Memory and Repression in El Salvador

Burning book(Image: Burning book via Shutterstock)With a cropping up of public trials and increased access to historical archives, countries like Guatemala and Brazil are moving forward in rescuing the memories of victims of human rights abuses perpetrated during the military regimes and dictatorships of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. The alternative narratives of history presented in trials and archives are slowly prying the door open for justice across Latin America. In El Salvador, however, it seems like time is moving backward.

In the early morning hours of November 14, three gunmen broke into the offices of Asociacion Pro-Busqueda de Ninos y Ninas Desaparecidos, detained two staff at gunpoint, and torched records and, removed computers. While backup copies exist, the burned materials provided critical evidence in three cases concerning the forced disappearance of children during El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war.

The attack comes only six weeks after the Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador abruptly closed its human rights office, Tutela Legal, which housed approximately 50,000 documents detailing human rights abuses.

Both incidents coincide with the Supreme Court’s decision to deliberate the constitutionality of its 1993 Amnesty Law, which has protected perpetrators of human rights abuses committed during the civil war from prosecution for 20 years now.

If the law were to be overturned, the archives at Tutela Legal would have provided critical evidence for prosecution in any new cases. The archives were used by the UN’s Truth Commission’s 1993 report, From Madness to Hope: The 12-Year War in El Salvador, which found that 85 percent of human rights violations during this period were carried out by US-backed government forces.

For the victims of rape, torture and murder, it appeared a path towards justice was within their grasp. Last year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights declared that the amnesty law could not protect those who carried out the December 1981 massacre at El Mozote, where government soldiers murdered nearly 800 people, an estimated half of them children. On August 27, 2013, Colonel Orlando Montano – one of the men responsible for carrying out the murder of 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter – was sentenced to two years in prison by a federal court in Boston on immigration charges. Montano, who had been living in the United States for the past 12 years, will likely face extradition charges to Spain.

However, El Salvador continues to offer a dominant narrative deeply colored by the country’s elites, one that seeks to uphold their economic and political status. Many speculate that the closure of Tutela Legal came as a result of pressure coming from pro-amnesty law groups, which happen to count as members some of the country’s most powerful families. The raid on Pro-Busqueda happened three days after the Supreme Court heard testimony from survivors of a 1982 raid carried out by government forces. None of the alleged perpetrators showed up for the hearing.

From Madness to Vanishing Youth

“I want to tell El Salvador that the church fulfilled its objective during a difficult and tragic moment, but we have walked forward, hand in hand with democracy,” said former president and ARENA party member Calderón Sol in an interview with La Pagina, “There’s been a power transition, and we have walked toward peace and democracy. The offices of Tutela Legal are shutting down because democracy can finally stand on its own two feet.”

However, it is unclear how democracy can stand on its own two feet if the civil war narratives of the elite silence the memories of the majority, especially if that democracy was built by brutal repression.

Many social justice and human rights organizations are now worried that a systematic campaign is underway to erase the historical record. Human Rights ombudsman David Morales condemned the act as a regressive tactic of intimidation and repression not seen since the civil war. This makes the raid all the more jarringly regressive and anachronistic, possibly laying bare the anxieties of the elite over archives that may force them to confront a “J’accuse” from those who may no longer exist in any physical or spatial sense within the nation’s borders. It is the ultimate Derridean twist: Literally choosing to forget the memory that it shelters, Tutela Legal, shut down its archives.

Yet, the events of November 14 are even more chilling, since Pro-Busqueda is an organization that seeks to promote justice and reconciliation through reunification of disappeared children with their families. Over the past 20 years, Pro-Busqueda has received 921 reports of children who went missing. Most were killed in combat or were orphaned after their parents died. DNA tests carried out by the organization have identified the parents of 382 of the missing, and of those, 235 have been reunited with their families. The majority of remaining cases, 529, remain unsolved.

The incident further underscores the callous lack of recognition of the past impacting the present by special interest groups, particularly in the area of youth development.

More than 75,000 people died during the civil war, and an estimated 8,000 more went missing. No exact figures exist for the number of children who disappeared. What is known is that over a million Salvadorans were driven out of the country during the civil war, many of them young males fleeing forcible recruitment from guerilla forces or murder by death squad. Their arrival in urban areas like South Central Los Angeles, and their need to find social belonging there prompted the unfolding of the country’s current gang crisis.

Combined with those who have disappeared and those who found themselves at the intersection of forced migration and subsequent gang membership, it can be said that El Salvador has experienced the loss of a generation of young people. It is perhaps less of a coincidence that in neighborhoods and cities where fighting was the worst – Mejicanos, Soyapango, San Miguel – gang violence has also been the worst. In some ways, the ghosts of those who have disappeared reverberate in the country’s disenfranchised spaces, and gang members are, in this sense, monsters of our own making.

But not all Salvadoran youth are defined through the lens of migration and gangs. According to the CIA Factbook, approximately 1.27 million youth between the ages of 15 and 24 live in El Salvador. Conservative estimates put gang membership between 15,000 to 20,000. If all those involved in gangs were to fall between the ages of 15 and 24, they would still only account for between 1.2 and 1.6 percent of all youth. Looking at El Salvador’s net rate of migration (-8.78 migrants/1,000 population) for youth between the ages of 15-24, a total of 11,150 young Salvadoreans would have left the country in 2012.

