The SHARE Blog

Three weeks in article

September 4, 2017

Hola! My name is Claire Eccles and I am the new Volunteer Communications Manager in the SHARE office in El Salvador. I just graduated from Berkeley High School in California and am taking a Gap Year before heading off to college.

I have been here for almost three weeks now and I am loving it! I take Spanish classes in the morning which is helpful in improving my communications and language skills, and then I come to volunteer at SHARE after class. I joined a local gym which helps me connect with my new local community. Like most people, I had my worries about coming to El Salvador. When I arrived I was expecting to see visible gang presence (and in fact was looking for it from the drive from the airport home), violence, corruption, and all the other stereotypes surrounding El Salvador. I was pleasantly taken aback to see workers peacefully taking the bus home, families playing at parks, children walking their dogs and other everyday activities you see in places where people live. I did not, and still have not, seen any gang violence, catcallers, robberies etc. People have been super friendly to me, greeting me every time I pass. Beyond that, the community at SHARE is incredible. Volunteering with SHARE is an enriching experience. My first day here I went to San Jose Las Flores and Guarjila to have a workshop with women of Guarjila about food sovereignty and encourage the consumption of healthy green foods. Right from the start, I have been participating in the community! Anabell, Laura, and Isabel are all very hardworking, friendly, and enthusiastic individuals. They all make me feel included in this close knit community.

I live with Isabel, the field office director at SHARE, her son Oscar and their dog Viejo. Isabel is welcoming, caring, and protective. For example, every day she drives me to my Spanish class and picks me up every afternoon, just to make sure I am safe and not exposed to any danger. She makes delicious food both at work and at the house. She lives in a very safe neighborhood with a beautiful park and nice gym less than a 5-minute walk away. Her house is charming and my room is lovely. Additionally, they have a fantastic hammock in the house right next to my room which I spend a large majority of my free time on.

I truly am enjoying my time here. I wake up at 5 am every morning eager to start my day–I wouldn’t have considered doing that in Berkeley. The people I have met through my Spanish school and SHARE have been nothing short of kind hearted, outgoing, and eager to explore. Although the country of El Salvador is relatively small, the landscape here is vast and beautiful. This country’s west coast is filled with gorgeous beaches to play, swim, and surf. It has five large lakes and 26 volcanoes–more than enough to keep me entertained for four months. Looking around you immediately notice the boundless greenery and plants that fill this country. From hikes in the mountain to fishing on lakes, this country has it all.

As Chimamanda Adichie said in a fascinating Ted talk called “The Dangers of a Single Story,” “if we hear only a single story about another person or country, we risk a critical misunderstanding.” This is very applicable with El Salvador. If you only listen to the media and don’t experience it yourself, you will fail to understand the incredible culture, history, and people of El Salvador.

Delegation Spotlight: Ruby

April 20, 2017

Our blog series, Delegate Spotlight, feature past participants from SHARE’s major delegations. A delegate is someone who travels with a group (delegation) to El Salvador to learn about the history, politics, and people to better accompany the Salvadoran people. Interested in becoming a SHARE delegate? Check out our major delegation page for information on the upcoming Women Leaders Across Borders trip in May/June 2017!
 Why I decided to participate in a SHARE delegation: 
At my school, there are a few different trip offerings besides the trip to El Salvador. However, the delegation to El Salvador with SHARE has a very different itinerary, structure, and purpose than these other trips. I was vaguely aware of these differences, but really came to understand them at the trip information night that I attended in the fall, and then of course throughout our delegation. During this presentation, the teachers spoke to us about the ideas of solidarity and accompaniment, which I have come to understand in great depth. This was not to be a service trip or a relaxing vacation, but something completely different. The unique itinerary of this trip, and our unique roles as participants as listeners, learners and observers, is what really spoke to me. I knew right away that this was not a trip I could easily recreate with my family, as the connections that SHARE has to incredible NGOs, activists and communities on the ground in El Salvador were truly special.
The most memorable part of the trip: 
For me, the most memorable part of the trip, which I continue to think about daily even now (almost a month after I have returned home) is the time that we spent in Huisisilapa. I continue to think a lot about the kids and families that I met there, especially because I have been lucky enough to be able to be in touch with my host-sister, Jennifer, via Facebook. Whether it be singing songs with the young children at the preschool, watching music videos in the hammocks with teenage daughters in my homestay, or dancing with the kids from the elementary school, there are so many specific moments and interactions with the kids from Huisisilapa that I will not forget. There are also specific images that have stuck with me, many of them as simple as the streets, the home that I stayed in, and sport court (where we had dances), the field, the store, etc. The community members and hosts who spoke with us shared histories and stories that I will also hold with me for a long time.

