Category Archives: El Salvador

Nearing the End

Several of the few thousands signs seen in San Salvador on the National Day for Missing Children.

I landed in San Salvador 8 weeks ago today, and while I hate to speak in clichés and say that this has been an “unforgettable journey”, I don’t know what else to say.  It is common knowlege that the human species as a whole is very adaptable, and I personally consider adaptability to be something I’m good at.  I haven’t been all over the world, but I have traveled a fair amount (both domestically and in other countries) and I feel like I can be relatively comfortable and “at home” in many situations.  But I have to admit I’m surprised at how comfortable I have come in this hot, hectic, smoggy city where I stick out about as much as anyone could.  I am looking forward to going back to my life in Eugene, my house, girlfriend, pets, etc., but I will miss El Salvador and I definitely plan to return.

As I write this I have 7 more days of work with Pro Búsqueda and approximately 9 more days in San Salvador.  The work so far with this NGO has been a balance between the mundane and the surreal-both very important but very different for me.  I spent the first week working with the Executive Director on fundraising and political outreach (focusing on US organizations and the US embassy) and in my downtime did translation of grant proposals and the Association’s website (i.e. the mundane).  Then the first weekend I was invited to come to one of the psycho-social workshops that they hold for victims and their families (the surreal).  I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect but was quick to say yes, and while I have done many things I could write about I will focus on this workshop:

I originally decided to intern here to learn more about the legal reparations that Pro Búsqueda seeks on behalf of the victims of forced disappearance and to investigate the problems they encounter related to the corruption and impunity in the Salvadoran government, especially the judicial system.  But after a week of reading and translating documents I was repeatedly reminded of the broad nature of the work they do and how multi-disciplinary human rights work is.  From an academic standpoint, I admit I was not particularly interested in fundraising or psychosocial workshops, but what I previously knew only on an intellectual level soon became very real to me: these victims need far more than a lawyer.

What I definitely didn’t expect was that this was the women’s workshop (focusing on issues such as domestic violence, gender-based education and stereotyping, sexual and emotional abuse, etc.) and that I was the only male in the room (there was a mens workshop the previous week).  I sat for 6 hours with three victims of forced disappearance and about 10 other family members of missing children that had either already been found or were still being searched for. The ages ranged from a 10 year old whose several aunts were kidnapped (and the pain was taking a continual toll on her family) to a 60+ year old Assemblywoman in the national legislature whose child was taken almost 30 years ago.  The three women who were themselves victims, who had been “found” by Pro Búsqueda, were in their 30s and, while their stories were somewhat different, they had all been taken at gunpoint by uniformed soldiers from their parents when they were young.  It was led by a Psychologist who works with Pro Búsqueda and several PB employees and we went through different checklists and discussions about gender stereotypes and how gender-related problems affected each of them in their efforts to live a “normal” life and deal with the physical or emotional wounds they have.  At first almost all of them (me included) seemed a little unclear about how I fit into the group, but as we got going the room became comfortable and everyone seemed willing to share.

Being a white, middle class, 28 year old male who lives in Eugene, OR, it at first felt odd to answer questions like “how often are sexually explicit or derrogatory jokes made at you and how do you feel they impact your self esteem?”  Not to mention that these are sensitive issues and I want to choose my words very carefully, which is much harder for me in Spanish.  But things quickly became more comfortable and I found it to be extremely valuable.  The problems inherent in these types of cases are astronomical and multi-faceted: many of these women have been looking for their children for over 25 years and have run into road blocks and in many cases actual verbal abuse from all levels of their own government: everything from thick layers of red tape to literally being told they should stop making up fantasies and get back in the house where they belong.  Along with that, the “found” children suffer not only from the lack of reparations or even legal recognition of the abuse they suffered from their own government, but also from serious psychological and identity-related issues, being torn by who they now know they were and who they have been brought up to be.  I could write much more about this experience, and hope to some day, but in reality it was just one day in an seemingly unending string of surprises that has made up this trip.  I am as of yet unsure whether my summer here is more beneficial for my legal education or my international studies degree, but I do know one thing: However I use these experiences in the future, I am certain that I made the right choice by coming here.

Sunset at the main Cathedral in León, Nicaragua.

