As the 1990s began, the FMLN gained control of much of the countryside and showed their ability to carry out an effective armed struggle in the capital itself. In 1991, the United Nations began mediating negotiations between the Salvadoran government and the guerrilla forces. Guerrilla demands included a purging of the armed forces of those guilty of human rights violations and the integration of FMLN militants into either the armed forces or the police.
San Salvador, 1991: The Struggle Continues
The united people have not been defeated. The guerrilla army has fought the Salvadoran military to a standstill. Even though the Salvadoran military has received over four billion dollars in U.S. military and economic aid in the past decade, the FMLN and the popular organizations have something more important—the people.
More than seventy thousand civilians have been killed, the vast majority by government forces and right-wing death squads. The cost has been incredible, but the determination to continue the struggle is even more incredible. Liberated zones are everywhere.
El Salvador is awash in violence. Fifteen years after the end of a bloody civil war, the small Central American country has become notorious for its vicious street gangs, or maras, as they are called. Among the worst are the Mara 13 and Mara 18 which sell drugs, extort protection money and fight relentlessly for territory.
In Santa Anna, EL Salvador's second largest city, gang members are always on the lookout for new recruits. They pressure youth, many as young as 10, to participate in criminal activities and prove their worth as foot soldiers - or face the consequences.
Fear and economic pressures force many to become part of the gang life, setting them on a violent course that too often ends in jail time for capital crimes or tragic death.But an innovative organisation in Santa Ana, Barefoot Angels, has been battling for more than 10 years to shelter kids from violence and away from gang life.
Barefoot Angels staff run great risks, along with the children they help, and have witnessed dramatic results. Producers Steve Baum and Adam Raney documented Barefoot Angels' daily struggle for the hearts and souls of EL Salvador's youth.
Decapitated bodies lie in the streets every morning. Heads are found on poles along country roads. A business will one day develop selling heads at exorbitant prices to grieving families who want to unite the bodies of their loved ones for burial. Ten bodies a day appear as mothers gather with their small pictures of their sons or daughters outside the morgue.
Oscar Romero had been the oligarchy’s choice for archbishop three years ago. But he has had a conversion. The murder of his friend Rotilio Grande started it, but the people completed it. He sees into the humble lives of his flock and has gained courage to speak out. He writes a letter to President Carter: If you truly want to defend human rights… [then] guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressure determining the Salvadoran people’s destiny.
And now as he stands in the Cathedral he addresses the army directly:
Brothers: you are part of our own people… God’s law must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God… It is itime to take back your consciences… In the name of God, and in the name of the suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuous, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!
Five times the applause of the people who love him so dearly interrupt him. He has to shout the last sentence as the cheering of the people lifts his words to heaven.
James Brockman, Romero: A life, 241-42
San Salvador, 1980: The Shepherd Murdered
It is March 24 and Romero is tired. So many are depending upon him for strength. Some try to dissuade him from saying the Mass at the hospital because it was publicized in the newspapers and there have been threats against his life. He has refused bodyguards because he says the people can’t have them. He wants to share the fate of the campesinos.
He begins Mass and reads from the Gospel: Unless the grai of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies it bears much fruit… He takes the body and blood of Christ and begins to pry. A bullet from a gun with a silencer pierces his chest. Blood pours from his mouth and nose. Some of the people rush up. They carry him to a hospital where he dies without regaining consciousness.
On a much earlier occasion he said, If I die, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people.
James Brockman, Romero: A life, 244-45
Snipers from the National Army fire from the top of buildings during Romero's funeral in 1980 in the central San Salvador park.
San Jose, Costa Rica, 1980: Last Resort
It is May and on the stage of the theater stands the whole spectrum of Salvadoran society. On one end is Enrique Alvarez, a member of one of the fourteen families, now president of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR). Rejecting his wealth and family breeding, he has joined the people’s struggle. On the other end is Juan Chacon, leader of El Bloque. A field hand and factory worker, Juan remembers his father, killed and dismembered by the National Guard for being a Delegate of the Word in the church. Alvarez announces to the crowd:
The Salvadoran people have had to take up arms to end the conditions we have been subjected to for the last fifty years—by military governments, by the oligarchy and U.S. imperialism. The people have risen in arms to say “Enough” and to take power the only way they leave us, they way of armed struggle.
The name of this new guerrilla army, a coalition of various forces, is the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). Another name of a fallen hero takes its place in the continuing resistance of the people.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 168
San Salvador, 1980: Adelante
Characterization of Maximiliano Hernadez Martinez
Members of the FDR and opposition groups decide to return to El Salvador. They are meeting at the Jesuit High School to plan a press conference. Two hundred police surround the building. Men in plain clothes and guns kidnap the five FDR leaders. It is the work of the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade, named after the general of the matanza. Recently, they decapitated four young men, leaving their bodies on the Avenida Espana with a note: Long live El Salador! Long live the massacre of 1932!
