Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 421 | Agosto 2016


El Salvador

Political prisoners: “The Fifth Front” 36 years later

What was life like for political prisoners in the jails of the Salvadoran dictatorship? Here are the stories of Bernabé and Susana, of El Salvador’s Political Prisoners Committee, known in the 1980s as the “the fifth front of the war” Hearing their experiences is a tribute to those who fought from the prisons for the freedom of a people.

Elaine Freedman

The Political Prisoners’ Committee of El Salvador (COPPES) was formed in September 1980 with a hunger strike in the Santa Tecla prison grounds and in the dark cells of the National Guard prison. Their slogan was “Let’s make prison another trench for the revolution.” Soon COPPES became known as the “fifth front” of the war in recognition of the special and very valuable role of their work in the struggle for liberation being played out in so many different fronts.

Thirty-six years later, its members are regrouping as the “Ex-Political Prisoners’ Committee of El Salvador” or ex-COPPES. Héctor Bernabé Recinos and Susana Dolores Rodríguez Romero, two of its leaders, shared their experiences during that time and now with envío.

“The torture was hard”

Bernabé: I was the secretary general of FENASTRAS, the National Trade Union Federation of Salvadoran Workers, during the late 1970s and early 1980s. I was also the director of STCEL, the electrical sector’s union. We had held several strikes in solidarity with other strikes and in August 1980 did a 24-hour blackout to protest the killing of co-workers at different electrical plants. They captured 16 of us co-workers from different electrical plants around the country and transferred us all to the National Guard prison. We were detained there for 71 days without due process, on the order of the military tribunals.

The torture was hard. They made us sign a declaration with our eyes blindfolded. Our whereabouts finally became public only when the Red Cross arrived. They kept me detained for 4 years and 2 months. While we were in prison, we found out that the Government Junta had dissolved our union by decree.

“Our first demand”

At that moment, COPPES was born. Mothers from the “Monseñor Romero” Mothers’ Committee (COMADRES) came to visit us and told us that prisoners in the Political Prisoners’ Committee of El Salvador were going on a hunger strike and asked if we would join. That’s how we struck along with our fellow prisoners in Santa Tecla. It was big news because up to that moment the government denied having any political prisoners. They had us as subversives, terrorists and some as common prisoners. Our first demand was to be recognized as political prisoners, and the first hunger strike achieved that.

In October they sent us to Santa Tecla and right then we began to structure COPPES. At first there were only 18 of us, mostly young people but some very old. Soon we reached almost 30 and at one point we were 60. Our slogan was always “Let’s make prison another trench for the revolution.” Radio Venceremos soon baptized us the “fifth front.”

Susana: I also came from the unions, only I was caught several years after Bernabé. There were a lot of us unionists in the 1980s. FENASTRAS alone had some 3,000 members and I was on its board. There were also other federations: FESIASES and FUSS. I worked in the Santa Mercedes Clothing factory, in Santa Lucia de Ilopango,. The management had abandoned the company in July 1988, owing us two months worth of salaries, vacations, severance and other benefits, so we occupied the buildings. But it wasn’t a lockdown because they had left first; we were protecting the interests of those of us who worked there. We went through 14 months of harassment from the Air Force but in the end the National Guard came and captured us. They arrived at 5 in the morning threatening that they would launch grenades if we didn’t open the doors.

“I’d sing to strengthen my morale”

They kept us at the National Guard prison for three days. In my case, the torture was more psychological than physical, but there was a guard who would come into my cell drunk and hit me hard. He played the “hard cop” role. The “good cop” would only threaten me that if I didn’t cooperate he would take my two daughters and my mother from our house to see if I’d still keep denying everything in front of them.

He asked me if I knew how long I’d be in the National Guard prison and I replied: “According to the law, 72 hours while I am being investigated.” “You whore, you don’t need us to investigate you. We have pictures of you burning the bus and the gas station.” “Well, bring me the pictures.” Of course they couldn’t because they didn’t exist; I hadn’t participated in those actions. He’d leave and the “bad” one would come in and beat me.

