El Salvador: People Have Reason to Be Afraid
The grandmother cupped her palm under Goyito’s chin and pressed down hard with her fingers on his upper jaw. “Look, this is how we did it,” she said, demonstrating how she kept the baby from crying when government troops passed by.
“They wanted me to kill him,” said the mother, because he wouldn’t stop his sobs. “But how can you take away the life of an innocent child?”
The closest that most US citizens have ever come to such a dilemma is a television rerun of M*A*S*H. But people from Chalatenango, Morazán, Guazapa, and other war-torn areas of El Salvador pay the price of U.S. intervention every day.
Few US taxpayers could locate the country on a map. Yet, El Salvador receives more per capita U.S. assistance than any nation but Israel. These tax dollars finance what U.S. Army officers describe as “this country’s most significant sustained military enterprise since Vietnam.”
As in the Indochina War, insurgent guerrillas have organized whole sectors of the population to support their cause. Unable to defeat the guerrillas, U.S.-backed government troops make civilians targets in the war.
At least 70,000 people — more than one percent of El Salvador’s population — have died. According to America’s Watch, most were civilian non-combatants killed by the military or right-wing paramilitary groups. Maria Julia Hernandez of Tutela Legal, the official human rights office of the Catholic Church, says the U.S.-backed Salvadoran armed forces are responsible for 85 percent of human rights-related crimes.
Nonetheless, the government has failed to quell the resistance. Leaders of the death squad-linked Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party argue that a new state of siege is required. Already in control of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly and scheduled to assume the Presidency June 1, 1989, they advocate a strategy of “total war.”
A mother held up pictures of three handsome boys. “The truth, they were organized” she said. In the photos, each wore a jacket and tie and has neatly combed black hair. They were killed, she said, by the Army.
Despite the loss, the mother and her surviving daughters still have hope. “The people are going to win,” said the oldest. She is the community organizer for the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Such carnage has left the country scarred. “There’s a thing here of fear,” said a Maryknoll priest living in a poor barrio in San Salvador, “people have reason to be afraid.”
In another marginal neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital, a group of women and children sing. “When the poor believe in the poor, then we’ll sing freely, then we’ll create brotherhood.”
“We’re here because of the violence,” said Alejandra, a 33-year-old mother of two. She lives in a mud and split bamboo shack along the Pan-American highway near Santa Tecla. Like the rest of her community, she is a peasant displaced from the fighting.
The barrio is featured in a glossy new brochure from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID). The Agency says it provides economic aid to offset the impact of the war. But according to both Alejandra and her neighbors, their community receives no help from either the Salvadoran or U.S. government.
Sometimes we don’t have money for food, she said. Alejandra usually earns money when coffee or other cash crops are in season. On a good day she can make about $2; she earns 65 cents for every 25 pounds of picked beans.
Fifteen-year-old Leticia is another displaced peasant. “Well, they send money and food,” she said, “but no se baja — it doesn’t trickle down.”
The only thing that trickles down to Leticia and her family is filth. She lives off Avenida Masferrer where the sewage from the surrounding wealthy suburb of Escalon empties out.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Leticia, “because of the floods.” The outflow from the sewer pipe is heavy during the rainy season which begins in May. Pointing to the open-air clearing where the family cooks. “Last time,” she said, “it washed away the kitchen.”
Both economic and social conditions have deteriorated since the war began. The combination of under-and unemployment for example, is over 65 percent. The country’s infant mortality rate is now one of the highest in Latin America. And rural health care is so poor that more than 100 children died of a measles epidemic in the first three months of this year.
Our greatest hope is that “there will be peace,” said Virginia. “But not a peace where one person is eating and another is dying of hunger.”
Virginia is from the recently rebuilt community of Guarjila, Chalatenango. She is one of 6,000 Salvadorans repatriated from refugee camps in Honduras over the past two years.
Guarjila lies within area controlled by FMLN guerrillas. But government battalions and patrols frequently pass through the zone. “They do it just to scare us,” said Virginia. “We don’t want any more rivers of blood.”
The image is only part metaphor. On May 14, 1980 several thousand fleeing refugees, mostly women and children, tried to cross the Sumpul River into Honduras. They were turned back by gunfire from Honduran soldiers, and then attacked in midstream by Salvadoran helicopters and troops. At least 600 people were killed.
The beat of rotary blades brings such images to mind. A mile outside the village a helicopter hovering high in the air fires at a small rebel patrol.
Earlier in the conflict, residents in the area fled and hid in secret underground shelters when the army passed by. But now, as a result, of increased world attention on human rights, they stay.
But repression, although more selective, continues. Earlier this year, for instance, the army’s elite Atlacatl Battalion captured four locally-elected leaders from the remote village of Arcatao. With the ARENA party in power, more such abuse is expected. Already in April, riot police raided the office of CRIPDES, a Christian organization of displaced refugees, detaining 75. Most of these were women, children, and wounded. A mother with a three-day-old infant was among the prisoners of war.
At one point, riot police tried to separate one young wounded male from the rest. When he and others resisted, the police clubbed detainees into submission. Behind the closed doors of interrogation cells, both physical and psychological abuse is common. But according to Americas Watch and other human rights groups, the techniques, such as immersing one’s head repeatedly in filthy water, have been refined so as not to leave telltale marks behind.
“This is the suffering of this war,” said Jose from the town of San Jose Las Flores. He lost his wife and four children to the Army. “I was angry,” he said. “You know, that was my own blood.”
“This doesn’t seem right to me,” added Soila, whose weather-beaten face bore the pain of many years of conflict. “What they’re doing is against a population that is struggling against the system in which we live.”
Some boys played soccer in the square, as a pair of teenage women guerrillas walked by.
“We’re going to sing in Liberty Park [in San Salvador],” said Jose, smiling as he nodded his head, “when we have the triumph in our hands.”