12/11/81: El Salvador’s Atlacatl Battalion begins a 6-day offensive sweep against guerrilla strongholds in Morazán.
—from the “Chronology of Events Related to Salvadoran Situation”
prepared periodically by the United States embassy in San Salvador
The department of Morazán, one of the country’s most embattled areas, was the scene of another armed forces operation in December, the fourth in Morazán during 1981….
The hamlet of Mozote was completely wiped out. For this reason, the several massacres which occurred in the same area at the same time are collectively known as the “Mozote massacre.” The apparent sole survivor from Mozote, Rufina Amaya, thirty-eight years old, escaped by hiding behind trees near the house where she and the other women had been imprisoned. She has testified that on Friday, December 11, troops arrived and began taking people from their homes at about 5:00 in the morning…. At noon, the men were blindfolded and killed in the town’s center. Among them was Amaya’s husband, who was nearly blind. In the early afternoon the young women were taken to the hills nearby, where they were raped, then killed and burned. The old women were taken next and shot…. From her hiding place, Amaya heard soldiers discuss choking the children to death; subsequently she heard the children calling for help, but no shots. Among the children murdered were three of Amaya’s, all under ten years of age….
It should be stressed that the villagers in the area had been warned of the impending military operation by the FMLN [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front] and some did leave. Those who chose to stay, such as the evangelical Protestants and others, considered themselves neutral in the conflict and friendly with the army. According to Rufina Amaya, “Because we knew the Army people, we felt safe.” Her husband, she said, had been on good terms with the local military and even had what she called “a military safe-conduct.”
Amaya and other survivors [of the nine hamlets in which the killing took place] accused the Atlacatl Battalion of a major role in the killing of civilians in the Mozote area.
—from the July 20, 1982, Supplement to the “Report on Human Rights
in El Salvador” prepared by Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union
At the time I was in El Salvador, six months after the events referred to as the Mozote massacre and a month or so before the Reagan administration certified to Congress that sufficient progress was being made in specified areas (“human rights,” and “land reform,” and “the initiation of a democratic political process,” phrases so remote in situ as to render them hallucinatory), a major offensive was taking place in Morazán, up in the mean hill country between the garrison town of San Francisco Gotera and the Honduran border. This June fighting was referred to by both sides as the heaviest of the war to date, but actual information, on this as on all subjects in San Salvador, was hard to come by.
Reports drifted back. The Atlacatl, which was trained by American advisers in 1981, was definitely up there again, as were two other battalions, the Atonal, trained, like the Atlacatl, by Americans in El Salvador, and the Ramón Belloso, just back from training at Fort Bragg. Every morning COPREFA, the press office at the Ministry of Defense, reported many FMLN casualties but few government. Every afternoon Radio Venceremos, the clandestine guerrilla radio station, reported many government casualties but few FMLN.
The only way to get any sense of what was happening was to go up there, but Morazán was hard to reach: a key bridge between San Salvador and the eastern half of the country, the Puente de Oro on the Río Lempa, had been dynamited by the FMLN in October 1981, and to reach San Francisco Gotera it was now necessary either to cross the Lempa on a railroad bridge or to fly, which meant going out to the military airport, Ilopango, and trying to get one of the seven-passenger prop planes that the Gutierrez Flying Service operated between Ilopango and a grassy field outside San Miguel. At San Miguel one could sometimes get a taxi willing to go on up to San Francisco Gotera, or a bus, the problem with a bus being that even a roadblock that ended well (no one killed or detained) could take hours, while every passenger was questioned. Between San Miguel and Gotera, moreover, there was a further problem, another blown bridge, this one on the Río Seco, which was seco enough in the dry months but often impassable in the wet.
June was wet. The Río Seco seemed doubtful. Everything about the day ahead, on the morning I started for Gotera, seemed doubtful, and that I set out on such a venture with a real lightening of the spirit suggests to me now how powerfully I wanted to get out of San Salvador, to spend a day free of its ambiguous tension, its overcast, its mood of wary somnambulism. It was only a trip of perhaps eighty miles, but getting there took most of the morning. There was, first of all, the wait on the runway at Ilopango while the pilot tried to get the engines to catch. “Cinco minutos,” he kept saying, and, as a wrench was produced, “Momentito.” Thunderclouds were massing on the mountains to the east. Rain spattered the fuselage. The plane was full, seven paying passengers at ninety-five colones the round trip, and we watched the tinkering without comment until one and finally both of the engines turned over.