Delegation Spotlight: Megan

April 4, 2017

Our blog series, Delegate Spotlight, feature past participants from SHARE’s major delegations. A delegate is someone who travels with a group (delegation) to El Salvador to learn about the history, politics, and people to better accompany the Salvadoran people. Interested in becoming a SHARE delegate? Check out our major delegation page for information on the upcoming Women Leaders Across Borders trip in May/June 2017!

Megan (middle) poses with Norma (left) and Sandra (right), Huisisilapa

What was my favorite part? My favorite part of this experience was my homestay in Huisisilapa! I met many people in Huisi that I already miss, and would love to see again the next time I visit. The community was welcoming and friendly, and extremely generous and selfless. Specifically, the second homestay was my favorite part, because we already had made some friends and were becoming closer with our homestay families when we saw them one last time before leaving. We played a second game of soccer, which was even more fun than the first, and we had a talent show and a dance, which helped us connect more with the kids in the community. I had an amazing time while I was in Huisi, and I did not even realize until our bus pulled away from Huisi for the final time how upset I was to leave the community that I had begun to love so tremendously.  

How was I challenged? I was challenged by a lot of the meetings that our delegation attended, because it is hard to hear stories about people suffering, and it is also hard to comprehend the fact that we live such privileged lives while there are innocent people that live in hardship. One of the most challenging meetings was at ARCOIRIS

Northwest delegation, Share El Salvador, UCRES-CRIPDES students, and sister communities participed in the 40th Anniversary of the Commemoration of Padre Rutilio Grande at El Paisnal

when we met with a few transgender women who shared their personal stories. My fellow delegates and I assumed that we were at this meeting to simply hear the stories, but it turns out that these women wanted our help, and we found ourselves feeling unable to do so. However, even though this was a difficult task, these women were able to challenge us into coming up with some ideas of how to help prevent violence towards transgender women in El Salvador. Each one of the meetings I attended was well worth the challenge because uncomfortable situations allow you to learn more than you expected.

To those thinking about joining one of SHARE’s delegations: I would recommend joining a SHARE delegation to anyone traveling to El Salvador! I believe that SHARE was the reason that my visit in El Salvador was so memorable. The trip coordinators that accompanied my school were incredible! I learned a lot about El Salvador from them, and they were very friendly to my classmates and I, and by the end of the two weeks, they had already begun to feel like family. They also translated every meeting that our delegation attended and made sure that we had plenty of safe food to eat and clean water to drink during our two week stay. SHARE provided us a safe and unforgettable experience that I will never forget.

Delegate Spotlight: Jamie

Our blog series, Delegate Spotlight, feature past participants from SHARE’s major delegations. A delegate is someone who travels with a group (delegation) to El Salvador to learn about the history, politics, and people to better accompany the Salvadoran people. Interested in becoming a SHARE delegate? Check out our major delegation page for information on the upcoming Women Leaders Across Borders trip in May/June 2017!

My name is Jamie and I am a student from Seattle, Washington, in the United States. I was a part of the Northwest School SHARE Delegation in March, 2017.

Why did I decide to participate? I initially decided to participate in the SHARE delegation because I saw it as a great opportunity to expand my limited world view and learn about people with who live with different realities than me.

What did I gain? From this experience I learned a lot about the history of El Salvador that I was unaware of, as well as about the culture and how people live in the country. I also gained a new sense of global citizenship.

What was my favorite part? The most memorable part of the trip for me was when our delegation met with some survivors of the Civil War at the Monument to Truth and Memory and they told us stories of how they were personally affected by the war.

