El Salvador Commentary

14 Days in El Salvador, May 1991

Background / History

Civil strife between the ruling elites, who owned almost everything, and the poor who owned almost nothing, had engulfed El Salvador for much of its history. On January 22, 1932, a peasant-led mass protest, demanding land reform, resulted in the army killing an estimated 30-50,000 people. This event was memorialized forever after as La Matanza (The Slaughter.)

In 1980, the civil war resumed when a coalition of leftist, communist and peasant groups formed the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and launched an armed rebellion. The war was characterized by numerous human rights abuses. These abuses included the recruitment of child soldiers and targeting of the clergy, educators and journalists by the Salvadoran army and death squads that operated freely and openly in the cities and countryside. In March of 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while saying Mass. In December, four American Catholic missionaries were raped, tortured and murdered.

Atrocities in El Salvador continued. Before dawn on November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests were dragged from their beds and murdered by a squadron of soldiers. As potential witnesses to the slaughter, their cook, Julia Ramos, and her 15-year-old daughter Celina, were killed too. The murdered men were leaders at UCA (Universidad Centroamerica), educators, theologians and social scientists whose faith had lead them to devote their lives to ending the oppression of the poor. According to the Salvadoran government, they were the “intellectual authors of the [guerilla] insurgency.”

Despite the Salvadoran and American governments’ claims that the FMLN was responsible for the slaughter, it was soon proved that the murders were committed by the U.S. trained Atlacatl Battalion of the Salvadoran Army, under the direct orders from the highest leadership of the Army.

By 1991, the civil war between the right wing government and the left wing FMLN guerrilla army was raging as both sides tried to maneuver for power before a cease fire was negotiated. The war took place in the countryside and in the neighborhoods of cities. The United States trained and funded the Salvadoran Army in the war against its own poor, who were characterized by U.S. policy makers as communists. The guerillas controlled a third of the country and were at a military standoff with the Salvadoran Army.

My Assignments

I wanted to go to El Salvador to see this revolution in action so I contacted the Jesuit magazine Company and another Catholic magazine, Maryknoll, looking for an assignment. The U.S. Jesuit magazine, along with the international Jesuit magazine Popoli, published in Italy, asked me to write and photograph the story of three North American Jesuits who had volunteered to go to El Salvador to continue the work of their slain colleagues.

Moises Sandoval, editor of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers magazine, asked me to photograph the daily lives of people in two of the Christian-based refugee communities, Ciudad Segundo Montes (CSM) and Ciudad Oscar Romero (COR). CSM was in guerilla held territory and Moises made it clear that the risk of going to these communities was all mine.

Letter from Maryknoll
Letter from Maryknoll

I also picked up two days of work from the Plan International development agency to photograph their projects in a primary school. All the assignments were in black and white. I was able to photograph very little in color for myself.

Congressmen Joe Moakley and Joe Kennedy, critics of Salvadoran human rights abuses and of U.S. support for the Salvadoran army, both supplied letters of introduction stating that they looked forward to hearing from me on my return from El Salvador. The unstated message was that they expected me to return safely and that they would know if I did not.

Letter from Representative Joe Moakley
Letter from Representative Joe Moakley
Letter from Representative Joseph Kennedy
Letter from Representative Joseph Kennedy

I flew from Managua to San Salvador on Thursday, May 9th, 1991. Finding the Jesuits scholars at the university would be easy. Getting through government army lines to Ciudad Segundo Montes, in El Salvador Libre, could be impossible.

My more experienced friends in Managua had warned me not to talk to anyone I didn’t know, once in El Salvador, about my assignments. Moreover, I was advised to make sure that another journalist knew at all times where I was headed and when I was expected back. Many of the international journalists who were covering the war stayed in the Camino Real Hotel. It was out of my budget but I went over there to make contacts and get brought up to date. I learned of an unreasonably low priced guest house nearby, where religious folks, peaceniks of all stripes and poorer journalists stayed. As I registered with the dueña of the guest house, I wondered why this decidedly unsympathetic upper class lady rented rooms to foreign lefties for less than the going rates. Perhaps she was subsidized by parties unknown who wished to keep an eye on her guests.

