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All Along The Watchtower:

A Memoir Of The 1970 Salvadoran Revolution


By Chris Oakley

Part 1



From the S-Sn volume of the 2005 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia:


The SALVADORAN REVOLUTION(1970-72) was a civil war that erupted in El Salvador in the late spring of 1970; it cost the lives of over 80,000 government  troops and 65,000 rebel soldiers before the war came to an end with the fall of  San Salvador, El Salvador’s capital city, to rebel forces in November of 1972. The Salvadoran Revolution was mainly sparked by popular outrage over El Salvador’s defeat in its so-called 1969 "soccer war" with neighboring Honduras...


From the book Firefights and Fruit Stands: My Personal Account of the 1970 El Salvadoran Revolution by former UPI Latin American bureau correspondent Jim Rykers, copyright 1995 Harper Collins Publishing:


The thing I remember most about San Salvador when I first got there in October of 1969 was the noise in the streets-- especially the shouting of the demonstrators at the anti-government rallies that were happening seemingly on every second street corner. I’d just been assigned to the Latin American desk after spending the previous three years in Vienna; the transfer was mostly my editors’ idea but I wasn’t going to complain about it, especially since it meant getting away from those tough-as-hell European winters I’d been enduring lately.

This was right about the time things had gone to hell in a handbasket for El Salvador in its border war with Honduras. When that little shooting match got started in July of ’69, most of us figured it wouldn’t last more than a week; when it was still going on a month and a half later and El Salvador was starting to lose big, you had to figure something was seriously wrong. Then came that firefight between the Salvadoran army and the Hondurans near Perquin,1 and from there on out it was batten-down-the-hatches time. There had been two attempts early on to negotiate a cease-fire, but both of them fell apart and the bloodshed went on until about a week after I arrived in El Salvador.2 As soon as I stepped off the plane at what passed for San Salvador’s municipal airport, I was accosted by a man in his 50s whose oldest son had been killed at Perquin...


From an Associated Press wire bulletin dated October 14th, 1969:


MEXICO CITY(AP)--A border war between El Salvador and Honduras that has been raging since July came to an end today with the signing of a cease-fire pact by the two combatants. A spokesman for the El Salvadoran foreign ministry said that the El Salvadoran government was agreeing to the cease-fire in the interest of avoiding further bloodshed along the Salvadoran-Honduran frontier; the war, which has cost both countries thousands of lives, broke out following the enactment of land reform laws which forced thousands of Salvadoran nationals living in Honduras to leave their homes.

The conflict has been nicknamed "the soccer war" or "the football war" because it began shortly after El Salvador and Honduras faced each other in a regional qualifying match for the 1970 World Cup. Frustration over the outcome of that match has been cited by political analysts as an additional contributing factor in the hostilities that eventually led to armed conflict between the two Latin American neighbors...


From the January 2nd, 1970 broadcast of The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite:


The new year has gotten off to a violent start in El Salvador; yesterday more than twenty people were killed and sixty others injured when a riot broke out in the capital city, San Salvador, as police clashed with demonstrators protesting the current Salvadoran government. That administration is widely blamed for El Salvador’s defeat in its border war last year with Hondurans and is also coming under increasing criticism for its failure to resolve the country’s economic problems...


Excerpt of a classified SITREP(situation report) by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency(CIA) station chief in Mexico City to CIA director Richard Helms dated March 15th, 1970:


In regard to your letter of March 10th re: El Salvador, I’m afraid things in that country show no evidence at all of improving. In fact they may have greatly deteriorated by the time you read this. Virtually all of our agents in-country there, and many of my own staff here in this office, are of the opinion that it’s only a question of weeks or maybe even days before there is a serious attempt to overthrow the Salvadoran government by force. The current leadership in San Salvador is widely blamed by its people for El Salvador’s defeat in the border war with Honduras and the country’s ongoing economic and social troubles; public  officials known or suspected to be in favor of the current regime in San Salvador are routinely jeered, spat on, insulted, and even physically attacked. There have at least two assassination attempts against province-level administrators who support the established national government.

It is my professional and personal judgment that the current regime in San Salvador will not remain in power beyond June 1st. In fact, we should prepare ourselves for the possibility that the regime may be toppled before that date revise our policies towards El Salvador with that fact in mind. I also strongly recommend that the State Department begin evacuating all non-essential personnel and dependents from U.S. diplomatic outposts in El Salvador at the earliest possible moment. Finally, for their own safely American tourists should be discouraged in the strongest possible terms from visiting El Salvador until the current political situation there has been resolved....