My favorite part of the experience was getting to know our Delegation leader and many other wonderful Salvadorans we met.
How was I challenged? I was challenged to accept the reality of the atrocities committed during the war. At times it seemed as though the history we learned and the stories people told us from the war were impossible; how could people do such horrible things to each other? It was just challenging to comprehend.

To those thinking about joining one of SHARE’s delegations: Do not let fear stop you. The experience you will have will be worth any perceived danger reflected in the media.

How does your experience continue to inspire you in your work/life/passions today? After learning about this history and the lives of many Salvadorans, I am inspired by the passion with which people are fighting for human rights. I am motivated to do my best to have a positive impact on the world.

Walls, Security and Extraction – Exploring the Root Causes of Honduran Migration

February 9, 2017

written by Alejandro Artiga-Purcell

Root Causes of Migration Delegation with The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH)

The Rio Blanco community has resisted the construction of a hydroelectric dam for three years

Alejandro Artiga-Purcell, author, serves as an international observer at a demonstration against freeway tolls in Honduras

Members of COPINH fighting to protect the Rio Gualcarque

The Migration Crisis

Walls, security and extraction—these have become the pillars of US foreign policy on Central American immigration this past decade. Purportedly designed to stem the tide of immigration, current US policy exacerbates and actively creates situations that force immigration. The extractivist model of development prioritizes the privatization of more and more public resources—energy, minerals, water, land—leading to the consolidation of wealth for a few and poverty for the many. Security, supposedly justified to combat gang violence and corruption, is also vital to secure corporate access to these valuable resources, and to oppress all those who resist their forced displacement and dispossession. Walls not only serve as financial barriers to further extract wealth (for example, in the form of tolls on privatized highways), but also provide physical hurdles to the movement of those displaced and dispossessed people.

Mainstream explanations in media, government and international institutions like the United Nations point to the vicious cycle of economic underdevelopment and gang violence as the primary drivers of immigration. The “Alliance for Prosperity Plan,” implemented as a response to the migration spike in 2014, reflects this perspective. Intended to crack down on gang violence and alleviate poverty in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, the $750 million budget approved by the US Congress for 2016 focused primarily on aid for “development assistance” and “security measures” (Iesue, 2016).

However, as a member of a delegation to Honduras seeking to uncover the “root causes” of immigration this past December, quite a different story emerged. Surprisingly, as we met with indigenous communities, farmers, maquila workers, church leaders, human rights activists, and returned deportees, few mentioned gangs or underdevelopment at all. Instead, the recurring themes were the rampant privatization and extraction of public resources, facilitated by political corruption at the highest levels of government, and enforced through the militarization of the country and the criminalization with impunity of all those who dissent.

Whose Development?

Vastly disparate communities within Honduras gave strikingly similar testimonies. The Garifuna, a coastal indigenous people, are fighting against a five-star tourist resort seeking to displace them from their home of over 200 years; Lenca indigenous in the Honduran highlands are threatened by hydroelectric dam and mining projects that seek to divert, over consume, and pollute the rivers that sustain their livelihoods; Campesinos in the Bajo Aguan valley face harassment, disappearance and death at the hands of paramilitary and military groups for demanding that African Palm plantation magnates return their illegally stolen land. Furthermore, national protests continue against the privatization of the country’s major highways and the subsequent proliferation of tolls.

In an interview with Karen Spring, a coordinator for the Honduras Solidarity Network, these resorts, dams, mines, palm plantations and privatized highways are concretely linked. Mining, a hugely energy intensive industry, is directly tied to the proliferation of hydroelectric dams. Tourism and resource extraction rely on networks of roads and highways to bring people and goods in and out of zones of production and consumption. All of these industries demand large swaths of land, water and energy—opened up through privatization—to operate at an economically viable scale.

Consequently, these cases represent distinct but connected manifestations of a larger project geared towards an extractivist model of development—the very type of development advanced by the Alliance for Prosperity. Each tells a story of exclusion and extraction through the privatization and consolidation of public resources. The accumulation of wealth for a few political and corporate elites propels the dispossession, displacement and repression of the Honduran people—stripped of their access to clean environments, health, security and livelihoods, often without consent or compensation.