I would sing that Chilean song that says: “I will walk the streets again of what once was bloody Santiago”... only I would say, “of what once was bloody San Salvador.” It would strengthen my morale and I wouldn’t speak or give out any names. I’d say to myself, “I haven’t given up the movement or the project” and that would give me strength. That’s how I withstood everything until they took me to the prison in Ilopango, “the Women’s Prison,” on September 21, 1989.

“We’d receive them with human warmth”

Bernabé : All the compañeros who were arriving had suffered some type of torture, so we would heal them and bring them in. This created a very unified relationship among us. We all came from different political-military organizations and kept our relationships with them, but in jail there was no sectarianism, or very little. We acted as one voice.

Susana: When I got to Ilopango, I was received by the COPPES compañeras . They received us and gave us clean clothes, different food than that horrible stuff we were given in jail. They bathed us. I hadn’t bathed in several days, so that picked up my morale.

Bernabé: Today, all those who belonged to COPPES recognize that when they were sent to the prisons after torture, the reception by our social assistance commission was the most important thing that happened to them. The fact that they interviewed them, healed them, gave them toothbrushes, soap, toothpaste and some sort of a sheet was to receive precious human warmth and that marked us all.

“We immediately organized”

Bernabé: The leadership was made up of a member of each political-military organization. After that we created commissions for food, work, health, social assistance and discipline. We made up our rules and schedules in assembly.

The unionists had more experience in the organizational aspect and in resolving conflicts within a group. That’s why we usually led the commissions.

They opened the Mariona prison in 1981. One section of COPPES was born there and another in the Women’s Prison, where our compañeras were sent. Shortly after they sent us to Santa Tecla, we were moved to Mariona. We didn’t know where we were going; they just piled us in the back of a truck, one on top of another. When we got there they had one section of the prison only for COPPES, and another for military and paramilitary people. In our section we started out with more than 200 and a couple of years later we were 600. We managed to form a structure similar to the one we had in Santa Tecla.

“We had a leadership structure”

Susana: We started out 14 or 15 political prisoners In the Women’s Prison and 12 more arrived days later. Sleeping was difficult because the cell assigned to us was only about 5 by 5 meters. It was a cell that COPPES had attained for just us, with a kitchen next to it.

We had a leadership structure made up of a general coordinator and others in charge of food, cleaning, discipline, testimonies, communication and finances to manage the funds we would collect amongst ourselves or that we received from some solidarity organization. The testimonies commission was in charge of collecting the testimonies from compañeras as they arrived and channeling them to the people outside. They would write them on a piece of paper and send them out with visitors. The communications commission would listen to Radio Venceremos and prepare the analysis of the current situation.

It was a unitary structure and if a member of any of the five organizations in the FMLN was missing, another compañera would take over. A few days after my arrival, a compañera from the leadership was released and Norma Guirola, who was from a different organization in the FMLN, proposed me to replace her. Sectarianism was minimal among us. She spoke with her people and that’s how I entered the leadership structure. Although I was in the leadership, we also took on other responsibilities like cooking or cleaning. We ran the kitchen with the contributions brought to each one of us. We would agree what each one of us would ask our families for so we could have more variety and eat better.

“We planned an escape”

Bernabé: Before the 1981 offensive, while I was still in Santa Tecla, we planned an escape. We had some weapons we had made ourselves with different materials that had been cleverly brought in to us. Some we got from workers from other prisons who would come and do maintenance work. We got the detonator wire from people who visited and brought us food in woven wire baskets. We’d then take the baskets apart and give the wire a different use.

Our plan was to escape with all the weapons there were in the prison. We already had access to them. Each one of us consulted with our own organization outside to set the date and firm up some of the details about external positions. That’s when everything got complicated and in the end, our plan, which was pretty easy to implement, was frustrated.