From the History Channel documentary special Ocho de Mayo: The Salvadoran Civil War As Remembered By The Men Who Fought It, copyright 2002:


Throughout April and early May of 1970 the streets of El Salvador were excruciatingly tense as the country continued to teeter on the brink of revolution. It finally tipped over that brink on May 6th when Salvadoran government forces arrested and executed five protestors at a rally in San Salvador calling for the existing government’s resignation; those executions turned a long- simmering anger at the government into white-hot rage. On May 8th, just two days after the executions, anti-government mobs stormed a Salvadoran army base east of the town of San Francisco Gotera and seized the base’s arms and munitions supplies. Most of the soldiers at the base chose to side with the mob, some out of fear being lynched if they opposed the mob but most because they genuinely sympathized and agreed with the government’s critics. The Salvadoran Revolution had begun....


From Firefights and Fruit Stands by Jim Rykers:


The first I heard about what happened at San Francisco Gotera was when I got a call from one of my regular sources in the Salvadoran defense ministry. He told me there had been a riot at the army base nearby, so I chartered a plane to fly me out to the closest airstrip to Gotera and took a jeep from the airstrip to the army base. As soon as I got there I saw one of the people who’d organized the takeover, waving a huge Salvadoran flag; tied to the flagpole was a sign that read in Spanish "Death to the pigs!", meaning the government in San Salvador.

I interviewed one of the soldiers who’d taken sides with the anti-government uprising; he said he’d joined the revolt because he was tired of his officers kicking him around, and most of the men in his unit felt the same way. Off to my left I heard what sounded like gunfire and thought that maybe some pro-government people might be resisting the takeover-- it wasn’t until later that I found out the base commander had been shot by a firing squad of his own lieutenants...


From a United Press International wire bulletin dated May 8th, 1970:


SAN SALVADOR(UPI)--Months of discontent in El Salvador over that country’s defeat in its border war with Honduras and its ongoing economic and social crises have finally mushroomed into open revolt today as anti-government demonstrators seized control of an army base west of San Francisco Gotera. According to local sources, the uprising was aided by mutinous soldiers of the Salvadoran army who are upset over the harsh treatment they are often subjected to by their officers. It has not yet been confirmed whether the whether the takeover was a spontaneous event or the first stage of a carefully planned uprising, but the rebels at Gotera are said to be receiving widespread expressions of sympathy and support from other parts of El Salvador.

The takeover occurred just after 12:30 PM local time this afternoon when anti-government demonstrators stormed the Gotera base in protest of the execution two days earlier of five people who took part in a protest march in San Salvador calling for the current Salvadoran government to resign from office. A spokesman for the Salvadoran interior ministry said the government would not capitulate to the Gotera rebels and that the government was prepared to retake the Gotera army base by force if necessary.

In Washington U.S. Secretary of State William Rogers issued a statement that his office was closely watching developments in the Gotera situation and doing everything possible to guarantee the safety of American nationals currently in El Salvador....


From the S-Sn volume of the 2005 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia:


The Salvadoran Revolution was also known as ‘the Gotera rebellion’ because the revolution began at an army base at the town of San Francisco Gotera and the rebel forces had their headquarters in the Gotera region for most of the war. One rebel army unit even named itself "the Gotera Brigade" in tribute to the town....


Excerpt of an interview with a student at Georgetown University aired on the May 10th, 1970 edition of NBC Nightly News:


It seems like everything’s just going to hell in a handbasket, man...first Nixon invaded Cambodia, then came the (deleted) at Kent State, and now there’s a war on in El Salvador. Some guys say it’ll be contained but I don’t buy it....I think it’s just going to keep getting bigger and bigger until we end up getting dragged into it just like we got dragged into Vietnam...


From Ocho de Mayo:


Three days after the Salvadoran Revolution began, government forces made good on their promise to attack the rebels occupying the Gotera army base. But the rebel forces easily turned back the government army’s assault, inflicting heavy casualties on the attackers; after two days of bitter fighting, some of it hand-to-hand, the government troops were forced to pull back and regroup. Rebel propaganda posters trumpeted this as a significant victory in their fight to bring down the existing Salvadoran regime. But while the government forces had been defeated at Gotera, they would prevail two months later when they fought to seize control of another major rebel stronghold...


