Stories from the Rivers: Rio Lempa & Rio Sapo, El Salvador

Theresa Wolfwood, April, 2006

A long dusty cloud and a throb of engines insinuate into the square where a group of women and children wash clothes at the village well. Until then the loudest noise was the cry of a fretting baby. Beyond the village, surrounded by fields and woods, the Rio Lempa, twisting from the highlands of Honduras, makes its way through the broad fertile valley below to empty into the Pacific.

image 02

We, a small group of Canadian election observers, came to see with our own eyes the site of the terrible massacre of all 900 people in El Mozote, December 11, 1981 by the Atacal battalion of the Salvadorian military, whose officers were trained by the USA

in counter–insurgency warfare supported and funded by Regan’s USA regime and its “War on Communism”.

The memorial is simple – a wide wall of names behind stark black silhouettes of a family – fresh flowers lie at their feet.  Across from the washing place is a new church, built six years ago on the ruins of the old.

image 04The dust of the square holds the memory of all those women, men and children who were forced to inhale it as they were forced down on their faces to be searched and terrorized by the soldiers.


We saw the shells of buildings where women had been locked up. Men were executed, women were forced from their children, then shot; children locked in the church were shot through the windows. When all 900 were dead, the soldiers left to kill in another village. Silence fell; a distant neighbour hiding in the trees had heard the screams and the end of the screams; it was years before anyone believed her story. Homes and the church full of bodies were burned to the ground; other bodies were left in piles to rot.

image 06We were silenced by the palpable weight of grief and horror. We saw shells of burned homes, the lists and lists of the dead: the baby had stopped crying.


Then the silence was broken; the ground trembled as they came. Three military vehicles disgorged about 15 soldiers in camouflage gear- some with guns on their belts. image 08The USA army had arrived. No marks on their shirts, only that most wore military police insignia. After a cursory look at the memorial, they headed for the tienda for Pepsi, shouting and chatting, the female soldiers exclaiming in loud shrieks about the ‘the cute bags’ they just ‘gotta get’ from the store. The soldiers actually handed out candy (and I had always thought this was a myth) to the few children near the washing place. Soon the square was empty of villagers.


image10The soldiers questioned some of us – most of us turned our backs to them, we were in shock, among us were Salvadorian Canadians who had been guerilla fighters in this region – as they snapped photos of us and our vehicle. One said they were there on a reconnaissance mission, another said they were on a humanitarian mission to inoculate pigs and cows. We left before we might have learned if they came from a USA base in nearby Honduras or from the base that the right wing Arena Party government has welcomed in Comalapa near the San Salvador airport even though it is against the peace accords and did not have the required two-thirds majority vote in the house of deputies.


Hot, angry and shaken by the encounter with the brazen inheritors of a system of torture and murder we drove up the hillside to a local beauty spot. The Rio Sapo cascades clear, cool water through rapids and inviting pools. It has long been a favourite bathing and recreation sight for local residents and visitors. On our way down we were stopped by an armed image 12guard who told us that this was private property. A Salvadorian company has been given the right to dam the river for hydro-electricity without any of the legally required hearings or community consultations. For now people are still allowed access to the river.

But “NO PRESA” (no dam) is painted all over the road bridge and a large sign warns that communities united in resistance will not allow a dam to be built. We looked around the lovely unspoiled canyon, splashed in its clear rocky pools and wondered how it would feel to be told at gunpoint that our community swimming pool was now private property.

The world is everywhere including this remote corner of Central America. Has anything changed here? Yes, people now live in El Mozote again, women wash, men plow fields, babies cry, children play.

image 14The people of Rio Sapo openly resist the power of globalization and   privatization as others resist the re-militarization of their fragile land in electoral politics and social movements – testing the definition of peaceful democracy in every action. They know they  have support from the new governments of Venezuela and Bolivia and many vibrant and powerful movements in Latin America and the world; they understand and appreciate solidarity.

Near my home in Canada is a naval base, on the Pacific Ocean, used by the USA to test its maritime weapons delivery systems. I recently heard that the death of salmon in the Fraser River was a good excuse to build a dam on one of the world’s longest free running rivers.

Friends in El Salvador, our rivers flow into the same sea.  TW


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