Central America | ¡ Presente !

Enrique Alvarez: ¡ Presente !

by John Lamperti


November 29, 1980: San Salvador, El Diario de Hoy, page 1.

Enrique Alvarez Córdova Found Shot 12 Times

"Yesterday morning along the highway to Corinto ... the body of Enrique Alvarez Córdova, President of the Democratic Revolutionary Front, was discovered. He had sustained twelve bullet wounds: ten in the back, one in the head and one in the arm, plus three other wounds in the back."

Enrique Alvarez as Minister of Agriculture, around 1970.

On 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.

The 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.

The 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.

Born 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.

Fifteen 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.

In 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.

He 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.

In 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.

Unfortunately 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.

1980 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.

During 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.

That 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.

Enrique 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.

Enrique 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


Last Updated: Wednesday, November 19, 2003 12:20 PM