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In El Salvador

1.

The three-year-old El Salvador International Airport is glassy and white and splendidly isolated, conceived during the waning of the Molina “National Transformation” as convenient less to the capital (San Salvador is forty miles away, until recently a drive of several hours) than to a central hallucination of the Molina and Romero regimes, the projected beach resorts, the Hyatt, the Pacific Paradise, tennis, golf, waterskiing, condos, Costa del Sol; the visionary invention of a tourist industry in yet another republic where the leading natural cause of death is gastrointestinal infection. In the general absence of tourists these hotels have since been abandoned, ghost resorts on the empty Pacific beaches, and to land at this airport built to service them is to plunge directly into a state in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.

The only logic is that of acquiescence. Immigration is negotiated in a thicket of automatic weapons, but by whose authority the weapons are brandished (army or national guard or national police or customs police or treasury police or one of a continuing proliferation of other shadowy and overlapping forces) is a blurred point. Eye contact is avoided. Documents are scrutinized upside-down. Once clear of the airport, on the new highway that slices through green hills rendered phosphorescent by the cloud cover of the tropical rainy season, one sees mainly underfed cattle and mongrel dogs and armored vehicles, vans, and trucks and Cherokee Chiefs fitted with reinforced steel and bullet-proof Plexiglas an inch thick.

Such vehicles are a fixed feature of local life, and are popularly associated with disappearance and death. There was the Cherokee Chief seen following the Dutch television crew killed in Chalatenango province in March. There was the red Toyota three-quarter-ton pickup sighted near the van driven by the four American Maryknoll workers on the night they were killed in December 1980. There are the three Toyota panel trucks, one yellow, one blue, and one green, none bearing plates, reported present at each of the summer mass detentions (a”detention” is another fixed feature of local life, and often precedes a “disappearance”) in the Amatepec district of San Salvador. These are the details—the models and colors of armored vehicles, the makes and calibers of weapons, the particular methods of dismemberment and decapitation used in particular instances—on which the visitor to Salvador learns immediately to concentrate, to the exclusion of past or future concerns, as in a prolonged amnesiac fugue.

Terror is the given of the place. Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning out from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safetys clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass the time. Every morning El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica carry cautionary stories. “Una madre y sus dos hijos fueron asesinados con arma cortante (corvo) por ocho sujetos desconocidos el lunes en la noche“: a mother and her two sons hacked to death in their beds by eight desconocidos, unknown men. The same morning’s paper: the unidentified body of a young man, strangled, found on the shoulder of a road. Same morning, different story: the unidentified bodies of three young men, found on another road, their faces partially destroyed by bayonets, one face carved to represent a cross.

It is largely from these reports in the newspapers that the United States embassy compiles its body counts, which are transmitted to Washington in a weekly dispatch referred to by embassy people as “the grim-gram.” These counts are presented in a kind of tortured code that fails to obscure what is taken for granted in El Salvador, that government forces do most of the killing. In a January 15 memo to Washington, for example, the embassy issued a “guarded” breakdown on its count of 6,909 “reported” political murders between September 16, 1980, and September 15, 1981. Of these 6,909, 922 were “believed committed by security forces,” 952 “believed committed by leftist terrorists,” 136 “believed committed by rightist terrorists,” and 4,889 “committed by unknown assailants,” the famous desconocidos favored by those San Salvador newspapers still publishing. (By whom the remaining ten were committed is unclear.) The memo continued:

The uncertainty involved here can be seen in the fact that responsibility cannot be fixed in the majority of cases. We note, however, that it is generally believed in El Salvador that a large number of the unexplained killings are carried out by the security forces, officially or unofficially. The Embassy is aware of dramatic claims that have been made by one interest group or another in which the security forces figure as the primary agents of murder here. El Salvador’s tangled web of attack and vengeance, traditional criminal violence and political mayhem make this an impossible charge to sustain. In saying this, however, we make no attempt to lighten the responsibility for the deaths of many hundreds, and perhaps thousands, which can be attributed to the security forces….

