“El Desembarco” in Arcatao: Thirty Years Later, Survivor Accounts & FOIA Tell of Abuses

Survivor testimonies and declassified US government documents tell the story of a brutal 1986 military operation in the town of Arcatao, Chalatenango.

Thirty years ago today, on the morning of April 8, 1986 in the community of Arcatao, Chalatenango, the Salvadoran military rounded up residents from their homes and held them for hours at gunpoint in the church, reportedly torturing many, and eventually killing or disappearing four to seven men. Coupled with the destruction of their homes and property, this incident – remembered by residents as “El Desembarco” – served as a terrifying reminder of the community’s ongoing vulnerability during a period when the government claimed widespread abuses had subsided. In 2014, April 8 was declared the Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Desembarco by the municipal government of Arcatao.

The University of Washington Center for Human Rights has worked with the Survivors Committee for Historical Memory in Arcatao and with the Institute of Human Rights of the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas” to support the preservation of historical memory in this community since 2013. As part of these efforts, we solicited the declassification of US government documents which might shed light on the events of April 8, 1986. Today, we are publishing 19 documents received from the US Department of State pursuant to our request. These documents, taken with the accounts of survivors – many viewable in the Unfinished Sentences Testimony Archive, a unique online collection of oral histories created with our partners – enable us to reconstruct the events of April 8, 1986, and the closed-door discussions held between US government officials in their aftermath. Among other things, the evidence reveals that:

  • US officials scrambled to respond to an active and diverse network of civil society organizations who mobilized successfully to get the word out about the abuses committed at Arcatao.
  • In their eagerness to respond in ways that would not threaten ongoing military assistance for the Salvadoran regime, US officials misrepresented the truth about the detention of foreign journalists during this military operation – including in sworn testimony before the US Congress.
  • There is an urgent need to thoroughly investigate the abuses committed in Arcatao by both sides of the conflict, and to bring those responsible to justice.

Today, we are pleased to share these documents publicly in the hopes that they might contribute to processes of truth-telling and accountability-seeking in El Salvador.

The context

On April 8, 1985, dawn broke with the sound of bombs and helicopters as the armed forces arrived in Arcatao. Parachutists descended from airplanes and helicopters and rapidly rounded up residents, forcing everyone to congregate in the town square. Men, women, and children were separated into groups and held in different areas of the church and surrounding buildings. Many men were reportedly subjected to interrogation and torture, while the women held in the church agonized at the cries of their family members. Seeking information, the soldiers allegedly offered children candies in a ploy to discern who supported the guerrillas. Some four to seven men – reports vary as to the exact number – were eventually taken away by the military in this operation; most were killed in the outskirts of the town. Some survivors report that the men’s corpses were found with signs of brutal torture.

This day of terror took place at the conclusion of a monthlong operation, reportedly named “Lieutenant Ricardo Chávez Carreño” and launched on March 7 in Chalatenango department. By this point in the war, the Salvadoran military had largely abandoned the use of mass ground invasions, which had proven themselves largely ineffective at capturing guerrillas and had brought about massive civilian death tolls (such as those described in Usulután at La Quesera and Cabañas at Santa Cruz, the Lempa River, and elsewhere). Bolstered by the arrival of planes and helicopters from the United States, and the support of US forces stationed in Honduras who conducted daily flights over Salvadoran territory to gather intelligence, the Army had become more nimble in its targeting of guerrilla strongholds.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the Chávez Carreño operation, like Operation Phoenix which immediately preceded it in Guazapa, was aimed at the mass removal of civilians from areas of known guerrilla support. Survivors describe being forced to flee under aerial attack, and taking cover in the countryside while their homes were destroyed. In Arcatao, this process of going on “guindas” – as Salvadorans refer to fleeing their homes to hide in caves, improvised air raid shelters, and under trees or other natural cover during military operations – was familiar for many, as the community had experienced waves of harassment and violence by the armed forces and their paramilitary adjuncts since the 1970s. Attacks became so intense in the early 1980s that by 1982 a majority of Arcatao’s inhabitants had left the area, mostly to the refugee camps in Honduras. In 1984, however, in a bid to bolster the Salvadoran government’s human rights reputation, President Duarte mandated new rules for military engagement with civilian non-combatants. Though still wary of lingering dangers, in 1985-86 some of Arcatao’s former residents had returned to begin repopulating the community.