Final notes:
Last week, I took a two day trip up into the mountains of Chalatenango (north of El Salvador), which is a region where many of the dissappearances took place and where the Director of Pro Búsqueda is from (I stayed with her 80 year old mother and two sisters).  The office was closed last Friday and this Monday for the Agostinas vacations, and I took the chance to visit Nicaragua for the weekend: two nights in León and one in Managua.  I enjoyed Nicaragua but was surprised how happy and safe I felt coming “home” to San Salvador.  My father lands here next week, and I will be ending this trip by traveling with him to Guatemala and flying home in early September.  Because I´m doing the joint J.D./M.A. program, I will spend the 2011-2012 school year working on a Master’s degree with the International Studies department at UO, with a focus on human rights, corruption, and impunity.  So that means my classes don´t start until the end of September!


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Back to Work After a Break in Honduras

Author Will Johnson looking over the Caribbean sea in Tela, Honduras.

After visiting the famous Copán Mayan ruins in south-western Honduras, I was lucky enough to celebrate my birthday last week staring out at the Caribbean sea in Tela, Honduras.  Tela is not as small as I thought from what I had read about it, but it is definitely less touristy than other parts of the northern coast, and the beaches were beautiful.  After a long day of traveling we dropped our bags in the first cheap beach hotel we could find and spent several hours floating in the calm, clear waters of the Caribbean (a welcome change from the relatively dirty and very rough waters of the Pacific in el Salvador).  We later splurged for a nice hotel the night before my birthday (built like a lookout tower that provided amazing views of the whole town and beach, with our room and balcony sitting about 5 floors above the next highest building in town). Despite the incredible heat near the coast we had an amazing time.

We returned to San Salvador over the weekend, and, after sending Laura to the airport Monday morning, I began my work with Pro Búsqueda, a Salvadoran NGO that has been working since 1993 to locate children who were forcibly “dissappeared” during the war (see for more info, but FYI the site is almost completely in Spanish).  The work they do is as interesting as it is complex and varies from what I would consider traditional private investigative work to political and social activism, judicial reform, lobbying, education, and even psychological services for victims and their families.  The organization has proven the existence of nearly 900 “disappeared” children and reunited close to 400 of them with living family members, sometimes with the parents who stood at gunpoint and watched as the military walk away with their crying child.

The logo of Pro Búsqueda, the NGO Johnson will work with for four weeks.

Through this investigative work, they have also uncovered the systematic nature of forced dissappearances in El Salvador during the war and have presented the Inter-American Human Rights Commission and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights with evidence of a complex but organized business that benefited and involved local lawyers, public and military officials, and even state institutions.  While the cases vary (they assume there are several thousand cases), the children were often taken from parents or family members during military operations in the mountainous regions (especially the northern Chalatenango and eastern Morazán regions) and then sold as “orphans” to unsuspecting families in the US and Europe.  Some were even raised by military officers themselves, all the while being told that their families had been killed during the war.

To this day Pro Búsqueda struggles to have the Salvadoran government make major legal changes, find anyone legally culpable for these crimes, or even support their work in any way, even though the IACHR recently held the state responsible for the disappearance of several children during the war (see the case of the Hermanas Serrano-Cruz, available on the IACHR website).  But I met a few weeks ago with the head of the human rights department at the Salvadoran State Department, and he gave me hope that at some point in the near future the current government will formally recognize the state’s involvement in these horrible HR abuses.

I realize that I am not qualified or fluent enough in Spanish to do some of the most interesting and complicated work they do, but I am happy to have the experience of working with them and confronting the problems inherent in human rights law and post-conflict Central American politics.  I am also helping them with some often mundane, but very important work such as grant writing, translation of documents and their website, and initiating contacts with US-based human rights organizations and even the US embassy.  To be honest, it is hard to sit in an office after a month and a half of moving around so much, but I am extremely greatful for their willingness to give me an inside, honest view of human rights work in Latin America.  I only hope I can help them in some way and return the favor that I feel like they are giving me.

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Month One Ends at Vice President’s Office

Will Johnson (right) meets with Vice President Sanchez Ceren (left) along with Professor Mauricio and Lidia Chica, a retired Salvadoran teacher and education activist.

Last Friday marked my 30th day in El Salvador and is also the official end of my academic work with Professor Mauricio of the Stop Impunity Project.  Also on Friday, I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Vice President’s office for a cup of coffee and a brief meeting about the successes and continuing problems inherent in the Salvadoran education system (he is also the Minister of Education).  While education is not necessarily the focus of any of my work or my academic interests, I was happy to sit and mostly listen as two other US grad students (working on MA’s in international education) asked most of the questions.  He also addressed my questions regarding US support and cooperation with his current education programs and how his government is addressing the recent security problems in schools (there were almost 100 murders of students in 2010 and the violence is continuining this year).

