Sunday, July 06, 2014

El Salvador and Murrieta


El Salvador and Murrieta

Sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, I read with sadness and anger the news
coming out of Murrieta, California. I watch the raw video—the
contorted grimaces of hate, the chants of “USA, USA,” the misspelt
racism aimed at a busload of undocumented immigrants from Central
America, mainly women and children. My thoughts drift back 26 years
ago, when I first arrived in El Salvador. I was taking up a position
as the Salvador Bureau Chief of United Press International, at the
tail end of a vicious civil war.

Walking through the arrival area of the airport, the first thing I saw
were posters everywhere of children in crutches, children that had
lost limbs to landmines supplied by the United States to the
Salvadoran government. Welcome to El Salvador. I was a naive young
journalist stepping into hell.

The scorching heat that hit me like a closed fist when I walked
outside made everything stand out in high definition, a prelude to how
vivid the images of this war would remain tattooed to the back of my
skull. El Salvador was a strange place during that time – with a
stench of pure evil covering everything like the fine mist of dust
that was ever present. A cold paranoid fear serenaded by the slicing
sound of helicopter blades.

El Salvador is now the United States forgotten war. The Americans came
to this small Central American nation to correct the mistakes of
Vietnam and hold the “rojos” at bay. They helped the Salvadoran
military wage a bloody low intensity war against the guerrillas of the
Farabundo Marti National Liberation Army (FMLN). The real victims in
this were and still are the Salvadoran people. More than 40,000
Salvadorans would die or disappear in this nasty Cold War fiasco.

A Vietnam War veteran I encountered deep in the countryside one day,
out of the blue, a Coppola vision in the midst of horror, put it best.
Dressed all in black, classic Ray Bans shading his eyes, unshaven,
cigarette dangling from his mouth. He was sitting in the middle of a
dirt road, a case of beer by his side. Walkie takie in hand, he was
directing the chopper traffic that was ferrying wounded Salvadoran
soldiers, caught in the combat of the day. When I asked what he
thought of the war, he smiled and in a voice best suited to Lieutenant
Colonel Bill Kilgore, said: “Ah, best little war in town.”

The legacy of that “little war” is sitting on buses in Murrieta. The
violent street gangs that now plague Central America, especially El
Salvador, were conceived during this dark period. Modern day death
squads that now visit terror on their own people, trained in the
streets of Los Angeles.

There is one instance that, for me, is a snapshot of what happened
there, the farce that mirrored the true horror of this cruel war
funded by Washington. An exhumation.

Gathered in the back of a church, in a dusty, hot town in El Salvador,
where the Devil screamed three times and no one heard him. We, the
small group that was the international press, had been called to cover
yet another God awful story.

A representative from the Salvadoran human rights group Tutela Legal,
founded by the Archdiocese of El Salvador, had arrived at my apartment
at 8 a.m. and knocked loudly on the door. Bleary-eyed and hung over
after a night of dominos, tequila and various chemicals, I opened it
and stood there as she told me that all the foreign press was invited
to an exhumation. Most of the foreign media had been at my house all
night – we were not many – and we were really in no condition to
witness anything.

We piled into taxis and began the long journey to the town, which was
on the outskirts of the capital. The story was this—10 people had been
executed in an attack. The FMLN claimed that the military had done it
‚that they had rounded them all up, tied them together, and opened
fire and lobbed hand grenades at them— until they all died. The
military claimed that the rebels had done it—in much the same way. The
dead had been interred for more than one week. Tutela Legal had
secured permission to exhume the bodies to try and ascertain what had
really happened.

This is where the Fellini part starts. The exhumation was being done
by two of the town drunks – bottles in hand as they dug the bodies
out. The smell was overpowering. It was a sickly, sweet smell that
attacked the nostrils and permeated your clothes. The drunks tried to
place the bodies in an old wheelbarrow – but because they were so
inebriated they kept on tipping the barrow and the bodies would flop
out. It was worse than the Keystone Cops. They kept on slipping on the
wet ground and falling all over the cadavers. The latter were wrapped
up in bed covers of bright colors. As they fell to the ground, the
covers would open and reveal grotesque death masks – many missing
limbs and part of their faces.

As the bodies were placed one next to another —in a single file— the
“forensic experts” where called in. These “experts” came dressed in
semi-medical green garb, armed with scissors and kitchen knives in
order to butcher the delicate operation that would determine how these
poor people died. As they began their work, I could hear a veteran
journalist vomiting in the back of the church.

This process took hours under the sweltering Salvadoran sun. The
townspeople that were there refused to say what had happened. If they
blamed the military, the soldiers would extract revenge. If they
blamed the rebels, they could expect the same kind of treatment. They
were trapped between the two—the real victims of the conflict.

Among them was a woman who is stamped in my memory. To this day she
represents in my eyes the strength and dignity of the Salvadoran
people. She looked quite old, with a lined, tight face. A thin
kerchief covering her hair. She sat at in the same spot for hours –
smoking a thin cigar, never taking her eyes off the grave site. Not
batting an eyelid, no expression on her face. I went to her and asked
why she had not moved since the exhumation began. Slowly, she turned
her head and with the saddest expression I have ever seen, said to me,
“My husband and my two sons are in there. I am not leaving until they
are out and I can bury them as God would want me to.”

This is the legacy sitting on those buses in Murrieta. We who
witnessed this terrible war need to go back and tell the world what
happened. Let the bones finally have their say. The reasons why we
need to let those on those buses in.

Susanne Ramirez de Arellano is the former News Director for Univision
Puerto Rico and a writer and journalist living in New York City. She
has a blog in El Nuevo Día called Susanne en la Ciudad. Comments can
be sent to You can follow Susanne on
Twitter @DurgaOne.
Posted on Latino

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