I unpacked then sat outside in the garden to write some field notes. An American guy in his 30s approaches me and says in a bizarre, theatrically loud baritone, “Hi, I’m so and so – offering some generic name like Dave Robinson – what are you doing here?” I tell him I’m a tourist and ask what he was doing here. “I’m retired!!” he exclaims then he marches off.  In El Salvador, it could be hard to separate paranoia from reality.

The Jesuits of Universidad Centroamerica, UCA

UCA Campus
UCA Campus

The next day, I went to Universidad Centroamerica (UCA), site of the 1989 massacre of the six priests and two women, to meet Father Charles Beirne, S.J., rector of the university and my contact for the Jesuit story. I was expecting a dreary, sad and impoverished campus but instead I found an open, lush tropical garden surrounding modest but light and airy buildings filled with fresh, intelligent, animated and enthusiastic young students. This was a place of life and learning; a typical university.

Fr. Charlie Beirne
Fr. Charlie Beirne

Fr. Beirne had taken the place of Dr. Ignacio Ellacuria, the university rector who had been killed. The editor of Company magazine had contacted Fr. Beirne so I was expected.  Universally known as Father Charlie, he was an open, easy-going man of around 50 with a warm sense of humor. He had recently sent a memo to the Jesuit scholastics at the university advising them when he would be away and expressing the hope that they would take good care of the swimming pool in his absence.

Before meeting Father Beirne, S.J., I had never in my life met nor had so much as a conversation with a Catholic priest, and did not know how I’d be received.  I explained that I’d like to write about the everyday life of him and his colleagues and that spend time with them without getting in their way or distracting them. Fr. Charlie appreciated my sensitivity about their time and complained that CBS news wanted him set aside a week to film a story. “A week!” he exclaims, “I’m trying to run a fucking university!” So went my first ever conversation with a priest.

Father Charlie’s relationship with UCA began in 1981. He’d known all the murdered priests personally and was especially close with three of them, whom he had known since 1976. He had spoken with them on phone the Monday and Wednesday night before they were murdered on a Thursday morning. Father Charlie had arrived at UCA in August, 1990. “We don’t see our role as replacing the martyrs, because that would be rather presumptuous on our part, but rather we see our role as guaranteeing that the work of the martyrs continues.”

He spent his time researching and writing grant requests, contacting foundations and friends in the U.S. for help for UCA, working on a new fundraising campaign and planning new programs. He frequently travels to the U.S. to enlist support for the university’s plans, laying the groundwork for a secure financial future for UCA.

After the murders in 1989, Father Charlie and Massachusetts’ Congressman Joe Moakley had persuaded Congress to divert millions from U.S. military aid for the Salvadoran army and give it to UCA instead. He leans back behind his desk, which is piled with grant applications and foundation reports, smiles and says, “I think we are making progress here.”

In addition to running the nation’s largest university, Father Charlie did pastoral work on the weekends, officiating at baptisms, weddings, funerals and generally ministering to the poor in San Salvador. He complains to me about the poor organizational abilities of the local nuns; he’d show up on time for a wedding at 2 pm but no one else would arrive before 5pm. He stops himself, shakes his head ruefully then says with sincere humility, “Well it is important to do this; it reminds us of why we are here.” I photograph him at his desk and then at an administrative meeting.

Fr. Michael Czerny
Fr. Michael Czerny

Fr. Charlie introduces me to Fr. Michael Czerny, who had come to UCA from Montreal. Fr. Czerny directed the Center for Human Rights, taught at UCA and was vice Rector of the University for Social Outreach.  A scholar, teacher, journalist and human rights activist, Fr. Czerny had known all 6 martyrs personally and was a good friend and co-worker with Ignacio Martin-Baro, Segundo Montes, Amando Lopez and Ignacio Ellacuria. He attended the priests’ funeral on November 19th, 1989.

“It was during the full scale FMLN offensive on San Salvador,” Czerny remembers, “helicopters circling overhead, bombing like thunder, explosions of gunfire nearby,” while at the funeral, all were coping with their outrage, grieving and horror in reaction to the assassinations.