The body count kept by what is generally referred to in San Salvador as “the Human Rights Commission” is higher than the embassy’s, and documented periodically by a photographer who goes out looking for bodies. The bodies he photographs are often broken into unnatural positions, and the faces to which the bodies are attached (when they are attached) are equally unnatural, sometimes unrecognizable as human faces, obliterated by acid or beaten to a mash of misplaced ears and teeth or slashed ear to ear and invaded by insects. “Encontrado en Antiguo Cuscatlán el día 25 de marzo 1982: camison de dormir celeste,” the typed caption reads on one photograph: found in Antiguo Cuscatlán March 25, 1982, wearing a sky-blue night shirt. The captions are laconic. Found in Soyapango May 21, 1982. Found in Mejicanos June 11, 1982. Found at El Playón May 30, 1982, white shirt, purple pants, black shoes.

The photograph accompanying that last caption shows a body with no eyes, because the vultures got to it before the photographer did. There is a special kind of practical information that the visitor to El Salvador acquires immediately, the way visitors to other places acquire information about the currency rates, the hours for the museums. In El Salvador one learns that vultures go first for the soft tissue, for the eyes, the exposed genitalia, the open mouth. One learns that an open mouth can be used to make a specific point, can be stuffed with something emblematic; stuffed, say, with a penis, or, if the point has to do with land title, stuffed with some of the dirt in question. One learns that hair deteriorates less rapidly than flesh, and that a skull surrounded by a perfect corona of hair is not an uncommon sight in the body dumps.

All forensic photographs induce in the viewer a certain protective numbness, but dissociation is more difficult here. The disfigurement is too routine. The locations are too near, the dates too recent. There is the presence of the relatives of the disappeared: the women who sit every day in this cramped office on the grounds of the archdiocese, waiting to look at the spiral-bound photo albums in which the photographs are kept. These albums have plastic covers bearing soft-focus color photographs of young Americans in dating situations (strolling through autumn foliage on one album, recumbent in a field of daisies on another), and the women, looking for the bodies of their husbands and brothers and sisters and children, pass them from hand to hand without comment or expression.

One of the more shadowy elements of the violent scene here [is] the death squad. Existence of these groups has long been disputed, but not by many Salvadorans…. Who constitutes the death squads is yet another difficult question. We do not believe that these squads exist as permanent formations but rather as ad hoc vigilante groups that coalesce according to perceived need. Membership is also uncertain, but in addition to civilians we believe that both on- and off-duty members of the security forces are participants. This was unofficially confirmed by right-wing spokesman Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson who stated in an interview in early 1981 that security force members utilize the guise of the death squad when a potentially embarrassing or odious task needs to be performed.

from the confidential but later declas-
sified January 15, 1982, memo previ-
ously cited, drafted for the State
Department by the political section
at the embassy in San Salvador

The dead and pieces of the dead turn up in El Salvador everywhere, everyday, as taken for granted as in a nightmare, or a horror movie. Vultures of course suggest the presence of a body. A knot of children on the street suggests the presence of a body. Bodies turn up in the brush of vacant lots, in the garbage thrown down ravines in the richest districts, in public rest rooms, in bus stations. Some are dropped in Lake Ilopango, a few miles east of the city, and wash up near the lakeside cottages and clubs frequented by what remains in San Salvador of the sporting bourgeoisie. Some still turn up at El Playón, the lunar lava field of rotting human flesh visible at one time or another on every television screen in America but characterized as recently as June in the El Salvador News Gazette, an English-language weekly edited by an American named Mario Rosenthal, as an “uncorroborated story…dredged up from the files of leftist propaganda.” Others turn up at Puerta del Diablo, above Parque Balboa, a national Turicentro still described, in the April-July 1982 issue of Aboard TACA, the magazine provided passengers on the national airline of El Salvador, as “offering excellent subjects for color photography.”