Once in the air I was struck, as always in Salvador, by the miniature aspect of the country, an entire republic smaller than some California counties (smaller than San Diego County, smaller than Kern or Inyo, smaller by two-and-a-half times than San Bernardino), the very circumstance that has encouraged the illusion that the place can be managed, salvaged, a kind of pilot project, like TVA. There below us in a twenty-five minute flight lay half the country, a landscape already densely green from the rains that had begun in May, intensely cultivated, deceptively rich, the coffee spreading down every ravine, the volcanic ranges looming abruptly and then receding. I watched the slopes of the mountains for signs of fighting but saw none. I watched for the hydroelectric works on the Lempa but saw only the blown bridge.
There were four of us on the flight that morning who wanted to go on to Gotera, my husband and I and Christopher Dickey from The Washington Post and Joseph Harmes from Newsweek, and when the plane set down on the grass strip outside San Miguel a deal was struck with a taxi driver willing to take us at least to the Río Seco. We shared the taxi as far as San Miguel with a local woman who, although she and I sat on a single bucket seat, did not speak, only stared straight ahead, clutching her bag with one hand and trying with the other to keep her skirt pulled down over her black lace slip. When she got out at San Miguel there remained in the taxi a trace of her perfume, Arpège.
In San Miguel the streets showed the marks of January’s fighting, and many structures were boarded up, abandoned. There had been a passable motel in San Miguel, but the owners had managed to leave the country. There had been a passable place to eat in San Miguel, but no more. Occasional troop trucks hurtled past, presumably returning empty from the front, and we all made note of them, dutifully. The heat rose. Sweat from my hand kept blurring my tally of empty troop trucks, and I copied it on a clean page, painstakingly, as if it mattered.
The heat up here was drier than in the capital, harsher, dustier, and by now we were resigned to it, resigned to the jolting of the taxi, resigned to the frequent occasions on which we were required to stop, get out, present our identification (carefully, reaching slowly into an outer pocket, every move calculated not to startle the soldiers, many of whom seemed barely pubescent, with the M-16s), and wait while the taxi was searched. Some of the younger soldiers wore crucifixes wrapped with bright yarn, the pink and green of the yarn stained now with dust and sweat. The taxi driver was perhaps twenty years older than most of these soldiers, a stocky, well-settled citizen wearing expensive sunglasses, but at each road-block, in a motion so abbreviated as to be almost imperceptible, he would touch each of the two rosaries that hung from the rearview mirror and cross himself.
By the time we reached the Río Seco the question of whether or not we could cross it seemed insignificant, another minor distraction in a day that had begun at six and was now, before nine, already less a day than a way of being alive. We would try, the driver announced, to ford the river, which appeared that day to be running shallow and relatively fast over an unpredictable bed of sand and mud. We stood for a while on the bank and watched a man with an earthmover and winch try again and again to hook up his equipment to a truck that had foundered midstream. Small boys dove repeatedly with hooks, and repeatedly surfaced, unsuccessful. It did not seem entirely promising, but there it was, and there, in due time, we were: in the river, first following the sandbar in a wide crescent, then off the bar, stuck, the engine dead.
The taxi rocked gently in the current. The water bubbled inch by inch through the floorboards. There were women bathing naked in the shallows, and they paid no attention to the earthmover, the small boys, the half-submerged taxi, the gringos inside it. As we waited for our turn with the earthmover it occurred to me that fording the river in the morning meant only that we were going to have to ford it again in the afternoon, when the earthmover might or might not be around, but this was thinking ahead, and out of synch with the day at hand.
When I think now of that day in Gotera I think mainly of waiting, hanging around, waiting outside the cuartel (“COMANDO,” the signs read on the gates, and “BOINAS VERDES,” with a green beret) and waiting outside the church and waiting outside the Cine Morazán, where the posters promised Fright and The Abominable Snowman and the open lobby was lined with .50-caliber machine guns and 120 mm. mobile mortars. There were soldiers billeted in the Cine Morazán, and a few of them kicked a soccer ball, idly, among the mortars. Others joked among themselves at the corner, outside the saloon, and flirted with the women selling Coca-Cola in the stalls between the Cine Morazán and the parish house. The parish house and the church and the stalls and the saloon and the Cine Morazán and the cuartel all faced one another, across what was less a square than a dusty widening in the road, an arrangement that lent Gotera a certain proscenium aspect. Any event at all—the arrival of an armored personnel carrier, say, or a funeral procession outside the church—tended to metamorphose instantly into an opera, with all players onstage: the Soldiers of the Garrison, the Young Ladies of the Town, the Vendors, the Priests, the Mourners, and, since we were onstage as well, a dissonant and provocative element, the norteamericanos, in norteamericano costume, old Abercrombie khakis here, Adidas sneakers there, a Lone Star Beer cap.
