Sand Diggers and the Strongman

Vista Hermosa, El Salvador — A powerful torrent during the high rains, Rio Las Canas is a trickle of muddy water from October to May. It begins ten kilometers from the city center, carving its way north past volcanic slopes, eventually feeding into the large, man-made reservoir that separates government-held terrain from contested zones. But there is no fighting between government and guerrilla forces where the river begins-only the taking of sand from its shores.

Homes made of dried mud and bamboo shafts dot Las Canas’s western bank. Inside the riverbed, barefoot workers with rolled-up pants load sand into waiting trucks. Farther downstream the riverbed is demarcated by a barbed-wire fence. Beyond the fence bulldozers load sand into trucks watched by heavily armed men.

Used primarily to make concrete, sand in El Salvador sold on site for $25 a truckload. In an export-oriented economy dominated by more valuable cash crops, even the country’s prolific Marxists have failed to designate such a cheap commodity as a vehicle of class struggle. But, for the riverbank community of Vista Hermosa, sand, not coffee, is king.

Vista Hermosa is located far from the large agricultural plantations in the western region of the country that offer seasonal labor. With a combined under- and unemployment rate in El Salvador of well over 50 percent, few if any of the community’s residents have access to better paying jobs in the capital city of San Salvador. Like most of El Salvador’s marginal population, they also receive no external assistance. A hodgepodge of peasants from various parts of the country, the people living along the river fall neither into official categories of earthquake victims nor war refugees that would make them eligible for U.S. targeted aid.

Most of the river dwellers front Vista Hermosa live in constant fear of failing beyond the edge of survival. Prices of food staples have more than quadrupled in the past three years. A typical “food basket” for a family consists primarily of corn tortillas with salt, and perhaps an occasional plate of higher priced rice and beans.

But unlike the less fortunate who pick their meals from refuse piles in San Salvador’s central market, the 350-odd people from Vista Hermosa and two other nearby communities have had regular work. Breadwinners earn their living standing knee-deep in mud, shoveling sand into twenty-foot trucks for $3 a load. Depending upon demand, a strong young man might make up to $15 on a good summer day. But lesser-abled bodies usually earn about $3, provided that rain doesn’t wash the sand downstream.

Even with cheap labor abundant, entrepreneur Jose Rene Mendoza finds it more advantageous to employ modern machinery to excavate the river. He could further maximize profits if he could monopolize the sale of sand and charge a higher price for every load. But first he would have to eliminate the competition; aII digging by independents would have to stop. Mendoza plans to make himself master of Rio Las Canas.

Before the rainy season came, Mendoza expropriated an extension of the riverbed and brought in bulldozers to replace the work of men. Mendoza says he owns the area encircled by the barbed-wire fence, and adds that the rest of the riverbed is the property of other landowners like himself. Pointing to the workers loading sand by spade he says, “Those people have no property titles, they are trespassers on private land.”

The people from Vista Hermosa claim that the river is in the public domain. They avoid the part watched over by Mendoza’s armed guards. Dependent on their daily earnings, workers (about a third of whom are women and preadolescent children) walk the trail every morning to the water’s edge. The private truckers, who don’t seem to mind whose land they are on, buy from both the independents and Mendoza. The latter’s conflict is not with those who take from the river, but only those who dig.

An association of agricultural workers is trying to organize the sand diggers and their community. A number of workers from Vista Hermosa, including Jose Arnoldo Cerritos and Arturo Navarro Garcia, decided to join. But the peasant association belongs to a larger trade union coalition, which Salvadoran and U.S. government officials say is a front group for the country’s leftist guerrillas.

The issue appears to be about property rights and the question of public versus private domain. In El Salvador, such matters are rarely if ever settled before a formal court. Rather, from the perspective of the authorities, the dispute here is between a respected landowner and businessman and three base-wage sand diggers who are members of a known subversive organization.

Leaving aside strictly legal questions, I will let the reader decide whether this case is a political or civil dispute. I will also leave it to the reader to decide if the way in which it was (partially) resolved should be characterized as a political or a common crime. But let me forewarn, your decision is moot. Either way, the story that follows is endemic in a society and social structure that seven years and $3.3 billion in U.S. aid failed to change.

Nineteen-year-old Maria Luisa Leiva was in her mud-walled home with her husband, uncle, and two children the evening of April 14, 1988. Three armed men in olive green uniforms came to the door and told her to put out the light. They asked for her husband by name and said, “Tell Arnoldo Cerritos to come out.” The men bound his wrists and then took both Arnoldo and the uncle away. Maria Luisa was told that she would be taken too if she tried to follow. One of the uniformed men remained five minutes to make sure she stayed behind.

Arturo Navarro and his eighteen-year-old helper were intercepted by armed men near the same house about fifteen minutes later. They were ordered to lie face down and were asked their names. One of the uniformed men left for a few minutes and then returned. He said, “Are you Arturo Navarro? Then you’re coming with us.” The men led Arturo away in the direction of the river. The younger captive was searched and set free.

The next day both Maria Luisa and Arturo’s wife went to the air force base at Ilopango to inquire about their husbands and the uncle. The communities along the river are patrolled regularly by the air force, who were present in Vista Hermosa under daylight on April 14. The air force patrols are elite U.S.-trained paratroopers, distinguished from the other military services by their maroonish red berets. The uniformed men who came the night before were hatless, although one was carrying a “red beret” in the same hand as his black-barreled gun.

An air force sergeant spoke to the wives, and then made a phone call asking for the three disappeared men by name. He told the women to wait a moment, as he thought that the men were, in custody on the base. Three young men appeared, heavily armed and in civilian clothes. They spoke to the sergeant, and then told the women that the people they were looking for were not there.

The base at llopango is just a few kilometers from the scene of the abduction. But the men’s bodies were found two days later in a ravine near the airport some thirty kilometers away. When asked about the murders two weeks later, Mendoza said, “We didn’t kill them.” No doubt a truthful retort. The murders had been denounced as the work of the armed forces based at Ilopango by Auxiliary Archbishop Rosa Chavez in his Sunday homily a few days before.

The killings are not particularly surprising for El Salvador. Nor, despite at least two adult eyewitnesses to the abduction, that they will go uninvestigated, unpunished, and officially unsolved. But what is unusual is that the attempt to intimidate the community didn’t work. At the time of this writing, twenty to thirty sand diggers can still be seen within eyesight of the fenced-off property claimed by Mendoza on any given day; more than a hundred others can be found further on — either up- or down-stream. Unable to support themselves and their families any other way, the motley assembly of workers (who include one or two pregnant women) will continue to dig as long as they need to or can.

That survival could be the flip side of subversion is something that both the paratroopers and Jose Rene Mendoza fail to grasp. Jose Santana, for instance, begs a journalist to help him, as he has heard rumors that he will be next. His voice shrill and cracking, the terrified man stutters as he explains that he is not so much worried about himself but for his family and how they would support themselves if he should disappear. Jose Santana is the cousin of one of the victims and knew the other two. But despite the danger, a month after the murders he is still digging as before.

The nine-year-old son of Arturo says he doesn’t understand why his father was killed. But now that he is the breadwinner, Oscar carries his father’s shovel to the river every morning to dig. But the boy earns only about a dollar working a half day, as his mother, who also digs, wants him to stay in school.

Oscar is too young to be a member of the peasant association to which his father belonged. But there is no doubt that in the eyes of Jose Rene Mendoza, the son following his father to the river is an outlaw. In a country where property and power remain the rule of law, a beleaguered landlord can phone the armed forces’ twenty-four-hour hotline to report a subversive act. There is no number to call, however, if armed men in olive green uniforms take a relative away in the night.