In this context, the one-day operation on April 8 was interpreted by many as a deliberate reminder of the government’s ability to inflict lethal violence at will, even as it purported to respect human rights. While the number killed was far lower than in the notorious massacres of the early 1980s, the destruction of homes, crops, and livestock harkened back to the worst days of scorched earth, and the psychological terror of their mass detention seemed a reminder that the wholesale slaughter of peasants could return at the flip of a switch. Indeed, many survivors reported being told by the soldiers that they had gathered them there to eliminate them en masse.

“‘You’re lucky…’ they told me, ‘because we just got the order not to kill you.'”
– Virginia, Arcatao resident

Survivors explain that the military held community members in the church from dawn until around 4 pm, while apparently awaiting orders; many report feeling certain that at any moment, the soldiers would open fire into the multitude. Indeed, soldiers apparently alluded to this possibility repeatedly, even invoking the notorious massacre of El Mozote, in which the military gathered townspeople into the church only to slaughter them there. Many believe it was the intervention of foreigners – either three foreign journalists detained that morning in the operation, or the residents of Arcatao’s newly-official sister city of Madison, Wisconsin – who averted what otherwise might have been the elimination of the community.

The journalists detained in the operation were Tod Robberson, who worked as the bureau chief for Reuters at the time; Juana Anderson, Reuters’ photographer; and Catherine Matheson of the BBC. Interviewed in February 2016, Tod Robberson explained that the three had hiked into Arcatao on April 6, taking advantage of a national vaccination day to enter the village, which was normally blocked off by the army. The journalists intended to conduct interviews with civilians living in guerrilla-controlled territory, seeking to understand how people’s lives were affected by the ongoing battle for control of Chalatenango. On the morning of April 8, Robberson reported, he was brushing his teeth outside the unoccupied hut where they had slept when the invasion began. The journalists were taken to a hut on the other side of town by a local man, who left them there as the fighting intensified, with bullets impacting the mud walls of the hut, and bombs and smoke grenades dropping.

A soldier kicked in the door of the hut and brought the journalists to the town square, where soldiers were gathering civilians at gunpoint. The three journalists were held separately from the villagers, and eventually put on a helicopter and taken to Chalatenango City, where they were berated by military officers for having been found in the company of “guerrillas,” their film and notes were confiscated, and they were held for hours before eventually being transferred to San Salvador. They asked for their film and notes, but these were never returned to them; in fact, Robberson recalls that one of their photographs was later published without permission in La Prensa Gráfica. Robberson remains concerned to this day that information in those notes could have been used to identify the next round of victims.

One survivor, Virginia, explains the devastation she felt after the operation:

“I came home after they had said it was over, I came home and found everything in disorder, they hadn’t even left a blanket, everything was in pieces. My grinding stone was shattered, two grinders for milling, they had, they had ruined them. There was nothing left for us, nothing to make food for the children, nothing. They wiped everything out. Everything, they had knocked over everything, the pans they found they smashed with stones. That invasion was so…I don’t even want to remember that invasion. So when it was over, I came and saw that, oh! I was inconsolable, I just sat outside, on a rock. What can I do here now, I said, for my children, I don’t have any way to feed them, they destroyed everything. They poured our corn out in a puddle, they poured out everything. They did it just because the famous commander was here, ‘You’re lucky we don’t kill you,’ they told me, ‘because we just got the order not to kill you. But you are the owner of this house, we know where you live,’ they said.”

Another survivor, Marta, described the lingering pain caused by the killing of her partner, Osmín López:

View more testimonies of the Desembarco in the Unfinished Sentences Testimony Archive

