Return to El Salvador

I arrived in El Salvador half-expecting to see soldiers guarding the corridors of the airport with made-in-the-U.S. machine guns, the way they did during my first, hour-long visit to the country on a lay-over on a flight to Nicaragua in 1982. More than once on my flight here this time I thought back to my second, longer visit a few years later. En route to Nicaragua again, I got stuck in San Salvador for nearly a week due to a transport strike called by the FMLN. That time I had a close encounter with the military in which, for a few tense moments, I feared for my life.

That’s all behind us now, I thought, as the green leaves and limbs blurred by in the magical landscape on the way into the city of San Salvador from the airport. The FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) evolved from an armed guerilla movement to an electoral party that won the presidency of the country this spring. During my first few days here, I kept being reminded that this is not the 1980s–but the poison from the past is as present as the promise of the future.

On the way into town, my taxi driver and I talked about the coup in Honduras. I admit to having been the one who brought it up. I had told him my own war story and ended by saying,

“I’m sure you have a few war stories yourself.”

He nodded. “Yes, we all do here in El Salvador.”

“Thank god that’s over now,” I said.  “But the golpe in Honduras. It’s a return to the ’80s, isn’t it? And what sort of message is it sending out to the world? And to the Salvadoran military?”

“That’s right,” he said. “I worry about that.”

“Because the same military is still there, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes, the same ones,” he agreed.

Later in the day I raised the question with Leah Wilson, a North American solidarity activist who has spent a lot of time in El Salvador, following the news and talking it over with astute political friends. Besides being a voracious reader of the news, she knows someone in just about every social movement in the country.

“Yes, I’ve thought about that myself,” she told me over lunch. “President [Mauricio] Funes doesn’t believe it can happen here. He says the military is the only institution that has been thoroughly ‘de-ideologized’ and followed through on the Peace Accords” that brought an end to the brutal civil war that took over 80,000 lives.”

“Do you believe that?” I asked her.  She shrugged. “I’m not sure. And I’ve talked to other people who aren’t so sure, either. Either way, it’s a very bad message that they’re sending to the rest of Central America.” I took “they” to mean the coup plotters, then I realized that she was probably also talking about the United States.

Leah mentioned the full page ad ARENA just took out in a national paper. ARENA is El Salvador’s Nationalist Republican Alliance, founded by Archbishop Romero’s murderer Roberto D’Aubuisson, and modeled after the “grand old party” of Bush, Sr. and Jesse Helms. The ad called on President Funes to recognize the “de facto” “president” Micheletti and essentially told him to “look in the mirror.”

Other recent events recall the bad old days of the ’80s, like the death of Marcelo Rivera. His name is on most people’s lips these days here. Marcelo was a good revolutionary, a committed member of the FMLN, something that no longer will get you killed by anyone in the country. But he also went up against corruption in San Isidro, a small town in the department of Cabañas where he lived, and took on the Pacific Rim gold company. Pacific Rim hoped to mine the gold from Marcelo’s region and leave behind the poisonous environmental disaster gold companies are known to create – ask any Californian who has studied the Gold Rush in any detail and multiply that damage by a hundred.

The local prosecutor’s office and the police say Marcelo got killed because he had chosen the wrong drinking partners and fallen in with a gang in Ilobasco – something which people in his community say wasn’t at all like Marcelo. More likely, the word on the street goes, it was a death squad killing, done in collusion with the police and under orders of Pacific Rim and other mining interests.

Recent events in Marcelo’s life gave more credence to the word on the street than to the official story. Marcelo’s brother Miguel told the government-friendly Diario Co Latino that “Marcelo suffered previous death threats from the miners and there was also one failed attempt to run over him in an unidentified vehicle, and constant spying on him by the local police.”

Whatever happened, Marcelo’s body was found several days later in a well. He’d been strangled and his body showed signs of exactly the sort of torture the death squads of the 1980s used on their victims: burn marks, bruises from beatings, and all his fingernails had been torn out.

Twenty-five years ago, the murder would have struck fear in everyone’s heart and made people run for cover. Now there is outrage, and it’s gone public. On Friday, July 17th in the summer afternoon heat that drives most people to the shade trees of the parks, a few hundred people gathered at Plaza Civica in front of the National Palace in downtown San Salvador to celebrate Marcelo’s life and to denounce the murder of a worthy activist.

Ilma Alvarado had come down from San Isidro, Cabañas to join the protest and to “commemorate and celebrate” a man who she said, “always brought everyone together and inspired us to work.” She dismissed the official version of Marcelo’s death.

“He was killed for fighting the mines,” Alvarado said. “That’s why they killed him. He didn’t associate with the “maras” (gang members). He didn’t drink. He was a very healthy person. He headed the casa de cultura (cultural center), he led the marches, and he was the coordinator of the FMLN [in Cabañas]. He was a social leader who headed the casa de cultura but was also at the forefront of the struggle.”

In San Isidro the plaza is empty this Sunday afternoon, except for a full house at the Casa de Cultura which Marcelo and his younger brother, Miguel, founded nearly twenty years ago.

The building, Miguel tells me, served as a makeshift funeral home where the bodies of the victims of the civil war were stored before being shipped out to San Salvador. “You could look in here and see black bags piled to the ceiling sometimes,” Miguel says. Community members remember the Rivera brothers as bright, even brilliant, kids from a family so poor that they often went hungry, but a family with great dignity, known for honesty and commitment to the community.

The community itself could have been described that way, according to Miguel, before Pacific Rim came into the area in the mid 1990s. “We never had crime here, not like other places. People worked hard and lived clean lives.” But then Pacific Rim arrived with lots of money to throw around at officials, and a marginal community, and things changed. After exploration by Pacific Rim revealed that there was, indeed, gold in the area, it’s alleged that they bought their way into mining permits. Marcelo led the local struggle against the mines and things got serious. One community member broke down at a community dinner and confessed that Pacific Rim had paid him $2000 to poison the food. “But I can’t kill anyone,” he told them.

In the January elections the ARENA candidate perpetrated a massive fraud to which Marcelo led protests and successfully had the election annulled – the only election to be annulled in the country. The second election, also under the ARENA government, was called, but this time ARENA brought in 300 gang members who terrorized the community by carrying around shotguns and Molotov cocktails and made threats against FMLN supporters. The “maras” were ironically accompanied by large numbers of National Police, soldiers and the situation was monitored by helicopters of the ARENA government. Busloads of ARENA supporters were brought in, as well as people from Honduras, to vote for the ARENA candidate, and he “won” the election.

The murder of Marcelo was a classic death-squad style murder with the same gruesome forms of torture. What was different about Marcelo’s case is that now the death squads seem to be using the “maras” rather than the police or military (as the government did in the 1980s) and, given this new turn of a situation and ARENA’s use of the gangs, the “maras” themselves present one of the knottiest social issues confronting the new FMLN government. President Funes has suggested sending the military into the streets to control them.

Mario, a student at the University of El Salvador, says the maras are, indeed, the most serious problem. “They’re really violent. They get on buses and murder the man collecting fares and take the money,” Mario said, adding that the maras used to be open and recognizable by tattoos and style but a government crackdown under the conservatives only sent them underground. The estimated 16,000 maras are now indistinguishable from anyone else, making them even more dangerous.

People are looking to President Funes to clean up the national police force, which turned rotten after a brief laundering during the Peace Accords. Hopes are high, and the social movements are more active than ever as they ride on the energy of the FMLN’s  electoral victory. They’re determined to maintain an active, visible presence in the country and the government appears to be listening.

“The 1980s were also hard on the military and they don’t really seem to be interested in going back into a civil war,” Leah said. And on the same afternoon that environmentalists and anti-mining and water activists were holding their memorial to Marcelo in front of the National Palace, a demonstration against the coup in Honduras was winding through the streets in another part of town. There was no tear-gassing of demonstrators, much less beatings, imprisonments, or disappearances. The police, it seems, were as civil about it all as the demonstrators.

With their renewed hope, social movement organizations like Coordinadora del Bajo Rio Lempa are even taking on the maras. The Coordinadora encompasses about 64 communities on the banks of El Salvador’s largest river and along the Bay of Jiquilisco in Usulatan. The Coordinadora has many irons in the fire, but one of the more exciting is the youth program in Tierra Blanca community where the Coordinadora has been implementing what one board member called “crime prevention” by educating the community. “When we arrived there were lots of problems here, including assaults and robberies,” one of the board members told us in the air-conditioned office put together by particle board and concrete blocks.

The Coordinadora responded by developing youth programs where community members could come to learn to paint, dance and act. Gang members joined a more positive community through the project and, the board President said, “not to glorify ourselves, but the fact is that it worked.” Crime has dropped through a process of popular education and the offering of creative alternatives for youth.

Estela Hernández Rodriguez, the member of the board of directors who was our contact, said that their most recent focus has been on alternative agriculture, combining permaculture with community development. Permaculture, from “permanent agriculture” is a philosophy of agriculture that aims to use the least amount of energy to get the greatest amount of production and, in the process, to use all waste, that is, to produce no waste. To give us a taste of how that’s working out, she arranged for us to stay in one of the communities for the night. It’s called Ciudad Romero (Romero City) and it’s enough to say that it’s named after the martyred Bishop Oscar Romero. Before we drove the few miles to Ciudad Romero,  Jose Amilcar, a young man who heads the agricultural program, took us for a short tour around the Coordinadora headquarters. It houses a community radio station (which was playing a muzak version of “Bridge over Troubled Waters”) and a small cashew-nut processing operation with three women using rudimentary, but very effective, equipment. Then we leave to Ciudad Romero.

The red flag of the FMLN flies high over the one corner store at the intersection of two unmarked dirt roads running through the center of what can only mockingly be called a “city.” The scrawny dogs didn’t bother to move for the black Sentra winding its way around the deep potholes and large rocks on the way into the community.

Jose arranged for us to visit Ernesto, whose house is just a couple of blocks away from the Coordinadora’s agricultural center. We walked slowly in the hot afternoon sun, but even so, my t-shirt was soaked from sweat by the time we arrived and move into the shade of the trees around the concrete fish pond where Ernesto, machete always in hand, was feeding his tilapia. The fish swam lazily through the green water and fed on the morsels Ernesto scattered over the surface like a man feeding chickens. After a few minutes of watching the fish eat, we followed Ernesto down a mercifully shaded road to his field. On the way, I asked Ernesto what percentage of the residents of Ciudad Romero did he figure voted for the FMLN. “We all did,” he said immediately, without needing to add, “of course.”

I felt cross-eyed and dangerously close to a heat stroke by the time we went the three or so blocks to the field and walked through the rows of new corn covered with the mulch formed of the  plants from the cleared field. My companions recognized this (probably by my white face suddenly turning red) and Jose directed us into the shade at the field’s edge. We talked a little more and then, after the gringo recovered, turned back to “town.”

This community, Jose told us, has been in the process of putting together its common life over the past twenty years since its members returned from exile in Panama after the peace accords were signed in 1990.

They were viewed by the government, and rightly so, as guerrilla sympathizers. Since each returning exile was given a small piece of land, as agreed upon in the peace accords, the government was forced to fulfill its commitment and turn over land to the community. But the land the government gave this particular community was defined, by the government itself, as “uninhabitable” and “unproductive.” Moreover, the land alternately suffered drought and flooding, the latter caused by the indiscriminate release of water by the managers of the hydroelectric dam upriver.

There was no infrastructure for many years, and even now the dirt roads into Ciudad Romero can only be navigated at very slow speeds in our rented car. And ours is the only car we’ve seen in this “city.” Most people walk or ride bicycles. Nevertheless, the community has hung on, thanks in part to international solidarity, but also because of a deep commitment to each other, what one farmer called “compañerismo,” which  might be translated into “neighborliness times ten.” Through the last two decades of conservative or far-right governments, the community has also moved forward by organized resistance. To stop the flooding, for instance, the communities that made up the Coordinadora launched protests and other acts of civil disobedience to force the government to stop the flooding of their land.

And finally, the land itself has sustained them. Long fallow and overgrown, it was, nevertheless, far from “uninhabitable” or “unproductive.” One farmer told us that the land once belonged “to the rich people, and they didn’t like the fact that it was now in possession of the guerrillas.” But the land has certainly taken to the “guerrillas,” who are carefully and slowly implementing a permaculture philosophy and ecological, organic methods of fertilization and pest control.

Jose took us to another neighbor’s farm which is really a food forest, a jungle of bananas, coconut palms, mango trees and papayas. The neighbor was away, but we took a stroll through the forest.

“This was all grown up with weeds and very few trees, this whole region. Since the community has arrived we’ve forested the area with fruit trees. None of them were here,” Jose told us as we passed a lime tree. “And this neighbor has a special interest in reforestation, to help bring the temperature of the planet down. It’s something we have to do to stop global warming.”

We returned to the car which I parked on the shoulder of the long road disappearing under a canopy of trees. For a moment I resisted getting back in the car and stood on the shoulder listening to a chorus, a symphony of birds, all unfamiliar to my ear. The trees the community planted have not only brought shade and food to the people struggling to make this area “habitable” and “productive,” but have provided habitat to another, symphonic community. In the end Ciudad Romero, with its slow, steady enrichment of rural community life based on ecological values and “compañerismo” makes up for what it lacks in services that would qualify it as a city.

CLIFTON ROSS is the writer and director of Venezuela: Revolution from the Inside Out and Translations from Silence, a book of poetry introduced by Jack Hirschman available at: