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Inside El Salvador’s Military Blacklist

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The Yellow Book (Libro amarillo) is a 270 page document from 1987 that the National Security Archive in Washington DC made public on September 28th, 2014.  The Yellow Book includes 1,975 photographs that the Salvadoran Armed Forces and the State Department of Intelligence of El Salvador used to catalogue people as “terrorists” and “enemies” of the state.  The Yellow Book is the only military document that has been made public to this day.

At first glance the document seems to reiterate many of the cases that were made public through the work of the Truth Commission in El Salvador in the early 1990s.  However, upon closer inspection, important clues begin to emerge about the nature of military surveillance of Salvadoran citizens and how disappearances and deaths were covered up.  For example, in the document, names are encoded with letters and the codes matched with photographs that strip citizens of the very identities that stitched them into Salvadoran society.  In the first few pages the book lays out a system for referencing “terrorist delinquents” so that names would not be spoken by radio or telephone.  In effect, this code facilitated the process of making detainees disappear without a trace.  The pictures themselves provide further clues about state surveillance; some photographs look as though they were part of the state ID card photographs and yet other photographs show individuals in much more haggard condition.  Were these photographs taken during a given moment of detainment?  Yet other photographs look as though they were taken during moments shared between friends or families.  Were these photographs stolen from people’s homes during raids?  There are other photographs that seem to have been taken without the person knowing that they were being photographed.  These types of photographs suggest the work of a secret police that was trailing marked individuals.  Additionally, the fact that the book was a photo-album to be photocopied means that it was likely a work in progress.  As photographs were obtained they were added and information could shift and change without displacing the logic of the entire text.

The code also reveals the nature of state surveillance of Salvadoran citizens in the 1980s.  The document identifies Salvadorans as leaders of militant groups, militants, and union organizers and specifies which particular group or political party the person is associated with.  Salvadoran state authorities also recorded additional information about individuals such as pseudonyms and noted any trips abroad to Nicaragua, Cuba, Russia or China.  Dozens of individuals are marked as “collaborators,” which leads the viewer to wonder about the torture mechanisms that broke the will of militants.  The fact that there were so many collaborators muddies the public memory of a clearly divided left and right. What was the nature of the collaboration?  Does “collaboration” mean naming people during torture sessions or does it imply a much deeper involvement as in the Chilean cases of Luz Arce and Alejandra Merino?  Does the title of “collaborator” mean that the individual survived their involvement with the Salvadoran Armed Forces?  Other individuals are listed as “pardoned” and this category of individuals also leaves many questions.

On the cover page just above the title of the book, a penned note serves as a prologue: “That this may be used.  Make photocopies of the photographs and print them in bulletins, so that their enemies will be known.” This is part of a secondary “code” at work in the document in which some photographs are starred in pen and other names are crossed out.  The stars mark names that are well known today including El Salvador’s current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén.

Recently, organizations such as the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University (IDHUCA) and the Asociación Pro-Búsqueda presented a legal challenge to the Supreme Court to revisit the legality of the general amnesty passed in 1993.  The publication of the Yellow Book may become a cornerstone in the case against impunity in El Salvador.

Evelyn Galindo-Doucette is a Kohler Fellow at the University of Wisconsin.

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