Special Forces in El Salvador

Originally published in the Clear Lake Courier — April 17, 1996

Sergeant Major Charles Black, assigned to the Army’s 7th Special Forces Group at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was on temporary duty in El Salvador just before Christmas 1989. While coordinating in-country training for Special Forces teams, he stayed at the Sheraton Hotel in the capital city of San Salvador.

One team of eight Green Berets finished a two-week training period and checked into the Sheraton for the night.  They were scheduled to fly to Fort Bragg the next morning. Gunfire woke them at 3:00 a.m.  Communist guerrillas had killed the guards and were attempting to capture the hotel.

The SF men quickly assembled their weapons, which were broken down and in bags, ready for travel. (For some unknown reason they had been allowed to keep their heavy weapons, such as M16s and grenade launchers.  Usually, all but personal sidearms had to be stored at the Embassy. SGM Black said, “Without the weapons, we would have been taken prisoner and probably executed.”)

Quickly barricading the narrow hallway with tables, they were waiting with M16s when the guerrillas came up the elevator. The Green Berets radioed U.S. Military Group headquarters, “It’s pretty serious,” and were told not to fire.

Looking back, SGM Black says it was “excellent advice,” but it didn’t seem so at the time. It was later learned the guerrillas reported meeting unexpected resistance in the hotel.  They told their leaders, “We don’t know who they are, but they’re professionals and very heavily armed.”

They were ordered not to fire until the other side did.  They stayed by the elevator, and a standoff resulted. Outside, RPGs (grenade launchers) were being fired from across the street.  Sporadic gunfire and shrapnel increased the danger, as did snipers on the other side of the hotel.

Local forces pulled up and riddled the Sheraton with 50-caliber and small arms fire, in an attempt to dislodge the guerrillas.Meanwhile, in Washington D.C., Major Mike Sheehan came to work that morning and read about the attack in the message traffic at the White House.  (He is now a lieutenant colonel, on his second tour with the National Security Council.) A former SF advisor in Latin America, he took a personal interest in such matters.

Seeing in the report that a SGM Black was in the hotel, he wondered if it could be the same Black who had been on his team for six months in the Dominican Republic.  He called a buddy at Fort Bragg and received an affirmative answer.

There wasn’t much the White House staffers could do, except watch CNN and read the message traffic from the intelligence network.  They didn’t telephone, because the Military Group in San Salvador had enough to handle, without answering questions from the White House.

The standoff in the Sheraton hallway continued all that day and night, with the guerrillas controlling the rest of the hotel. The following day the Salvadoran army, which had formed a horseshoe around the front and sides of the hotel, allowed “the Gs” to slip away.

CNN filmed the Green Berets walking out of the hotel and getting in a truck to go to the airport.  MAJ Sheehan saw on television that his old friend was safe.

El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world.  Its current homicide rate is 114 murders per 100,000 people, compared to 11 per 100,000 in the U.S. Poverty and overcrowding (seven million people in an area the size of Massachusetts) contribute to the culture of violence.

During El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war, Special Forces teams provided training to the Salvadoran army. They taught basic soldiering, which helped the army take back the parts of the country controlled by communist insurgents. They tried to change the attitudes of the Salvadoran military leaders, to teach them that massacres and killing weren’t the only way to solve problems. They did this by training young lieutenants, developing a core of noncommissioned officers, and setting an example of leadership and teamwork.

The School of the Americas was moved from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia, with human rights training added as a crucial component. Junior officers were taught to respect their troops and the civilians they encountered. As these officers acquired seniority, and their attitudes prevailed, the army improved in quality.

The government also initiated reforms, and a peace treaty was signed in 1992. According to SGM Black, “We were trying to work ourselves out of a job–and I think we did.”

They won the war against communism, but only a nation’s citizens can defeat lawlessness, and that isn’t happening. A recent Washington Post article said violence is worse now than during the war.  A crime wave of murder, extortion, and kidnapping is paralyzing the country. The National Civilian Police force created by the peace treaty is getting increasingly corrupt and abusive.

“Are things worse now than during the war?  Without a doubt,” says one citizen.  “People are afraid to answer their telephones because it might be a crook threatening you.”

Military forces can stop a war, but civilians much achieve long-lasting peace. Our government tends to look at the military aspects of a situation, and assume everyone will act like Americans once the fighting stops.

Deep-rooted violence isn’t so easily cured, however.  People who have never experienced democracy don’t automatically embrace that culture. El Salvador must now rely on civilian law enforcement and continued political reform.  The Green Berets fulfilled their mission.

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