We stood in the sun and tried to avoid adverse attention. We drank Coca-Cola and made surreptitious notes. We looked for the priests in the parish office but found only the receptionist, a dwarf. We presented our credentials again and again at the cuartel, trying to see the colonel who could give us permission to go up the few kilometers to where the fighting was, but the colonel was out, the colonel would be back, the colonel was delayed. The young officer in charge during the colonel’s absence could not give us permission, but he had graduated from the Escuela Militar in one of the classes trained this year at Fort Benning (“Mar-vel-ous!” was his impression of Fort Benning) and seemed at least amenable to us as Americans. Possibly there would be a patrol going up. Possibly we could join it.
In the end no patrol went up and the colonel never came back (the reason the colonel never came back is that he was killed that afternoon, in a helicopter crash near the Honduran border, but we did not learn this in Gotera) and nothing came of the day but overheard rumors, indefinite observations, fragments of information that might or might not fit into a pattern we did not perceive. One of the six A-37B Dragonfly attack jets that the United States had delivered just that week to Ilopango screamed low overhead, then disappeared. A company of soldiers burst through the cuartel gates and double-timed to the river, but when we caught up they were only bathing, shedding their uniforms and splashing in the shallow water. On the bluff above the river work was being completed on a helipad that was said to cover two mass graves of dead soldiers, but the graves were no longer apparent. The taxi driver heard, from the soldiers with whom he talked while he waited (talked and played cards and ate tortillas and sardines and listened to rock-and-roll on the taxi radio), that two whole companies were missing in action, lost or dead somewhere in the hills, but this was received information, and equivocal.
In some ways the least equivocal fact of the day was the single body we had seen that morning on the road between the Río Seco and Gotera, near San Carlos, the naked corpse of a man about thirty with a clean bullet hole drilled neatly between his eyes. He could have been stripped by whoever killed him, or, since this was a country in which clothes were too valuable to leave on the dead, by someone who happened to pass: there was no way of telling. In any case, his genitals had been covered with a leafy branch, presumably by the campesinos who were even then digging a grave. A subversivo, the driver thought, because there was no family in evidence (to be related to someone killed in El Salvador is a prima facie death warrant, and families tend to vanish), but all anyone in Gotera seemed to know was that there had been another body at precisely that place the morning before, and five others before that. One of the priests in Gotera had happened to see the body the morning before, but when he drove past San Carlos later in the day the body had been buried. It was agreed that someone was trying to make a point. The point was unclear.
We spent an hour or so that day with the priests, or with two of them, both Irish, and two of the nuns, one Irish and one American, all of whom lived together in the parish house facing the cuartel in a situation that remains in my mind as the one actual instance I have witnessed of grace not simply under pressure but under siege. Except for the American, Sister Phyllis, who had arrived only a few months before, they had all been in Gotera for a long time, twelve years, nine years, long enough to have established among themselves a grave companionableness, a courtesy and good humor that made the courtyard porch where we sat with them seem civilization’s last stand in Morazán, which in certain ways it was.
The light on the porch was cool and aqueous, filtered through ferns and hibiscus, and there were old wicker rockers and a map of PARROQUIA SAN FRANCISCO GOTERA and a wooden table with a typewriter, a can of Planter’s Mixed Nuts, copies of Lives of the Saints: Illustrated and The Rules of the Secular Franciscan Order. In the shadows beyond the table was a battered refrigerator from which, after a while, one of the priests got bottles of Pilsener beer, and we sat in the sedative half-light and drank the cold beer and talked in a desultory way about nothing in particular, about the situation, but no solutions.
These were not people much given to solutions, to abstracts: their lives were grounded in the specific. There had been the funeral that morning of a parishioner who had died in the night of cerebral hemorrhage. There had been the two children who died that week, of diarrhea, dehydration, in the squatter camps outside town where some 12,000 refugees were then gathered, many of them ill. There was no medicine in the camps. There was no water anywhere, and had been none since around the time of the election, when the tank that supplied Gotera with water had been dynamited. Five or six weeks after the tank was blown the rains had begun, which was bad in one way, because the rain washed out the latrines at the camps, but good in another, because at the parish house they were no longer dependent entirely on water from the river, soupy with bacteria and amoebas and worms. “We have the roof water now,” Sister Jean, the Irish nun, said. “Much cleaner. It’s greenish yellow, the river water, we only use it for the toilets.”
There had been, they agreed, fewer dead around since the election, fewer bodies, they thought, than in the capital, but as they began reminding one another of this body or that there still seemed to have been quite a few. They spoke of these bodies in the matter-of-fact way that they might have spoken, in another kind of parish, of confirmation candidates, or cases of croup. There had been the few up the road, the two at Yoloaiquin. Of course there had been the forty-eight near Barrios, but Barrios was in April. “A guardia was killed last Wednesday,” one of them recalled.
