Trip to Santa Marta, El Salvador
RRUUC Group, June 28(±) to July 13(±), 2007

Photos — People, Scenes from Santa Marta and Other Place in El Salvador  |  Maps  |  References


Where we were: Map
The University and Its Martyrs,
  Hope from Central America

A "delegation" of four adults and seventeen youth from River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation (RRUUC) traveled to Santa Marta, El Salvador. This was the tenth such trip over a twelve year period since the signing of peace accords and the end of El Salvador's civil war (~1980-1992; peace accords were signed on the last day of 1991). We traveled on June 29 - July 13, 2007 (itinerary with a few annotations, e.g., travel delays and other notes). The trip combined opportunities for some community service / community building and learning about the struggles and recovery from the travails of the war by the townspeople. In addition to sponsorship by the RRUUC, significant support for the trip was provided by NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations): Companion Community Development Alternatives (CoCoDA) - in the USA and in El Salvador - and by the Asociación de Desarrollo Económico Social, Santa Marta (ADES).


Massacres and Hope

Death and Destruction: Ironically, the country, El Salvador (meaning: the Savior) was named in honor of Jesus Christ. However, official estimates are that 70, 000 to 80,000 civilians died during the Salvadoran civil war; thousands were simply unaccounted for. Non-Salvadoran countries, especially the USA, provided large amounts of economic and military aid to the government. The rationale was that the principle opponent of the government, the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), was a communist threat (refs: wikipedi on El Salvador; FMLN site - en Espanól). Government death squads practiced a scorched earth policy, killing any and all who were known or suspected to be supportive of the FMLN. These tactics included the killing of every moving thing, including innocent women and children, live stock, and the burning of fields and villages. Killings of priests and lay persons led to out cries around the world, played a key role in the backlash against the Salvadoran government and in the negotiation of peace accords. This massacre is is well described by Father Dean Brackley in The University and Its Martyrs: Hope from Central America (reproduced here with permission). Since the signing of the peace accords and cessation of hostilities, members of the FMLN have joined the government - a key provision of the peace accords - to bring about representation of all segments of Salvadoran society. The picture painted today is that the FMLN fought on the side of ordinary El Salvadorans who were trapped as landless peasants, serving as tenant farmers. (Additional info: references.)

The atrocities committed on the peoples of El Salvador are too terrible to put into writing - I just can not bring myself to do it on a public web page. Suffice it to say that many in Santa Marta suffered greatly. Personal testimonies include that of a survivor who crossed the Lempa River into a refugee camp in Honduras. She lost many family members, including a pregnant sister. While crossing the Lempa, civilians were shot at from helicopters while dealing with waters raging due to the opening of a dam by government forces to increase the flow of water. (This story was related to me by as an first-person account on the second day we were in El Salvador.) We also heard personal accounts of a massacre at Copapayo, on Lago Suchitlan. It was related by one of five survivors who escaped a mass shooting on the shore of the lake by jumping in and swimming under floating vegetation with only his nose exposed to breathe. More than one hundred people were killed at Copapayo; the father of the individual giving his testimony survived thanks to being away from home at the time.

Hope: The citizens of Santa Marta exhibit a remarkable ability to persevere and prosper in the face of adversity, building on the ruins of their decimated town. One must note that they still live close to a subsistence level: the average per-capita income in El Salvador is $3 per day (US dollars are the medium of exchange). A staple of the Santa Martan's diet is corn, used to make tortillas and pupusas. It is planted by hand on steep hill sides (there is little mechanized agriculture in El Salvador). During our visit, even in the rainy season, no rain had fallen for quite some time and the corn crop was in danger of failing, threatening the supply of this basic staple. On the first Friday of our stay, many people, including RRUUC delegates, joined a group who went into the fields to pray for rain; a thunder storm came that night. Youth and others cheered in the dinning hall. (Initial plans included the carrying of rocks on the heads of those going to the fields - a form of penance - but this approach was abandoned and, as it turned out, unnecessary!)