It was the only attempt during that first period. Later compañeros with more military experience arrived and there were the two big attacks to free the prisoners. In 1985, 100 political prisoners were traded for the daughter of then-President Napoleón Duarte and in an attack on the Mariona prison in 1991, 123 compañeros were able to escape.

The day-to-day life of male prisoners

Bernabé: We learned and shared a lot in Mariona. Our work was basically denouncing, contributing to propaganda and cultural, political, ideological and military formation that would help the compañeros develop their skills. Our denunciations were constant. Communiques would go out from the prisons to Radio Venceremos about different situations that happened almost every day.

We decided the prison clinic should be under our charge to treat our tortured compañeros well and tend to ourselves also. The Red Cross provided us with medicines and we had enough doctors and paramedics to get the clinic up and running. Many would arrive with acid burns. We also provided medical care for the common prisoners.

Sundays were visitation days, so we turned them into political cultural acts. We had compañeros who were musicians and formed a music school in the prison. They were in charge of organizing the Sunday activities.

Later they came and trained us in specific Vietnamese techniques, the kind the Special Forces used. The guards and authorities could see our activities but didn’t bother us.

In Mariona we worked from 8 in the morning until noon. All our compañeros got into the prison’s workshops and worked in carpentry or making sculptures, baskets and other handcrafts. These workshops, more than being a school, were businesses with an owner heading it and many laborers. Our compañeros sold things on visitation days and made some money to contribute to the common fund. After lunch we did clean-up, laundry and political formation.

We had our own store and our own suppliers. We practically broke the institutional store because we sold beans, rice, oil and other stuff cheaper.... In the end, they had to close down the prison’s store.

We had to keep order among ourselves. Some compañeros would receive intimate visits from up to three different women. So we established rules: each one had the right to one compañera , without special privileges for anyone, because we were all equal inside. The rule was: “If you want to change compañera you have to wait three months of not having any.” And to make sure, we had compañeros who controlled who came and went.

The day-to-day life of female prisoners

Susana: We got up at 6 in the morning to do exercises while the food commission made breakfast. We’d bathe, eat breakfast and the compañera s would go embroider, crochet, read... We’ld receive information from outside and plan the corresponding activities.
We had assemblies every two weeks. If we had new compañeras , they would share their testimonies, tell us where they came from, what happened to them and all that. The woman in charge of food would propose a schedule of commissions for preparing food for the next two weeks.

“We closed down the punishment cell”

Bernabé: We won some gains, fruit of our demands. For example, the food was really bad. We proposed that they give us the budget available for each prisoner—1.05 colons per day—and we’d make our own food. We organized rotating commissions. And we’d also feed the prison guards, who were very grateful and would help us out.

We were also able to close down the punishment cell. It was a small, dark room where they would leave a person for days on end. It was like torture. We didn’t let them put any more prisoners in there again.

At one point we demanded the firing of the warden and got it. He had all the authority, more than the director and he was the most repressive of all. First we took away his power and then they removed him. Achievements like these were the result of intelligence work by our organizations on the outside.

“Achievements through hunger strikes”

Susana: Among the privileges we’d gained was that we could bring in some fruits that common prisoners weren’t allowed: tamarind, grapes, apples, cashews... The idea was to soften each one’s separation from family.

Inside we had the “freedom” to speak about our political ideological thinking, something we couldn’t do outside. In the morning we’d get up, do our exercises in the basketball court, then we’d sing the FMLN anthem and shout revolutionary slogans.

We managed to achieve most things purely through hunger strikes, when we couldn’t achieve them through negotiations or dialogue. However, our hunger strikes were generally within national denunciation campaigns that we’d coordinate with other prisons. We’d get mail from another prison saying we had to denounce some act of repression, a human rights violation or had to demand negotiations when the war was ending.

I lived through two hunger strikes the eight months I was in prison. Today, Ochoa Pérez, a corrupt military officer, says they weren’t hunger strikes, that they were a “change in diet.” But that’s a lie. During those strikes we would only take two spoonsful of honey a day and water. Nothing more.