In the midst of this shock and tragedy, Michael Czerny had been invited to take Segundo Montes’ place as philosophy teacher and director of the UCA Center for Human Rights. “I remember feeling greatly honored, but was not able to think about it seriously in the moment. Everything was still surrealistic and hazy.” A few days later, back in Canada, Fr. Czerny and his provincial had talked it over and the decision was made.

In 1990, after a year at UCA, Fr. Czerny wrote that “massive and terrible injustices have crippled El Salvador for more than a century. The historic and practically malicious denial of people’s economic, social and political rights; the popular reaction to the resulting grinding poverty; the inevitable repression against the civilian population; the complacency with which the rich exploited the poor; the impunity with which the powerful repressed the majority and eliminated all opposition – these are the deepest routs of the decade-old war.”

I then met Fr. Dean Brackley, SJ. When he heard of the massacre, Fr. Brackley had been teaching Philosophy at Fordham University, in New York City. He’d realized that UCA would need help and reflected on his background as a teacher, his visits to Central America, his fluency in Spanish and his pastoral work with Salvadorans in the South Bronx. “I could feel it coming; it was like standing at the plate knowing the next one would be a fast ball right down the middle and I just couldn’t stand there and let it go by.” He’d spoken to his provincial and several weeks later had been invited to join the faculty at UCA.

Fr. Dean Brackley in Jayaque
Fr. Dean Brackley in Jayaque

In his mid 40’s, Fr. Brackley was my age exactly, and was a very open, plain spoken guy from Albany NY. He was tall, rail thin, sandy haired and wore thick glasses. Like all the Jesuits, as a matter of safety he wore civilian clothes except when officiating in church.. He credited an uncle – an ex-boxer-turned-priest – with kindling his own calling to the priesthood. “He was a tremendous athlete who turned down a contract with Connie Mack to join the seminary and was a priest for 53 years.”

Fr. Brackley allowed me to tag along with him, for several days, starting that afternoon. He was open and frank about himself and his work but serious and professional toward me. I think he viewed our time together as part of his mission; as a means to help spread the story of the oppression of the poor. We had some conversations about the basis of his own faith that stayed with me forever.

In El Salvador, Fr. Brackley’s life was always in danger but he worked all the time. I asked him what kept him going. “It all comes down to who you are and who you want to be. Life is short and it is very easy to sleep through it. That is a very important concept to me: life is short. If you stay close to the people who are suffering, you begin to remember again what is important: survival, community, caring, taking care of each other. The answer to one’s own doubts and despair is to stay close to the poor.”

Dorothy Day told me that. Stay close to the poor. The people give us hope; unless we allow our hearts to be broken by their suffering we cannot really appreciate the solid grounds for hope. We have to be close enough to have our hearts broken by their suffering and see that they come up smiling. They know in their hearts that God’s gonna win. One day we shall overcome. I find meaning in it – not anywhere else. The struggle is called the reign of God, it’s God’s revolution – it is the pulse of history – once you find it you want to stay there.”

ES 07 Man in Church_2_002
Man in Church

Fr. Brackley worked at least three full time jobs in El Salvador. He prepared lectures, taught, and marked papers for two courses which met seven times a week. He was also the coordinator of a three-year program of formation of lay pastoral agents including novices, catechists and sisters. Some of the people in the program were campesinos, who have very limited reading and writing skills, but “their tenacity, their compassion, their faith . . . it’s just off the charts, they are delightful.”

He supervised five Jesuit scholastics, student scholars. “[My job there] is being a presence, an older Jesuit among them, to be there and to be there for them. We are getting more scholastics from poor families, people who have suffered in their own flesh, they come with the hard work and resilience of the poor and it is a great blessing for the Jesuits to have them.”

As I’m leaving, I see a gardener tending to rose bushes behind the house where the murders had occurred. I remember that the husband and father of the slain women had escaped death because he’d slept in the gardener’s shed. I ask the gardener his name. He is Obdulio Ramos, and he’s caring for the eight rose bushes he’d planted; one for each person killed. We talk for a while and I take some pictures, which become the cover of the Jesuit magazine, Company.