“Was it Thursday, then, Jerry?”
“That’s what I thought. A sniper.”
We left the parish house that day only because rain seemed about to fall, and it was clear that the Rio Seco had to be crossed now or perhaps not for days. The priests kept a guest book, and I thought as I signed it that I would definitely come back to this porch, come back with antibiotics and Scotch and time to spend, but I did not get back, and some weeks after I left El Salvador I heard in a third-hand way that the parish house had been abandoned, that the priests, who had been under threats and pressure from the garrison, had somehow been forced to leave Gotera.
I recalled that on the day before I left El Salvador Ambassador Deane Hinton had asked me, when I mentioned Gotera, if I had seen the priests, and had expressed concern for their situation. He was particularly concerned about the American, Sister Phyllis (an American nun in a parish under siege in a part of the country even then under attack from American A-37Bs was nothing the American embassy needed in those last delicate weeks before certification), and had at some point expressed this concern to the comandante at the garrison. The comandante, he said, had been surprised to learn the nationalities of the nuns and priests; he had thought them French, because the word used to describe them was always “Franciscan.” This was one of those occasional windows that open onto the heart of El Salvador and then close, a glimpse of the impenetrable interior.
At the time I was in El Salvador the hostilities at hand were referred to by those reporters still in the country as “the number-four war,” after Beirut, Iran-Iraq, and the aftermath of the Falklands. So many reporters had in fact abandoned the Hotel Camino Real in San Salvador (gone home for a while, or gone to the Intercontinental in Managua, or gone to whatever hotels they frequented in Guatemala and Panama and Tegucigalpa) that the dining room had discontinued its breakfast buffet, a fact often remarked upon: no breakfast buffet meant no action, little bang-bang, a period of editorial indifference in which stories were filed and held, and film rarely made the network news. “Get an NBC crew up from the Falklands, we might get the buffet back,” they would say, and, “If it hots up a little, we could have the midnight movies.” It seemed that when the networks arrived in force they brought movies down, and showed them at midnight on their video recorders, Apocalypse Now and Woody Allen’s Bananas.
Meanwhile only the regulars were there. “Are you going out today?” they would say to one another at breakfast, and, “This might not be a bad day to look around.” The Avis counter in the bar supplied signs reading PRENSA INTERNACIONAL with every car and van, and modified its insurance agreements with a typed clause excluding damage incurred by terrorists. The American embassy delivered translated transcripts of Radio Venceremos, prepared by the CIA in Panama. The COPREFA office at the Ministry of Defense sent over “urgent” notices, taped to the front desk, announcing events specifically devised, in those weeks before certification, for the American press: the ceremonial transfer of land titles and the ritual display of “defectors,” terrified-looking men who were reported in La Prensa Gráfica to have “abandoned the ranks of subversion, weary of so many lies and false promises.”
A handful of reporters continued to cover these events, particularly if they were staged in provincial garrisons and offered the possibility of action en route, but action was less than certain, and the situation less accessible than it had seemed in the days of the breakfast buffet. The American advisers would talk to no one, although occasionally a reporter could find a few drinking at the Sheraton on Saturday night and initiate a little general conversation. (That the American advisers were still billeted at the Sheraton struck me as somewhat perverse, particularly because I knew that the embassy had moved its visiting AID people to a guarded house in San Benito. “Frankly, I’d rather stay at the Sheraton,” an AID man had told me. “But since the two union guys got killed at the Sheraton, they want us here.”)
The era in which the guerrillas could be found just by going out on the highway had largely ended; the only certain way to spend time with them now was to cross into their territory from Honduras, through contact with the leadership in Mexico. This was a process that tended to discourage day-tripping, and in any case it was no longer a war in which the dateline “SOMEWHERE BEHIND GUERRILLA LINES, EL SALVADOR” was presumed automatically to illuminate much at all.
Everyone had already spent time, too, with the available government players, most of whom had grown so practiced in the process that their interviews were now performances, less apt to be reported than reviewed, and analyzed for subtle changes in delivery. Roberto D’Aubuisson had even taken part, wittingly or unwittingly, in an actual performance: a scene shot by a Danish film crew on location in Haiti and El Salvador for a movie about a foreign correspondent, in which the actor playing the correspondent “interviewed” D’Aubuisson, on camera, in his office.
This Danish crew treated the Camino Real not only as a normal location hotel (the star, for example, was the only person I ever saw swim in the Camino Real pool) but also as a story element, on one occasion shooting a scene in the bar, which lent daily life during their stay a peculiar extra color. They left San Salvador without making it entirely clear whether or not they had ever told D’Aubuisson it was just a movie.
