War Against the Poor: Low-Intensity Conflict and Christian Faith
by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer


The murder of Jesuit priests in El Salvador, the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the invasion of Panama, the "war on drugs," and changing East/West relations add urgent weight to our need to confront the U.S. strategy of "low-intensity conflict" (LIC).

The murder of six Jesuit priests and the escalating violence in El Salvador was a predictable outcome of U.S. LIC policies.

Throughout 1989, as the FMLN and the popular movements gained in strength, prospects for a negotiated settlement improved. This hopeful situation was ripe with danger because the increased strength of popular movements signaled the failure of U.S. LIC strategy in El Salvador. The alternative to meaningful negotiations and reforms was escalating violence. The U.S. and its ally, the right wing ARENA party, responded to the strength of the opposition by managing terror in an upward spiral.

The Jesuits were massacred on November 16, 1989. They were killed because they supported the liberating theology and dignity of the base Christian communities; they named social injustice, not communism or outside subversive influence, as the root cause of the crisis (revolution in their view was inevitable unless issues of poverty and social inequality were adequately addressed); they promoted a negotiated settlement to Salvador’s civil war, including a significant role for the FMLN and other popular organizations; and, they named U.S. policy as a fundamental obstacle to peace in El Salvador. The integrity of their voices, both within and outside the country, became a death warrant.

Recent events in El Salvador confirm several cynical aspects of LIC described in earlier chapters of this book.

There is increased evidence of U.S. involvement with Salvador’s death squads. Shortly before the murder of the Jesuits the National Catholic Reporter interviewed Joya Martinez, a defector from El Salvador’s First Infantry Brigade. According to the article, "two U.S. military officers assigned to advise the El Salvadoran military . . . were ‘part and parcel’ of death-squad operations carried out by an elite intelligence branch of the Salvadoran army." The U.S. advisors financially "backed death squad operations, . . . provided civilian vehicles used to facilitate the torture and assassination of victims, maintained an office only a few feet from . . . [the director] of Salvador’s death squad activities, and provided funds for a ‘safe house’ where tortures could be carried out." Joya Martinez indicated that there was "no conceivable way the U.S. advisors could not have known about the work" of the death squads, including their assassination efforts. "Without the economic assistance of the U.S. we could never have exercised or organized or carried out clandestine activities of this kind."1

• It was members of the Atlacatl Battalion, a U.S.-trained elite unit, which murdered the Jesuits. This same battalion has been implicated in numerous human rights violations.2 Also, shortly before the murder of the Jesuits the U.S.-trained Salvadoran Air Force produced and distributed a leaflet saying:

Salvadoran Patriot! You have the . . . right to defend your life and property. If in order to do that you must kill FMLN terrorists as well as their "internationalist" allies, do it. . . . Let’s destroy them. Let’s finish them off. With God, reason, and might, we shall conquer.

• Recent events confirm that LIC defines liberation theology and the progressive churches as enemies. Secret documents leaked from a 1987 meeting of the Conference of American Armies put into context the murder of the Jesuits and overall religious persecution within LIC. Signed by military commanders from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and the United States the documents attack liberation theology as a tool of international communism. "The disputes brought about by this new theological reflection," the generals state, ". . . have fostered a favorable climate and given a new tone to the Marxist penetration of Catholic -- and in general, Christian -- theology and practice." The documents portray liberation theology as a fundamental enemy that must be countered through a strategy of continental security measures which include the coordination of military intelligence and operations. The generals also support the use of elections as a cover for their own de facto rule. They oppose a new wave of military coups preferring "a permanent state of military control over civilian government, while still preserving formal democracy."3

The U.S. government is the financial and ideological architect of the war against liberation theology. Repression, including the murder of priests, bishops, and catechists, is a predictable outcome of U.S. policy. Support for rightwing fundamentalist churches is another weapon in the LIC arsenal." Whether or not agents of the U.S. government ordered the massacre of the Jesuits the U.S. is morally and practically responsible for their deaths and those of numerous religious workers. America’s Watch describes how the murder of the Jesuits and religious persecution generally fits into a pattern of psychological war consistent with LIC:

The government’s hostility towards church and relief organizations was particularly pronounced: In the period November 13 -- December 14, there were 54 searches of 40 different church facilities and homes of church workers by Salvadoran military and security forces. Dozens of church workers received death threats and fled the country under government order or death threat, dozens more . . . were jailed and abused in detention, and numerous church facilities were ransacked. . . . The symbolic significance of the Army’s murder of the country’s leading academic and religious figures cannot be overstated: the deaths signal that, once again, no one is safe from Army and death squad violence. . . The Bush Administration has taken the position that the Jesuit murders were a dramatic departure from Salvadoran army policy, and represent an opportunity for President Cristiani to demonstrate that the army is not above the law. In our view, the murders were entirely in keeping with Salvador’s ten-year civil war. . . .Those responsible for almost every other instance of egregious abuse against Salvadoran citizens still enjoy absolute immunity."5

It is sobering that the most immediate U.S. responses to the murder of the Jesuits were to deny the involvement of the Salvadoran military, to harass a key eyewitness, and to speed up delivery of military hardware to the Salvadoran government.

The electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua’s February, 1990 elections has grave implications for the organized poor throughout the Third World. Richard John Neuhaus, conservative theologian and staunch supporter of U.S. policy, stated the U.S. obsession with Nicaragua: "Washington believes that Nicaragua must serve as a warning to the rest of Central America to never again challenge U.S. hegemony because of the enormous economic and political costs. It’s too bad that the poor have to suffer, but historically the poor have always suffered. Nicaragua must be a lesson to the others."6 A U.S. Undersecretary of State delivered a similar warning to Nicaragua in 1927: "Until now Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those we do not recognize and support fail."

What is the significance of the Sandinista electoral defeat?

First, the Nicaraguan people made a logical choice in an election that the U.S. government, its UNO backed coalition, and its contra army all framed as a choice between ongoing war and "peace." The Nicaragua Hot-line from Witness for Peace dated February 1, 1990 contained the following headings: CONTRAS KIDNAP 56 WORKERS FROM PRIVATE COFFEE FARM IN JINOTEGA; CONTRAS KILL TWO FARMERS IN CHONTALES; CONTRAS KILL MAN AND 11-YEAR-OLD BOY IN CHONTALES; CONTRAS KIDNAP FOUR NEAR LA CONCORDIA;


• Second, ten years of destructive war made the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas possible. Destructive warfare within LIC, including massive terror against civilians, is part of U.S. pre-electoral strategy in Third World countries. Nicaragua’s electoral result, according to U.S. policy makers, is confirmation that LIC works. Elliott Abrams cites Nicaragua as proof that "U.S. intervention can rescue nations"7

• Third, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) plays an increasingly important role within U.S. LIC strategy.8 The NED was formed at the behest of President Reagan in 1983 in order to help develop the "infrastructure of democracy." In reality, the NED is a bipartisan effort to use elections for undemocratic purposes. In the year prior to Nicaragua’s election the NED and the CIA channeled at least $17.5 million to opposition groups in Nicaragua. Imagine the outcry if Japan or the Soviet Union funded the Republicans or Democrats to the tune of $1 billion.

• Finally, the Sandinistas emerge from February’s election as the largest and best organized single party in the National Assembly. Rolling back reforms will not be easy and UNO forces must now seek to build rather than to destroy the country. The Sandinistas could make an electoral comeback in the next round of elections scheduled for 1996.

There are three vital issues to monitor in the coming months and years. First, it took nearly $15 billion in damage to Nicaragua’s economy for the U.S. to achieve its political goal of electorally defeating the Sandinistas. Will the U.S. make a major financial commitment to Nicaragua? Not likely, and even if it does its vision of development could actually increase inequalities and thereby fuel political tensions. Second, the new government will undoubtedly try to undo land and other basic reforms. Contra-backed land seizures on behalf of the old oligarchy are possible, although it is more likely the US.-backed government will seek to undo the land reform through a gradual process of foreclosing on debts of campesinos. Third, the military is the ultimate defender of U.S. interests in most Third World countries. In Nicaragua the U.S. will seek to purge the army of Sandinista or nationalistic supporters and infuse it with contra soldiers. Prior to new elections the U.S. will work to create a military and paramilitary force capable of preventing or blocking a Sandinista electoral victory. The contras, having received U.S. training in psychological warfare with an emphasis on terrorism against civilians, are ideal candidates for death squads. In the coming months and years the conduct and capability of the new Nicaraguan military could precipitate a civil war in Nicaragua.

The collapse of undemocratic regimes in Eastern Europe and improved East/ West relations, themselves hopeful signs, have potentially disastrous implications for Third World peoples.