Obdulio Ramos in Rose Garden
Obdulio Ramos in Rose Garden
ES Company Magazine Cover
Company Magazine Cover

Every weekend, Fr. Brackley continues the pastoral work of Fr. Martin-Baro in the remote mountain parish of Jayaque. He is the only priest for 5 villages. Getting there entails a 45 minute stand-up bus ride followed by a half-hour trek up the mountain.

Some of the campesinos have been tortured by the Salvadoran army and they are all desperately poor, yet their Mass is a joyous ceremony, filled with local music and warm smiles.

Fr. Brackley is their only priest, their only pastor. He leads their Mass, marries and baptizes them and most importantly, he listens to their sufferings.

He is scathing in his assessment of the United States’ culpability for the myriad human rights abuses in El Salvador, and around the world, and he spoke about this openly.

He asks why, after two years, so little has been done to bring justice in the case of the murdered priests and women, “I have a hypothesis, I’m not sure it’s true, but it seems a reasonable hypothesis: the United States has obstructed the Jesuits’ case, it has obstructed the investigation, withheld evidence and burned witnesses. Why would the United States do this? I think the UCA case had the possibility of pulling back the veil on what the U.S. has been doing here for the last 11 years. It seems to me fairly certain that disappearances and torture of civilians is an integral part of counter-insurgency and it has proven to be exceedingly effective here. With the Salvadoran armed forces, the U.S. has been a co-designer of that policy. It seems highly likely that one of the reasons the U.S. has gone to such lengths [to obstruct the UCA case] is that it does not want the U.S. public to know that it has been involved in aiding and abetting a policy of torture and disappearances in this country for 11 years.”

Man in Church 1
Man in Church 1

I was talking to a rich Salvadoran who said that he recently asked a friend of his, a high-ranking Salvadoran military officer, ‘Why doesn’t the U.S. instill an ethic of human rights in the army?’ and the officer said, ‘Hell, they’re teaching us torture techniques.’

Visiting the Christian-based Community in FMLN Territory

Back in San Salvador, I make plans to visit Ciudad Segundo Montes, located in the green, low rolling mountains of Morazán province, in the northern part of El Salvador and hard up by the Honduran border, under control of the FMLN. This area had been sealed off by the Salvadoran Army who make frequent daily incursions, trying to engage the guerrillas in battle. A few United Nations, Red Cross, social service workers and priests are allowed to go back and forth between the two El Salvadors.

The government will not give “salva conductos” passes to journalists, although in true Salvadoran fashion, they will not admit to denying passes to journalists. They just ignore requests. Following protocol, I go to the government Estado Mayor office, in San Salvador, where a clerk takes my application and answers all of my questions about when and what happens next with a “No se señor.”  (I don’t know.)   The clerk finally tells me to go to the Army base, Cuartel DM-4,  in San Francisco de Goteras, in Morazán, and ask for the pass there.

I then go to the CSM social service office, in San Salvador, to see if they can help. I tell them about my assignment from Maryknoll, show them the letters from Maryknoll, and Congressmen Kennedy and Moakley. The people there ask me to give two of them, Rosa and Mañuel, a ride to San Francisco de Gotera, the last government controlled town before entering the guerilla zone.

We drive for three-and-a-half hours from San Salvador onto Rte. 7, heading north from San Francisco de Goteras, toward the guerilla zone. The road is blocked by three army trucks and a dozen soldiers. They instruct me to turn around and go to Cuartel DM-4. I begin to think my riders have more than casual FMLN connections so I leave them in the CSM office in SF de Goteras before I go into the fort.

A sergeant escorts me into the barracks and says to wait for the coronel. After several hours of being ignored, the sergeant returns and tells me to go back to the estado mayor office, in the capitol, for the pass. I think that throwing a temper tantrum would impress them. This turns out to be a significant miscalculation, resulting not in receiving a salva conducto but in aggravating the heavily armed men, who are accustomed to dealing with annoyances by shooting them. The army apparently considers journalists to exist on the same circle of hell as Communists.

I return to the SF de Goteras CSM office. Mañuel tells me that we may be able to get through the roadblock, and that we should sleep there, in the office. I am woken up at 3 a.m. and told to hurry out. We drive north on Rte. 7 and speed through the dark, right passing the empty checkpoint. Forty-five minutes later, we arrive at CSM and sleep until 7 a.m.

