We want to go a little deeper into describing the history of El Rodeo, the small sister community of the Washington Ethical Society where we spent our first week in El Salvador. It is a very interesting history, with great significance for our lives in the United States as well. Although we will warn that in many ways this is a very heartbreaking and disturbing history, and could be triggering.
El Rodeo is a small village just outside of the larger community of Santa Marta, neither of which appear on maps of the country. The people of El Rodeo and Santa Marta share the same history during the time of El Salvador’s bloody civil war which lasted from 1980 to 1992 (with much government repression occurring prior to 1980 as well). Some of the major issues which led to the war included land reform (with most land being in the hands of very few people, and many people not having rights to the land they have lived on, sometimes for generations), economic inequity, and severe repression targeting those who spoke out against the economic situation and in favor of land reform.
In the Santa Marta area there were people who spoke out and the community was targeted for repression. People were harassed by the government, tortured, raped, and murdered. Eventually the government destroyed the entire area using “scorched Earth tactics,” which basically means to kill everyone you can (to leave zero witnesses), burn down the houses and fields, kill the livestock, destroy all property, and leave nothing behind. The Salvadoran military was greatly supported by the US government who sent weapons and also provided military training at the School of the Americas (which has trained many repressive Latin American regimes).
The destruction of whole villages and other massacres are often discussed in El Salvador as people remember the civil war. During our week in El Rodeo we actually took a trip with many of the youth to the village of El Mozote, which was the site of the bloodiest massacre in Latin American history. The El Mozote Massacre saw over 1,200 people killed (the majority children). Only one survivor, Rufina Amaya, lived to tell a tremendously heart-wrenching tale of what had happened as she witnessed every person in the village, including her husband and children, being tortured and murdered.
During one meeting people talking about how Santa Marta (and El Rodeo) would have been another El Mozote had the people not been prepared for the government’s attack, and practiced in cooperation. When the people heard news that the government would attack, they left their villages in order to find safety across the Honduran border. They walked by foot through the mountains. Many died on the journey. To get into Honduras they had to cross the Lempa river, most of the people not knowing how to swim. Those who could swim went first and made a way for others to follow. Then the government blew up a dam which caused the river to flood, and many more died in that flood.
Those who made it to Honduras settled in a refugee camp. We spoke to a man a couple of days ago who described the Honduran refugee camps as being like a prison, complete with barbed wire fences around them. This was a time when there were many repressive Latin American dictatorships which cooperated with each other and disliked the same sorts of people. For example there was a different massacre where people fled from Salvadoran troops, across the Honduran border, only to find the Honduran troops waiting for them in ambush–thankfully Santa Marta and El Rodeo were spared that fate.
The people of Santa Marta and El Rodeo lived as refugees for a number of years before returning to El Salvador, while the war was still going on. Many of the people then joined the anti-government FMLN guerrilla forces. The FMLN launched an offensive targeting San Salvador, the capital city where we currently live. The guerrillas were not able to take the city but were able to force the government into negotiating with the rebels. In 1992 both sides signed a peace accord, the war ended, and the FMLN transitioned from a military force into a political party. In 2009 El Salvador elected its first president from the FMLN.
It is an astonishing history that the people of El Rodeo experienced. It is also a story that has spawned a lot of trauma which people have to deal with as they go about their daily tasks raising children, doing laundry, working in the fields, etc. We wanted to tell this story so you better know the context of El Salvador because we believe it is an extremely important story, which most of the people here lived through, and it is also very relevant to the United States because we funded and aided the repression.
In our next post we’ll talk a little bit more about the people we met in El Rodeo and the delegation of which we were a part.