I drove up to Puerta del Diablo one morning last summer, past the Casa Presidencial and the camouflaged watchtowers and heavy concentrations of troops and arms south of town, on up a narrow road narrowed further by landslides and deep crevices in the roadbed, a drive so insistently premonitory that after a while I began to hope that I would pass Puerta del Diablo without knowing it, just miss it, write it off, turn around and go back. There was however no way of missing it. Puerta del Diablo is a “view site” in an older and distinctly literary tradition, nature as lesson, an immense cleft rock through which half of El Salvador seems framed, a site so romantic and “mystical,” so theatrically sacrificial in aspect, that it might be a cosmic parody of nineteenth-century landscape painting. The place presents itself as pathetic fallacy: the sky “broods,” the stones “weep,” a constant seepage of water weighting the ferns and moss. The foliage is thick and slick with moisture. The only sound is a steady buzz, I believe of cicadas.

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.

2.

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

Since the Exodus from Egypt, historians have written of those who sacrificed and struggled for freedom: the stand at Thermopylae, the revolt of Spartacus, the storming of the Bastille, the Warsaw uprising in World War II. More recently we have seen evidence of this same human impulse in one of the developing nations in Central America. For months and months the world news media covered the fighting in El Salvador. Day after day, we were treated to stories and film slanted toward the brave freedom fighters battling oppressive government forces in behalf of the silent, suffering people of that tortured country. Then one day those silent suffering people were offered a chance to vote to choose the kind of government they wanted. Suddenly the freedom fighters in the hills were exposed for what they really are: Cuban-backed guerrillas…. On election day the people of El Salvador, an unprecedented [1.5 million] of them, braved ambush and gunfire, trudging miles to vote for freedom.

President Reagan, in his June 8, 1982,
speech before both houses of the British
Parliament, referring to the March 28
election which resulted in the ascension
of Roberto D’Aubuisson to the presi-
dency of the Constituent Assembly

From whence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I happened to read President Reagan’s speech one evening in San Salvador when President Reagan was in fact on television, with Doris Day, in The Winning Team, a 1952 Warner Brothers picture about the baseball pitcher Grover Cleveland Alexander. I reached the stand at Thermopylae about the time that el salvador del Salvador began stringing cranberries and singing “Old St. Nicholas” with Miss Day. “Muy bonita,” he said when she tried out a rocking chair in her wedding dress. “Feliz Navidad,” they cried, and, in accented English, “Play ball!”

As it happened, “play ball” was a phrase I had come to associate in El Salvador with Roberto D’Aubuisson and his followers in the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA. “It’s a process of letting certain people know they’re going to have to play ball,” embassy people would say, and: “You take a guy who’s young, and everything ‘young’ implies, you send him signals, he plays ball, then we play ball.” American diction in this situation tends toward the studied casual, the can-do, as if sheer cool and Bailey bridges could shape the place up. Elliott Abrams told The New York Times in July that punishment within the Salvadoran military could be “a very important sign that you can’t do this stuff any more,” meaning kill the citizens. “If you clean up your act, all things are possible,” is the way Jeremiah O’Leary, a special assistant to US national security adviser William Clark, described the American diplomatic effort in an interview given the Los Angeles time just after the March 28 election. He was speculating on how Ambassador Deane Hinton might be dealing with D’Aubuisson. “I kind of picture him saying, ‘Goddamnit Bobbie, you’ve got a problem and…if you’re what everyone said you are, you’re going to make it hard for everybody.”’

Roberto D’Aubuisson is a chain smoker, as were many of the people I met in El Salvador, perhaps because it is a country in which the possibility of achieving a death related to smoking remains remote. I never met Major D’Aubuisson, but I was always interested in the adjectives used to describe him. “Pathological” was the adjective, modifying “killer,” used by former Ambassador Robert E. White (it was White who refused D’Aubuisson a visa, after which, according to the embassy’s “Chronology of Events” for June 30, 1980, “D’Aubuisson manages to enter the US illegally and spends two days in Washington holding press conferences and attending luncheons before turning himself in to immigration authorities”), but “pathological” is not a word one hears in-country, where meaning tends to be transmitted in code.