At twenty-two minutes past midnight on Saturday, June 19, there was a major earthquake in El Salvador, one that collapsed shacks and sent off landslides and injured several hundred people but killed only about a dozen (I say “about” a dozen because figures on this, as on everything else in Salvador, varied), surprisingly few for an earthquake of this one’s apparent intensity (Cal Tech registered it at 7.0 on the Richter scale, Berkeley at 7.4) and length, thirty-seven seconds. For the several hours that preceded the earthquake I had been seized by the kind of amorphous bad mood that my grandmother believed an adjunct of what is called in California “earthquake weather,” a sultriness, a stillness, an unnatural light; the jitters. In fact there was no particular prescience about my bad mood, since it is always earthquake weather in San Salvador, and the jitters are endemic.
I recall having come back to the Camino Real about ten-thirty that Friday night, after dinner in a Mexican restaurant on the Paseo Escalón with a Salvadoran painter named Victor Barriere, who had said, when we met at a party a few days before, that he was interested in talking to Americans because they so often came and went with no understanding of the country and its history. Victor Barriere could offer, he explained, a special perspective on the country and its history, because he was a grandson of the late General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the dictator of El Salvador between 1931 and 1944 and the author of what Salvadorans still call la matanza, the massacre or “killing,” those weeks in 1932 when the government killed uncountable citizens,* a lesson.
As it happened I had been interested for some years in General Martínez, the spirit of whose regime would seem to have informed Gabriel García Márquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch. This original patriarch, who was murdered in exile in Honduras in 1966, was a rather sinister visionary who entrenched the military in Salvadoran life, was said to have held séances in the Casa Presidencial, and conducted both the country’s and his own affairs along lines dictated by eccentric insights, which he sometimes shared by radio with the remaining citizens:
It is good that children go barefoot. That way they can better receive the beneficial effluvia of the planet, the vibrations of the earth. Plants and animals don’t use shoes.
Biologists have discovered only five senses. But in reality there are ten. Hunger, thirst, procreation, urination, and bowel movements are the senses not included in the lists of biologists.
I had first come across this side of General Martínez in the United States Government Printing Office’s Area Handbook for El Salvador, a generally straightforward volume (“designed to be useful to military and other personnel who need a convenient compilation of basic facts”) in which, somewhere between the basic facts about General Martínez’s program for building schools and the basic facts about General Martínez’s program for increasing exports, there appears this sentence: “He kept bottles of colored water that he dispensed as cures for almost any disease, including cancer and heart trouble, and relied on complex magical formulas for the solution of national problems.” This sentence springs from the Area Handbook for El Salvador as if it were printed in neon, and is followed by one even more arresting: “During an epidemic of smallpox in the capital, he attempted to halt its spread by stringing the city with a web of colored lights.”
Not a night passed in San Salvador when I did not imagine it strung with those colored lights, and I asked Victor Barriere what it had been like to grow up the grandson of General Martínez. Victor Barriere had studied for a while in the United States, at the San Diego campus of the University of California, and he spoke perfect unaccented English, with the slightly formal constructions of the foreign speaker, in a fluted, melodic voice that seemed always to suggest a higher reasonableness.
The general had been, he said, sometimes misunderstood. Very strong men often were. Certain excesses had been inevitable. Someone had to take charge. “It was sometimes strange going to school with boys whose fathers my grandfather had ordered shot,” he allowed, but he remembered his grandfather mainly as a “forceful” man, a man “capable of inspiring great loyalty,” a theosophist from whom it had been possible to learn an appreciation of “the classics,” “a sense of history,” “the Germans.” The Germans especially had influenced Victor Barriere’s sense of history. “When you’ve read Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, what’s happened here, what’s happening here, well….”
Victor Barriere had shrugged, and the subject changed, although only fractionally, since El Salvador is one of those places in the world where there is just one subject, the situation, the problema, its various facets presented over and over again, as on a stereoptican. One turn, and the facet was former ambassador Robert White: “A real jerk.” Another, the murder in March of 1980 of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero: “A real bigot.” At first I thought he meant whoever stood outside an open door of the chapel in which the Archbishop was saying mass and drilled him through the heart with a .22-caliber dumdum bullet, but he did not: “Listening to that man on the radio every Sunday,” he said, “was like listening to Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini.” In any case: “We don’t really know who killed him, do we? It could have been the right….” He drew the words out, cantabile. “Or…it could have been the left. We have to ask ourselves, who gained? Think about it, Joan.”