Vice President Sánchez Ceren has an intersting past that includes leading an armed resistance movement before the civil war officially started and later being a signatory to the 1992 Peace Accords on behalf of the FMLN.  I have read and heard a fair amount about the man and was very interested to meet him, but to be honest I do not have a lot of patience with politicians (here or in the US).  I understand why they often act the way they act, but they have a unique ability to talk a lot without saying anything.  Sanchez Céren is part of the first leftist government ever to exist in El Salvador and is thus in a very tenuous position in terms of trying to push for the FMLN’s long standing social and economic goals while realizing that the economic and political power still sits mostly with those from the right.  Thus, I understand the position he is in and did not expect to get any extremely difficult questions answered, but I must admit that I have trouble listening to broad based talking points (that often sound great but don’t really answer the questions I have) whether I am watching NBC news or sitting across the table from a very powerful and interesting person in San Salvador.  But I do not mean to complain – I am amazed that he was willing to talk with us and was impressed with his overall warmth and interest in us and what we were doing.

I also spent each afternoon last week meeting with a local Human Rights lawyer and being walked through five of the most important and emblematic HR cases that have happened in El Salvador (or at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, focusing on a Salvadoran issue).  The lawyer was young, energetic, and fascinating, but I must admit I learned more about corruption, red tape, and foot dragging within HR regimes than I did about how to actually win cases.  But since corruption and impunity are two of my major interests and are what brought me to El Salvador in the first place, the information she was able to share with me and her approach to teaching were both well received and much appreciated.

Will Johnson with his girlfriend Laura, who flew in to visit on Wednesday, at the Laguna de Alegría.

On Wednesday my girlfriend Laura and her younger brother landed in San Salvador, and starting Friday night we began our travels together (I have about a 10 day break before my internship begins, and we are hitting the road).  We first went to the small town of Alegría and visited the nearby lagoon, which sits in the crator of volcano.  Tonight (Sunday, 7.17) we are in the northern mountain town of La Palma and will cross the border tomorrow into Honduras.  Hopefully we will make it to the Caribbean coast by mid week so I can have a relaxing birthday on the beach (Friday).

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Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office

The banner outside of the Ombudsman office, which includes Professor Mauricio's Stop Impunity Project.

Last week, I participated in a seminar on the human rights (HR) situation in El Salvador that took place at the Escuela Para la Defensa de Los Derechos Humanos, a school within the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (the highest HR authority within the Salvadoran government).  The seminar was roughly 8 to noon every day, and each day focused on a specific HR situation (e.g. Rights of women/girls, rights of indigenous peoples, security/violence as a threat to HRs, education rights, and the environment).  Several days we heard from Ombudsman within the various thematic departments, but we also heard lectures from attorneys who fight for Human Rights on behalf of NGOs and a Professor who works with Salvadoran indigenous populations.  The class was composed of myself, several other students from the US, about a dozen students from the University of El Salvador, several local activists and a few lawyers.  It was a great experience both in terms of knowledge and perspective gained and in terms of making connections within the HR world here and in Central America in general.

However, I was a bit dissapointed when the week ended, and I came to the conclusion that here in El Salvador, as with many other HR regimes around the world, there continues to be a huge (and possibly increasing) gap between acknowledging the HR situation and making formal recomendations, and actual implementation of necessary changes.  When the Ombudsman, Dr. Menéndez Leal, personally asked me for a comment on how the seminar went and how it could be improved in the future, I told him that what I felt was missing was a more in-depth discussion of how the Ombudsman´s office (and the Salvadoran state in general) was actually able to fight against HR abuses. I hesitate to say this, but I must admit that I am still slightly unsure of how victims of major abuses can use the Ombudsman´s office (or the Salvadoran legal system at all) to find any form of real reparations or even public vindication of the abuse(s) they suffered.

