The Yellow Book

A secret document from the civil war era catalogued the Salvadoran military’s “enemies,” many of whom were killed or disappeared.

A 1980s-era document from the archives of El Salvador’s military intelligence identifies almost two thousand Salvadoran citizens who were considered “delinquent terrorists” by the Armed Forces, among them current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla leader. Other individuals listed include human rights advocates, labor leaders, and political figures, many known to have been victims of illegal detention, torture, extrajudicial execution, forced disappearance, and other human rights abuses.

Called the Libro Amarillo or Yellow Book, the report is the first-ever confidential Salvadoran military document to be made public, and the only evidence to appear from the Salvadoran Army’s own files of the surveillance methods used by security forces to target Salvadoran citizens during the country’s 12-year civil war. Now the Yellow Book has been posted on-line, along with related analysis and declassified U.S. documents, through a collaboration between the National Security Archive, the University of Washington Center for Human Rights and the Human Rights Data Analysis Group (HRDAG).

According to the document’s introduction, the Yellow Book, dated July 1987, was compiled by the Intelligence Department (C-II) of the Estado Mayor Conjunto de la Fuerza Armada Salvadoreña (EMCFA, Joint Staff of the Armed Forces). It consists of a systematic list with 1,915 entries on targeted individuals, 1,857 identified by name, along with corresponding photographs, and notes on their alleged connections to suspect organizations including unions, political parties, and rebel groups of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). A hand-written note on its cover page indicates the report was intended to aid security forces in identifying the opposition. “Use it,” the note says, “Make copies of the photographs and put them on your bulletin board so you will know your enemies.”

Although analysis of the Yellow Book continues, preliminary research makes clear that some of the individuals listed in it were killed or disappeared and never seen again; others were captured, tortured, and later released. Under the direction of HRDAG Executive Director Patrick Ball, researchers cross referenced names listed in the Yellow Book with four historical databases of reports of human rights violations collected from 1980-1992. This process found 273 names in the Yellow Book, or 15%, that matched reports of killings or extrajudicial executions; 233 or 13% matching reports of forced disappearance; 274 or 15% matching reports of torture; and 538 or 29% matching reports of detention or arrest. In total, approximately 43% of names listed in the Yellow Book correspond with these historical human rights databases. HRDAG’s full report is included as an appendix of this publication.

A former U.S. military source who served in El Salvador during the 1980s, who declined to be named, has stated that the Yellow Book appears to be an authentic product of Salvadoran military intelligence, one of many related documents created to track and register perceived threats. The original document, a photocopy of an unknown master copy, was donated to a Salvadoran civil society organization by an individual who claimed to have found it in a house during a move. The document analyzed here is a photocopy of this reproduction. The document has previously circulated privately in El Salvador and was described in reports by Al Jazeera and La Jornada in 2013.

Research by the UWCHR and the National Security Archive explains the Yellow Book in an relation to the Salvadoran intelligence services and their historical connection to the United States. A close reading and spreadsheet transcript of the document are intended to serve future researchers as well as survivors and advocates seeking accountability for war crimes.

Individual cases analyzed include academic and social justice advocate María Teresa Hernández Saballos, disappeared in 1979; union leader Héctor Bernabé Recinos, whose wife and daughter were disappeared while he was illegally detained and tortured;  and teacher Blanca América Recinos de Burgos, detained and tortured in 1982 following the mass arrest of fellow members of the National Association of Salvadoran Educators. The document’s authenticity is confirmed by its consistency with these cases, and shares key characteristics with other Latin American military intelligence documents, such as Guatemala’s infamous Diario Militar.

The appearance of the Yellow Book challenges years of stonewalling by El Salvador’s army and security forces about their role in the bloody civil war that left at least 75,000 civilians dead, and an estimated 8,000 missing or disappeared, according to the United Nations. The refusal of the Salvadoran government to release its official records was especially frustrating to the UN Truth Commission, established in 1992 by the peace accords. While the commission had access to survivor testimonies, evidence gathered from exhumations, published human rights reports, and thousands of declassified U.S. documents made available by the National Security Archive, its repeated requests to the Salvadoran government for access to state archives were ignored.

The publication of the Yellow Book comes at a time when the Salvadorans are re-evaluating the history of human rights abuses committed during the conflict. Organizations such as the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (IDHUCA), Asociación Pro-Búsqueda, and others have presented dozens of criminal complaints for crimes against humanity related to torture, forced disappearance, extrajudicial executions, and massacres, and are calling on the government to release the historical records of the security forces for a full accounting of the past.

In this charged climate, in which prominent organizations seeking justice have been shuttered and attacked, human rights advocates await a decision by the Supreme Court, which is reviewing the amnesty law passed in 1993, guaranteeing impunity for perpetrators of grave human rights violations. If the law is nullified or found unconstitutional by the Court, a major roadblock to accountability will be lifted. As a record of the Salvadoran state’s surveillance and persecution of its own citizens, the Yellow Book may serve as evidence in future claims for justice.


Given the document’s broad scope, it exceeds the current capacity of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights and the National Security Archive to investigate the cases of all those referenced in the Yellow Book or to contact them and their families. If you have information about any individual mentioned here, please share this with us by contacting us at


The University of Washington Center for Human Rights and the National Security Archive would like to acknowledge the invaluable contributions of many to this effort to analyze and authenticate the Yellow Book. We are particularly grateful to Patrick Ball of the Human Rights Data Analysis Group, and to the many Salvadoran human rights advocates whose work made possible this inquiry, especially Carlos Santos. We also appreciate the tireless work of members of COPPES, the Committee of Political Prisoners of El Salvador, and are thankful to Héctor Bernabé Recinos and América Recinos for sharing their personal stories with us. The simultaneous publication of this report in English and Spanish was made possible thanks to the volunteer translation work of Norma Kaminsky. We are grateful for the support of Glenda Pearson and the Digital Initiatives team in UW Libraries. Lastly, we are very much in debt to the outstanding student researchers of the University of Washington Center for Human Rights, including Ashley Davis, Kate Fenimore, Jane Greenstein, Mina Manuchehri, Ursula Mosqueira, and Emily Phillips; and to the indefatigable interns of the National Security Archive, including Emily Willard, Alexandra Smith, and Hannah Paukstis.

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This analysis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. The Yellow Book is published with no rights reserved.