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.
God is not somewhere up in the clouds, lying on a hammock. God is here with us, building a kingdom here on Earth.
Father Rotilio Grande has brought the new theology of liberation to the poor communities of Aguilares, a town of ten thousand. Now a pastor near his birthplace of El Paisnal, he awakens the campesinos to their dignity. They are worth more thatn the $1.75 a day they get from the rich plantation owners. They are worth more than the rocky land they are forced to rent.
Government informers spy on his sermons. On March 12, he takes the parish jeep to drive to his birthplace to say mass. With him are two friends and three children. ON a lonely stretch of the road he notices that he is being followed. The car overtakes them and fires. Father Rotilio is shot twelve times by 9mm. armor-plated dumdum bullets from Mantzer automatic rifles, the kind issues to police. One campesino is killed in the barrage of bullets. The other is found with a bullet in his forehead fired at point-blank range. The three children escape to tell the story.
William J. O’Malley, The Voice of Blood, 43-46
Escalon, 1977: Being Patriots
In the plush neighborhood of Escalon, a flyer circulates throughout the summer: Be a Patrior, Kill a Priest.
In July, the White Warriors Union, a right-wing death squad, sends this note:
All Jesuits without exception must leave the country forever within thirty days… If our order is not obeyed within the indicated time, the immediate and systematic execution of those Jesuits who remain in the country will proceed until we have finished with all of them.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk, El Salvador: The Face of Revolution, 94
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.”