I was hoping we could walk through at least a case or two and see what steps the office took, where they ran into resistance, and where they were successful.  Without that I am unable to conceptualize what is working and what isn´t working, and how (if at all) I or anyone else can help make the system better.  Dr. Menéndez Leal quickly admitted to the foot-dragging within the government (even the current leftist FMLN governrment) and reminded me that out of all the victims that come to their office to report HR abuses, the vast majority (in fact almost all) bring current reports against state agencies (e.g. the National Civil Police or the Attorney General´s office).  But later that night, over beers and more papusas, he reminded me that not that long ago (20 years) even the idea of a HR Ombudsman in El Salvador seemed impossible, and he explained that for all the legal authority they technically have the situation is, as it always seems to be, completely political.  After nearly every conversation with officials here, I have heard the same response: those with power, from both the conservative and “liberal” factions, are either explicitly or implicitly opposed to working together towards major political and legal reforms.  Each time I hear this I am reminded of the ridiculous particianship within the US Congress right now, and I realize how similar we are to many other seeminly different peoples around the world.

Will Johnson at the Izalco Volcano.

Other experiences:
On Saturday, I drove west from San Salvador to the famous “Ruta de las Flores”, visited the Izalco volcano, the Tazumal Mayan Pyramid, and went to Professor Mauricio´s hometown of Ahuachapan.  On Sunday I went to visit a University student who lives in Puerta la Libertad, and she took me and a few friends to a beach (Palmarcito) where she recently competed in a surf competition.  It was small and not touristy, the kind of beach I could have never found on my own, and I enjoyed a lot.  That is until we missed a bus back to San Salvador and ended up catching one of the last busses on a Sunday night, which was very crowded.  For anyone who hasn´t been in Central America, imagine your old elementary school bus (quite literally), painted with crazy colors and Jesus pictures, with a mix of rap and reggaeton music blasting, every possible seat taken and (according to my count) 32 people standing in the aisle, smashed together and going 60 MPH through windy highways for about an hour.  But, even though it was uncomfortable, part of me enjoys those experiences because they are the ones I’ll never forget.

The last week with Professor Mauricio:
This coming Friday ends my time with Professor Mauricio.  This morning we met with a famous Salvadoran author (Manlio Argueta) who is also the director of the national library, and each afternoon this week we will meeting with a local attorney to discuss her experiences trying to fight for human rights.  She works for several NGOs, and is especially involved with the Madelein Lagadec Center for the Promotion of Human Rights in their work discovering and exhuming mass graves not included in the 1993 UN Truth Commission.  I have met her before, but only socially, and I am looking forward to possibly learning more about what it really means to fight for HRs in this country from within the legal system.  We also have a scheduled meeting the the Vice President of El Salvador on Friday morning, Salvador Sánchez Ceren.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed though, because I realize how low we are on his list of priorities and know that it could be cancelled at any time.

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Massacre at El Mozote

The memorial of the massacre at El Mozote, with the names of the individuals whose bodies were able to be identified.

This weekend I took a trip to El Mozote, a small town in north-eastern El Salvador in the department of Morazán.  Morazán was the home to Radio Venceremos (the guerilla radio station) and a large portion of the armed resistance during the war, and El Mozote is the site of the largest single documented massacre in El Salvador’s history.  In December of 1981, the Salvadoran military came into the mountains of Morazán and told the surrounding villagers that anyone who didn’t come to El Mozote would be considered part of the communist movement and be killed, but if they came to El Mozote they would be safe.  According to military documents discovered after the war, and according to the UN Truth Commission (1993), somewhere around 1000 campesions were divided into groups (men, women, and children) and killed in a roughly 1-2 day period.  This was part of “scorched earth” warfare, where they intended to kill not just people connected to leftist groups but “anyone who may one day decide to vote for the left” (quote from our guide, discussed below) without leaving any witnesses.  Some of the details in the next paragraph may be upsetting.

One woman, Rufina Amaya, snuck out of the women’s line during a hectic period and escaped to tell the story.  Women in their teens and 20s were lined up and lead to a house where most of them were raped and all were killed. Rufina was able to sneak out of line about 20 yards from the house (which we also visited, but is no longer standing).  When the UN Investigators came more than 10 years later, she was able to show them exactly where the mass graves were and which were filled with woman, men, or children, a detail that was instrumental in the El Mozote case when it finally entered the Inter American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) years later (although no one has been prosecuted for what happened there).  Rufina continued to live in and around El Mozote up until her death a few years ago, leading weekly and often daily trips through the town to tell her story and show interested people the path that she took to escape her certain death.  The Salvadoran and US governments denied the massacre for many years, but after multiple exhumations and years of forensic anthropology by international teams, Rufina’s story was proven and there is no longer any question to the validity of what happened in this small, beautiful town.  Without going into too many details, it was very emotionally intense, especially visiting the rose garden that sits on top of the children’s mass grave.  All the children, and some of their mothers, were put in the cathedral and killed together.  The cathedral was destroyed and lit on fire by the military when they left, but a new one stands in its place with murals, the rose garden, and a small monument on top of the grave.