“We also organized the common prisoners”

Bernabé : In the beginning we were mixed in with the common prisoners, but later there was a wing just for us. Obviously, the common prisoners wanted the same conditions we had because ours were better. We told them: “We’ll accept you and you can have the same as we do but you have to organize and follow the same rules we do. For example, our visitors bring us food and we could eat all we wanted with them. But when they left, the leftover food was brought to a common shelf and we all ate from there because some didn’t have family or their family didn’t know they were in prison so they didn’t get visitors.” The common prisoners didn’t like that. They protested against us and accused us of hoarding. But that lack of understanding didn’t last long. The closing of the punishment cell benefited all of us so the relationship improved. We reached relationships of mutual respect.

“We talked to the common prisoners about the reality”

Susana: Since our cell was so small, it easily became overcrowded. But we didn’t want them to separate us because there were mothers, wives and sisters of soldiers or members of the repressive forces among the common prisoners. It was risky to have two or three go sleep in therir cells so we accepted the overcrowding. It was a security measure for us and the center respected that.

However, once a compañera from the ERP arrived who was pregnant. When the baby girl was born they moved them into the other area, but then the mother got chicken pox, so we decided we should separate the baby while the mother got better. I stayed looking after the baby in the maternal sector, but to do that we had to ask the prison director for permission for a temporary transfer. The women in that sector were very supportive. They gave me a bed and treated me well.

We’d talk to them about the reality. We never asked them to join us but we’d explain why we did what we did. Many of them would start understanding, to the point that at the time of the offensive they said to us: “Look girls, there’s a group of us here that will go with you if your compañeros come to free you. Even if you don’t give us weapons, we’d be good for something.” We’d explain to them: “If that were to happen, we couldn’t guarantee your lives. Not even our own. The revolutionary process is like that.” They said to us: “It doesn’t matter, we want to do something because these damned people have screwed us over a lot.” When we heard them we thought that some of what we’d talked to them about had soaked in.

There were others who didn’t show that inclination, but they did respect us. Almost always we’d have some food left over. Some of them were never full with what was given to them so they’d come ask us for food. And we’d give it to them. It was common among them that they’d steal from each other or insult each other, but they never did that to us.

“We softened up the hostile environment”

Susana: Truckloads of compañeras were brought in at the time of the “To the End, Period” offensive and we didn’t all fit in the cell. We’d meet by groups and build trenches with the beds. During those days we organized night-watch, so some of us would keep watch while others slept.
Some soldiers came in asking for the political prisoners’ cell, but the common prisoners warned us: “Hey bitches, they’re asking about you!” There wasn’t much we could do because we were locked up. We met with the head of prisons and told him to help us find a solution in case something happened to us. “We have backing outside,” we told him. That was the only time we threatened the authorities. “What’s your proposal?” “The only solution here is to mix us in among the common prisoners, but in groups.” we told him. They sent me to a section with compañera Marta Elena Rodríguez, and we looked after each other. While she slept, I kept guard and vice versa. It was up on the third floor and stray bullets from the military actions outside would land there. We heard the common prisoners say: “We’re in this situation because of these whores.” But there was no better option, we had to hang in there.

Later the leadership met and we discussed ways to get closer to the common prisoners so we could count on the support of at least some of them in each cell. There was no electricity but we had supplies and candles, so we shared the candles and a bit of sugar with all of those in the cells where we were distributed and that way we softened up the hostile environment.

“The authorities respected us”
Bernabé: When they opened up the Mariona prison, they first moved all the common prisoners and left all of us from COPPES alone in Santa Tecla. A kind of harmony was established between us and the guards, and information flowed in and out of the prison. From the moment we arrived there the relationship with the guards was pretty acceptable. We’d talk about the national reality and the revolutionary process with them, and we’d explain that we weren’t criminals, but political prisoners and that we saw them as workers just doing their job.

The director didn’t fight with us anymore. In reality he had stopped giving orders in the prison. Negotiations with him had become very easy. He’d say “yes” to everything. And we didn’t cause trouble either.

