A Salvadoran Refugee Speaks
I interviewed Carmen in New York City early this year. While she was anxious to her story, she was understandably re about questions concerning her personal situation in North America. Refugees from El Salvador must be careful about their activities and associations, since it is very to wind up in an INS detention facility facing deportation back to El Salvador. In recent years the INS prison in Brooklyn (a former Navy brig at the old Brook Navy Yard) has held refugees from Haiti and other Latin American countries guilty of massive human rights violations against the people, nations that the United States has tried to protect from such charges.
Carmen is a young Salvadoran woman with intense dark eyes and long brown hair. Her expressive face contains a hint Native American heritage. She spoke in strong, clear voice using her hands to emphasize the urgency of her words.
What follows is an account of the brutality of life in El Salvador, a situation which has forced 500, 000 people to flee the country. Carmen was held for 32 months in a Salvadoran prison for no reason and without trial or benefit of a lawyer. She has seen friends and family murdered by government death squads and has seen the effects of torture directed by North American advisors.
Carmen stressed throughout our talk that everything that has happened to her is happening today to thousands of Salvadorans. The number of Salvadorans leaving for North America, "El Norte, " has swelled in recent years. Very few are awarded the privilege of asylum and the documents necessary to hold a job and five with some semblance of normality.
The official position of the United States government is that refugees from El Salvador are fleeing their country, not because of political repression, but for economic gain in North America. Therefore, of 25, 000 requests for political asylum by Salvadorans in the U.S. over the last few years, only about 100 have been granted.
What caused you to leave El Salvador?
1 left El Salvador for the same reason that half a million people have left E Salvador: the repression the government has imposed upon the people. For no reason people are jailed while the government carries out massacres and other crimes against the people of El Salvador.
How do you get information on events in B Salvador?
We hear from our families in El Salvador about what is going on there because if there are massive violations of human rights our families suffer directly. In the North American media there have been many reports on the violations of human rights in El Salvador as well.
Did you have any choice in your decision to leave El Salvador?
No, we dont have any choice but to leave the country because of the repression. A large number of people are coming to the United States. Also, since 1979, people are leaving El Salvador to live in Mexico and other countries in Central America.
The United States government holds that there are no political-just economic-refugees from El Salvador. Is this belief accurate? I
Neither the El Salvadorans nor: Guatemalans who leave their country and: come to the United States are trying to become millionaires and achieve the North, American dream.
Conditions for those of us in the United States are very bad, especially the language and the poorly paid jobs. It is very difficult.
We dont want to stay in the United States for long, because things are happening in El Salvador. When things get better, we will go back.
Why does the U.S. government refuse to recognize Salvadorans who leave their country as political refugees?
The government of the United States is trying to confuse public opinion in North America. They say that the government of El Salvador is democratic, but there is only democracy in El Salvador to justify U.S. involvement there.
The testimony of Salvadoran refugees, people who have experienced oppression in El Salvador-that is what the government of the United States wants to suppress. The problem for the United States is that while they say they back a democratic government, it is in fact not democratic, because the human rights violations grow from day to day.
Why do so many refugees from El Salvador come to the United States?
It is not our preference to come to the United States; it is because our only alternatives are countries like Guatemala or Mexico. In Guatemala, the same situation exists as in El Salvador; in Mexico the authorities do not generally ignore us. If we are captured in Mexico, where there is also repression, we are sent back to El Salvador.
We face some of the same problems in the United States, but we decided to come here because the North American people must know the real situation. They must know what the U.S. government is doing to the people of El Salvador. This knowledge has been denied the North American people.
We have to make a difference between the United States government and the people of the United States. It is the government of the United States, which works hand-in-hand with the government of El Salvador.
Do the refugees face a threat of being captured in the United States and sent back to El Salvador?
At least 1,000 people have been caught and sent back to El Salvador and Guatemala. A large number have been found dead after their return to El Salvador.
Why does this happen?
The simple fact that the United States has been aiding a corrupt government in El Salvador means that a lot of people are leaving El Salvador to save their lives. It means that both governments work hand-in-hand, especially since the United States does not want to recognize that there are political refugees coming here. They dont want to admit that 1EI Salvador is in a war situation.
The problems in El Salvador have been going on for fifty years. All the Salvadorans know what is going on. The North American administrations have known what is going on but they ignore it. They are indifferent because they have known that the more they aid the Salvadoran government, the more death and destruction will be brought upon the Salvadoran people.
What led you to leave El Salvador?
My personal testimony, I can assure you, is like that of many Salvadorans. Many hundreds of Salvadorans have been jailed. In my situation, I was jailed as part of a systematic repression. It was a mass situation and I was in jail for 32 months. This is because the authorities believe that the Salvadoran people are their enemy.
What was your experience in prison?
Its hard to remember again, although it is in my mind all the time, because if it happened to me it has happened to somebody who may have sat on the same bench I sat on.
The point is that I was jailed with no charges at all, and I was not allowed to have a lawyer for defense. I think that is against my human rights.
Why were you released?
After 32 months in jail I was released as part of an amnesty by the Salvadoran government, to provide a justification to the North American government that the human rights situation had improved.
I was released in June of last year and the certification of human rights improvement was in July. They need this justification to give more aid to El Salvador.
I was released with a group of companeras and immediately upon our release we were hunted by the death squads. It was a bad situation, because two days after we were released, two of the released companeras were found dead. It was a very horrible situation, and we had to leave El Salvador very quickly.
What were the conditions in the prison?
From my own experience in jail?
The government of El Salvador said there was an improvement in human rights yet they did things like put acid on our hands. When the advisors came to El Salvador, things became very, very horrible. You could see people taken to the jail who had suffered all kinds of tortures. Sometimes they use electric shock on the abdomen, behind the ears, whatever.
When the advisors came to El Salvador, it was a bad situation. From my own experience I can tell you that when people were held in jail, some of their families were killed. The repression is systematic and their families would be captured and killed.
Were there North American advisors in the prisons?
No, but there are advisors in the police and the National Guard-all the repressive institutions and the army.
The authorities in the jail always called North American names, particularly Mr. Bracken. In the National Police, the torturers mentioned Mr. Bracken. This Mr. Bracken was eventually assassinated. The newspapers said he was related to the U.S. embassy, but the embassy denied that; they said he was not an advisor. We know that this kind of torture is related to the torture they use in Chile, Guatemala, Uruguay, the corrupt regimes.
After your release from prison, how did you find your way out of El Salvador?
To depart from El Salvador is a legal condition: you need a passport. But how do you get a passport? We know there is corruption in the government agencies and embassies.
I wouldnt like to mention how you get to the United States. The conditions are different for people. Sometimes we have to pay a large amount of money. The conditions play a big role in the situation. Plenty of people dont make it very far over the border between El Salvador and Guatemala.
If you were to be returned to El Salvador, what would your fate be?
To be captured and sent back to El Salvador for some means to be put in jail-for others, to be found dead somewhere in the country.