The community is spread out over many country acres. Vibrant tropical trees, flowers and birds are everywhere. The elevation keeps the humidity down and the temperatures under 90F. Cultivated fields dot the valleys and climb the sides of the hills. There is a large banner over the road, at the entrance, saying “Army keep out.”

Ciudad Segundo Montes’ tropical beauty cloaks a difficult history. It was founded by Salvadoran peasants who’d been refugees in Honduras, where they had fled over the years to escape their own country’s civil war. After the U.S. built the rag tag Honduran Army into a counter insurgency force, in the 1980s, (to support the Contra side of Nicaragua’s civil war), the Honduran army began practicing its counter insurgency tactics on the hapless Salvadorans.

This caused a regional uproar and embarrassed the United States. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees then negotiated safe passage and relocation for the refugees back into El Salvador. So in 1990, 6,000 refugees had trudged over the mountains under armed U.N. protection, carrying whatever possessions and animals they could, to establish a new place to live. They had named it Segundo Montes, after one of the six Jesuits priests who had been murdered by the Salvadoran Army, in 1989.

Although Segundo Montes had its fair share of wandering chickens, dogs, pigs and naked toddlers, it looked very different from most Central American country villages in 1991. Families lived in U.N. issued tents instead of ramshackle huts. These tents were spread around the outside of a soccer-sized field and on either side of paths that wound through the countryside.

Pregnant Mom and Son
Pregnant Mom and Son

People were outgoing, willing to talk to a visitor freely, eager to tell their stories and voice their complaints. Walking around town I could hear laughter. Completely unconstrained, I took pictures of everyday life in the village, where everyone was doing something.

In the middle of the soccer field, teenage boys were kicking a ball around, teasing each other and laughing. A six-year-old child, wearing only blue underwear, earnestly flew a tiny kite made of newspaper wrapped over a slim branch of malinche. A group of women worked in the outdoor kitchen, talking animatedly as they added soup ingredients to an enormous pot.

No men were passed out drunk or idly lounging around. Not only was everyone busy, but they were busy mostly in groups: playing; cooking; building a school; cleaning the tents; sitting in a circle at picnic tables and praying with a young Jesuit priest, or learning in outdoor classrooms. The school was set up on a small hill and consisted of a teenaged teacher speaking in front of her blackboard to groups of kids who were sitting on the ground.

Typical COR Housing
Typical COR Housing

The dental clinic, in a separate tent, had two ancient barber chairs; the drills were powered by large truck batteries.

Years of having to endure extreme stress had changed the peasants. Previously accustomed to living independent and fairly isolated lives, they’d learned that the chances of survival together were greater than their chances alone. Over time, they had formed strong community bonds and adopted cooperative ways of life based on Christian principles of love, equality and cooperation. Always deeply religious, the Salvadorans used the teachings of liberation theology to establish a Christian-based community where their faith was suffused throughout and supported all aspects of daily life.

 

Woman at Christian Based Refugee Community with Farm Cart
Woman at Christian Based Refugee Community with Farm Cart
Woman Offering Bread
Woman Offering Bread

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visiting FMLN Headquarters

Perquin, the de facto capitol of the guerilla held territory, was just 6 miles up a country road from CSM. Before I went to El Salvador, a Dutch journalist in Nicaragua recommended that if I ever got to Perquin, I should try and find Padre Rogelio, a Roman Catholic priest who served as pastor to the FMLN army. Father Rogelio Ponselle was famous for having defied the Vatican and crossed over the line between the clergy and the guerrillas.

On the road to Perquin I am flagged down by the driver of a cattle truck full of men, parked by the side of the road. He and I are wearing similar royal blue t-shirts. He walks over to my truck window and asks to buy a gallon of gas. I tell him that he can have it for free. We spend a half hour or so while he sucks gas from my truck. I never notice if this guy is wearing military pants and boots. When he has enough gas he thanks me and I drove on to Perquin.

Perquin is a country village with two main streets that form a right angle. Its adobe and stucco buildings are white and pocked marked with bullets wounds. Some buildings have partially destroyed walls.