• U.S. leaders began redefining the enemy as the organized poor in the Third World long before the recent changes in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Improving East/West relations will accelerate the trend of redirecting resources from the "defense of Europe" into new LIC strategies of Third World intervention. A recent document approved in December, 1989 by the Army’s chief of staff, General Carl Vuono, entitled "Military Operations in Low-Intensity Conflict," describes the army’s new aggressive plans. A Newhouse News Service article states: "The U.S. Army, refocusing its attention away from Europe, is preparing for an aggressive new role in the Third World that ranges from non-military ‘nation-building’ in friendly countries to fostering sabotage and insurrection in ‘oppressive’ regimes. . . . The Army expects to become involved in the Third World ‘to a greater degree’ than ever before. . . ."

• Improving East/West relations increases the likelihood of an East/ West alliance against the South. Third World Christians, calling for the conversion of Christians in North America, have noted the danger: "Ironically, just when there is talk of more peaceful coexistence between East and West, our countries in the South experience increased hostile attacks from the West."10

• The U.S. is desperately searching for enemies. The "threat of international communism," which served as a cover for the defense of the U.S. empire, is being replaced with a new ideological garment. Enemies are now being defined as "terrorists" or in terms of "communist threats" that are regional (Cuba) or local (El Salvador, the Philippines). However, the most important ideological tool in the post-Cold War period is the "war on drugs."

The "war on drugs" is serving as a cover for U.S. militarization in defense of empire. A letter from Catholic religious workers in Bolivia dated October 6, 1989 states:

We recognize the tremendous problem of the international drug trade and drug abuse. . . . But we join our voices with those Bolivians who say that the solution to this widespread, international problem is not sending military troops to production centers. . . . So why is the United States sending U.S. troops to Bolivia to "combat" drugs? Our analysis and that of many Bolivians is that the drug problem, a truly critical problem here and in the United States, is serving as a pretext for wider U.S. military presence and control on the continent of South America. Cocaine production is the front behind which the U.S. Southern Command can build bases and establish a presence of personnel and military hardware in the strategically located "heart" of South America -- Bolivia. We believe that the continuing build-up of U.S. military presence in Bolivia is part of the wider strategy of military/political control over governments, popular organizations and natural resources, and as such signifies a violation of a people’s sovereignty.

The United States, under the cover of the "drug war," is also helping the Colombian military and related paramilitary groups to wage a systematic war against anyone identified with the political left. According to Amnesty International, in the past sixteen months, the armed forces or groups acting on their orders carried out 2,500 "extrajudicial executions" and another 250 victims "disappeared" after being taken into custody.11

The invasion of Panama was justified as part of U.S. efforts to fight the drug war. In fact the invasion served a variety of U.S. purposes including the assertion of U.S. control over the Panama Canal, the diversion of attention away from El Salvador, the economic destabilization of Nicaragua and the intimidation of Nicaraguan voters prior to the election. The invasion was also intended to punish Noriega. The U.S. aided Noriega in his drug-running enterprise in exchange for his support for the contras. "Our government did nothing regarding Noriega’s drug business . . . ," a U.S. government investigation headed by Senator John Kerry reported, "because the first priority was the contra war."12 U.S. hostility toward Noriega followed his withdrawal of support for the contras. A Costa Rican government study concluded that "requests for contra help were initiated by Colonel [Oliver] North to General Noriega. These requests opened a gate so their henchmen could utilize [Costa Rican] territory for trafficking in arms and drugs." The Costa Rican government report recommends that Oliver North, General Richard Secord, former National Security Advisor John Poindexter, former U.S. Ambassador to Costa Rica, Lewis Tambs, and former CIA station chief in Costa Rica, Joseph Fernandez, be banned from Costa Rican territory for life because of their involvement in illegal gun and drug operations.13

The U.S. invasion of Panama, justified as a "war on drugs," was actually good news to drug traffickers. Panama’s new president, Guillermo Endara, the vice-president, the chief justice of the supreme court, and the new minister of the treasury all have significant ties to the drug trade. Jonathan Marshall of the Oakland Tribune concluded that "President Endara’s appointments read like a who’s who of Panama’s oligarchy. Many have personal or business associations with the drug-money laundering industry."14

Recent events also point to the erosion of U.S. democracy and the complicity of the media. U.S. violations of international law, failure to curb covert activities, refusal on "national security grounds" to release key evidence in the Iran-Contra and related trials, cooperation with drug runners in pursuit of illegal foreign policy objectives, and an obedient press all point dangerously towards a national security state.