“I was pregnant when the invasion happened. And… well… [my partner] didn’t get to enjoy what he wanted the most, my daughter. During my pregnancy I was with him for eight months, and then when the invasion happened, they took him away. They took us all out of the house and took us to the church. They locked us up there and tortured us. The men were also taken out and tortured. I tried to get out but I couldn’t because the soldiers wouldn’t let me. They pushed me with their rifles so I’d go back inside, and I tried to obey because of my pregnancy. I thought to myself, ‘If they hit me in the wrong place, they’ll make me have a miscarriage.’ So I tried not to demand anything, or to go outside to see what they had done with my husband, because I was afraid they were going to hit my belly. That’s why I didn’t see when they took him away; otherwise I would have followed him. I think they probably would have killed me if I had done that, because killing people meant nothing to them. They killed people with children and they killed pregnant women. They killed whomever. So I often think that’s why I didn’t get to see him. They took him away and killed him. That is the tragedy of my life and up to this day I can’t forget it, and I have this daughter who is a gift from God. God gave me my daughter, who is the fruit of someone I loved and continue loving. I have my daughter who to me is… I have more children but she is my right hand, my life. And I think that I can never forget this, what happened in the war. I will never forget it!”

Towards accountability

According to Americas Watch[1], the journalists were detained by the Liberator Battalion of the Treasury Police; Robberson recalls their identifiable knee boots. The documents note that the operation itself was conducted by elite units from the airborne battalion and the PRAL Long Range Reconnaissance Unit, and confirm that the local departmental commander at the time was Col. Jesús Cáceres. Some survivors describe Col. Cáceres as present at the scene.

Furthermore, the documents reveal that US Military Group (MILGP) representatives were present during the pre-deployment orientation of troops and report data from the post-operation debriefing. This level of close cooperation between the US and Salvadoran officials underscores longstanding questions about the responsibility of US officials for atrocities committed by their Salvadoran protégés.

What the documents reveal

The 19 documents declassified to UWCHR show the response of US officials to a growing chorus of concerned parties impressive in its diversity and capacity for rapid action. Within a week, for example, Secretary of State George Shultz contacted US Ambassador Edwin Corr for help in responding to many phone inquiries already received and an anticipated “deluge” of written communications about the events of April 8 in Arcatao. Within weeks, nine Members of the US Congress wrote expressing concern about the detention of journalists. US-based solidarity organization CISPES issued an alert calling for a cessation of violence against civilians in Arcatao. The American Association for the Advancement of Science contacted the State Department with concerns about respect for the Geneva Conventions’ standards on military actions against medical facilities. And Americas Watch denounced the operation in testimony before the US Congress on May 14, 1986.

“Salvadoran forces have been scrupulous in their efforts to avoid harm to non-combatants”
– US Department of State

However, in several regards the response of US officials seems to have fallen short of the truth. Specifically, in their letters to US Congresspeople, State Department officials claimed that “Salvadoran forces have been scrupulous in their efforts to avoid harm to non-combatants,” (C05625213, plus all nine letters to the Members of Congress) and “ground troops and air support took extreme care to avoid harming civilians.” (C05625215) While some or even all of those killed may have been affiliated with the guerrillas – the information available makes it impossible to assess this – the practice of torture, threats, destruction of homes and property, and other terror tactics were reportedly used indiscriminately in the community. And even if those killed were guerrillas, by all accounts they do not appear to have been killed in combat. As such their executions defy the standards of international humanitarian law as inscribed in the Geneva Conventions.

Furthermore, in response to concerns about the detention of the three foreign journalists, raised by Americas Watch and others, the State Department insisted that they were detained in the company of armed guerrillas, something Robberson denies; and that their confiscated photographs, recordings, and notes were returned to them, also rejected as untrue by Robberson. In sworn testimony before the US Congress, then serving as Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Elliott Abrams declared that the journalists “deliberately lied and went off with the guerrillas,” rendering moot any concerns about freedom of the press raised by their treatment [2]. In fact, says Robberson, “We did not lie because nobody asked us where we were going. …Because of the vaccination day, the army had removed its normal checkpoints, allowing people to come and go freely. I was insistent throughout our arrangements ahead of this trip that we would not lie or misrepresent ourselves.”

Above all, however, the documents, interviews, and Congressional testimony offer important insights into the abuses that transpired at Arcatao, but they are incomplete. The documents reveal a complex picture, in which credible human rights defenders report that both sides – guerrillas and army – committed atrocities against civilians in Arcatao (C05625219, C05625223). Yet access to information remains limited, and survivors’ narratives offer vivid but varying accounts of what took place. The most comprehensive investigation of these events is likely the report compiled by Salvadoran human rights organization Tutela Legal, referenced in C05625219, yet in the aftermath of the Archdiocese’s spontaneous closure of that organization in 2014, such records are no longer available.