This memorial marks the spot where the bodies of 146 people were found, 140 of them were children under 12 years old. After being identified they were all reburied there, and it is now a rose garden.

Before Rufina Amaya’s death, a small group of woman from the area formed a group dedicated to keeping her story alive and leading future visitors in the same way that Rufina did for many years.  We were led by a woman who grew up in El Mozote but happened to be living away from it for six months when the massacre happened.  Her sister and her were two of the first people to arrive on the scene after the massacre, and they lost their entire family (several siblings, both parents, grandparents, etc.).  She walked us from the main monument (pictured above) through the reconstructed cathedral, rose garden, the plaza where the people were originally gathered, through the town to the house where the women were killed, and down the path that Rufina Maya used to escape.

It is hard to say what it felt like to visit this place, and despite the heaviness I am very glad I had the experience.  As an international studies student (or even just as someone who reads the newspaper) I know that things like this have happened all over the world and presumably are still happening in some places.  But I have never visited a mass grave, and it has only existed to me on paper or in a movie; it existed as a reality but as a distant reality, one that I understood intellectually but not emotionally.  The wounds of El Mozote and the war in general run so deep here and have far reaching social, cultural, political, and legal implications for Salvadorans and the region in general.  I came here thinking about politics and human rights law, but I have spent more time learning about a tragic history that many want to move past but even more can’t forget even if they wanted to.  Add to all that the US involvement (training, funding, and more) in the war and it continues to be an intense experience.

Being led down the path where Rufina Amaya escaped the El Mozote Massacre.

Other News:
Last week I had a meeting at the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores (basically the Salvadoran state department) where we discussed immigration and international human rights concerns with one of the highest ranking diplomats, and today (7/4) I started taking a daily seminar on Human Rights at the Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos (the PDDH is the government´s highest human rights authority, and it also has a small HR school inside of it.  see  The seminar is 4 hours a day each day this week, and next week I am going to be involved in a smaller seminar taught by a local HR lawyer who represents various NGOs and has worked at the IACHR.

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A Trip to the Beach and Meeting a Supreme Court Justice

Early this Tuesday morning (6/28) I was informed that we were given permission to have a meeting with one of the Magistrados of the Sala Constitucional of the Salvadoran Supreme Court.  While I didnt have any proper dress clothes to wear, I quickly threw on my Oregon Law t-shirt because it was clean and I felt that it was better than anything else I had (I’m living out of a backpack).  After being escorted up to the fourth floor of the Supreme Court building and waiting for his radio interview to finish, we met with Supreme Court Justice Sidney Blanco Reyes, one of the five members of the Constitutional Court.
There are some very interesting things going on with the Salvadoran courts right now, including a legislative demand on Monday by the ARENA party to remove all 5 judges from the Constitutional Court(ARENA is the conservative political party that led the country since the 1992 peace accords, but lost to the leftist FMLN in 2009 and has since fractured).  This demand, which was called “nefarious” by an ex-vice president today, arose out of a recent movement to declare the Amnesety Law unconstitutional (this law gave military and political officials from both sides complete Amnesty after the war) and a recent proposal to reform the judicial review process, a proposal that would essentially take that power away from the Constitutional Court.

After only one year of law school some of this would be hard for me to understand in English, and in Spanish it is obviously much more confusing, but I am doing my best to figure out what is going on while simultaneously trying to figure out the judicial processes here.

To put it simply, for the first time ever, a majority of  Constitutional Judges (4 of 5) are willing to side with the FMLN on several very important issues and the ARENA party (and the conservative population in general) is afraid. Or so I have been told.

Judge Blanco got called away after about 30 minutes to meet with the rest of the constitutional court, but he promised to meet with us again in the next week or two if we had time.  In fact, he apologized for cutting the meeting short and asked if we would be interested and willing to discuss these issues further with him at a later date.  I hope that happens, but if it doesn’t I am more than happy with the experience we had.  He was very comfortable and open, answered questions and asked us questions, and truly seemed interested in why we were here and what we thought about his country.
Other meetings in the last 5 days:
I had coffee with Nidia Diaz (author of “Nunca Estuve Sola”), who was a female guerilla commander during the war, was shot and imprisoned in 1985, fled the country, and is now a leading member of the ruling FMLN party and a Diputado of the Central American Parliament.