I said nothing. I wanted only for dinner to end. Victor Barriere had brought a friend along, a young man from Chalatenango whom he was teaching to paint, and the friend brightened visibly when we stood up. He was eighteen years old and spoke no English and had sat through the dinner in polite misery. “He can’t even speak Spanish properly,” Victor Barriere said, in front of him. “However. If he were cutting cane in Chalatenango, he’d be taken by the Army and killed. If he were out on the street here he’d be killed. So. He comes every day to my studio, he learns to be a primitive painter, and I keep him from getting killed. It’s better for him, don’t you agree?”
I said that I agreed. The two of them were going back to the house Victor Barriere shared with his mother, a diminutive woman he addressed as “Mommy,” the daughter of General Martínez, and after I dropped them there it occurred to me that this was the first time in my life that I had been in the presence of obvious “material” and felt no professional exhilaration at all, only personal dread. One of the most active death squads now operating in El Salvador calls itself the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade, but I had not asked the grandson about that.
In spite of or perhaps because of the fact that San Salvador has been for more than two years under an almost constant state of siege, a city in which arbitrary detention has been legalized (Revolutionary Governing Junta Decree 507), curfew violations have been known to end in death, and many people do not leave their houses after dark, a certain limited frivolity still obtains. When I got back to the Camino Real after dinner with Victor Barriere there was for example a private party at the pool, with live music, dancing, an actual conga line.
There were also a number of people in the bar, many of them watching, on television monitors, “Señorita El Salvador 1982,” the selection of El Salvador’s entry in “Señorita Universo 1982,” scheduled for July in Lima. Something about “Señorita Universo” struck a familiar note, and then I recalled that the Miss Universe contest itself had been held in San Salvador in 1975, and had ended in what might have been considered a predictable way, with student protests about the money the government was spending on the contest, and the government’s predictable response, which was to shoot some of the students on the street and to “disappear” others. (Desaparecer, or “disappear,” is in Spanish both an intransitive and a transitive verb, and this flexibility has been adopted by those speaking English in El Salvador, as in John Sullivan was disappeared from the Sheraton, the government disappeared the students, there being no equivalent situation, and so no equivalent word, in English-speaking cultures.)
No mention of “Señorita Universo 1975” dampened “Señorita El Salvador 1982,” which, by the time I got upstairs, had reached the point when each of the finalists was asked to pick a question from a basket and answer it. The questions had to do with the hopes and dreams of the contestants, and the answers ran to “Dios,” “Paz,” “El Salvador.” A local entertainer wearing a white dinner jacket and a claret-colored bow tie sang “The Impossible Dream,” in Spanish. The judges began their deliberations, and the moment of decision arrived: Señorita El Salvador 1982 would be Señorita San Vicente, Miss Jeannette Marroquín, who was several inches taller than the other finalists, and more gringa looking. The four runners-up reacted, on the whole, with rather less grace than is the custom on these occasions, and it occurred to me that this was a contest in which winning meant more than a scholarship or a screen test or a new wardrobe; winning here could mean the difference between life and casual death, a provisional safe-conduct not only for the winner but for her entire family.
God damn it, he cut inaugural ribbons, he showed himself large as life in public taking on the risks of power as he had never done in more peaceful times, what the hell, he played endless games of dominoes with my lifetime friend General Rodrigo de Aguilar and my old friend the minister of health who were the only ones who…dared ask him to receive in a special audience the beauty queen of the poor, an incredible creature from that miserable wallow we call the dogfight district…. I’ll not only receive her in a special audience but I’ll dance the first waltz with her, by God, have them write it up in the newspapers, he ordered, this kind of crap makes a big hit with the poor. Yet, the night after the audience, he commented with a certain bitterness to General Rodrigo de Aguilar that the queen of the poor wasn’t even worth dancing with, that she was as common as so many other slum Manuela Sanchezes with her nymph’s dress of muslin petticoats and the gilt crown with artificial jewels and a rose in her hand under the watchful eye of a mother who looked after her as if she were made of gold, so he gave her everything she wanted which was only electricity and running water for the dogfight district….
That is Gabriel García Márquez, The Autumn of the Patriarch. On this evening that began with the grandson of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez and progressed to “Señorita El Salvador 1982” and ended, at 12:22 AM, with the earthquake, I began to see Gabriel García Márquez in a new light, as a social realist.
In the absence of information (and the presence often, of disinformation) even the most apparently straightforward event takes on, in El Salvador, elusive shadows, like a fragment of retrieved legend. On the afternoon that I was in San Francisco Gotera trying to see the commander of the garrison there, this comandante, Colonel Salvador Beltrán Luna, was killed, or was generally believed to have been killed, in the crash of a Hughes 500-D helicopter. The crash of a helicopter in a war zone would seem to lend itself to only a limited number of intepretations (the helicopter was shot down, or the helicopter suffered mechanical failure, are the two that come to mind), but the crash of this particular helicopter became, like everything else in Salvador, an occasion of rumor, doubt, suspicion, conflicting reports, and finally a kind of listless uneasiness.
