We heard testimony from a man named Don Pablo who lived in a town called Cinquera during the Civil War. Listening to his story was incredibly painful. I will do my best to explain what he told us.
He started at the beginning when the Lenca people lived in Cinquera. After being conquered by the Spanish, the area became a place of enslavement. After that it was turned into 3 haciendas. Then the land became farmed by campesinos (peasants). However, the peasants in CInquera had to give over much of their harvest to the wealthy owners of the land.
In that time Cinquera was isolated. There were no roads, only dirt paths to bigger cities far away. There were no medical centers and the government didn’t care about the people there. Many people had few clothes, food, and children often weren’t able to attend school. As a result, few people in the area were literate.
In every pueblo during that time in El Salvador there was a military man who was in charge. These men had control of all the campesino men in the villages aged 18-60 years old. The campesinos were forced to be integrated into patrols and were ordered to be in the military for 1 year. When these men returned home, they were very militant and misogynistic. They would often beat their wives and no one would intervene in the defense of the women.
Many people in Cinquera went out west during November, December, and January to pick coffee for the millionaires of the country. But there was little water and little food where the campesinos stayed. Much of the food was contaminated by rats and their droppings. This led to kidney problems and infectious diarrhea. To make things worse, the people measuring how much coffee the campesinos picked each day cheated the campesino out of 25 pounds per 100 pound sack of coffee. When the campesinos asked for their real pay, the military would grab the campesinos, tie them up, and them in jail for 3-4 days.
In Cinquera, many political parties came to visit. They were all military parties and offered the campesinos free coffee and 3 tamales. This was a way for the parties to express their concern for the poor campesinos.
As there was little food in Cinquera, people would often faint during a mass. The priests would tell the campesinos that if they suffered patiently, the day of their death would be happy. If their children would die, they would thank the Virgin Mary for taking their children so they wouldn’t suffer. The priests explained to the campesinos that they needed to walk through life and suffer in order to die and be happy.
In 1969, a Colonel from the Salvadoran military went to Cinquera to explain to the people how to prevent a danger called communism. The Colonel explained what had been happening in Cuba: There was a man in charge named Fidel Castro who was half man, half monkey. The Colonel explained that he had a tail, 2 horns, and ate human flesh.
The campesinos asked the Colonel what would happen if communism took over El Salvador. The Colonel explained that everything and everyone would become socialized. That meant if your neighbor falls in love with your wife, he can have her. That meant that the communists could come and take your land and your harvest. Communists would collect people 60+ years old and send them to slaughter houses to become animal food.
At some point, a young priest went to Cinquera. He explained to the people that it is not the will of God for them to suffer. He said that the people who told them otherwise were liars. He told the campesinos that they’re hungry because they have no money, no land, and receive little money when they harvest coffee. They were being oppressed and exploited. The government, he said, is the millionaires of the country who tell the president what to do.
Upon learning that most of the people in Cinquera were illiterate, the young priest immediately sent a solicitude to Spain for Bibles for the people. In this manner they learned to read and learned from the Bible itself. What this young priest was doing was the same thing Oscar Romero’s friend, Rutilio Grande, was doing in another part of the country. The people came to realize that poverty was a social problem. They believed that they should all work together for the betterment of everyone. They lived in peace and they shared.
Eventually the authorities accused the people of Cinquera of being communists. In 1968 the authorities went to the bishop who was responsible for Cinquera to denounce them and say they weren’t Christian. The bishop expelled the campesinos from the church, saying their ideas were coming from China, Cuba, and the USSR.
One girl from Cinquera, Aida Escalante, filled the church with information about social problems. She refused to take the information down and chastised the bishop. She said that the government had militarized Cinquera and persecuted the people. After saying these things, Aida and her mother were raped, tied up, and put into coffee bags by the military. They were raped over and over for three days by several military men and their friends. Eventually, Aida was put into a car and driven somewhere else. The military men cut off her breasts, her ears, and her nose. They cut out her tongue and gouged out her eyes. Then they cut off a branch of a tree, broke it in half, and shoved one part inside her vagina and one part through her head. Witnesses say that she was moving and making noises the entire time. Violence like this was happening all over the country.
Around that time Ronald Reagan made an agreement with the USA to train Salvadoran soldiers and to teach them military strategies and tactics. The Salvadoran military men returned to El Salvador from the USA to form elite death squads. After this there were many massacres. The military men would cut off the heads of campesinos and put their heads on fence posts. They took pregnant women, cut the unborn children out of their abdomens, and cut off their heads. Soldiers were ordered to kill children in order to prevent them from being communist guerillas. Young women were raped in front of their husbands. They would cut off their genitals and stuff them into the mouths of their murdered husbands. Garbage dumps in San Salvador were filled with corpses. People were tortured, murdered, and disappeared. The military insisted that they were just following orders. The USA continued to send 1 million dollars a day to the military.
In one area, 6 boys went to a church and put up speakers to denounce the atrocities that were happening. The priests told the army that communists had taken over the church. The soldiers came and blew up the doors of the church. They boys were lined up on their knees and killed.
Monsignor Romero publicly denounced what was happening. On March 6 he opened a refuge in San Salvador. He denounced what was happening like he’d done so many times before. He urged people to open their homes, the school, and churches to protect those people fleeing from death. 18 days later he was killed by the military while saying mass.
Don Pablo explained that God had protected him personally. He was captured 3 times but was rescued each time. His children were not so lucky. Five of his children went into the mountains to become guerillas. Four of them died in combat. His son that survived was named Samuel Antonio. He was badly injured during the war but was not able to receive care from any clinic. He suffered permanent damage and had constant pain. On Palm Sunday, Don Pablo was helping out at church to arrange Holy Week activities. One of his young daughters came running to him. Samuel had killed him. He wrote his parents a goodbye note saying that he didn’t want to be a burden on them.
Even though the war is over, the fight for justice continues.
Group photo with Don Pablo