El Salvador Violence: Politics become personal

September 25, 2007

El Salvador Violence: Politics become personal

Fred Rosen

In 1981, Salvadoran politics took a turn for the grisly: In November, the five-man executive committee of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the chief civilian opposition to the increasingly brutal military-civilian junta, was rounded up, tortured and killed. Weeks later, four U.S. nuns and lay sisters who had been working with popular movements were raped and murdered. While the murder of the religious women had a more wrenching effect on the international audience that had been following events in El Salvador and on popular opinion in general, the murder of the opposition leaders more clearly signalled a ratcheting up of the level of political violence and, incidentally, had a deeper impact on the NACLA staff since the FDR leaders had recently developed a personal relationship with both Armstrong and Shenk. Shenk remembers: “When the five leaders of the FDR were killed in El Salvador, they had just returned from a trip to New York. We had played a big role in helping set up their schedules. Several of them had stayed at my house. That was a real emotional turning point for me because people I had been with and just gotten to know had suddenly been murdered. They wore three-piece suits and obviously didn’t carry guns but suddenly they were dead.”

At that moment, the political became very personal for Shenk, as it already had been for Armstrong. “I started to develop friends among the people I had previously thought of as interviewees,” she remembers. For me Guillermo Ungo [head of the FDR from just after the 1981 massacre until his death from cancer in 2000] was a really big influence on my understanding of El Salvador. There was nobody who represented more middle class, tame, social democratic politics, and if he was willing to throw in his lot for armed struggle, that was a powerful and sad statement about the possibilities for change in El Salvador. And just watching the relationship between the social democratic or Christian democratic politicians [in the FDR] and ‘the boys,’ as they referred to the FMLN, was fascinating. Kind of like watching father and son dynamics.”

available online from
NACLA Report, May/June 1980, Vol. 14, No. 3

NACLA Report, July/Aug 1980, Vol. 14, No. 4

Tags: NACLA, El Salvador, civil war, politics

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