The crash occurred either near the Honduran border in Morazán or, the speculation went, actually in Honduras. There were or were not four people aboard the helicopter: the pilot, a bodyguard, Colonel Beltrán Luna, and the assistant secretary of defense, Colonel Francisco Adolfo Castillo. At first all four were dead. A day later only three were dead: Radio Venceremos broadcast news of Colonel Castillo (followed a few days later by a voice resembling that of Colonel Castillo), not dead but a prisoner, or said to be a prisoner, or perhaps only claiming to be a prisoner. A day or so later another of the dead materialized or appeared to: the pilot was, it seemed, neither dead nor a prisoner but hospitalized, incommunicado.
Questions about what actually happened to (or on, or after the crash of, or after the clandestine landing of) this helicopter provided table talk for days (one morning the paper emphasized that the Hughes 500-D had been comprado en Guatemala, bought in Guatemala, a detail so solid in this otherwise vaporous story that it suggested rumors yet unheard, intrigues yet unimagined), and remained unresolved at the time I left.
At one point I asked President Magaña, who had talked to the pilot, what had happened. “They don’t say,” he said. Was Colonel Castillo a prisoner? “I read that in the paper, yes.” Was Colonel Beltrán Luna dead? “I have that impression.” Was the bodyguard dead? “Well, the pilot said he saw someone lying on the ground, either dead or unconscious, he doesn’t know but he believes it may have been Castillo’s security man, yes.” Where exactly had the helicopter crashed? “I didn’t ask him.” I looked at President Magaña, and he shrugged. “This is very delicate,” he said. “I have a problem there. I’m supposed to be the commander-in-chief, so if I ask him, he should tell me. But he might say he’s not going to tell me, then I would have to arrest him. So I don’t ask.” This is in many ways the standard development of a story in El Salvador, and is also illustrative of the position of the provisional president of El Salvador.
All information was hard to come by in El Salvador, perhaps because this is not a culture in which a high value is placed on the definite. Numbers tended to materialize and vanish and rematerialize in a different form, as if numbers denoted only the “use” of numbers, an intention, a wish, a recognition that someone, somewhere, for whatever reason, needed to hear the ineffable expressed as a number. At any given time in El Salvador a great deal of what goes on is considered ineffable, and the use of numbers in this context tends to frustrate people who try to understand them literally, rather than as propositions to be floated, “heard,” “mentioned.”
There was the case of the March 28 election, about which there continued into the summer the rather scholastic argument first posed by Central American Studies, the publication of the Jesuit university in San Salvador: had it taken an average of 2.5 minutes to cast a vote, or less? Could each ballot box hold 500 ballots, or more? The numbers were eerily Salvadoran. There were said to be 1.3 million people eligible to vote on March 28, but 1.5 million people were said to have voted. One and a half million people were said, in turn, to represent not 115 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters but 80 percent (or, on another float, 62-68 percent) of the eligible voters, who accordingly no longer numbered 1.3 million, but a larger number. In any case no one really knew how many eligible voters there were in El Salvador, or even how many people. In any case it had seemed necessary to provide a number. In any case the election was over, a success, la solución pacífica.
Similarly, there was the question of how much money had left the country for Miami in the past three years: Deane Hinton, in March, estimated $740 million. The Salvadoran minister of planning estimated, also in March, twice that. I recall asking President Magaña, when he happened to say that he had gone to lunch every Tuesday for the past ten years with the officers of the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador, which reviews the very export and import transactions through which money traditionally leaves troubled countries, how much he thought was gone.
“You hear figures mentioned,” he said. I asked what figure he heard mentioned at these Tuesday lunches. “The figure they mentioned is 600 million,” he said. He watched as I wrote that down, 600,000,000, central bank El Salvador. “The figure the Federal Reserve in New York mentioned,” he added, “is one thousand million.” He watched as I wrote that down too, 1,000,000,000, Fed NY. “Those people don’t want to stay for life in Miami,” he said then, but this did not entirely address the question, nor was it meant to.
Not only numbers but names are understood locally to have only a situational meaning, and the change of a name is meant to be accepted as a change in the nature of the thing named. ORDEN, for example, the paramilitary organization formally founded in 1968 to function, along classic patronage lines, as the government’s eyes and ears in the countryside, no longer exists as ORDEN, or the Organización Democrática Nacionalista, but as the Frente Democrática Nacionalista, a transubstantiation noted only cryptically in the State Department’s official “justification” for the January 28 certification: “The Salvadoran government, since the overthrow of General Romero, has taken explicit actions to end human rights abuses. The paramilitary organization ORDEN has been outlawed, although some of its former members may still be active.” (Italics added.)
