even told them but we inserted a lot into the peace talks from things that came right from their reports, like guaranteeing security. We had to push the government and military to accept joint-police force; that was going to be one of the securities. You had to get rid of the old national police and La Guardia. What we did there is we used the example of Nicaragua where at times when there wasn't a joint police force then there were unexplained killings. We were able to go the military who would go back and forth and say, "Why should any body stop fighting if there is not some guarantees like this where you have people from both sides involved, because you have no security?"

Q: That is great. Thank you very much. You were a commander in the army?

A: I was a low level major.

Q: How did you get to point where you were negotiating all that stuff?

A: Number one because I had credibility with the Salvadoran military. I never lied to them. I always drew the line, always told them what was unacceptable, and never being willing to compromise. They respected that. Then I worked for two republican political appointees in a row who wanted peace in El Salvador, who believed in human rights, so I had there full backing. My only last two jobs in my last eighteen months in the army were to promote the peace talks and to promote the prosecution of the Jesuit murder case.

Q: Thanks.