A beach in the small town of Majahual.

On Monday, we had a 2 hour meeting with Dr. Eduardo Galindo, who is the Chancellor of a private and conservative university here in El Salvador and was also a mediator for and signatory of the 92 UN-sponsored Peace Accords.

I have been participating in a daily afternoon seminar on Salvadoran History taught by the Dean of the College of Sciences and Humanities at the University of El Salvador.  On Saturday, I went with Professor Mauricio and several other torture survivors to a reunion of political prisoners in the jail they were held during the war, which is now a museum outside of San Salvador in the Santa Tecla neighborhood.  This was emotional and very interesting, to say the least, and there was also a photography exhibit in the museum about immigration.

Last Friday, we visited the Madalain Lagadec Center for the Promotion of Human Rights and discussed their current work regarding the discovery and exhumation of mass graves that were not a part of the 1993 UN Truth Commission report.  If they are able to jump through the correct legal hoops to get permission for this, they have invited several of us to witness an exhumation in a rural village in about two weeks.  While it is not something I would say I’m excited about; if they receive permission from the courts I hope to be there.

Will Johnson on the beach in the port town of La Libertad.

We also had a chance to go out to the beach at La Libertad (the sun was very bright, as you can see from the picture) and spend Sunday in a small costal village eating clam ceviche and wild chicken soup.  The ocean was pretty rough, but it was fun to relax for a day.

Final Note:
While it is probably clear that I have spent most of my time with left-leaning political and social activists, many of were involved in the war, I have had a chance to meet with several conservative politicians and academics, and I hope to keep meeting people from all ideological positions.  I do not consider myself as far to the left as the majority of people with whom I am having discussions, and it makes me sad to see the constant battle between “liberal” and “conservative” political parties damage this country in a similar way that what I believe this fear based, “us-them” mentality is damaging our own political process in the US.  Not that I have any answers for them or us, but I know that this dynamic, which is being stoked by the media pundits and certain politicians, will not get El Salvador (or the US) anywhere anytime soon.

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At the University of El Salvador

Will Johnson (second from left) with the Chancellor of the University of El Salvador, Ingeniero Rufino Antonio Quezada (third from right).

On Tuesday, June 21st, Professor Mauricio, along with myself, 5 other Americans, and a local attorney met with the Chancellor of the University of El Salvador, Ingeniero Rufino Antonio Quezada.  We sat in the spacious conference room outside his office for almost 2 hours and discussed the history of the University, its role in social and political activism in the country, and the past and ongoing problems it has with the government.

About halfway through the conversation, Chancellor Rufino recognized that I was wearing an Oregon Law t-shirt and stopped mid-sentence to ask if I was from Oregon.  When I said I lived in Eugene he laughed and said he loved the river there and wondered if the residence halls at U of O were still standing, or if we had built new ones.  It was an odd break in what was otherwise a very serious conversation, and when I spoke to him later he told me that he lived in a residence hall at U of O in 1986 for several months and loved the city (note: it was summer when he was there, so among other things the weather won him over).  It turns out that he fled to the US after his second arrest and ended up spending time in Eugene.
In 1986, when he was arrested on campus and detained in the same building where the torture of Professor Mauricio took place, he was already relatively high up at the University and the National Police felt pressure from academics and politicians abroad to let him out.  Apparently, a small group of lawyers from the US, who were in  in El Salvador and had support from people like Jesse Jackson, helped get him out of jail and then out of the country.  He was told by the police that he had to leave and if he ever came back they would kill him.

After first spending a small amount of time in Washington, D.C., he ended up being moved to the west coast and eventually Oregon, where he lived on the U of O campus for several months.  And when he returned to El Salvador and was arrested again in 1987, someone from the University (he thinks it was a Dean of some sort, but isn’t sure) paid $2,000 to the Salvadoran government to have him released.  He didn’t remember the name of the hall he stayed in or the lawyers that helped him, but he did remember recuperating from the abuse during a summer in Eugene relaxing next to the river that flowed near campus.  Time and again I realize how small of a world we live in.