Susana: They didn’t mess with us and we followed the rules, schedules and all. At 6 in the evening a bell rang and everyone knew it was time for lock-up.

With the compañeras who arrived sick we’d demand that they be treated or that they gave us medicines. The prison management would try to do it. In a way that was because the center’s authorities respected COPPES, as did other prisoners. Once trade unionist Febe Elizabeth Vásquez, a heroine of the FENASTRAS massacre a few months later, came to visit us and told us the director was a relative of hers. I think that also helped.

“There was repression but there was a lot of solidarity”

Bernabé: In 1982 the National Guard engaged in a wave of threats toward our families. And they followed up on them with the daughter of one compañero, Arturo, also a leader of the energy sector union, STCEL. They took her from her house and killed her right in her neighborhood, Santa Ana. After I had been in prison for two years, they captured my wife together with Saúl Villata and other compañeros , along with my little daughter, and disappeared them. That was something incredibly painful.

There were national elections in 1983. So the Public Treasury police came with a list and separated the COPPES leadership, including Toño Morales, Roger Blandino Nerio and me. They tortured all of us with beatings, hoods, rifle butts in our backs, and of course interrogations. A hooded guy filmed it all. We understood this filming was so they could take back proof. They probably used it to show their power and lift up their people’s morale so they could deal more forcefully with the electoral moment.

Soon after that we were deluged with visits: the Red Cross, US and European congress people... And we must praise the ongoing work of the popular movements for our liberation. In the communiques, on the streets, at all times the national and international demands were for amnesty.

“That support helped keep them from killing us”

Susana: We had support from trade unions in the United States and Europe, and from Amnesty International. This helped keep them from killing us. It also helped push our judicial cases along.

All the political prisoners received regular visits from the mothers of three committees: the “Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero” Committee of Mothers and Relatives of Prisoners, Disappeared and Politically Assassinated of El Salvador (COMADRES); the Committee of Christian Mothers and Relatives of Prisoners, Disappeared and Assassinated (COMAFAC): and the Committee of Relatives of Victims of Human Rights Violations (CODEFAM).
The compañeros of the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission of El Salvador (CDHES) also came. At first they just came to take our testimonies, but later they would support us with food, clothes and candles. They were also a communication channel for us with our compañeros on the outside.

“We didn’t know we were victims”

Bernabé: In 1993 the Legislative Assembly approved the General Amnesty Law for the Consolidation of Peace and the last political prisoners were released. Most of us continued with our political work, strengthening the FMLN as a party and working within the social movement.

Susana: We human beings are very contradictory. After the Peace and Amnesty Accords, when all the political prisoners were set free, I felt nostalgic for COPPES. Of course I was happy that other compañeros didn’t have to go through what we had, but we had also grown fond of the structures and felt the emptiness that COPPES left us.

Bernabé: Little by little those of us who had been COPPES started to meet and talk about our situations. We realized that many of us had similar problems. We had all returned to work to the same jobs we had during the 1970’s, but now older we realized we hadn’t paid in enough years to be able to retire. We also had problems with our families. Many of us couldn’t maintain a home. Some had drug and alcohol problems; others were in psychiatric hospitals. Still others were out selling lottery tickets or junk. We didn’t have a normal life.

All of this was the price of the process. We still hadn’t realized that we really were victims. It seems contradictory with all the work we did denouncing, but among ourselves the idea that we were strong and brave prevailed. We weren’t clear about what having been victims of torture and grave human rights violations implied. Our political-ideological formation didn’t allow us to see how we’d been harmed, nor did we seek to heal our psychological problems left by the trauma. We’d say we’d gotten over it, but it wasn’t true.

“We needed to regroup”

Bernabé: We saw that we needed to regroup, this time for the purpose of healing psycho-social wounds and continue fighting for human rights. We were able to gather together around 60 compañeros and compañeras , including some from outside the country, in Canada, the US, Sweden, Holland, Mexico... In 2013, in a public act, the Ministry of Interior granted us legal status.