From a televised speech by President Richard Nixon broadcast May 16th, 1970:


Good evening, my fellow Americans. As you may know, in recent weeks long-simmering political and social tensions in El Salvador have escalated into open armed conflict between the Salvadoran government and those who disapprove of its handling of the country’s vast economic and social problems and its border war last summer with Honduras. Let me assure you here and now that the White House is doing everything in its power to protect the safety of American citizens in El Salvador and help those who wish to leave that country return safely to US soil; we are also making a concerted diplomatic effort to bring the opposing sides to the conference table to negotiate a cease-fire so that this terrible war can be swiftly brought to an end. As our own history demonstrates, the most terrible wars of all are those wars in which brother fights brother.

Let me make one other thing perfectly clear: contrary to certain rumors you may have heard from the press, the United States is not planning direct military intervention in the hostilities in El Salvador. The situation in Vietnam and Cambodia is still highly volatile, and there are also many critical security needs we must meet in western Europe; last but not least, of course, there is the necessity of maintaining a solid defense capability here on our own shores. Therefore, it would not make sense at this time to commit American combat forces to El Salvador lest we run the risk of shortchanging our military operations in other theaters....


From Firefights and Fruit Stands by Jim Rykers:


After my Gotera piece hit the papers, AP hired about a half-dozen stringers to join me in San Salvador to cover the civil war. I was glad for the help; this thing looked like it was going to get very big very fast. Even before the war there’d been some talk of setting up a permanent AP bureau in San Salvador. Makes you wonder if they knew something the rest of us didn’t or just happened to be ahead of the curve....

I spent the 4th of July at a barbecue in the US Embassy; about a week later I was filing a story about government artillery units bombarding rebel positions near Santa Elena when I got word that a major battle was brewing near one of the rebel camps in the north. I hired a jeep and brought one of the stringers with me to check it out....


From the July 11th, 1970 broadcast of NBC Nightly News:


The Salvadoran embassy in Washington has confirmed that a major firefight is underway at this hour between government forces and rebel militia near the town of San Miguel. According to the embassy’s military attaché, a Salvadoran air force squadron is also involved in the engagement...


From the July 12th, 1970 New York Times:




From Ocho de Mayo:


After the Salvadoran regular army’s victory at San Miguel, the rebel forces were on the defensive for months. San Miguel was the rebels’ second-most important base of operations; its  capture was a major setback for their strategic and tactical plans. Yet they were able to hold on to Gotera in spite of the regular army’s best efforts to dislodge them, and in early November, shortly after the end of El Salvador’s rainy season, they marshaled their strength for a surprise attack to retake San Miguel from government troops...


From an Associated Press wire bulletin dated November 5th, 1970:


SAN SALVADOR(AP)--In a statement phoned to press correspondents here in the capital of El Salvador, an anonymous spokesman for the Salvadoran Committee of National Liberation announced that SCLN insurgent units have begun a multi-front attack on government forces currently occupying the former Salvadoran rebel base at San Miguel. According to the SCLN statement, the main purpose of the attack is to regain control of the base for the rebel forces. An official press release from the Salvadoran defense ministry acknowledges that government forces at San Miguel are under heavy fire but claims only a single rebel unit is currently attacking the base and promises that the rebel offensive will be defeated in a matter of hours....


From the S-Sn volume of the 2005 edition of the World Book Encyclopedia:


The SCLN offensive to retake San Miguel caught government forces largely off-guard; though some Salvadoran regular army troops were able to put a strong fight against the rebels, most were quickly overwhelmed by the assault, and after three days of fighting the San Miguel base was back in rebel hands. The SCLN’s retaking of San Miguel caused many of the Salvadoran regular army’s senior field commanders to be fired from their posts and many others to be reprimanded for not fulfilling their orders.

Their confidence strengthened by the success of the November offensive, the rebels steadily expanded the area under their control. By February of 1971 the SCLN sphere of influence stretched from Osicala to Chirilagura and Salvadoran insurgents were conducting probing attacks against San Vicente. Around this same time the SCLN executive committee drafted its famous "Seven Principles" resolution spelling out how the rebels intended to run the country after they had overthrown the regime of then-Salvadoran president Julio Adalberto Rivera...


To Be Continued



[1] Perquin is a Salvadoran town located near El Salvador’s northeastern border with Honduras. The engagement between Salvadoran and Honduran troops near Perquin in September of 1969 is widely regarded by military historians as the decisive moment when the “soccer war” was effectively lost for the Salvadorans.

[2] The first effort to arrive at a negotiated settlement came four days after the “soccer war” began; after those negotiations collapsed, a second attempt to broker a cease-fire was made in early August of 1969, but that too failed amid harsh recriminations between El Salvador and Honduras over who was responsible for starting the war.


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