One way out of the predicament is immigration. Thus, in a cruel irony, one of the key remedies prescribed for reducing immigration, namely economic development through large projects that attract foreign and national capital, actually helps produce the conditions of poverty and repression that force Hondurans to flee.

The Myth of Security

The Alliance for Prosperity Plan’s other priority—bolstering security—plays an equally important role in increasing rather than stemming the flow of migrants. In Honduras, larger (often US funded) budgets for the military and police forces as well as increased impunity have been integral to the suppression of public dissent and community organizing. Those who resist development projects, human rights violations and environmental degradation are subject to legal or extralegal persecution. This past year, the anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness ranked Honduras as the most dangerous country in which to be an environmental activist (Miroff, 2016). This title gained global recognition with the still unsolved murder of internationally renowned human rights and indigenous leader, Berta Caceres, despite her supposed protection by the Honduran state (NACLA HONDURAS). In an interview with Tomas Gomez, Caceres’ replacement as the director of COPINH, he made it clear that he had faced similar death threats and assassination attempts (Guevara-Rosas, 2016).

Even those not protesting large development projects are under constant attack. Two leaders of the Agrarian Reform movement in the Bajo Aguan valley were killed just a few months before our arrival (Lakhani, 2016). Others in the movement came out of hiding to meet with us and share their experience of criminalization as they faced lawsuits and terrorist charges. In the city, unionized workers at a maquila who wish to remain anonymous for their personal safety, spoke of having to constantly travel in groups as a precaution against kidnap or worse. Demanding only the right to organize for fair wages, safe working conditions and maternity leave, these workers cherish daily activities such as hugging their children goodbye in the morning, because of their painful awareness that they may not return home alive.

Complicating the Rhetoric of Gang Violence

The targeting of strategic leaders in environmental, human rights, agrarian reform, and labor movements belies official efforts to blame these tragedies on random gang violence and crime. In Honduras, corruption scandals are well documented. Police officers have taken their cut of the “war tax” (the price paid to gangs to not be killed), conspired against anti-drug officials, and turned a blind eye to gang and drug related violence, further adding to a culture of impunity (Malkin and Arce, 2016). Currently, Honduran and US intelligence officers are investigating the close ties between narco traffickers and officials at every level of the Honduran government, including police officers, mayors, congress people, and judges (Gagne, 2016).

Highlighting the blurred lines between gang violence and state-sponsored violence in Honduras in no way refutes that gangs and cartels pose serious problems that contribute to everyday insecurity and repression. However, as Karen Spring explains, “Gangs are not autonomous actors. They are enabled by impunity, they are enabled by corruption, and they are enabled by…the mafia government of Honduras.” Consequently, any analysis of immigration that stops with a critique of gangs and their so-called random acts of violence constitutes an overly superficial and misleading representation of a much more complex reality.

Towards a better understanding of Migration’s Root Causes

While recognizing the varied motivations of Hondurans who migrate north, it is critical to attend to the more general political and economic failures that propel poverty, violence, gang activity, and migration. It should not be forgotten, furthermore, that over the past century the United States and “the West” (often embodied in institutions like the World Bank, the Inter Monetary Fund, and the Inter-American Development Bank) has played a key role in advancing the interests of foreign direct investment-based development in Honduras. Just this century US foreign policy sponsored the 2009 coup d’état and promoted the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—both of which have wrought havoc in the country’s political, economic and social arenas.

The Alliance for Prosperity is just the most recent iteration of US imperialism in Honduras. Founded on misleading rhetoric attributing immigration to gang violence and underdevelopment, the Plan not only mis-diagnoses the root causes of immigration, but actually perpetuates the underlying disease. The “development” the Plan promotes is a ruthless extractivist development that prioritizes profit and growth above human rights and environmental well-being. The “security” it emphasizes primarily secures transnational corporations and national elites’ rights to access and extract privatized resources by dispossessing the larger Honduran population.