The church walls are freshly painted with murals depicting the murder of the Jesuits. Guerilla soldiers walk around freely. One young guy, about 19 or 20, is playing the guitar in front of the church.

FMLN Boy Soldier Playing Guitar in Front of Church Mural of Murder of Jesuits in 1989
FMLN Boy Soldier Playing Guitar in Front of Church Mural of Murder of Jesuits in 1989
Boy With AK47in Perquin
Boy With AK47in Perquin
FMLN Officer in Perquin, Capitol of Guerilla Held El Salvador
FMLN Officer in Perquin, Capitol of Guerilla Held El Salvador

There’s a boy carrying an AK-47; he can’t be older than 10 or 11. I photograph a very pretty woman officer who is carrying a machine pistol and wearing gold earrings. The guerrilla soldiers ignore me but they smile when we make eye contact.

I notice a group of men in a group in front of a building. One has red hair and a beard. I greet him, “Hola Padre.” His piercing blue eyes take in my camera bag, gringo face and sweat drenched t-shirt. He sharply asks, in English, how I know he’s a priest. I explain that my fellow journalist friend, Jan, had made a documentary about him and sends his regards to Father Rogelio Ponselle.

Fr. Rogelio invites me to join him for a café. We go to his small room, where I show him my work samples and letters of introduction. He questions me closely about my background until he is satisfied that I am who I say I am. He gradually relaxes and we head back out to the street. I wander around, taking more pictures.

On the main street of Perquin, I am surprised to see the same guy who’d flagged me down on the road an hour ago. He’s now wearing full combat uniform over his blue t-shirt and holding an AK-47. I introduced myself and learn that his name is Roberto.  We like each other from the start. We both laugh when I tell him that I hadn’t noticed his army pants and boots earlier.

Jeff with FMLN Soldier Roberto
Jeff with FMLN Soldier Roberto

He asks me why I’m in Perquin so I show him some of my work. I ask him why he is with the FMLN and he explains that his parents, wife and children were all killed when the army slaughtered 1,100 women and children in the nearby village, El Mozote, ten years before. I am very moved, we embrace, then Roberto sighs that such a thing is the reality in his country, smiles and walks off. He was a man comfortable in his own skin and humble at the same time.

Roberto returned about an hour later and told me that an FMLN commander called “Jonas” was in the nearby mountains, waiting for an all-clear for a passing Salvadoran Army patrol. “Jonas” wanted me to interview him. I explained again that I was not a hard news photographer but Roberto was insistent. He said it was very important that Jonas be interviewed because he was the third-in-command of the FMLN. It began to rain so I took cover in a bullet-pocked building and waited to find out if I would meet “Jonas.”

Aftermath of Battle Between FMLN Guerillas and Salvadoran Army in Perquin, Morazan Province
Aftermath of Battle Between FMLN Guerillas and Salvadoran Army in Perquin, Morazan Province

As darkness spreads over the mountains, I am faced with the choice of waiting for “Jonas” and risking missing my 3 a.m. rendezvous to sneak back across the government checkpoint, or with driving alone in the countryside, at night, while an army patrol is in the area.

Finally, Roberto tells me that “Jonas” will not come down because it’s too dangerous with a patrol still in the area. It is completely dark now. If I stay in Perquin I might miss the rendezvous with my guides back to SF de Goteras, so I decide to drive 40 minutes back to Ciudad Segundo Montes.

Among the cardinal rules of working in a war zone, which I’d heard many times from experienced correspondents, were never drive alone, never drive at night and always drive slowly. So here I was, driving alone at night on switchback mountain roads, in the pitch black countryside, with a Salvadoran Army patrol rumored to be in the area. I was terrified of running into them, imaging the 20-year-old boy soldiers themselves on full adrenaline for fear of a guerilla ambush. In my panic I drove as fast as I could. I was fortunate to not have driven the jeep off the mountain, but made it safely back to CSM by 9 pm.

I Meet a Real Mass Murderer

I arrive at CSM with a plan to leave again at 3 a.m. to take advantage of the half hour break at the checkpoint north of SF de Goteras. I will take two passengers, a Salvadoran teenager who is actually the FMLN contact, and a young American man who claims to be a radio reporter from Denver. We oversleep by 45 minutes. Jumping out of our sleeping bags and into our clothes, we run to my truck.