If the math is right, nearly 1.24 million youth are neither involved in gangs nor went into forced migration. This means that 1.24 million youth aged 15 to 24 have the opportunity to achieve extraordinary things, to the benefit of the country.

For youth growing up in a country that allows high levels of impunity, the future looks porous. In annihilating the memory of missing children, there is a risk of losing the necessary spaces and testimonies to reflect on current issues – El Salvador’s gang problems unfolded because youth who fled the war and then returned were essentially forgotten.

As Salvadoran youth grow up in an historical echo chamber, it seems as though there is increased effort to squelch memories of the civil war not in line with the status quo. A true democracy harbors multiple narratives – however inconvenient some of them may be. Despite Sol’s claims that El Salvador is walking hand in hand with democracy, the reality is that there is still a long way to go.

The Anaconda that Whips its Teeth with its Own Tail

“Latin America is a beautiful anaconda that whips its teeth with its own tail. It doesn’t know anything about politics, but I’ve overhead people say that she has a heart,” wrote Roque Dalton in his poem “El Ser Social Determina La Conciencia Social.”

Since Dalton wrote these lines in the late ’60s, things have changed across Latin America. Memorial spaces honoring the narratives of the left and the right exist in Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Guatemala. These spaces and testimonies are providing ample material for political reflexivity to ensure that these atrocities never occur again.

With elections scheduled to take place next February 2, El Salvador will find out whether the country will continue to stand by the incumbent FMLN’s social democratic orientation or revert back to the right-wing ARENA party’s neoliberal policies. El Salvador will also find out whether the country will provide the necessary room for victims’ voices to tell their stories and pursue a modicum of justice, or for the country to at least deepen its reflexivity. While an FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) administration would likely not pursue prosecution for war criminals, it would allow for spaces of memory and archives to continue to exist and proliferate, as well as seek ways to provide compensation to victims and allow courts to decide legal issues pertaining to human rights cases. As the amnesty law was passed during the presidency of ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista) party member Alfredo Cristiani, who held power from 1989 to 1994, an ARENA administration would preserve impunity.

For now, what will be remembered is a question that is as up in the air as who will win the elections. In a recent poll conducted by the Universidad Francisco Gavidia (UFG) Centro de Estudios Ciudadanos, the incumbent FMLN party came in the lead. With 35.9 percent voter approval only, the party still does not have the necessary 50 percent of the vote plus one valid vote to win the first round of elections, prompting experts to think there will be a runoff.

In the meantime, prospects for cancelling the Amnesty Law are slim. In the same interview with La Pagina mentioned earlier, the former president stated, “The law concluded a fratricidal war; it brought about forgiveness and forgetting” with reference to the Amnesty Law.

On the whole, forgiveness and forgetting are being aggressively lobbied for and even covertly orchestrated by individuals and families who have a vested interest in moving on and enough capital to do so – who can forget last year’s spate of articles linking Mitt Romney’s private equity firm, Bain Capital, to wealthy Salvadoran families with ties to Death Squads? Ideally, there should be room for two narratives and space for justice to be sought by those who need it to move forward.

Yet, upon a closer look, none of the presidential candidates’ hands are clean. FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren was responsible for commanding thousands of assassinations between 1986 and 1990. ARENA candidate Norman Quijano has never been directly implicated in any human rights violations, however, his party was responsible for the most egregious human rights violations carried out during the civil war – among them the El Mozote and El Sumpul massacres and the assassination of Archbishop Romero. Then there’s the fact that ARENA founder and death squad architect Roberto D’Aubisson had a penchant for torturing his victims with a blowtorch, a penchant that earned him the nickname “Blowtorch Bob.” As a third-party candidate, ex-President Tony Saca of the GANA party represents more of the same thing. Formed in January 2010, the party is mostly comprised of former ARENA party members and has since gone to form a coalition with two additional smaller parties. However, one of his most public supporters, Joaquin Villalobos, has long been considered one of the men responsible for the murder of poet and section header Roque Dalton.

With so many interested in shaping the narratives of the past to preserve their freedom, the slate will never truly be wiped clean. But for the sake of those 1.24 million youth who are growing up in a post-civil war era and trying to stake their claim in Salvadoran civil society, a plurality of narratives and perspectives is necessary to ensure they can move forward in shaping a political future that will finally yield positive outcomes. It will be up to them to wipe the slate clean. Too many are trying so hard to forgive and forget that they keep repeating their deadliest mistakes.

Meanwhile, oblivion will continue to function as an imposition conducted by a vested few to prolong a staggeringly reckless lack of consciousness about the civil war’s ripple effects on youth today. As human rights organizations face the likelihood of more threats, reports indicate that a new incarnation of “the disappeared” is emerging: gang members opposed to the eroding truce and competitors for drug trafficking routes who are murdered and vanished without a trace. While no accurate figures exist, a rising number of disappearances would cancel out celebratory reports of decreased homicide rates (which at any rate have seen a steady surge in the past months).

Given that it is politically convenient not to forget the criminal acts of the historically disenfranchised, gang members will continue to be met with little forgiveness. Time will tell whether their victims will be remembered beyond political posturing to shape potential voter consciousness.