In-country one hears “young” (the “and everything ‘young’ implies” part is usually left tacit), even “immature”; “impetuous,” “impulsive,” “impatient,” “nervous,” “volatile,” “high-strung,” “kind of coiled-up,” and, most frequently, “intense,” or just “tense.” Offhand it struck me that Roberto D’Aubuisson had some reason to be tense, in that General José Guillermo García, who has remained a main player through several changes of government, might logically perceive him as the wild card who could queer everybody’s ability to refer to his election as a vote for freedom. As I write this I realize that I have fallen into the Salvadoran mind-set, which turns on plot, and, since half the players at any given point in the game are in exile, on the phrase “in touch with.”

I’ve known D’Aubuisson a long time,” I was told by Alvaro Magaña, the banker the Army made, over D’Aubuisson’s rather frenzied objections (“We stopped that one on the one-yard line,” Deane Hinton told me about D’Aubuisson’s play to block Magaña), provisional president of El Salvador. We were sitting in his office upstairs at the Casa Presidencial, an airy and spacious building in the tropical colonial style, and he was drinking cup after Limoges cup of black coffee, smoking one cigarette with each, carefully, an unwilling actor who intended to survive the accident of being cast in this production. “Since Molina was president. I used to come here to see Molina, D’Aubuisson would be here, he was a young man in military intelligence, I’d see him here.” He gazed toward the corridor that opened onto the interior courtyard, with cannas, oleander, a fountain not in operation. “When we’re alone now I try to talk to him. I do talk to him, he’s coming for lunch today. He never calls me Alvaro, it’s always usted, Señor, Doctor. I call him Roberto. I say, ‘Roberto, don’t do this, don’t do that,’ you know.”

Magaña studied in the United States, at Chicago, and his four oldest children are now in the United States, one son at Vanderbilt, a son and a daughter at Santa Clara, and another daughter near Santa Clara, at Notre Dame in Belmont. He is connected by money, education, and temperament to oligarchal families. All the players here are densely connected: Magaña’s sister, who lives in California, is the best friend of Nora Ungo, the wife of Guillermo Ungo, and Ungo spoke to Magaña’s sister in August when he was in California raising money for the FMLN-FDR, which is what the opposition to the Salvadoran government was called this year. The membership and even the initials of this opposition tend to be fluid, but the broad strokes are these: the FMLN-FDR is the coalition of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) and the five guerrilla groups in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). These five groups are the Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS), the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers (PRTC), the Peoples’ Revolutionary Army (ERP), and the Armed Forces of National Resistance (FARN). Within each of these groups, there are further factions and sometimes even further initials, as in the PRS and LP-28 of the ERP.

During the time that D’Aubuisson was trying to stop Magaña’s appointment as provisional president, members of ARENA, which is supported heavily by other oligarchal elements, passed out leaflets referring to Magaña, predictably, as a communist, and, more interestingly, as “the little Jew.” The manipulation of anti-Semitism is an undercurrent in Salvadoran life that is not much discussed and probably worth some study, since it refers to a tension within the oligarchy itself, the tension between those families who solidified their holdings in the mid-nineteenth century and those later families, some of them Jewish, who arrived in El Salvador and entrenched themselves around 1900. I recall asking a well-off Salvadoran about the numbers of his acquaintances within the oligarchy who have removed themselves and their money to Miami. “Mostly the Jews,” he said.

In San Salvador
in the year 1965
the best sellers
of the three most important
book stores
were:
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion;
a few books by
diarrhetic Somerset Maugham;
a book of disagreeably
obvious poems
by a lady with a European name
who nonetheless writes in Spanish about our
country
and a collection of
Reader’s Digest condensed novels.
—“San Salvador”
by Roque Dalton Garcia,
translated by Edward Baker*

The late Roque Dalton García was born into the Salvadoran bourgeoisie in 1935, spent some years in Havana, came home in 1973 to join the ERP, and, in 1975, was executed, on charges that he was a CIA agent, by his own comrades. The actual executioner was said to be Joaquín Villalobos, who is now about thirty years old, commander of the ERP, and a key figure in the FMLN, which, as the Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid pointed out last winter in Dissent, has as one of its support groups the Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade. The Dalton execution is frequently cited by people who want to stress that “the other side kills people too, you know,” an argument common mainly among those like the State Department with a stake in whatever government is current in El Salvador, since, if it is taken for granted in Salvador that the government kills, it is also taken for granted that the other side kills; that everyone has killed, everyone kills now, and, if the history of the place suggests any pattern, everyone will continue to kill.