Homes are simple in towns such as Santa Marta: they have a bit of electricity - our bed room had one bulb and an outlet. There is no plumbing or sewer system except for a pipe from which water sometimes flowed to refill the "pila" - a tank in the back yard that served as a reservoir next a multi-purpose area used for various tasks, including bathing. Our hostess turned over one of two rooms - her boys' room - for us to use as a bed room during our stay. Many homes are even simpler, made from wood taken from the jungle, with a roof and walls made from corrugated iron.

The center piece of the recovery in Santa Marta is the school, rebuilt with enormous effort. While the central government now provides support for schooling through the eighth grade, Santa Marta has one of the few schools which provides education through the twelfth grade. The school includes a computer center, the director of which is not payed by the government. There are no provisions for wired Internet services to this remote village so they rely on a satellite connection. Plans are in the works for a cyber cafe so that citizens can gain access to the Internet. Other strides forward in the town are evident: there's a bakery, a co-op where embroidery is done, and a medical clinic. Inoculation of pets and animals is performed by clinic staff since veterinary services are not available - a necessary step to control infectious diseases.

In addition to the traveling to Santa Marta, members of the RRUUC provide substantial monetary and material support to Santa Marta (and other Hispanic groups), with coordination by its Latin America Task Network (LATN). This support includes scholarships to enable Santa Marta youth to attend the university in San Salvador - thirty students are now enrolled, many the children of people who are illiterate. Many computers, donated by members RRUUC, have been carried by delegates on trips to supply the computer center, which now serves twenty one students per class. Community building proceeds with help from organizations such as ADES and CoCoDA. Groups from other countries have provided support for establishment of a green house for hydroponic growth of vegetables such as tomatoes and green peppers. RRUUC delegates assisted in the green house by stringing vines along supports.

The author was pleased with the success of his efforts to introduce Linux and free, open source software (FOSS) in the computer center. The hope is this will free the center from paying onerous licensing fees to software vendors. Computer center staff (the director and his three helpers) were tutored in how to install Linux as an alternative to the Windows operating system. The "distribution" chosen was Ubuntu Linux. The Ubuntu philosophy - a concept of community from Sub-Saharan Africa and often summarized as "humanity towards others" - is in keeping with the needs of developing communities such as those in El Salvador. Other FOSS was introduced to the computer center staff to help meet this goal, e.g, "Open Office," a fully functional alternative to Windows Office. The Santa Marta computer center will be in the fore front of opening this new door to making computer technology more available in El Salvador. An immediate success was observed: one student was observed using Linux the day after the installation, and the author hopes to hear back from the staff about their experiences.

The Struggle Continues

Today, sixteen years after the signing of peace accords, society remains polarized and dangers lurk in El Salvador. During our visit to Santa Marta, many from Santa Marta went to Suchitoto to protest the privatization of water supplies (delegates stayed in Santa Marta due to safety concerns). El Salvador's president had gone to Suchitoto to announce the privatization plans, arriving by helicopter (nearby Lago Suchitlan serves as a reservoir for San Salvador). Protesters were met by armed troops and some were jailed for incitement to riot. Locals indicated demonstrations were peaceful and that the government mis-represented the nature of the demonstrations, jailing innocent and peaceful protesters.

Residents of Santa Marta are also fighting in court for land that was purchased after the civil war. Old owners claim the deed is fraudulent but locals believe that the original owners concocted this story to recover land that may have increased in value. Loss of the land would mean loss of homes for about fifty families. (Keep up-to-date on this matter at CoCoDA.

There is also significant distrust of the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) efforts to provide for development with a $461M grant, funded by the USA (see references). They believe that the bulk of the money will be used to build a through-highway to facilitate international trade, including access to mining ventures, without bringing significant benefit to local towns and villages. The mining ventures are viewed as holding out the false promise of increased employment while damaging the environment.

Rural Salvadorans are caught up in the perpetual conflicts between old and new ways ("modernization?") They are, perhaps inevitably and willingly, moving from a subsistence economy to a producer / consumer society. This is reflected in efforts to bring about community development and "aggravated" by the tendency toward globalization. (The term "globalization" is controversial in itself! Discussion of globalization on Wikipedia's web site, as of this writing in the Fall of 2007, is prefaced with disclaimers about the factual content of the posting and the use of "weasel words.") Some in Santa Marta are concerned about the benefits and risks of efforts by the MCC, wondering if they will see much needed feeder roads. On a simpler scale, the contrasts between old and new are striking in Santa Marta, exemplified by the lack of paved streets, running water, a sewer system (most homes have proper privies) and the like, contrasting with a well-built school with a computer learning center, including a satellite connection for access to the Internet.