Five bodies are found on the shores of Lake Llopango. Enrique Alvarez’s left arm is missing, Juan Chacon’s face is mutilated, his left fist clenched in defiance above his head as if to encode in his body in death, the very essence of his life: Adelante! Forward!
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 28-30
This music video describes the pain of war during the Duarte regime. Music provided by Midnight Oil, "Beds are Burning."
The repression was particularly acute in El Salvador. During the 1970s Father Rotilio Grande organized peasants in Aquilares and trained campesinos as Delegates of the Word, leaders of liturgical services.
The emphasis among these leaders was one of serve and collective leadership. At the same time, popular organizations were organizing throughout El Salvador. In 1977 the conflict came to a head. Security forces murdered Father Rotilio Grande and arrested, tortured, and expelled priests. A right-wing terrorist organization threatened to kill every Jesuit in the country. That was also the year that Oscar Romero was named archbishop of El Salvador.
The sealing of elections was common in El Salvador, so the vast majority of people had no hope in an electoral system filled with fraud. The popular organizations and then the guerrilla groups were the only hope most of the people had for fundamental change in El Salvador. The popular organizations were composed of peasants, workers, teachers, and students who were engaging in nonviolent actions to bring about change. These actions included demonstrations, land occupations, and strikes. The government responded with greater and greater violence and repression.
In 1980 the repression reached another height when Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying mass and four North American church women were raped and murdered on their way from the airport. In all, ten thousand civilians were murdered that year, the vast majority by right-wing death squads and government security forces.
Since then, seventy thousand civilians have been killed in El Salvador, most at the hand of their own government—a government which has received over four billion dollars in U.S. military and economic aid during those years. The year 1980 also saw the escalation of the guerrilla movement, fueled by the government’s killing of opposition leaders and students demonstrating in the streets.
On July 20, students from the San Salvador National University stage a protest march against the army’s invasion of a branch campus. In Latin America the neutrality and safety of a university is nearly sacred. The student marchers go up 25th Street heading for the highway bridge just south of the U.S. Embassy. As they enter the bridge, soldiers take up offensive positions on the other side, blocking their advance. Not wanting to risk a confrontation, they turn around, only to see more soldiers blocking their exit. The soldiers open fire on the unarmed students. Some jump off the bridge, others lie flat. In a few moments, the army kills twenty students.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 73-74
San Salvador, 1975: Remembering
El Salvadoran military
Blood can be washed from a bridge. Washing away the memory of those students proves impossible.
As word spreads of the massacre, hundreds converge on the cathedral in the capitol. Gathering both spontaneously and as the fruit of years of organizing, the diverse groups proclaim that unity is our strength. They shout El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido! (The people united will never be defeated!) Today they take a new name that reflects their unity. They call themselves the People’s Revolutionary Bloc (BPR) which becomes known as El Bloque. Composed of a variety of popular organizations, they offer the people an alternative to corrupt political parties. Emphasizing democracy, equality, and civil disobedience, they fight for higher wages, land for the landless, electricity for poor neighborhoods. They hate the oligarchy and the army. They simply pledge to end their rule.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 28-30
Throughout Latin American, the 1960s brought tremendous changes within the church. For centuries the Catholic Church had sided with the wealthy against the poor. The church blessed the theft of lands and perpetuated the miserable conditions of the indigenous, saying that God meant them to be poor but they would get their reward in heaven.
There were, of course, some notable exceptions to this trend, including Bartolome de Las Casas and Bishop Antonio Valdivieso, both of whom defended the indigenous and Father Miguel Hidalgo, who was a leader in the Mexican independence movement. But for the most part, the institutional church was one of the main forms of cultural invasion in Latin America that stripped the native population of their gods, their dignity, and their very lives.
In 1963, after the second Vatican Council met, Pope John XXIII wrote an encyclical entitled Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) that led the way for priests, nuns, and lay leaders to see organizing for justice as a fundamental tenet of the Christian fait. The 1968 conference of Latin American bishops in Medellin, Colombia, further confirmed this direction, and the movement known as liberation theology began.
One of the great decisions of the conference was that the church would “make a preferential option for the poor”: the church would actively take the side of the poor and begin to view the world from their perspective.
In Latin America, priests and nuns left the safe confines of rectories and convents to actually live with the poor. They realized the daily injustices and indignities suffered by the poor at the hands of the rich. They read the Bible as a group and discovered together that God did not intend people to live in humiliating poverty.
All God’s children deserved basic human rights of food, clothing, shelter, and access to the land. The church began organizing cooperatives so that small farmers could get higher prices for their goods, helped organize land take-overs because the children of the campesinos were dying while the rich were growing weeds on their vacant land, and supported unions demanding better wages and working conditions.
All these actions were so threatening to those in power that the church itself became the target of repression. Catechists, priests, and nuns were kidnapped, tortured, and killed. The powerful considered the Bible a “subversive document.”
Two years ago Farabundo Marti returned to El Salvador. On the streets of the capital he found ox carts of the people mingling with Pierce Arrows and Packards of the oligarchs. The price has dropped out of the coffee market, and unrest among the workers is spreading. Military repression increases and Marti leads a protest march. He is arrested and sent to the Central Penitentiary where he begins a month-long hunger strike. Massive demonstrations in his support force the government to release him. He emerges as a national hero and symbol of the opposition to the repressive conditions. Protest demonstrations increase and the police and military kill dozens of protestors. The government is chasing Marti all over the countryside because they hold him responsible for all their trouble. In a military coup General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez comes to power. He believes it is worse to kill an ant than a human being. He will soon act on that belief.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 21-25
Salvadoran Countryside, 1932: La Matanza
The insurrection is planned for January 22. The authorities find out and arrest Farabundo Marti on the 18th. Mass arrests begin. In the countryside the peasants do not know and so the revolt moves forward. Years, generations, and even centuries of abuse create the long fuse that is finally lit. The rebellion is strongest in the coffee growing areas, the indigenous leading the way. Mostly armed with machetes and stones, they are up against rifles and machine guns. “Red Julia” leads a force of five thousand near Sonsonate. Martinez mobilizes his forces to crush the rebellion. The rebels’ arms are no match for the weapons of the army, but they fight on for days. Wave after wave brave a hail of bullets. Finally, they are defeated.
The ruling class is outraged and cries for vengeance, and the Matanza begins. In Izalco, groups of fifty, thumbs tied together, meet their death against the wall of a church before a firing squad. Victims dig mass graves, and when they are finished a machine gun fills their bodies with lead and the graves with bodies. Miguel Marmol, one of the leaders in the Salvadoran Communist Party, later writes: General Ochoa… made everyone who had been captured crawl on their knees to where he was seated in a chair in the courtyard of the fort and he said to them: “Com here and smell my gun.” The prisoners pleaded with him in the name of God and their children, having heard the intermittent shots before entering the courtyard. But the General insisted. “If you don’t smell my pistol then you are a communist and afraid. He who is without sin knows no fear.”
The campesino smelled the barrel of the gun, and in that instant, the general would put a bullet in his face. “Bring the next one in,” he said.
The Salvadoran ruling class and military kill thirty thousand people-two percent of the population.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 28-30
El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, about the size of Massachusetts, yet it has the densest population. As in Guatemala, coffee is king. Fourteen families have controlled the wealth and power in this country for several generations.
In the period from 1930 to 1932 there was general unrest among the peasants. The lack of land coupled with an economic depression left most people without food or a livelihood. The Communist Party began organizing actively. Farabundo Marti, a Salvadoran who had served a Sandino’s personal secretary and lieutenant, returned to El Salvador to help organize an insurrection.
The same issues facing the people in 1930 face the vast majority today. Lack of basic human needs, like running water, electricity, clean water, access to the land, have remained constant for fifty years.
In the early years of the century, coffee was like gold in terms of the disruption it caused in the lives of the indigenous. In the late nineteenth century communal lands were abolished by decree and large coffee fincas (plantations) were created. The peasants who were shoved off the land had to work on the fincas for intolerable wages. Coffee as an export crop meant that the profits from its sale enriched the owners of the fincas but did not raise the standard of living of the workers. Since so much land was used to cultivate coffee for export, there was little left for subsistence crops for domestic consumption.
Protests in the coffee fields grew in 1930. On May Day of that year, eighty thousand workers and peasants marched into San Salvador, demanding a minimum wage for farm workers and relief centers for the unemployed. In the rural areas, regular armed skirmishes between the army and peasants occurred.
By 1932 the opposition forces were ready for a general insurrection set for January 22. Betrayal led to the arrest of Marti and other leaders. They tried to call of the insurrection, but those in the rural areas did not know how to stop the momentum. Thousands of farm workers and peasants, primarily indigenous, stoned government offices, occupied city halls, and set fire to the houses of the rich.
General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, who had overthrown the elected government the year before, crushed the rebellion. Within weeks the army, the wealthy landowners, and paramilitary forces carried out a massacre that killed thirty thousand. Peasant leaders were hanged in the town square to deter future rebellions.
Father Geronimo, an Italian Catholic priest, offers mass to members of the Communities in Resistence (CPR) in the remote mountains of the Quiche region. These communities are considered “collaborators” with the rebel insurgency by the Guatemalan Army.
They are not from one village or ethnic group. They are ixiles, chiquimultecos, quiches, aquatecos. They have fled from the Guatemalan army and its massacres, tortures, pillage, disappearances. They have seen their crops and houses burned, cadavers eaten by dogs, villages bombed by planes and helicopters. As one says, nine years of persecution, nine years of destruction, nine years of resistance. They live in the mountains, they carry no weapons, and they call themselves the Communities of the Population in Resistance (CPR)
They create their own democracy. There are area committees, responsables (responsible ones), and an assembly open to all the people. Everybody comes, including the children. One boy stands with a festering sore covering the left side of his head. The army denies medicine to the community. All of our children were born here in the mountains, on top of the mud, under violent storms, without covering; therefore, there is much illness because we are unaccustomed to this.
So many of the murdered and disappeared are husbands and fathers. We widows have learned to work. We work our land with a machete. We widows have double work. We work the land with our children on our backs. We cut our wood; we bring our water, we cook our food. Many of the women wear the traditional Mayan dress of their town. They themselves weave the bright reds and deep purples and blacks into trajes and headbands. It is an art centuries old passed on from generation to generation. The symbols woven into the clothing recount the history of their people. These women become the artists and the bearers of dangerous memory.
See Informe de la Comision Multipartita, CPR
These are recent crimes. You can still see fear in these faces. Its hard to believe that the genocide in Guatemala happened just over 20 years ago. There are almost no photos of it. Guatemalas tragedy doesnt have the place it merits in the history of infamy perhaps for this reason: there are no photos. Or there arent many, if we take into account the images James Natchwey, Jean-Marie Simon or Alon Reininger, along with a few others, made of Guatemala in the 1970s and 1980s. In any case, what was happening in Guatemala at that time faded into the background of the story of the triumph and eventual electoral defeat of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, or the war in El Salvador.
The signing of peace treaties on December 29, 1996 opened a space in Guatemalan society for slowly discovering the sad legacy of 36 years of armed conflict. Less than two years later, on April 26, 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi was murdered two days after presenting a report on the human rights violations that had taken place during the war. These dates opened and shut a particular moment of history in Guatemala, cutting short the debate on the origins of and responsibilities for a conflict that left more than 200,000 victims, most of them Mayan.
Today, when the dead come from a place that we didnt know existed until a few months ago, its prudent to remember that the Cold War in Latin America was red hot.
These photos are dedicated to Guatemalan journalist Ricardo Miranda, who always stood up to the history of his country with intelligence and talent.
A GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo or Mutual Support Group) protest the annual "Day Of The Army." They are demanding the whereabouts of their disappeared loved ones.
They gather in the house of the Archbishop. Twenty-five of them in a circle, each one stands and tells the story of their disappeared relatives. The air is thick with sadness. Two of them had met at the morgue. Nineth de Garcia is one of the founders of the Mutual Support Group (Grupo Apoyo Mutuo, or GAM) for relatives of the disappeared. Her husband Fernando was abducted three months before. But this group is not being formed simply to hold hands. They are supporting each other to protest the injustice of the disappearances.
They hold a press conference. They make the crimes public and lay blame on the government and military. They seek international support and protection.
In spite of threatening phone calls and the assassination of several of their leaders, GAM members remain public in their denunciation.
See American Watch, Guatemala: The Group for Mutual Support
The occupation and village massacres by the army in El Quiche province have provoked the people to action. They send 130 campesinos to Guatemala City to raise the issue publicly. No one will listen to them. Out of desperation they take over two radio stations. The government warns that they are guerillas and not to be trusted. Again cut off from raising public awareness, they occupy the Spanish Embassy. Their plan is to occupy the embassy peacefully in order to demand the removal of the army from El Quiche. The dictator, Lucas Garcia, tells his henchmen to take them out.
Guatemalan police surround the embassy, throwing grenades. Inside, the twenty-nine peasants and other visitors take refuge in the ambassador’s office. Lucas Garcia says, Set them on fire. The police lock the door and throw fire bombs.
From the streets below, the people see thirty-nine human beings writhing and dying, burning.
Vicente Menchu, the father of Rigoberta, is burned alive. She says, The only thing left over were their ashes… What hurt me very very much was the lives of so many companeras, fine companeras who weren’t ambitious for power in the least. All they wanted was enough to live on, enough to meet their people’s needs. This reinforced my decision to fight.
Thousands risk death and flood the streets of Guatemala City in the funeral procession honoring the people who died in the Spanish Embassy. Within days a new opposition group is organized called the Vicente Menchu Brigade. Rigoberta joins it. Her father had said: Some have to give their blood and some have to give their strength; so while we can, we’ll give our strength.
Jonathan Fried, et al, editors, Guatemala in Rebellion 204-206, and Rigoberta Menchu, I … Rigoberta Menchu, 185