I drive like mad for half an hour until we finally round the last curve before SF de Goteras. I see 20 soldiers with three jeeps waiting to greet us. As I slow down to stop the truck, I tell my two passengers that I’ve never seen them before and that they are hitchhikers I’d just picked up at Segundo Montes.

The soldiers are relaxed but serious, almost as if they expected to see me. They surround my truck, open the doors and ask for my salva conducto; the pass they had just refused to give me two days before. At each exchange, the soldier in charge radios back to the base to report and get instructions. He wants to get in my truck and escort me back to the base. Improvising, I tell him that it’s against the Geneva Convention to allow an armed combatant into the vehicle of an international journalist. This was complete bluster, but he radios it back and doesn’t get in my SUV. Their trucks box mine in and we return to the same base where I had unsuccessfully performed my righteous indignation improvisation for the soldiers. I do not expect a warm reunion.

When we get to the base we are told to sit on a bench in the sun. The hitchhiking story works and the two other guys are released. I’m worried about having my film confiscated but I couldn’t pass it to the FMLN kid because we were being closely watched. Soldiers tell me I have to wait to see “the colonel” so I am left to sit and cook.

My truck is parked close by and I watch two men in civilian clothes remove the seats, inside door panels, look behind the dashboard, in the engine, shake the spare tire, etc. A soldier demands to see my press card and gives it to one of the men searching the car. Perhaps they think I’m smuggling arms to the urban guerrillas in the capitol? At any rate, there is nothing to be found and thankfully, they put the truck back together after completing their search.

I wait and wait. Every once in a while, a soldier walks up to me and makes a scary face, which is absolutely bizarre, almost comical. One particularly ugly piece of work hisses at me in English that he had spent 16 years in the U.S. Army. About a month earlier, the Army had arrested 30 journalists for the same crime of venturing into guerrilla held territory. Their arrest had provoked publicity in the U.S. Congress and media, so I figure I’m relatively safe. I wonder if keeping me waiting for the afternoon is typical Salvadoran military hospitality, or if they are putting in a call to the United States to determine my fate.

After about three hours, I am summoned for my audience with the colonel, Oscar Alberto Leon Linares. I know Linares is commander of the Atlacatl Battalion, which had carried out the slaughter of the Jesuit priests and their housekeepers.

Colonel Linares is handsome, close shaved, wearing an immaculate running suit, heavy gold necklace, and of course, opaque aviator sunglasses. I was on assignment to photograph the priests who had volunteered to take the slain priests’ places, so I immediately feel we have something in common.

I had never met a real mass murderer before.

Linares comes across as annoyed but controlled as he tells me that what I have done is “un penoso” (a painful act.) Drawing out each syllable, without looking at me directly, he tells me my behavior has been “la-men-ta-ble-men-te” and that I have broken the laws of his country and disrespected its sovereignty. He says that when he visited my country he obeyed the laws.

He goes on and on; I feel like I’m being harangued by the high school dean of students. It’s clear that he has no interest in hearing from me; this is not a conversation but a lecture, so I keep my mouth shut. Regardless, I have a strong urge to ask him if I can have my picture taken with him; Jeff and the war criminal. Discretion wins out. I decide it’s unwise to poke this particular dog with a verbal stick.

I am finally released and leave with film and body intact. I drive to San Salvador, hoping I will not be ambushed along the way. I arrive in San Salvador early enough to find the Reuters correspondent and tell him all about my adventure.

On my return to the United States, I call my photo agency, Impact Visuals, and tell them what had occurred. The Salvadoran press relations office then sends a letter to Impact Visuals, complaining about my behavior and stating that Impact Visual photographers would be welcome in El Salvador in the future with the understanding that we obey and respect its laws.  The threat was clear.

I understand that Colonel Linares, although named in several international reports of human rights abuses, is retired and living happily-ever-after in Florida.

Fr. Dean Brackley died too young, of cancer, in El Salvador in 2011.  He never wavered in his commitment and love for people.  His belief that the human spirit can survive intact amidst great suffering will stay with me forever – his words remain seared into my memory.

Father Dean at Mass
Father Dean at Mass