Susana: Today what we’re doing is trying to find a way to heal through psychological care. We’ve received support from IDHUCA (the Human Rights Institute of the UCA) and psychology students from the University of El Salvador. Last year we participated in a collective process of workshops on psychological care and those of us who did felt the benefit of freeing ourselves from the burden. We worked with texts, drawings and activities that strengthen our spirit.

“it’s harder for the men”

Susana: It’s a little harder for the men. The level of harm done to men and women is equal but the capacity to share and get over things is harder for men because of machismo. We can’t force them to externalize what they feel the same way we do.

In these workshops you share with people who have lived through the same thing you have. They even help you get along with your family. Now I have a little more patience. In my case, it has helped me understand why I react a certain way. I’ve overcome the stress I would feel inside a closed-in space or in crowds of people, where I’d feel I was going to drown. It doesn’t cause those rapid heartbeats anymore. And the nightmares have decreased. Before, every time we were nearing September 18th I’d start having nightmares and couldn’t sleep. But last year, I didn’t have any.

Bernabé: The results of psychotherapy are positive. Today compañeros can talk about their cases, give their testimony, and eat, sleep and live better. We have compañeros who don’t have to go to the psychiatric hospital for those pills that “calm down the crazy ones” because they don’t need them anymore.

“We want to meet the persecutors”

Bernabé: We, along with other human rights organizations, are demanding justice and moral reparations. We aren’t asking for money. We want to meet the persecutors. We want to be able to ask them: “Why did you do it?” We have many questions about all the harm they caused us.

We’ve had access to some declassified documentation from the CIA. The “Yellow Book” has also come out, a list compiled by the repressive forces during the period between 1980-1992, that contains a picture and a brief description of 1,975 politically persecuted people during that era. Most of us are in there.

We’ve filed 12 lawsuits in the Prosecutor General’s Office. In most cases they haven’t even been assigned a number, which is like saying they don’t exist. Neither do they have an assigned prosecutor.

We’ve also taken cases to the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. We’ve presented three cases there, which are the ones whose corresponding national processes have been exhausted.

“How can I cower now?”

Susana: In 2013 I decided to file a suit
in the Prosecutor General’s Office for the violation of my human rights. A few days earlier some university students from the United States had come to record my testimony and I gave it to them. And that night when I got home, I was so afraid I couldn’t sleep. I thought: “I’m not going to file my lawsuit and I’m never going to give my testimony again.”

One always has moments when one wavers. But in the morning I watched the news and saw the same right wing from back then fighting against people for their own selfish interests and I thought: How is it possible that I cower now having gone through everything I went through?” so I went to file my lawsuit in the Prosecutor General’s Office. To date, the only advance has been that they gave the file a number. But I took the step and I’ll keep on fighting.

“What we want now is to help the compañeros

Bernabé: We’ve also been in dialogue with different university departments to share with them about historical memory. The result is that we have a team of psychology students who are sensitive and are collaborating with us. In fact, we’ve discovered some young ones who are the grandchildren of our compañeros and they didn’t even know their relatives’ history in the struggle.

Working with the youth is important. Developing the sensitivity of our country’s youth and of others who visit us from the United States is very important.

Susana: – Our plan is to help the compañeros who were political prisoners organize. We’re still very dispersed. We want to help them psycho-socially and encourage them to demand justice.

Back in those times they called us the “fifth front of the war” because we always had work to do. COPPES was like a filter, because whoever gave up information while being tortured couldn’t be a member. The compañeros outside felt a solidarity connection with us. They were always looking after our needs and our struggles. The struggles were coordinated. COPPES provided moral support for all those fighters during the war because a group of people who survived the tortures were a good example of revolutionary fortitude for all of the rest.

Those are the testimonies of Bernabé and Susana. The ex-COPPES continues to be a front in the struggle against injustice and a moral support for all those involved in social and political struggles in El Salvador.

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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