Skip to main content

Resource Information Center: El Salvador

Archived Content

The information on this page is out of date. However, some of the content may still be useful, so we have archived the page.

Response to Information Request Number:SLV00002.ZAR
Date:22 February 2000
Subject:El Salvador: Human rights records of the National Guard (Guardia Nacional) and the Liberators Battalion of the Treasury Police (Batallón de Libertadores, Policía de Hacienda) during the 1980s.
From:INS Resource Information Center (RIC)
Keywords:El Salvador, Repression, Security Forces


To what extent would an individual have been involved in human rights violations if a member of the National Guard between 1982 and 1984 and a member of the Liberators Battalion of the Treasury Police between 1984 and 1989?


Based on sources reviewed and consulted by the RIC, there is a high probability that an individual who served with the National Guard in 1982-1984 would have been involved in serious violations of human rights. The probability would have been less with regard to a person who served with the Liberators Batallion of the Treasury Police during 1984-1989, but involvement in serious abuses with that unit can by no means be ruled out.

The National Guard, the Treasury Police and the National Police were the three principal internal security forces in El Salvador prior to their being dismantled and replaced by the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC), National Civilian Police, under the United Nations-sponsored peace accord of January 1992.

The National Guard, established in 1912 as a principally rural force, was organized into fourteen companies, one for each of the nation¿s fourteen departments, and by the 1970s combined both police and military functions (Jane¿s Intelligence Review, 1 January 1993; AI, March 1982). The Treasury Police, the smaller of the three forces, and the National Police, a principally urban force, also distributed their units throughout the country¿s fourteen departments. All three security forces were under the control of and commanded by the military through the Ministry of Defense (Jane¿s Intelligence Review, 1 January 1993).

According to Amnesty International, the National Guard and the other two internal security forces were directly responsible for gross human rights violations throughout the period in question, 1982-1984. Regarding the year 1982, "Amnesty International believed that all branches of the security forces¿were involved in a systematic and widespread program of torture, abduction and individual and mass killings of men, women and children" (AI, 1983).

For the year 1983, "Amnesty International remained gravely concerned about the continued involvement of all branches of the security and military forces in a systematic and widespread program of torture, mutilation, ¿disappearance,¿ and the individual and mass extrajudicial execution of men, women and children from all sectors of Salvadoran society" (AI, 1984).

For the year 1984, "Amnesty International continued to be concerned about massive human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest and prolonged detention without trial, torture, ¿disappearances¿, and individual and mass extrajudicial ¿by government forces¿" (AI, 1985).

During 1982 and 1983, approximately 8,000 civilians a year were being killed by government forces (Stanley, 1996, p.3). Although the figure is less than in 1980 and 1981, targeted executions as well as indiscriminate killings nonetheless remained the policy of the military and internal security forces, part of what Professor William Stanley of the University of New Mexico has described as a "strategy of mass murder" designed to terrorize the civilian population as well as opponents of the government (Stanley, 1996, p. 225).

Professor Stanley, the author of a noted scholarly work on the structures of government repression in El Salvador (Stanley, 1996), believes that because human rights violations were being carried out systematically, massively, and as part of an overall policy in 1982-83, there is a high probability that during that period any member of the National Guard or one of the other two security forces would have been involved in the committing of serious abuses (Stanley, 2000). That would apply to new recruits as well as to veterans, Stanley says, because security forces officers were known to order younger or lower-ranking members to commit abuses in order to ensure their complicity in the policy (Stanley, 2000).

The repressive structures of the state were modified after the government of President José Napoleon Duarte took office in June 1984. The three security forces were placed under a Vice Minister of Defense in a stated effort to make these forces more directly accountable to the country¿s elected government, but all three forces continued to be commanded individually by regular army officers (AI, June 1985; New York Times, 1984). The notorious S-2 intelligence unit of the Treasury Police was disbanded, but all of that unit¿s approximately one hundred members, rather than being decommissioned, were dispersed to combat posts around the country (New York Times, 1984; AI, June 1985).

In the early 1980s the approximately 2,000-member Treasury Police had held the reputation as the most ruthless and brutal of the three security forces, and U.S. diplomats up until 1984 referred to them as the "Gestapo" (New York Times, 1984). Beginning in 1984, however, and owing to international pressure and the changes instituted under the Duarte government, there was a reduction in civilian killings and abductions by the security forces generally, according to Amnesty International, Americas Watch and the United Nations (AI, 1985; Inter Press Service, November 1984; Inter Press Service, January 1985).