“That was the tragedy of my life, and to this day I don’t forget it”
– Marta, Arcatao resident

In 2013, the Salvadoran Fiscalía General de la República was presented with two criminal complaints related to executions on April 8, 1986 in Arcatao, yet investigations remain stalled. As Marta attests, about the killing of her common-law husband – “That was the tragedy of my life, and to this day I don’t forget it” – the survivors continue to bear the burden of trauma, rendered more painful by official denials of their right to truth and justice.


Document # C05625213
April 14, 1986
Subject: “Response on Arcatao”
Cable from Secretary of State George Shultz in Washington DC to US Ambassador Edwin Corr in San Salvador

The State Dept. reports it is receiving telephone inquiries about what happened in Arcatao on April 8, and expects a “deluge” of written inquiries soon; the cable seeks the assistance of the embassy in drafting a response, including some proposed language for comment. Shultz’s proposed response emphasizes that “Salvadoran forces were scrupulous in their efforts to avoid harm to non-combatants.” He further notes that “Allegations of Salvadoran military attacks against non-combatants follow a long-established pattern of disinformation… insurgents attempt to impede Salvadoran military operations by providing the wrong information to well-meaning, concerned US citizens. …Allegations of indiscriminate bombing are an invariable element of this campaign (and therefore one that we have looked into most closely). Although we cannot deny that errors occasionally occur, the Salvadoran military’s commitment to prosecuting the war against the insurgents with minimum harm to civilian non-combatants is clear.”

Document # C05625214
April 15, 1986
Subject: “Response on Arcatao: Amendments”
Response of Ambassador Corr to the above cable (C05625213), including minor edits to Shultz’s proposed language.

Document # C05625215
April 24, 1986
Subject: “Congressional Correspondence re: Arcatao”
Cable from the US Embassy in San Salvador to the Department of State in Washington DC

Includes a letter from Ambassador Corr to US Congressman Mike Lowry (D-WA) in response to his inquiry about the April 8 military operation in Arcatao. Corr reports that there were “no credible reports of civilian casualties… ground troops and air support took extreme care to avoid harming civilians,” and furthermore asserts that the village was not bombed. In passing, he also confirms that the Departmental Commander at the time of the operation was Col. Jesús Cáceres.

Document # C05625216
April 28, 1986
Subject: “Disinformation on the Salvadoran Refugees”
Cable from the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, to the Department of State in Washington DC

Reportedly exaggerated accounts of the military operation being published in the Honduran press, denouncing violence against repatriated refugees, including the rapes of women and children.

Document # C05625217
May 6, 1986
Subject: “Arcatao Incident: Request for Information”
Cable from the Department of State in Washington DC to the US Embassy in San Salvador

Requests clarification about adherence to Geneva Conventions principles on medical neutrality, following inquiries by the American Association for the Advancement of Science about possible detention of nurses and attack on medical facilities during the March and April operations in Arcatao.

Document # C05625218
May 10, 1986
Subject: “Testimony-related Letters on Arcatao”
Cable from the Department of State in Washington DC, to US Ambassador Edwin Corr in San Salvador

The State Department includes the text of three letters received from US Congresspeople regarding conditions in El Salvador, and asks for clarification in anticipation of Assistant Secretary of State’s anticipated testimony before a Congressional subcommittee the following week: “If we can receive Embassy response earlier, we may be able to arm friendlies on the subcommittee and tilt the issue our way.”

The letters, from Reps. Barnes, Studds, Weiss, Fazio, Aucoin, Dymally, Mackay, Conyers, Moody, Boxer, and Lowry, express concern about the Salvadoran government’s confiscation of Americas Watch materials, recent attacks against repatriated refugees in Tenancingo, and the detention of three foreign journalists in Arcatao. In regards to the journalists, the Congressional letters ask the Embassy to take action to protect the neutrality of the press by demanding that their materials be returned to them.