Don’t say I said this, but there are no issues here,” I was told this summer by a high-placed Salvadoran. “There are only ambitions.” He meant of course not that there were no ideas in conflict, but that the conflicting ideas were held exclusively by people he knew; that, whatever the outcome of any fighting or negotiation or coup or countercoup, the Casa Presidencial would ultimately be occupied not by campesinos and Maryknolls but by the already entitled, by Guillermo Ungo or Joaquín Villalobos or even by Roque Dalton’s son, Juan José Dalton, or by Juan José Dalton’s comrade in the FPL, José Antonio Morales Carbonell, the guerrilla son of José Antonio Morales Ehrlich, a former member of the Duarte junta, who had himself been in exile during the Romero regime. In an open letter written shortly before his arrest in San Salvador in June of 1980, José Antonio Morales Carbonell had charged his father with an insufficient appreciation of “Yankee imperialism.” José Antonio Morales Carbonell and Juan José Dalton tried together to enter the United States last summer, for a speaking engagement in San Francisco, but were refused visas by the embassy in Mexico City.

Whatever the issues were that had divided Morales Carbonell and his father and Roque Dalton and Joaquín Villalobos, the prominent Salvadoran to whom I was talking seemed to be saying, they were issues that fell somewhere outside the lines normally drawn to indicate “left” and “right.” That this man saw la situación as only one more realignment of power among ‘the entitled, a conflict of “ambitions” rather than “issues,” was, I recognized, what many people would call a conventional bourgeois view of civil conflict, and offered no solutions, but the people with solutions to offer were mainly somewhere else, in Mexico or Panama or Washington.

The place brings everything into question. One afternoon when I had run out of the Halazone tablets I dropped every night in a pitcher of tap water (a demented gringa gesture, I knew even then, in a country where anyone who had not been born there was at least mildly ill, including the nurse at the American embassy), I walked across the street from the Camino Real to the Metrocenter, which is referred to locally as “Central America’s Largest Shopping Mall.” I found no Halazone at the Metrocenter but became absorbed in making notes about the mall itself, about the Muzak playing “I Left My Heart in San Francisco” and “American Pie” (“…singing, This will be the day that I die…”) although the record store featured a cassette called Classics of Paraguay, about the pâté de foie gras for sale in the supermarket, about the guard who did the weapons-check on everyone who entered the supermarket, about the young matrons in tight Sergio Valente jeans, trailing maids and babies behind them and buying towels, big beach towels printed with maps of Manhattan that featured Bloomingdale’s; about the number of things for sale that seemed to suggest a fashion for “smart drinking,” to evoke modish cocktail hours. There were bottles of Stolichnaya vodka packaged with glasses and mixer, there were ice buckets, there were bar carts of every conceivable design, displayed with sample bottles.

This was a shopping center that embodied the future for which El Salvador was presumably being saved, and I wrote it down dutifully, this being the kind of “color” I knew how to interpret, the kind of inductive irony, the detail that was supposed to illuminate the story. As I wrote it down I realized that I was no longer much interested in this kind of irony, that this was a story that would not be illuminated by such details, that this was a story that would perhaps not be illuminated at all, that this was perhaps even less a “story” than a true noche obscura. As I waited to cross back over the Boulevard de los Heroes to the Camino Real I noticed soldiers herding a young civilian into a van, their guns at the boy’s back, and I walked straight ahead, not wanting to see anything at all.

(This is the first part of a three-part article.)

  1. *

    El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, by Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk (South End Press, 1982), p. 11.

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