"Operation Just Cause," our government’s code name for the invasion of Panama, was widely applauded in the U.S. press. The Toronto Globe and Mail commented on the invasion by noting "the peculiar jingoism of U.S. society so evident to foreigners but almost invisible for most Americans."15 The mainstream media rallied around the flag and ignored history in the aftermath of Nicaragua’s election. "Morning Again in Nicaragua," proclaimed the lead editorial in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. Otis Pike implied there was no connection between the war and how people voted in an article "What war couldn’t do, the people did." William Safire in the New York Times applauded "the contras’ long struggle" which made the triumph of democracy possible. Anthony Lewis, while acknowledging that "Reagan’s policy did not work" because it "produced only misery, death and shame" praised George Bush for "a new approach" that "gave Nicaragua a way out of the nightmare of war and destitution." George Will, celebrating the death of Marxism and chastising the "anti-Americanism" of progressive churches, declared that "Reagan’s way is affirmed again." Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post noted with great pride that the United States is "in fact, more hegemonic in the world in 1990 than in 1950." This of course is only a sampling. The tragedy is that Central America has become an equivalent of Tiannamen Square for the United States, in which the U.S. government and media collaborate to repress democracy in the name of democracy.

Finally, recent events underscore our spiritual crisis. The Latin American Council of Churches sent the following letter to Christians in the United States after the murder of the Jesuits:

How long? How long will the Christians and people of the United States have to contemplate the incongruity of its government . . . as it supports with over a million dollars a day another government that represses, kills bishops, religious workers, children, men and women, violates human rights, closes itself to dialogue and obstructs the pastoral task of the churches? . . . How long? In the name of the God of Justice, in the name of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace, in the name of the Spirit of all truth: stop now!

The U.S. invasion of Panama prompted another letter challenging our racism and our nationalistic idols:

Now with Panama invaded, we Latin American Christians feel indignant when we hear the count on North American victims of an operation that was planned with evil intentions and hypocrisy, and yet nothing is said about the hundreds or thousands of Afro-Indo-Latin American lives . . . destroyed physically or psychologically by such an abominable adventure, which is a repetition of past crimes in Santo Domingo, Grenada, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador . . . etc., in an endless list. We ask ourselves, then: How long will the Christian churches in the U.S. continue to tolerate, and in some cases even justify, these actions that not only violate the most basic human rights, but also the right that the weakest or smallest countries have to make their own decisions and to write their own history.16

Jon Sobrino, a Jesuit whose life was saved because he was visiting Thailand when his brother Jesuits were murdered in El Salvador, recently told Sojourners magazine: "You cannot be a believer in God today in this world if you do not take oppression seriously. . . . What is at stake here is faith and humanity. . . . I don’t know how you can be a human being on this planet today if this growing oppression and poverty is not your central Issue."17 As Christians living in the United States, what is at stake in our confrontation with "low-intensity conflict" is the very essence and integrity of our faith and our claim to be human beings.

-- -- Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer

March 15, 1990


1. "Trained to kill in El Salvador," National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 1989.

2. Testimony of Holly Burkhalter for America’s Watch to the House Subcommittees on Western Hemisphere Affairs and Human Rights and International Organizations, January 31, 1990.

3. "U.S., Latin America sign secret defense plan," National Catholic Reporter, December 16, 1988.

4. See Sara Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right, Boston, South End Press, 1989. See also The Road to Damascus: Kairos and Conversion, available from the Center of Concern, 3700 13th Street, N.E., Washington, D.C., 200017.

5. America’s Watch testimony, January 31, 1990.

6. Penny Lernoux, People of God, (New York: Viking Press, 1989), pp. 373-74.

7. Minneapolis Star Tribune, March 6, 1990.

8. See, for example, The Resource Center Bulletin, No. 19, Winter 1990, from The Inter-Hemisphere Education Resource Center, Box 4506, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87196; and "Washington Wants To Buy Nicaragua’s Elections Again: A Guide to U.S. Operatives and Nicaraguan Parties," by Holly Sklar, Z Magazine, December, 1989.

9. "Army plans aggressive role in Third World, Minneapolis Star Tribune, January 12, 1990.

10. The Road to Damascus, p. 6.

11. Lies of Our Times, January, 1990.

12. Christic Institute Issues Brief, Number 1, February, 1990.

13. Extra! A Publication of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), Vol. 3 No. 1, October/November, 1989.

14. Extra! A Publication of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), Vol. 3 No. 2, January-February, 1990.

15. Extra!, A Publication of FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting), Vol. 3 No. 2, January-February, 1990.

16. Letters from the Latin American Council of Churches, November 28, 1989 and January 1, 1990.

17. Sojourners, April, 1990.