Document # C05625219
May 12, 1986
Subject: “Heads Up: Seven Murdered by ESAF in Arcatao, says Tutela Legal”
Cable from the US Embassy in San Salvador to the Department of State in Washington DC, titled “Heads Up: Seven Murdered by ESAF in Arcatao, says Tutela Legal”

The cable explains that noted Salvadoran human rights defender and head of Tutela Legal, María Julia Hernández, recently met with an Embassy political officer and reported that Tutela Legal has investigated the April 8 incidents at Arcatao and is preparing a final report. Findings include widespread accounts of beatings and torture, the execution of six men and disappearance of another. The cable includes a detailed summary of Tutela’s account of what occurred, and notes that Archbishop Rivas y Damas, in a separate meeting with the political officer on May6, was “on board” with Tutela’s analysis. The cable confirms that the operation was carried out by elite troops from the Airborne Battalion and the PRAL (Long Range Reconnaissance Unit) and notes that US Military Group (MILGP) officials present during pre-deployment attest that instructions were given to “avoid all civilian casualties.” It also notes that Hernández reported killings of civilians by guerrillas in the days leading up to the invasion. While casting doubt on the credibility of Tutela’s analysis – given guerrilla control of the region, “the likelihood of misrepresentation and false testimony is self-evident” – the cable also notes that Hernández “would not budge” in her insistence that the findings were accurate and would be denounced. The document concludes, “Department and post can expect a flood of condemnatory inquiries.”

Document # C05625221
May 13, 1986
Subject: “Testimony Related to Complaints on El Salvador”
Cable from the US Embassy in San Salvador to the Department of State

This cable contains information for Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams’ testimony before Congress, as requested in C05625218. It includes details on the Americas Watch documents, the tension in Tenancingo, and on the penultimate page, addresses the detention of journalists in Arcatao, claiming that they were “picked up in the company of armed guerrillas” and that their notes and other materials were returned to them. (These same assertions were made by Assistant Secretary of State Abrams in his testimony on May 14, 1986.)

Document # C05625222
May 14, 1986
Subject: “Follou-up [sic] on Arcatao Allegations”
From Secretary of State George Shultz to the Embassy in San Salvador

This document demands follow-up to the allegations made by Tutela Legal, referenced in C05625219. “Although we are skeptical of the charges, elements of the story… lend it some credence. In any event, the allegation of a massacre, the first in a long time, deserves full investigation. Please approach members of the unit in question as well as any others who might shed light on these allegations and report as soon as possible.”

The fact that the Secretary of State issued a personal request for a follow-up investigation, yet no such investigation was provided pursuant to our request for documents, suggests that either Secretary of State Shultz’s ordered were ignored, or the declassification effort has been less than complete. UWCHR will continue to seek all remaining documents that may shed light on this case.

Document # C05625223
June 6, 1986
Subject: “Jesuit Rector of Central American University Meets With HA Assistant Secretary Schifter”
Cable from Secretary of State George Shultz to Embassy in San Salvador

Reports on May 22 meeting with Ignacio Ellacuría, rector of the Central American University, at which Ellacuría noted that the armed forces were “clearly guilty of killing civilians in an extremely cruel way in Arcatao,” but that the FMLN had executed civilians there also.

Document #s C05625224, C05625227, C05625228, C05625231, C05625232, C05625233, C05625234, C05625235, C05625236
June 9, 1986 (one letter) and June 14, 1986 (all remaining letters)
Subject: “Congressional Inquiry: Journalists Detained in Arcatao”
Nine letters from the US Embassy in San Salvador to Members of Congress in the United States

Text of letters identical; addresses concern about journalists’ detention in Arcatao on April 8. Insist that journalists “were found in the company of armed guerrillas” and their notes and materials were returned to them; rejects suggestion that Embassy intervene by asserting, “Considering that the journalists were well aware of, and knowingly violated, the established rules governing their work in conflictive areas, the Embassy does not feel it would be on solid ground in pressing for the return of film and copies of notes.”


[1] Americas Watch, “Settling into Routine: Human Rights Abuses in Duarte’s Second Year”, 1986, p. 124

[2] Testimony before the the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, House of Representatives, Ninety-ninth Congress, second session, hearing entitled “The air war and political developments in El Salvador,” May 14, 1986. United States. Washington : U.S. G.P.O., 1986. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/pst.000011973126