current issue |||
about The Prism ||| volunteers ||| other sites
Back to July 96 table of contents
The United States Embassy was being converted into a fortress. The walls under construction appeared to be designed to withstand an atomic bomb, four feet thick across the tops, tapering down to a six foot base. They were anchored deeply in the substratum, reinforced by brambles of rebar. These walls formed a perimeter of rigid concave arcs, each terminating in a spacious gun tower. The gun towers, built to withstand an artillery round, occupied by members of the over 200-man Salvadoran contract security force, had intervisibility with one another.
Weapons apertures were oriented to provide interlocking fires, in the event a final protective wall of supersonic lead were needed against hundreds of thousands of modernly-equipped, well-nourished FMLN shock troops. Chain link fence stretched high over the scene as a defense against rockets. Marines with M16s were posted at the visitor entrance, and Salvadorans with Uzis flanked the vehicle entrance where Embassy employees entered and exited in the fleet of armored cars driven by hired Salvadoran guns. Embajada Americana had better security than the National Government buildings of El Salvador. Complete overkill, yet somehow it was appropriate for the actual Government of El Salvador...for that is exactly what the United States Embassy was.
It was the summer of '85.
United States omnipotence had been discredited less than two weeks before I arrived, when an impatient group of loose cannons, foregoing permission of the FMLN high command, dressed up as Salvadoran soldiers, loaded onto a flatbed truck, leapt out in front of a chic restaurant and bar strip called Zona Rosa, and sprayed down two restaurants with automatic weapons fire. Salvadorans, Chileans, and Guatemalans had been killed. Also slain were four United States Marines.
The shit, to coin a phrase, had hit the fan. The Embassy was crawling with FBI agents who had taken over the investigation. Marines were placed on tighter restrictions and given permission to grow their hair longer (supposedly to look less military...never mind that many of them were blond). Ilopango Airport was a beehive of activity. Helicopters, flown by Salvadorans and shadowy Americans, shuttled destruction (between secret support sorties for Reagan's war against Nicaragua) into Morazan and San Vicente with a renewed vengeance.
Bobby Zimmer (not his real name) was a former coworker of mine. We had served together in a counterterrorist unit in Fort Bragg, before he had landed a job with the MILGROUP (US military representatives on the Embassy team) in El Salvador. In El Salvador's poverty stricken desperation and spasms of unrestrained brutality, he was as content as a pig in shit. A quick study, he had mastered functional Spanish in a matter of weeks, improving it at a remarkable pace on the job...and off. He frequently extolled the value of "long- haired dictionaries" for gaining fluency. Bobby was a small man, but not diminutive, with a demeanor that disallowed intimidation. He was handsome, in a "West Side Story" kind of way, and very popular with women. He had taken up residence in Colonia Escalon.
Bobby's role in El Salvador was to train a new, elite, Salvadoran counterterrorist force. He was being referred to as the "Charlie Beckwith of El Sal"--Beckwith was the first commander of the elite Delta Force. When he took me out for steak and lobster the second night I was in-country, he imparted the story of the snafu he had encountered on his new unit's first operation.
In our own counterterrorist training, it was emphasized again and again, that in order to discriminate between hostile and non-hostile people, a decision had to be made in nanoseconds. The shooter must focus first on the hands. "No one pulls a trigger with his dick," they said. The presence of a weapon denotes hostility, and the conditioned response is to rapidly fire two rounds into the "center of mass," that is, the thorax of the "hostile target." This is done on the move, as shooters on the assault team are charging to positions of domination within a room. Bobby had taught his trainees this method of "target discrimination," drilled it into them until they were like well-oiled machines. Look at the hands. See the gun. Two bullets in the chest.
Independent tactical judgment is a key personality trait that US counterterrorist operators are selected for. If US forces entered a hospital, let's say, that had become a crisis site, they would (hopefully) evaluate intelligence, and if there were contract security people inside who had weapons, everyone would be made to understand that target discrimination had just become slightly more complicated. That is not how it turned out when Bobby's boys encountered their first operation. When striking healthworkers at a hospital in the capital barricaded themselves in, the US-trained Salvadoran force went to work.
