In El Salvador, on November 27, three decades ago, six men were kidnapped from a meeting at the capital’s Jesuit high school, the Externado San José. They were tortured and murdered that same day and their bodies dumped by the roadside outside the city. Five of the six were directors of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, Frente Democrático Revolucionário, (FDR), a broad center-left coalition including organized labor and campesinos, plus many groups and individuals from the intellectual, professional and religious communities. This was the civilian, political opposition to the military-dominated government, and the murders ended any remaining hope for a political settlement of El Salvador’s escalating conflict. “Who am I going to talk to now?” asked US Ambassador Robert White.
Among the victims was the FDR’s president, a remarkable man named Enrique Alvarez Córdova. “Quique” Alvarez was born in 1930 into one of “the 14 families,” the elite who were said (with some hyperbole) to control the destiny of the nation through their economic power. His childhood was comfortable despite the hard times of the great depression, and at age 14, Alvarez came to the United States to attend The Hackley School in Tarrytown, New York. There, he was a popular student and a star athlete who set a scoring record in basketball, played halfback in football and captained Hackley’s tennis team for three years. Then came two years at Rutgers. Back home in the 1950s, Quique was again an outstanding athlete in tennis, polo and basketball, and was also noted for his generosity with teammates and friends. A “divine” dancer, he was frequently seen with beautiful and prominent girls. But he was also learning a lot about coffee and cattle, two of the family’s interests that he helped manage. In short, he seemed a perfect example for his time and his class.
Fifteen years later, Alvarez had national responsibilities, serving as president of associations of cattlemen and coffee growers. In 1967, he joined the government as vice minister of agriculture and cattle raising. Cramped by this job, he soon resigned, only to return in a few months to take the top spot as minister, a job he held for the next five years under two presidents.
Alvarez was never a timeserver in any of these roles. He was deeply troubled by the conditions of the rural poor, the very small farmers and farm workers, the campesinos. Their lives were hard: illiteracy 75 percent, average life span 40 years, 15 percent of children dying before reaching one year. Alvarez thought he could help them. He had intelligence and energy, plus wealth and family influence, and he planned to use those assets to make real changes. Agrarian reform was his passion, and President Sánchez Hernández had promised to implement the reform measures that the agriculture ministry would design. Alvarez would have made a convincing New Dealer, and he wanted to persuade his fellow landowners that reforms and modest concessions to the peasants would provide social insurance against a revolutionary explosion.
In El Salvador, it didn’t work. Most of the great landowners were unwilling to accept any changes; in their eyes, reform equaled communism. But they were the power behind the military-run government, and the Sánchez administration couldn’t carry out serious reform against their opposition. Alvarez accepted reappointment from the next president and tried again, with the same result. It became clear that nothing could be achieved this way, and in 1973, Alvarez resigned from national government.
He decided to put his ideas into practice on a small scale, bringing the agrarian reform to a farm he owned in lowlands near Sonsonate. In a year or two, the carefully nurtured herds of purebred diary and beef cattle at his ranch “El Jobo” were winning prizes and starting to bring in big profits as well. Alvarez believed these profits should benefit the workers. Instead of distributing individual cash bonuses, he encouraged his employees to form an association and think collectively about how to spend the farm’s windfall. Health care for all was their first priority, followed by creating a fund for recreation and sports. Gradually, these campesinos, who throughout their lives had waited for orders from their patrón, began to learn to make decisions and take active roles in running the farm. The goal, still a few years in the future, was for the workers to own El Jobo themselves through a cooperative, buying their shares with affordable loans from the ex-boss. Alvarez was demonstrating a model for rural development that could serve elsewhere as well, if the will to implement it ever arrived.
Enrique Alvarez as Minister of Agriculture, around 1970. (Photo: El Diario de Hoy)
In October 1979, El Salvador had another chance. A military coup organized by younger officers and civilians overthrew the murderous and ineffective regime of General Carlos Humberto Romero. A new military/civilian junta brought some of the nation’s best and brightest into a “revolutionary” government pledged to an impressive program of reforms, a program supposedly backed by the armed forces. Peaceful progress seemed possible, and Alvarez, urged by Archbishop Oscar Romero and by campesino leaders, joined the government once more as minister of agriculture. In December. he spoke to the Salvadoran people by radio and TV to explain plans for real agrarian reform, plans more radical than those the oligarchy had rejected a few years earlier.
Unfortunately for the nation, this final attempt failed. The old guard rapidly regained control of the armed forces, which then ignored orders from the government and disregarded their idealistic October proclamation. At year’s end, all the civilians resigned from the junta and the cabinet. The right-wing military and the oligarchy were back in the saddle, while the Christian Democrats agreed to provide the civilian facade necessary for continued US support.