The University of El Salvador was formed in 1841 and is the oldest institution in the country.  It has always been a hotbed of political activism and social critique, and since it is almost completely comprised of left-leaning students and faculty it has historically been the object of serious oppression from the government.  The University itself has been taken over and controlled by the military at least 3 times (1932, 1980, and 1989), and has been attacked more times than that.  Many of these attacks consisted of the military surrounding the University with tanks, helicopters, and armed soldiers, killing dozens of students and faculty members.  Even more were arrested and went missing during each of these raids, especially leaders of student groups.  When Professor Mauricio was only 14 (and working as a day laborer helping to build the new campus) he was rounded up during a “demonstration” and for the first time was imprisoned in the National Police Headquarters.  Years later, after being tortured in the basement for over a week, his blindfold was finally removed and he realized where he was because he remembered the floors, walls, and structure of the holding area that he had seen as a teenager.  Chancellor Rufino watched Professor Mauricio being kidnapped by soldiers in 1983 and thought he was dead until he saw him in Berkeley, California a few years later.
According to Chancellor Rufino, in 1980 the government felt that if they could control the university and stop the student groups from organizing then they could stop the resistance completely.  At that time the FMLN did not yet exist in the form it took later in the war, and thus various armed resistance groups were fighting somewhat in concert, but not necessarily together.  There were also many smaller resistance movements in the rural areas, but San Salvador and the University in particular was a focal point for underground organizing.  Chancellor Rufino was an “underground commander,” in the early part of the war, meaning that he wasn’t armed and didnt directly participate in the fight but was in charge of organizing and communicating between the various resistance groups working for the same goal – the removal of the military dictatorship.  Any type of organizing (other than small family gatherings), was illegal in El Salvador at the time, and explains why he was arrested so many times without actually firing a shot himself.
Chancellor Rufino, like many other Salvadorans I have met with, is able to present the seriousness of the problems in El Salvador (past and present) while at the same time remaining at ease with us and making jokes.  I am so far fascinated by the ability of these passionate people to discuss the horrible abuses they have experienced, and then quickly smile and laugh at the irony of the situation.  They seem to realize from the reactions on our faces how heavy the information is coming across, and they never forget to mention that they are the lucky ones, the survivors, so they have a lot to be happy about.
At present the University has a relatively good relationship with the leftist FMLN government of President Funes, but there are still many problems.  When Chancellor Rufino condemed several actions and non-actions of the government (unemployment is still a major problem), and made clear that the University felt that the Supreme Court must find the amnesty law unconstitutional, he was quick to respond with a smile and say that “regardless of all that, we are just happy that ARENA isnt in power!”  ARENA is the conservative government that has a very close connection with the military dictatorship that ruled the country for 50 years prior to the peace accords in 1992.  It felt like I was sitting at a table in Eugene hearing someone chastise Obama for not doing what he said he would while simultaneously praising him for being so much better than George W.

Professor Mauricio points to the name of a friend of his on the memorial built for those who were disppeared in the war.

We also visited a memorial created by the people of El Salvador for the victims and disappeared from the war.  It was somewhat analogous to the Vietnam War Memorial, a long granite wall with a list of names, but what is most amazing is that even after the peace accords were signed the government would not support such a monument.  Instead they built a small column in a large park in San Salvador and dedicated it to those who lost their lives fighting for the country.  It stands about 5 feet tall and I didn’t even notice it as we first passed by.  It is seen as a slap in the face to the people I have been meeting with, and ironically enough sits only 50 yards from the giant wall that was paid for by private donation with the names of the thousands who were killed and/or went missing during the conflict.  Some names on the list of missing escaped and are alive and well.  But most, like the one Professor Mauricio is pointing to in the picture, are victims whose families and friends do not know where they are buried.

A few interesting facts about the University of El Salvador:
•       The University has about 60 thousand students in total, about 30 of those at the San Salvador Campus.
•       On top of the hundreds of students and student-activists that were killed during the war, the Military assassinated 2 chancellors, one of which was a personal friend of the current Chancellor and Professor Mauricio.
•       It is a public University, and last year accepted just over 9500 of the more than 30 thousand applicants.  The Chancellor says their resources are completely saturated (they only receive about $300,000 USD from the government each year) and they rely at times on student groups to provide supplemental resources to the students themselves.
•       The majority of students pay about 4 or 5 dollars a year, with medical students paying about 15.  About 10% pay as much as $60 or $70 a year for tuition and fees, but that is the most.  Not a lot of student debt here, but at the same time people are graduating from medical school and can’t find jobs, even though there are too few doctors to take care of the population.