By 1985 and 1986, according to Americas Watch, indiscriminate killings by government forces were fluctuating between 70 and 232 per month, while targeted killings remained in the twenties and low thirties. The killings stabilized at about those levels until 1989, still a very high level of violence but a noted improvement compared to the first years of the decade. (Stanley, 1996, p.230). At the same time, the three security forces also continued to practice forced disappearances, illegal detentions and torture against suspected leftists or FMLN collaborators (Stanley, 1996, p. 230-231; AI, 1986).

Also in 1984-86, there was a change in the pattern of repression. As death squad killings in urban areas declined, there was a marked increase in indiscriminate violence by the military in rural regions, both through attacks on communities thought to be supporting the guerrillas and through increased bombing and helicopter gunship attacks in FMLN areas (Stanley, 1996, p. 229; Inter Press Service, November 1984). Americas Watch, for example, reported that in 1984 there had been a jump in human rights abuses by the military in combat zones in the countryside (Inter Press Service, January 1985).

It was during this shift in repressive patterns that the 350-man Liberators Battalion was created within the Treasury Police (Batallón de Libertadores, Policía de Hacienda). That battalion was trained to fight with regular army units against left-wing guerrilla units of the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation, but mostly in urban areas (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN) (New York Times, 1984; Jane¿s Intelligence Review, 1993; Stanley, 2000). Professor Stanley believes that because it was an urban unit, and therefore more visible to the foreign press at a time when government forces were trying to deflect international criticism about rights violations, the battalion was "likely to avoid committing atrocities" (Stanley 2000).

Still, Stanley does not discount the possibility that the Liberators Battalion could have been involved in serious rights abuses and, while reports by Amnesty International during the second half of the 1980s do not mention the unit specifically, the Treasury Police in general continued to be cited as a principal violator of human rights during that period (Stanley, 2000; AI, October 1988; AI, October 1990; Inter Press Service, September 1988).

There also remains the question of whether the Liberators Battalion, which another analyst has referred to as the Treasury Police¿s "most important unit," did in fact operate solely in urban areas (Jane¿s Intelligence Review, 1 January 1993). The unit¿s behavior conceivably would be more suspect to the degree that it performed counterinsurgency functions in rural departments such as Morazán and Chalatenango. Finally, it should be noted that beginning in mid-1987, continuing through 1988 and on into 1989, the Treasury Police was implicated in a resurgence of death squad activity, although again reports by Amnesty International made no specific mention of the Liberators Battalion (AI, October 1988; AI, October 1990).

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints. This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.


Amnesty International. El Salvador: A Gross and Consistent Pattern of Human Rights Abuses (London: AI, March 1982), p.5.

Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 1983 (London: AI, 1983), p. 131.

Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 1984 (London: AI, 1984), p. 148.

Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 1985 (London: AI, 1985), p. 143.

Amnesty International. Amnesty International¿s Current Concerns in El Salvador (London: AMR 29/09/85, June 1985), p. 3.

Amnesty International. Amnesty International Report 1986 (London: AI, 1986), pp. 152-153.

Amnesty International. El Salvador: ¿Death Squads¿ - A Government Strategy (London: AMR 29/21/88, October 1988), p. 1-3, 9, 42-44.

Amnesty International. El Salvador: Killings, Torture and ¿Disappearances¿ (London: AMR 29/27/90, October 1990), p. 9-13, 15.

Inter Press Service. Albarran, Luis. "El Salvador: Military Hopes for New U.S. Aid" (San Salvador: 7 April 1984).

Inter Press Service. "El Salvador: Blood Still Runs, But Slower, Says U.N. Report" (New York: 26 November 1984).

Inter Press Service. Manuel, Anne. "El Salvador: Despite Improvements, Human Rights Remain ¿Terrible¿" (Washington: 30 January 1985).

Inter Press Service. Iacub, Pablo. "El Salvador: Death Squads, Corruption Charges Dominate Campaign" (San Salvador: 2 September 1988).

Jane¿s Intelligence Review. Montes, Julio A. "A new Era in El Salvador" (London: 1 January 1993).

New York Times. LeMoyne, James. "A Salvador Police Chief Vows an End to Abuses" (San Salvador: 1 July 1984).

Stanley, William. The Protection Racket State: Elite Politics, Military Extortion, and Civil War in El Salvador (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1996).

Stanley, William. Telephone interview (4 February 2000).

Last Reviewed/Updated: