Body dumps are seen in El Salvador as a kind of visitors’ must-do, difficult but worth the detour. “Of course you have seen El Playón,” an aide to President Alvaro Magaña said to me one day, and proceeded to discuss the site geologically, as evidence of the country’s geothermal resources. He made no mention of the bodies. I was unsure if he was sounding me out or simply found the geothermal aspect of over-riding interest. One difference between El Playón and Puerta del Diablo is that most bodies at El Playón appear to have been killed somewhere else, and then dumped; at Puerta del Diablo the executions are believed to occur in place, at the top, and the bodies thrown over. Sometimes reporters will speak of wanting to spend the night at Puerta del Diablo, in order to document an actual execution, but at the time I was in Salvador no one had.
The aftermath, the daylight aspect, is well documented. “Nothing fresh today, I hear,” an embassy officer said when I mentioned that I had visited Puerta del Diablo. “Were there any on top?” someone else asked. “There were supposed to have been three on top yesterday.” The point about whether or not there had been any on top was that usually it was necessary to go down to see bodies. The way down is hard. Slabs of stone, slippery with moss, are set into the vertiginous cliff, and it is down this cliff that one begins the descent to the bodies, or what is left of the bodies, pecked and maggoty masses of flesh, bone, hair. On some days there have been helicopters circling, tracking those making the descent. Other days there have been militia at the top, in the clearing where the road seems to run out, but on the morning I was there the only people on top were a man and a woman and three small children, who played in the wet grass while the woman started and stopped a Toyota pickup. She appeared to be learning how to drive. She drove forward and then back toward the edge, apparently following the man’s signals over and over again.
We did not speak, and it was only later, down the mountain and back in the land of the provisionally living, that it occurred to me that there was a definite question about why a man and a woman might choose a well-known body dump for a driving lesson. This was one of a number of occasions, during the two weeks my husband and I spent in El Salvador, on which I came to understand, in a way I had not understood before, the exact mechanism of terror.
Whenever I had nothing better to do in San Salvador I would walk up in the leafy stillness of the San Benito and Escalón districts, where the hush at midday is broken only by the occasional crackle of a walkie-talkie, the click of metal moving on a weapon. I recall a day in San Benito when I opened my bag to check an address, and heard the clicking of metal on metal all up and down the street. On the whole no one walks up here, and pools of blossoms he undisturbed on the sidewalks. Most of the houses in San Benito are more recent than those in Escalón, less idiosyncratic and probably smarter, but the most striking architectural features in both districts are not the houses but their walls, walls built upon walls, walls stripped of the usual copa de oro and bougainvillea, walls that reflect successive generations of violence: the original stone, the additional five or six or ten feet of brick, and finally the barbed wire, sometimes concertina, sometimes electrified; walls with watchtowers, gun ports, closed-circuit television cameras, walls now reaching twenty and thirty feet.
San Benito and Escalón appear on the embassy security maps as districts of relatively few “incidents,” but they remain districts in which a certain oppressive uneasiness prevails. In the first place there are always “incidents”—detentions and deaths and disappearances—in the barrancas, the ravines lined with shanties that fall down behind the houses with the walls and the guards and the walkie-talkies; one day in Escalón I was introduced to a woman who kept the lean-to that served as a grocery store in a barranca just above the Hotel Sheraton. She was sticking prices on bars of Camay and Johnson’s baby soap, stopping occasionally to sell a plastic bag or two filled with crushed ice and Coca-Cola, and all the while she talked in a low voice about her fear, about her eighteen-year-old son, about the boys who had been taken out and shot on successive nights recently in a neighboring barranca.
In the second place there is, in Escalón, the presence of the Sheraton itself, a hotel that has figured rather too prominently in certain local stories involving the disappearance and death of Americans. The Sheraton always seems brighter and more mildly festive than either the Camino Real or the Presidente, with children in the pool and flowers and pretty women in pastel dresses, but there are usually several bulletproofed Cherokee Chiefs in the parking area, and the men drinking in the lobby often carry the little zippered purses that in San Salvador suggest not passports or credit cards but Browning 9-mm. pistols.
It was at the Sheraton that one of the few American desaparacidos, a young free-lance writer named John Sullivan, was last seen, in December of 1980. It was also at the Sheraton, after eleven on the evening of January 3, 1981, that the two American advisers on agrarian reform, Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman, were killed, along with the Salvadoran director of the Institute for Agrarian Transformation, José Rodolfo Viera. The three were drinking coffee in a dining room off the lobby, and whoever killed them used an Ingram MAC-10, without sound suppressor, and then walked out through the lobby, unapprehended. The Sheraton has even turned up in the investigation into the December 1980 deaths of the four American Maryknoll workers. In Justice in El Salvador: A Case Study, prepared and released this summer in New York by the Lawyers Committee for International Human Rights, there appears this note:
On December 19, 1980, the [Duarte government’s] Special Investigative Commission reported that “a red Toyota 3/4-ton pick-up was seen leaving (the crime scene) at about 11:00 PM on December 2” and that “a red splotch on the burned van” of the churchwomen was being checked to determine whether the paint splotch “could be the result of a collision between that van and the red Toyota pick-up.” By February 1981, the Maryknoll Sisters’ Office of Social Concerns, which has been actively monitoring the investigation, received word from a source which it considered reliable that the FBI had matched the red splotch on the burned van with a red Toyota pick-up belonging to the Sheraton hotel in San Salvador….
Subsequent to the FBI’s alleged matching of the paint splotch and a Sheraton truck, the State Department has claimed, in a communication with the families of the church-women, that “the FBI could not determine the source of the paint scraping.”
There is also mention in this study of a young Salvadoran businessman named Hans Christ (his father was a German who arrived in El Salvador at the end of World War II), a part-owner of the Sheraton. Hans Christ lives now in Miami, and that his name should have even come up in the Maryknoll investigation made many people uneasy, because it was Hans Christ, along with his brother-in-law, Ricardo Sol Meza, who, in April of 1981, were first charged with the murders of Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman and José Rodolfo Viera at the Sheraton. These charges were later dropped, and were followed by a series of other charges, arrests, releases, expressions of “dismay” and “incredulity” from the US Embassy, and even, recently, confessions to the killings from two former National Guard corporals, who testified that Hans Christ had led them through the lobby and pointed out the victims. Christ and Ricardo Sol Meza have said that the dropped case against them was a government frame-up, and that they were only having drinks at the Sheraton the night of the killings, with a National Guard intelligence officer. It was logical for Hans Christ and Ricardo Sol Meza to have drinks at the Sheraton because they both had interests in the hotel, and Ricardo Sol Meza had just opened a roller disco, since closed, off the lobby into which the killers walked that night. The killers were described by witnesses as well dressed, their faces covered. The room from which they walked is no longer a restaurant, but the marks left by the bullets are still visible, on the wall facing the door.
Whenever I had occasion to visit the Sheraton I was apprehensive, and this apprehension came to color the entire Escalon district for me, even its lower reaches, where there were people and movies and restaurants. I recall being struck by it on the canopied porch of a restaurant near the Mexican embassy, on an evening when rain or sabotage or habit had blacked out the city and I became abruptly aware, in the light cast by a passing car, of two human shadows, silhouettes illuminated by the headlights and then invisible again. One shadow sat behind the smoked-glass windows of a Cherokee Chief parked at the curb in front of the restaurant; the other crouched between the pumps at the Esso station next door, carrying a rifle. It seemed to me unencouraging that my husband and I were the only people seated on the porch. In the absence of the headlights the candle on our table provided the only light, and I fought the impulse to blow it out. We continued talking, carefully. Nothing came of this, but I did not forget the sensation of having been in a single instant demoralized, undone, humiliated by fear, which is what I meant when I said that I came to understand in El Salvador the mechanism of terror.
3/3/81: Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former Salvadoran army intelligence officer, holds a press conference and says that before the US presidential election he had been in touch with a number of Reagan advisers and those contacts have continued. The armed forces should ask the junta to resign, D’Aubuisson says. He refuses to name a date for the action, but says “March is, I think, a very interesting month.” He also calls for the abandonment of the economic reforms. D’Aubuisson had been accused of plotting to overthrow the government on two previous occasions. Observers speculate that since D’Aubuisson is able to hold the news conference and pass freely between Salvador and Guatemala, he must enjoy considerable support among some sections of the army…. 3/4/81: In San Salvador, the US Embassy is fired upon; no one is injured. Charge d’ Affaires Frederic Chapin says, “This incident has all the hallmarks of a D’Aubuisson operation. Let me state to you that we oppose coups and we have no intention of being intimidated.”
—from the “Chronology of Events
Related to Salvadoran Situation”
prepared periodically by the United
States embassy in San Salvador