In 1980, it fast became a year of horrors. In January, a huge peaceful demonstration was met with police gunfire and at least 21 marchers (the official figure) were killed and hundreds more wounded. Late in March, Archbishop Romero was assassinated, shot in the act of celebrating a mass. Out-and-out massacres were also on the rise, and in May, the Salvadoran and Honduran armies collaborated to slaughter some 600 civilians as people tried to cross the Río Sumpul, seeking safety on the Honduran side. During those months, the civilian opposition stepped up its organizing, and in April, a wide spectrum of moderate and left organizations and individuals united to form the FDR. Since January, Alvarez had organized an important group of professionals and technicians dedicated to social change. This group, known as MIPTES, joined the new coalition and Alvarez was elected as the FDR’s president.
That summer, FDR leaders traveled abroad on diplomatic missions seeking understanding and support for their cause. In Washington, Alvarez and others met for two hours with State Department officials. Their plea was simple: let El Salvador work out its own future without foreign interference. There wasn’t much communication. Earlier in the year, Monsignor Romero had urgently requested the US government to send no more arms or supplies to the Salvadoran military, saying they would only be used for increased repression of the people. The Carter administration, despite its “human rights” theme, had rejected the archbishop’s plea. Alvarez and his FDR colleagues had no greater success, and the United States continued to intervene with military aid and some dubious social engineering copied from the Vietnam War years.
Alvarez returned to El Salvador from Mexico early in October. Less than two months later, he was dead, along with the five others from the FDR leadership, their mutilated bodies found near the capital. Alvarez had been shot 12 times and his right arm was nearly severed from his shoulder. The murderers called themselves the “General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez anti-Communist Brigade,” named for El Salvador’s military dictator of the 1930s, but in reality, they were elements of the regime’s security forces. With these murders, 11 long years of bloody civil war were underway.
The official reaction? The Salvadoran government and the military leadership denied any involvement and condemned the murders. Napoleón Duarte, later to be his country’s president with strong US backing, was then the leading civilian member of the ruling junta. Duarte promised a tough investigation. He said that the death of FDR president Alvarez “hit him hard.” Alvarez was “a friend, a noble man with a big heart,” Duarte wrote later, and he meant it; the two had indeed been friends and basketball teammates during the 1950s and ’60s. But Duarte soon learned that the killers came from the armed forces, and despite his promise, no real investigation was carried out. In 1993, the UN-sponsored Truth Commission found “ample evidence” that the crime had been committed by one or more of the government security forces after discussions “at the highest level.” In fact this was well known both in San Salvador and in Washington at the time of the killings.
The private reaction of the Salvadoran military contradicted their public statements. A CIA cable dated December 1 reported, “Most military officers were highly pleased” with the murders. The cable specifically named the minister and vice minister of defense among those who approved. The latter, Col. Nicolás Carranza, was considered to be the day-to-day chief of “security” operations; he had been on the CIA’s payroll since the 1960s. It would seem that a politically sensitive action such as the FDR murders must have had his prior approval, although to date, only his “command responsibility” has been legally proved. That much was established in 2005 when in a Memphis, Tennessee, courtroom Carranza faced a civil suit brought by five civilian victims of the repression. One of those plaintiffs was the widow of Manuel Franco, an FDR director murdered in 1980 together with Alvarez. The Memphis jury found Carranza liable for crimes against humanity, torture and extrajudicial killing, and awarded the plaintiffs $6 million in damages. That judgment has been affirmed after appeals.
In the United States, government reaction to the FDR killings was muted – and remained so even when, five days later, Salvadoran soldiers raped and murdered four US citizens – three nuns and a lay worker who had been serving the poor in rural areas of the country. Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights Patricia Derian and US Ambassador White argued for a strong response to these atrocities, but in the end, almost nothing was done. When the Reagan administration took office less than two months later, these matters were ignored just as the Salvadoran right had expected. By that time, the civil war was openly underway, and the coming of massive US aid for the Salvadoran military and junta was a foregone conclusion. Thanks to that policy, the war continued unnecessarily for a decade and claimed some 70,000 Salvadoran lives.
Sadly, the lessons for US relations with Latin America seem not to have been learned. In June 28, 2009, the Honduran military, long closely allied with the United States, captured and deported the country’s legally elected president. Initially US President Obama denounced the coup and insisted that Manuel Zelaya had to be reinstated in office, but when the coup regime resisted, the US did nothing. Before long, the United States had reversed course completely and recognized the results of a highly dubious election staged by the coup plotters themselves; US/Honduran military cooperation continues. The similarity to the Carter administration’s failure in El Salvador is all too evident, and a different kind of US policy toward the region remains an unkept promise.
The year 1980 was notorious for murder in El Salvador. The 10,000 to 12,000 killed included a beloved archbishop, the rector of the national university and the four US churchwomen. Even so, Alvarez stands out among the victims, since he was born and raised in the privileged class those same armed forces existed to protect. “He was the first rich man who died in El Salvador for the poor … for his country, for his people, for the poor,” said Monsignor Ricardo Urioste of San Salvador’s archdiocese. How could such a man fall victim to El Salvador’s right-wing terrorists? The answer is fundamentally simple. Alvarez had, very consciously, chosen the side of the majority of the people. Salvadoran poet Alfonso Quijada Urías came close to the heart of it. In a poem entitled “The murder of the polo champion,” he wrote “They killed him … above all because he began to walk like a poor man among the poor.”