This tactic of solving a problem by changing its name is by no means limited to the government. The small office on the archdiocese grounds where the scrapbooks of the dead are kept is still called, by virtually everyone in San Salvador, “the Human Rights Commission” (Comisión de los Derechos Humanos), but in fact both the Human Rights Commission and Socorro Jurídico, the archdiocesan legal aid office, were ordered this spring to vacate the church property, and, in the local way, did so: everything pretty much stayed in place, but the scrapbooks of the dead are now kept, officially, in the Oficina de Tutela Legal of the Comisión Arquidiocesana de Justicia y Paz. This renaming was referred to as a “reorganization,” which is one of the many words in El Salvador that tend to signal the presence of the ineffable.
Other such words are “improvement,” “perfection” (reforms are never abandoned or ignored, only “perfected” or “improved”), and that favorite from other fronts, “pacification.” Language has always been used a little differently in this part of the world (an apparent statement of fact often expresses something only wished for, or something that might be true, a story, as in García Márquez’s many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice), but “improvement” and “perfection” and “pacification” derive from another tradition. Language as it is now used in El Salvador is the language of advertising, of persuasion, the product being one or another of the soluciones crafted in Mexico or Panama or Washington, which is part of the place’s pervasive obscenity.
This language is shared by Salvadorans and Americans, as if a linguistic deal had been cut. “Perhaps the most striking measure of progress [in El Salvador],” Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders was able to say in August in a speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, “is the transformation of the military from an institution dedicated to the status quo to one that spearheads land reform and supports constitutional democracy.” Thomas Enders was able to say this precisely because the Salvadoran minister of defense, General José Guillermo García, has so superior a dedication to his own status quo that he plays the American card as Roberto D’Aubuisson does not, plays the game, plays ball, understands the importance to Americans of symbolic action: the importance of letting the Americans have their land reform program, the importance of letting the Americans pretend that while “democracy in El Salvador” may remain “a slender reed” (that was Elliott Abrams in The New York Times), the situation is one in which “progress” is measurable (“the minister of defense has ordered that all violations of citizens’ rights be stopped immediately,” the State Department noted on the occasion of the July 1982 certification, a happy ending); the importance of giving the Americans an acceptable president, Alvaro Magaña, and of pretending that this acceptable president is in fact commander-in-chief of the armed forces, el generalísimo as la solución.
La solución changes with the market. The election, although it ended with the ascension of a man, Roberto D’Aubuisson, essentially hostile to American policy, was la solución for Americans. Pacification, although those places pacified turn out to be in need of repeated pacification, is la solución. The use of the word “negotiations,” however abstract that use may be, is la solución. The land reform program, grounded as it is in political rather than economic reality, is la solución as symbol. “It has not been a total economic success,” Peter Askin, the AID director working with the government on the program told The New York Times in August 1981, “but up to this point it has been a political success. I’m firm on that. There does seem to be a direct correlation between the agrarian reforms and the peasants not having become more radicalized.” The land reform program, in other words, is based on the principle of buying off, buying time, giving a little to gain a lot, minifundismo in support of latifundismo, which, in a country where the left has no interest in keeping the peasants less “radicalized” and the right remains unconvinced that these peasants cannot simply be eliminated, renders it a program about which only Americans can be truly enthusiastic, less a “reform” than an exercise in public relations.
Even la verdad, the truth, is a degenerated phrase in El Salvador. On my first evening in the country I was asked by a Salvadoran woman at an embassy party what I hoped to find out in El Salvador. I said that ideally I hoped to find out la verdad, and she beamed approvingly. Other journalists, she said, did not want la verdad. She called over two friends, who also approved: no one told la verdad. If I wrote la verdad it would be good for El Salvador. I realized that I had stumbled into a code, that these women used la verdad as it was used on the bumper stickers favored last spring and summer by ARENA people. “JOURNALISTS: TELL THE TRUTH!” the bumper stickers warned in Spanish, and they meant the truth according to Roberto D’Aubuisson.
(This is the second of three articles on El Salvador.)
November 18, 1982
“Uncountable” because estimates of those killed vary from six or seven thousand to thirty thousand. Even higher figures are heard in Salvador, but, as Thomas P. Anderson pointed out in Matanza: El Salvador’s Communist Revolt of 1932 (University of Nebraska Press, 1971), “Salvadorans, like medieval people, tend to use numbers like 50,000 simply to indicate a great number—statistics are not their strong point.” ↩