Under the Volcano

Elsalvadorimg-575 Dara Kerr in Guernica:

On a muggy November afternoon in 1974, Dolores Alfaro and her husband descended El Salvador’s Chichontepec volcano. They’d been picking coffee beans in one of the plantations dotting the steep slopes, and were returning home with full wicker baskets. Walking through the forest, Alfaro saw a half-dozen olive green trucks, packed with soldiers, cresting a hill and slowly rolling into town. There had been tensions between laborers and the military but seeing troops standing on the flatbed trucks, rifles aimed, fingers on triggers, made her realize something had changed.

On that day, a faction of the national military raided a village of unarmed civilians. The soldiers moved from house to house. By dusk, they murdered six people, imprisoned twenty-eight, and wounded dozens. This practically unknown event, named La Cayetana after this village at the foot of the volcano, marked a change in the nature of persecution in El Salvador—going from sporadic repression of select individuals to deliberate attacks on entire communities. It set the pattern for scores of government massacres to come.

Six years later, in 1980, the country’s archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated—shot in the heart while celebrating Mass—his death catalyzing El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war, which was marked by roving paramilitary death squads and the murder of tens of thousands. For more than a decade, the U.S. government supplied the Salvadoran military with an average of $1 million per day and trained its troops in counterinsurgency tactics. Much of what happened was shrouded after the war ended in 1992, and the nation’s congress passed amnesty laws—absolving war criminals—and official amnesia set in.