On February 20 I flew from Boston to Panama City, and had a seven-hour layover in San Salvador. I was going to go to the beach, but then I saw a full-page ad for a Mass marking the 13th anniversary of the death of one of Latin America’s most notorious butchers, Roberto D’Aubuisson, killer of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
I couldn’t resist. Dogs have it right. As with all things, if you want to understand empire, you’ve got to sniff its excrement.
I was too late for the 8:00 am laying of flowers at the thug’s grave, but I thought I’d check it out anyway, see how many flowers had been left for the great man. While I waited for a bus into the city, a man by the name of Mauricio told me D’Aubuisson is best remembered for tossing babies in the air and shooting them while still in flight.
"In the area I’m from, he wiped out entire villages," Mauricio said. "In some villages you would go in and there would be only women and children – the men were all killed." Mauricio went on to lay the infamous El Mozote massacre at D’Aubuisson’s feet, but I’m not sure the historical record supports this.
D’Aubuisson was the kind of guy Mad Maddie Albright would love to invite to dinner, and seat next to John Negroponte.
A security guard at El Cementerio General de los Ilustres directed me to D’Aubuisson’s grave/mini-mausoleum. The guard told me 200 people had come to that morning’s laying of the flowers. In a no doubt rare display of socialist solidarity they must have all chipped in on flowers because I counted only seven bouquets and two wreaths.
I asked the guard whether Monsenor Romero happened to be buried in the same cemetery, and was told he was interred in nearby Vermeja Cemetery. My newfound guide’s face contorted in intense concentration. "It’s, it’s a mile and half!" he exclaimed with utmost certainty. I covered it by foot in five minutes, in 90-degree heat.
The difference between Los Ilustres and La Vermeja is apparent right off the bat. Romero is with his people, D’Aubuisson with his. Simple crosses versus mausoleums. And fittingly, all of Romero’s flowers are alive, all of D’Aubuisson’s dead. There’s a fountain of sorts behind the bust of Romero, water trickling down a wall, creating a pleasant sound, a sound of life. The bust of Romero almost looks like him – not quite, but close enough. Maybe it would help if someone were to remove the black plastic gag glasses. I was tempted to, but didn’t.
I wanted to go across town to see what was happening at the grave of former president Napoleon Duarte, the ultimate Reagan water boy, but there wasn’t time. When D’Aubuisson’s murderous ways became so well known that even Washington couldn’t handle him any longer, the U.S. worked semi-quietly behind the scenes to squeeze D’Aubuisson out and put Duarte in the president’s chair.
I made haste to the Mass.
And there they came. The Suburbans with tinted glass that used to send shivers up my spine in the 80s had been replaced by Landcruisers, Pathfinders and Explorers with clear glass. They were few in number, but watching them arrive at la Iglesia San Pablo reminded me of The Godfather, and of similar brushes with thugs – fascist, mafioso and otherwise – back in the 80s.
In the early 80s, at the albuergue 15,000 feet up the slopes of Popocatepetl, I met a U.S. special forces veteran who had been an advisor to Savak, the Shah of Iran’s secret police, famous for savage torture. In 1988 I shared an elevator in a five-star Guatemala City hotel with several U.S. military advisors. You know these guys aren’t down there handing out lollipops, but knowing that doesn’t prepare you for the chilling experience of sharing their elevator.
When the Mass started on time at 5 pm, only 13 people were present, and half of them were born after D’Aubuisson’s reign of terror. They trickled in after the show started, but they never topped 60. This with at least one full-page ad in at least one national newspaper.
The Mass was a strange, surreal affair. As I stepped into the relatively cool confines of la Iglesia San Pablo I picked up a copy of the program, and was shocked to see, prominently displayed in it, a quote from the late Archbishop Romero. According to El Salvador’s South Africa-style Truth Commission, D’Aubuisson authored the hit on Romero, which was carried out in the middle of Romero saying Mass to hundreds in the National Cathedral, a real up-yours to the Church.
Back in San Pablo, women wore tight jeans and tight, revealing sweaters, in 90-degree heat. Young women displayed bare midriffs. Men continuously checked their cell phones, bored. One man wore jean shorts and sandals. In a Roman Catholic Church in Central America.
But that didn’t stop the priest from taking advantage of a golden opportunity to suck up to money and power. "It is a great privilege to say mass for Major Roberto D’Aubuisson," el padre said as he launched into a half-hour rambling monologue. Highlights:
"To kill is a sin. That is why we don’t believe in the death penalty."
"We must fight poverty. But wait, we can’t fight poverty. The poor will always be with us. So we must fight misery. Yes, that’s it – we must fight misery."
On the ride back to the airport the sun was setting over this small land that was devastated by U.S.-sponsored violence and now is kept afloat by remissions of paisanos washing dishes and cutting lawns in the belly of the beast. My driver said the country switched over to the greenback five or six years ago. "It’s been a disaster," he said. "No one likes it. They did it without the consent of the people; they just rammed it through." As when Europe switched to the Euro, prices shot up overnight, only worse, much worse. From one day to the next a bag of tomatoes went from 50 to 85 cents.
My driver said he worked from 5:30 am to 8 pm seven days a week. 101.5 hours per week. He told me hardly ever got to see his two kids. He said the upper crust was doing fine but everyone else was hurting. Minimum wage was fetching $5-6 a day. I paid $3.25 for a smoothie, a cookie and a brownie. More than half a day’s wages.
I asked the guy about the tight jeans and tight sweaters I had seen at the D’Aubuisson mass. He shook his head. "No," he said, "that’s not normal. That’s a lack of respect, pure and simple. They’re just using the church, sucking up to it." Then he paused, looked over at me, smiled and said, "But then that’s always been a two-way street."
LAWRENCE REICHARD can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org