November 27, two decades ago in the terrible year 1980, six men
were kidnapped from a meeting at San Salvador's Jesuit high school,
the Externado San José. They were tortured and murdered that
same day and their bodies dumped by the roadside outside the city.
All six were directors of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR),
a broad center-left coalition including labor, campesinos, two social
democratic political parties, the "popular" (mass) organizations,
two universities, plus members of the intellectual, professional
and religious communities. This was the civilian, political opposition
to the military-dominated government, and the assassinations ended
any hope for a political settlement of El Salvador's escalating
conflict. "Who am I going to talk to now?" asked U.S. Ambassador
Robert White. Eleven years of bloody civil war were underway.
official reaction? The government and the armed forces denied any
involvement and emphatically condemned the murders. Napoleón
Duarte, later to be president of El Salvador with strong U.S. backing,
was the leading civilian member of the governing junta. Duarte promised
a tough investigation. He said that the death of FDR president Enrique
Alvarez "hit him hard." Enrique was "a friend, a noble man with
a big heart" Duarte wrote later, and he meant it; the two had been
friends and basketball teammates in happier times during the 1950s
and 60s. But despite Duarte's claim no real investigation was ever
carried out. In 1993 the U.N. sponsored Truth Commission found "ample
evidence" that the crime had been committed by one or more of the
government security forces after discussions "at the highest level."
The Commission did not, however, determine who gave the fatal order
to kill the FDR leaders.
year 1980 was notorious for murder in El Salvador. The 12,000 killed
included a beloved archbishop, the rector of the national university,
and four U.S. churchwomen, three nuns and a lay missionary. Even
so Enrique Alvarez stands out among the victims, since he was a
wealthy man from one of "the fourteen families" who were said (with
some hyperbole) to control the destiny of the nation through their
economic power. "He was the first rich man who died in El Salvador
for the poor ... for his country, for his people, for the poor,"
says Monsignor Ricardo Urioste of San Salvador's archdiocese.
in 1930, "Quique" Alvarez had a comfortable and secure childhood
despite the hard times brought by the world depression. At age fourteen
he came to the United States to attend The Hackley School in Tarrytown,
New York. There he was a popular student and a star athlete who
set a school scoring record in basketball, played halfback in football,
and captained Hackley's tennis team for three years. Then came two
years at Rutgers. He joined Kappa Sigma fraternity, and the blurred
face in the third row of their yearbook photo belonged to "Henry"
Alvarez. Back home in the 1950s at first he led the life of a playboy.
Enrique was again an outstanding athlete in tennis, polo and basketball,
and was also noted for his generosity with teammates and friends.
A "divine" dancer, Quique was frequently seen with beautiful and
prominent girls. But he was also learning a lot about coffee and
cattle, two of the family's interests which he helped manage. In
short, he seemed a perfect example for his time and his class.
years later his youthful frivolity was gone and Enrique Alvarez
had growing national responsibilities. In 1967 he joined the government
as vice-minister of agriculture and cattle raising. Cramped by this
job he soon resigned, only to return in a few months to take the
top spot as minister. He was never a timeserver, this not so young
man. He worried about the conditions of the rural poor, the very
small farmers and farm workers, the campesinos. Their lives were
not rewarding: illiteracy 75 percent, average life span 40 years,
15 percent of children dying before reaching one year. Enrique thought
he could help them. He had intelligence and energy, plus position,
wealth, and family influence, and he could use these assets to make
some changes. Agrarian reform was his passion, and President Sánchez
Hernández had promised to implement the reform measures that
Enrique's ministry would design. Enrique would have made a convincing
New Dealer, and he planned to persuade his fellow landowners that
reforms and modest concessions to the peasants would provide social
insurance against a revolutionary explosion.
El Salvador it didn't work. Most of the great landowners were unwilling
to accept any changes; in their eyes reform was equal to
communism. But they were the power behind the military-run government,
and the Sánchez administration couldn't carry out the reforms
against their opposition. Enrique accepted re appointment from the
next president and tried again, with the same result. It seemed
that nothing could be achieved this way, and in 1973, after five
years working within two administrations, Enrique Alvarez resigned
from national government.
decided to put his ideas into practice on a small scale, bringing
the agrarian reform to a farm he owned in lowlands near Sonsonate.