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The First Days in San Salvador

Will Johnson (right) with Professor Carlos Mauricio overlooking San Salvador.

San Salvador, like most large cities in Central America, is crowded, hectic, and hot.  The temperature stays in the mid to upper 80s, but the humidity makes it feel like the Midwest in August.  But it is also colorful, interesting, and filled with delicious food.  I spent my first night eating hot papusas con queso y lorocco (lorocco is a flower that is mixed with eggs, cheese, or in this case stuffed in a papusa) and visiting with my hosts: Professor Carlos Mauricio and his friend Lidia.  Both are long time social activists, educators, and torture victims, and both are still seriously committed to their cause(s).  Lidia is retired from 30-plus years of teaching and working with the various education-oriented unions, and Carlos lives part of the year in Washington, D.C. running his non-profit Alto Impunidad (The Stop Impunity Project) and lives the other part of the year in El Salvador teaching and making connections between various groups in an effort to promote peace and social/economic well being for the people of his country and the world.  Both Carlos and Lidia are fiery, passionate individuals who are quick to argue but just as quick to make a joke, and I am very happy to have them showing me around.

My first full day in San Salvador included a brief meeting with the Chancellor of a private and very conservative university, a visit to the national library to meet with the director, and an introduction to the director of Pro Busqueda, the NGO I will intern with later in the summer.  After hours of driving around town and making various other stops, we ended up buying a newspaper and going to a favorite local bar for beer and bocas, basically Salvadoran style Budweiser and small bites of seafood, tacos, and/or quesadillas.  Living in Oregon has spoiled me in terms of beer selection and quality, but you can´t beat the prices down here.

Will Johnson relaxing outside of the house he is renting.

I originally rented a room in the house of Jorge Argueta, a Salvadoran poet who lives in San Francisco during the rainy season.  It is very comfortable, clean, and from what I understand in a very safe neighborhood (San Jacinto), but due to a combination of recent storms and (presumably) poor maintenance the water in the neighborhood is broken; the water only runs from 4-7am and is very cold.  The cold doesn’t bother me at all, but I do like to shower.  Thus today we moved to a hotel until the water can be fixed.  But that is just a small bump in the road in terms of possible traveling problems, and at this point things are going very well.  I have attempted to explore the city on my own for the last few days, but as with most Latin American cities at times I have trouble knowing where I am and distinguishing the safe from the unsafe.  You can’t judge the safety of a neighborhood by looking at the razor wire, graffiti, or people walking around with large guns – that is everywhere.  While I know I am safe where I have been living, from what I have been told San Jacinto buts up against a gang controlled area that I do not want to be in regardless of the time of day.  The best way that I get to know cities is by walking, talking, and eating, but I do not quite have my bearings yet and 4 or 5 blocks in the wrong direction could be bad.  Or so I am told.  And the hotel I will be at for right now is in a different part of town (close to the main University where I will be working for the first month) but I assume it also has the same safety concerns.

Saturday was Father’s Day here, and I went to Carlos´ daughters house to have lunch with about 10 extended family members.  After that we met with his ex-sister in law, who is from a very conservative, military family and holds completely opposite political and ideological views from the people who I have spent most of my time with so far.  But while Carlos and his friends are openly leftist and support the current FMLN government, he is adamant about meeting with those of various viewpoints as long as the common goal is to promote peace and eradicate torture and impunity in the country.  During the next few weeks, I will be meeting with ex-guerilla commanders, union leaders, and educators from the left but also with conservative religious, academic, and business leaders.  Additionally, the Vice President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén is meeting with us some time in the next two weeks to discuss what the current administration is doing in regards to eradicating torture, reducing impunity and corruption, and working towards legal reform.

So far the people I have spent time with, as well as those on the streets, have been very friendly, interesting, and open; the fruit is everywhere and the street food is delicious It feels good to be an outsider again.  Living in a place like Eugene, where it is pretty hard to really stick out, I believe that it is good for me to be the blond bearded guy getting the awkward stares, getting whistled at, and hearing insults hurled at me from passing cars (or things in Spanish that I do not yet recognize but have to assume are insults).  Many people feel like the outsider every day of their life, and I think it is good for all of us to step outside our box from time to time and see what it is like to be the odd one out.


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