A visit to the US Embassy. Delegates listened to a presentation by an MCC representative during our visit to the US Embassy and he said that an integral part of the plans for a highway included feeder roads. Many in the delegation expressed doubt about the claims of benefit for the poor and believe that big business will be the primary beneficiary of the MCC programs. A common view is that big corporations benefit from programs that open markets to free trade, at the expense of the poor, who provide cheap labor. The concern is heightened by effects on trade that have increased the cost of staples, such as corn, that people depend upon for their daily meals - globalization of trade in corn has caused a rise in cost that filters down to the local level in developing countries. Our group was promised an audience with an official of the U.S. Embassy while during our visit but the official was tied-up. We conveyed our concern about the apparent regressive actions of the Salvadoran government in Suchitoto during the preceding week. An embassy representative expressed dis-belief, indicating they had heard a much different story, while indicating that the issue was under discussion at that very moment. We hope that the voice of truth and reason prevails and that one-sided stories from the El Salvadoran government are not believed and that truth will prevail. We hope that continued military aid from the USA to El Salvador does not enable repression of the poor, to the benefit of the wealthy.

We hope that the peaceful efforts of the peoples of Santa Marta to protect rights to their lands will be successful and that they may benefit from international efforts in community development. We share the hopes and fears of the citizens of Santa Marta. Groups such as CoCoDA and other volunteer organizations provide invaluable aid to those who organize and develop their communities during such troubling and confusing times.

The Delegates

Simply put, the youth who we accompanied to El Salvador are great. They unselfishly gave of their time and caring to the people of Santa Marta. There was nary a complaint (save one about wanting to do more!) even though they are accustomed to the luxury of living in Bethesda, Maryland. Half of the youth had been to Santa Marta before; for some this was their third trip! It was an honor to be part of such a group.

Images of El Salvador and Santa Marta
    Maps and many more photos

Santa Marta
(Schematic showing paths and tracks around the village)

Map of Santa Marta

Hard Work


The electricity goes out but the studying, by candle light, goes on.


Hostess Manuela commonly arose before dawn and retired after dark. One night, around 10:00 p.m., we heard her chopping wood with this ax, in near darkness, at the edge of the back yard. She worked hard over an open fire, cooking snacks and warm soy milk, flavored with spices, and sold them on a street corner near the church and school. She started in the kitchen as early as 4:00 a.m., cooked and sold her wares until mid-afternoon when she would return to do more of the same on the porch at her home - selling to youth who would stop by on their way home from school.

Cycle of Life


The cycle of life in Santa Marta can be short. Monique, our hosts' little dog, slept near the author's bed. She was listless and did not respond much to petting. This image foretold her early demise: sadly, she died during our visit.


lost uncles

Juan Rafael's name is a combination of the names of his uncles, who were killed during the civil war. He points to their names among the thousands on the memorial wall in San Salvador.


Memorial to Archbishop Oscar Romero, who lost his life to the national police after taking up the cause of the poor of El Salvador. This memorial is at the University of the Central Americas (UCA - Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas") where six priests, a female staff member and her daughter were massacred by the army. This helped precipitate international outrage and peace accords that brought an end to the civil war and a small measure of human rights to the landless (references).



Dress (Still Life)


Lago (Lake) Suchitlan, near Suchitoto

Happiness and Fun


Delegates and locals pose for a group shot after a spirited game of soccer.


Thanks are due to many people. To Don Chery, the RRUUC spirit behind the trips to Santa Marta: he sets a wonderful example for youth. To Lizzie Hubley and Tim Crouse, of CoCoDA, for great coordination, leadership, and skillful interpretation to enable communication with people in El Salvador. To Juan Rafael, a local coordinator for CoCoDA, for his excellent assistance at the computer center and as a local coordinator / logistician. To the Women's Association for taking care of all our meals. To Manuela and her family for their wonderful hospitality. To members and staff of ADES, the clinic, and numerous individuals who shared their experiences to make the trip an informative learning experience and for their hospitality.

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