They had been trained to "shoot at guns," and that's what they did, slaughtering a substantial number of hospital security guards who were dashing about in confusion with holstered and unholstered weapons.
Bobby laughed a little with the retelling, adding that El Salvadorans were lucky to have their whole country as a training site. They were just bound to improve.
"Isn't this incident a little sensitive?" I queried. What if the press played this up?
"Yeah," he replied. "It's sensitive in three ways. It's operationally sensitive, because if the press exposes us, we lose our funds. It's culturally sensitive, because Salvadorans are swayed so easy by stories like this. And it's politically sensitive, because I'm trainin' the best right wing death squad in the world."
Inez, the daughter of Presidente Duarte was taken prisoner by the FMLN while I was in El Salvador. Her captors managed to move in quickly at a vehicle stop, hose down her bodyguards with automatic weapons, and snatch her as a hostage. They would later secure the release of dozens of FMLN prisoners...the sequel to the Zona Rosa killings...all tolled, a Pyrrhic victory. These two actions gave the US Congress a green light to release more lethal aid to the Government of El Salvador, and the Embassy clamped down tightly on information regarding Salvadoran Army human rights abuses.
Not that it was really necessary to hide abuses. Those who reported on El Salvador tended to hang out at the pool in the Camino Real Hotel, with transistor radios pressed to their ears. I was chatting up a member of the press corps one day, as I had lunch at the Camino. She was around 30, with a dissipated weariness, and worked for the Chicago Tribune. She was just terribly excited, because she had been let aboard a helicopter the week before, that flew into Morazan. She actually got some bang-bang footage. She was just eternally grateful to the Embassy for arranging it for her. Would I mind, she asked, taking her out for coffee or a drink somewhere in the barrios, sometime? She would never think of doing it alone.
I was disillusioned. She completely annihilated my conception of reporters as slightly crazy, fearless, obsessed with getting at the real story.
Brian Hastings (not his real name) was another member of MILGROUP, also a former member of the counterterrorist unit at Fort Bragg. He dealt with training management in the Estado Mayor, army headquarters. He once told me off the cuff that his biggest problem was getting the officers to quit stealing. He was another pretty boy, naughty, strawberry blonde, freckled. He had developed an enviable reputation as an productive liaison with the Salvadoran military over the past five years, and his charm, looks and reputation made him a favorite of young, female reporters. I went with him and an Embassy entourage to visit an orphanage, once, at Sonsonate. The women from the press pool absolutely doted on him, and he rewarded them with tons of mischievous magnetism.
Bobby did the same thing at a party I attended. They would skin up alongside him, asking how he thought progress was coming with the human rights situation. He would ask them how it seemed to them. Well, there were only a few battlefield executions of prisoners still taking place, according to rumors, but they'd heard nothing else. We can't expect them to come around overnight, now, can we? Would you like to go dancing at an all night club later? You know where one is? I know where they all are.
The reporters at the Camino Real hired Salvadoran rich kids. It was very important that they be educated, English-speaking kids, 20 to 25 years old, who could keep them abreast of rumors and happenings in the Capital.
I was hanging around outside the Embassy one day, eating pupusas from the stand that was outside the vehicle entrance, when a well dressed young man, who spoke passable English, asked me if I were with Security.
"Why?" I wanted to know.
"I think I am in trouble." He proceeded to tell me that he had somehow become involved with a car theft and cocaine ring, run by a Salvadoran major and a Salvadoran woman who was a lawyer at the PanAm Building. The group used a Latin band, named Macho Uno, to mule the drugs to Falls Church, Virginia, where they then picked up stolen automobiles that were driven back to El Salvador for sale at an exorbitant price. The deal made money both ways. It was unclear to me how this fellow was involved. It was obvious he was scared.
I escorted him up to the SY Office, as security is called in the Embassy, and sat him down with Lenny Lipton (not his real name), who was in charge of investigations. This really wasn't my field. Lenny invited me to sit in on the interview.
Lenny, a former Delaware cop, quickly ascertained that the gentleman was hedging on something, and that "something" was his legal status within the United States. Once Lenny had the lad on the defensive, he bore down on him about the rest of his story. The man actually started sweating as it became apparent that Lenny neither believed his story, nor intended to do anything about it.