The carefully nurtured herds of purebred diary and beef cattle at
his ranch "El Jobo" were winning prizes and starting to bring in
big profits as well. Enrique believed these profits should benefit
the workers. Instead of distributing individual cash bonuses, he
encouraged his employees to form an association and think collectively
about how to spend the farm's windfall. Health care for all was
their first priority, followed by creation of a fund for recreation
and sports. Gradually these campesinos, who throughout their lives
had waited for orders from their patrón, began to
learn to make decisions and take active roles in running the farm.
The goal, still a few years in the future, was for the workers to
own El Jobo themselves through a cooperative, buying their shares
with affordable loans from the ex-boss. Enrique was demonstrating
a model for rural development that could serve elsewhere as well,
if the will to implement it ever arrived.
October 1979 El Salvador had another chance. A military coup organized
by younger, reform-minded, officers overthrew the murderous and
ineffective regime of General Carlos Humberto Romero. A new military/civilian
junta brought some of the nation's best and brightest into a "revolutionary"
government pledged to an impressive program of reforms, which were
supposedly backed by the armed forces. Peaceful progress seemed
possible, and Enrique Alvarez, urged by Archbishop Oscar Romero
and by campesino organizations, joined in once again as Minister
of Agriculture. In December he spoke to the Salvadoran people about
plans for a real agrarian reform, plans more radical than those
the oligarchy rejected six years earlier.
for the nation, this final attempt failed. The old guard soon regained
control of the armed forces, which then consistently ignored orders
from the government and disregarded their own idealistic October
proclamation. At year's end all the civilians resigned from the
junta and the cabinet. The right-wing military and the oligarchy
were back in the saddle, with Christian Democrats providing the
civilian facade needed to maintain U.S. support.
was becoming a year of horrors. In January a huge peaceful demonstration
was met with police gunfire and at least 21 marchers (the official figure) were killed;
hundreds more wounded. Late in March Archbishop Romero was assassinated,
shot in the act of celebrating a mass. Out-and-out massacres were
also on the rise, and in May the Salvadoran and Honduran armies
collaborated to slaughter some 600 civilians as they tried to cross
the Río Sumpul, hoping to find safety on the Honduran side.
those months the civilian opposition stepped up its organizing,
and in April a wide spectrum of moderate and leftist organizations
and individuals joined in coalition to form the Frente Democrático
Revolucionário. Enrique Alvarez, who had put together an
important group of professionals and technicians dedicated to social
change, was chosen President of the FDR.
summer top FDR leaders traveled abroad in diplomatic missions seeking
understanding and support for their cause. In Washington Enrique
and others met for two hours with State Department officials. There
wasn't much communication. Earlier in the year Monsignor Romero
had urgently requested the U.S. government to send no more arms
or supplies to the Salvadoran military, saying they would only be
used for increased repression of the people. The Carter administration
thought it knew better and rejected the archbishop's plea. Enrique
Alvarez and his colleagues had no more impact, and the United States
continued to "help" El Salvador with military aid.
returned to El Salvador from Mexico early in October. Less than
two months later he was dead, along with the five others from the
FDR leadership; their mutilated bodies were dumped on roadsides
near the capital. Enrique had been shot 12 times, and his right
arm was nearly severed from his shoulder. The murderers called themselves
the "General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez anti-Communist
Brigade," named for El Salvador's military dictator of the 1930s.
In reality they were elements of the official security forces, increasingly
backed by the United States.
Alvarez Córdova was born and raised in the privileged class
those same armed forces existed to protect. How could such a man--together
with campesinos, workers, teachers, priests and nuns--fall victim
to El Salvador's reign of terror? The answer is complicated, but
it is also simple. Enrique had, very consciously, chosen the side
of the majority of the people. Salvadoran poet Alfonso Quijada Urías
came close to the heart of it. In "The murder of the polo champion"
he wrote, "They killed him ... above all because he began to walk
like a poor man among the poor."
Note: This article appeared in Peacework Magazine, November 2000. Peacework
is published by the American Friends Service Committee in New England.
Another article about El Salvador, describing a current problem
of U.S. military presence, is here