WASHINGTON -- As recently as three years ago, American military officers in El Salvador trained a group of wealthy Salvadorans associated with right-wing death squads, State Department documents show.
The training occurred at a time when the threat of Communism was receding and the Bush administration was pursuing peace settlements in Central America.
The documents are the first to describe Americans as training civilians tied to political killings in El Salvador, and the first to link American support to Salvadoran death-squad activities in the 1990s.
"My worst fears are realized," the U.S ambassador, William G. Walker, wrote in a cablegram from San Salvador to the State Department in October 1990. The ambassador said he had learned that American officers were giving weekly military training to a group of 50 to 60 wealthy Salvadorans who called themselves Los Patrioticos, the Patriotic Ones.
American officers called the unit "the BMW Brigade." Mr. Walker called its members "adventure-seeking, gun-toting, 'Soldier of Fortune' magazine-subscribing, rich, young extremists."
Citing American intelligence reports, he said the unit "was being used as a cover for death-squad activities."
Mr. Walker's cablegram did not say what rationale had been given for assigning American military trainers to a civilian group. Nor did it specify the group's activities. But it said it was affiliated with Roberto d'Aubuisson, a right-wing politician identified this year by a United Nations-sponsored investigation of human-rights abuses in El Salvador as the mastermind of the nation's death squads. Mr. D'Aubuisson died of cancer in 1992.
Another American memo, written by a Defense Department official, argued that the Patriotic Ones "are not the types to compose death squads [fund them, yes, but get blood on their own hands -- certainly not]."
The documents are among some 12,000 government papers on U.S. policy in Central America that were declassified and made available to the public this year. They were found by researchers from the National Security Archive, a private foundation that works for the declassification of government documents, and the Center for International Policy, a Washington research group headed by Robert E. White.
Mr. White was ambassador to El Salvador in 1980 and 1981 and later criticized the Reagan administration's support for the Salvadoran government.
Those documents and a U.N. investigation showed that the Salvadoran army and security forces were associated with death-squad activities, including the killing of hundreds of civilians during the 1980-92 war. American military personnel worked closely with the Salvadoran armed forces, providing training, equipment and advice.
But none of the $6 billion in American military and economic aid was earmarked for military training for civilians.
The worst of the death-squad abuses occurred in the early 1980s, and were thought to have been long past in 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the threat of Communism receded and the Bush administration embraced regional peace negotiations in Central America.
But in November 1989, members of the Salvadoran armed forces killed six Jesuit priests in the capital, raising questions as to whether a decade of American training had increased the Salvadoran soldiers' professionalism, decreased their involvement in human-rights abuses or helped bring stability to El Salvador.
Members of Congress and Clinton administration officials at the Pentagon and the State Department said the fact that the training of the Patriotic Ones continued after the killings of the Jesuits suggested that U.S. military officers were at cross-purposes with U.S. diplomats in El Salvador during the Bush administration.