When the young man was dismissed and escorted back out of the Embassy, I asked Lenny what he thought.
"It's probably true, most of it."
"Well are you gonna report it?"
"Why?" he asked.
"Well, what's gonna happen to him?"
"He's probably a dead motherfucker."
Lenny came to my house one afternoon, drank ten beers in an hour, then asked me if any of us had anything to cure the clap (gonorrhea). The Embassy nurse and his wife knew each other.
We had a maid and a gardener.
The gardener approached me one day, to tell me that we needed a new water pump, that the lawn mower was out of oil, that the exterminator had dropped by to say he would poison the opossums in the ceiling next week, and that the old clothes in the tool shed needed to be gotten rid of because they smelled bad.
I was going to work, so I let my roommate know that I would request the pump and the oil, and could he get rid of some old clothes that were stinking up the tool shed?
When I came home that night, my roommate turned off the porno movie he had on the VCR, and told me to come with him to see something.
He turned on the carport light and pointed to the clothes. The clothes were stiff as canvas with stains and dirt, and bore a peculiar faraway stench.
"What about them?" I asked.
"Look close at 'em," he instructed. "They got blood all over 'em."
"It's probably paint," I assured him. "They've been in the shed."
It was blood.
We carried the clothes to the embassy the next day, and after some discussion and mental backtracking, it was determined that these were the clothes that four American women had been discovered dead in a few years earlier, in December, 1980. They were the clothes of the two nuns and two lay church women who had been raped and murdered by death squads. Their inconvenient deaths had almost jeopardized the sweet relationship between the Carter and Reagan Administrations and the government of El Salvador.
The clothes were sent off to be burned. A discussion developed between the Regional Security Officer and one of his assistants about whether the women had asked for it. They summarily agreed that all four were "commie bitches," involved in gunrunning to the guerrillas.
Zona Rosa, the site of the Marine deaths, was put off limits to the Marines, and to regular Embassy people. The idea was, I guess, that once someone is killed somewhere, as long as people don't frequent the same places, they will be less apt to be killed themselves. Like ZONA ROSA killed the Marines. I ate there at least five times a week. I didn't figure the same people would come back to the same place to do the same thing when the whole country was at DEFCON 4. And I was a late blooming adolescent, often characterized by my teenage peers as less attractive and popular, which caused me to compensate for my feelings of inadequacy, long after my tortured transition into adulthood, by rebelling against authority. That, or the food was good.
Chili's, which is all over the States now, served up good burgers, and The Mediteranee was so chic that I couldn't resist carrying an occasional street urchin in there with a dirty face and bare feet, and making the staff wait on them. The host hated that. So did the other clientele. It was perversely funny.
Sometimes, for a couple of dollars, I could line up every beggar kid in the area at the sorbet stand and buy them a cone. They, in turn, watched my International Harvester Scout, and promised to let me know if there was danger about. I called them my guardaespaldas, my bodyguards, and they called me jefecito, little chief. They could be found at three in the morning, sleeping in the shelter of doorways and alleys.
I started throwing the kids in the face of the ricos (rich) in Zona Rosa and Mas Ferrer (another hangout for the overindulged), after taking a bus (also forbidden by the Embassy) downtown one day.
On the bus, a blind man came begging, and people who could ill afford it gave him a coin. In the street, I saw an old woman dragging herself down the sidewalk with a gangrenous leg, a crazy man shrivelled in a corner, bone skinny kids who played music for coins with a pipe and a stick. The only people who stopped to drop a coin with any of them were calloused, very modestly dressed, with Indian still in their cheeks. To the slick, manicured, roundeyed, well-to-do, these people were invisible, as invisible as the blackened carboneros (charcoal vendors), the wormglutted market babies, the brooding teens with raggedy clothes, prominent ribs, and red eyes glaring out of the spotty shade. I didn't understand it clearly at the time. But I just wanted to plop the grubby little orphans in the middle of all that indifferent arrogance, so the insufferable rico brats, stuffing themselves with shrimp and tenderloin, could not, for a few minutes, treat them like they were invisible.
It was a little childish, really, the only thing I could contribute to a failed revolution...one I had just begun to understand.
Send comments to email@example.com.