Calls to Action

The problem of the current migration crisis is complex and steeped within a long history of colonialism, imperialism and failed development policies. No silver bullet solution exists. However, the lack of a simple fix-all policy leaves open the possibility for a plurality of responses. In North America, we bear the responsibility to pressure our heads of state, congress people, and local representatives, to both acknowledge our country’s role in perpetuating forced immigration and also to act on it. One concrete example of such a legislative action is to reintroduce and pass the Berta Caceres Human Rights in Honduras Act or “Berta Bill” which prohibits US aid to the Honduran police and military until certain human rights measures are met. A next step is not just to cut military and police aid to Honduras, but to redirect that aid to sectors where it can help and empower Hondurans—such as education, healthcare, and other social services.

However, solutions cannot only come from the top down, or from the North to the South. A major theme in the global Women’s March on January 21, 2017 was to stop building walls and start building bridges. Taking this commitment seriously requires that we build solidarity networks between countries, cities and communities. This is necessary now more than ever as the struggles Hondurans have faced for decades—the fight against walls, security and extraction—are also our own. In the age of Trump, we collectively face the wall on the US-Mexico border, the prohibition of Muslim immigrants, attacks on sanctuary cities, the displacement and oppression of indigenous communities at Standing Rock, increased criminalization of African Americans and the policing of women’s bodies and their right to choose, among others.

While these struggles are distinct and manifest in particular localities, they are inherently connected in a global struggle for justice. There may be frictions and contradictions between them, and indeed, no solution is complete. However, as Honduran communities facing threats to land, water, and livelihood continually reminded our delegation, our only option is to struggle for our rights. And our most valuable resources are each other.

Alejandro Artiga-Purcell is a SHARE Advisory Board Member and a graduate student at UC Santa Cruz in the Environmental Studies doctorate program. His research interests fall within the overlapping areas of Political Ecology, Enviornmental Justice and Development Studies. Alejandro’s work explores how and why material environments shape and are shaped by socio-political and economic relations of power, in the context of conflicts over gold mining and water governance in El Salvador, and Central America more broadly.

Works Cited:

Amnesty International Press Release “Activists’ murders turn Honduras for environmental

Bury, J., and Bebbington, A. (2013). “New Geographies of Extractive Industries in Latin America”, In Subterranean Struggles: New Dynamics of Mining, Oil, and Gas in Latin America, A. Bebbington and J. Bury Eds. University of Texas Press, Austin, TX: 27-66.

Gagne, David. “US Investigating Criminal Ties of Dozens of Honduras Elites: Report” InSightCrime, October 11, 2016, accessed on January 6, 2017 at:

Garcia, Mercedes, (2016) “Alliance for Prosperity Plan in the Northern Triangle: Not A Likely Final Solution for the Central American Migration Crisis” Council On Hemispheric Affairs – COHA

Gomez, Tomas. Personal Interview, December 12, 2016.

Guevara-Rosas, Erika. “Honduras/Guatemala: Attacks on the rise in world’s deadliest countries for environmental activists” Amnesty International, September 1, 2016. Accessed on January 6, 2017 at:

Horsley, Scott, “5 Things To Know About Obama’s Enforcement Of Immigration Laws”, NPR: Politics. August 31, 2016. Accessed on January 10, 2017 at:

Iesue, Laura, (2016) “The Alliance for Prosperity Plan: A Failed Effort for Stemming Migration” Council On Hemispheric Affairs – COHA

ICHR, (2015). “Indigenous Peoples, Afro-DEcendent Communities, and Natural Resources: Human Rights Protection in the Context of Extraction, Exploitation, and Development Activities”. Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Organization of American States (OAS), pp. 1-181.

Lakhani, Nina. “Two more Honduran land rights activists killed in ongoing violence”, The Guardian. October 19, 2016. Accessed January 18, 2017 at:

Miroff, Nick. “A killing in Honduras shows that it may be the world’s deadliest country for environmentalists” The Washington Post, WorldViews, March 3, 2016. Accessed January 2017 at:

Malkin, Elisabeth and Alberto Arce. “ Files Suggest Honduran Police Leaders Ordered Killing of Antidrug Officials” New York Times, Americas, April 15, 2016. Accessed on January 6, 2017 at:

Spring, Karen. Personal Interview, December 18, 2016.

Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura

October 26, 2016

We are excited to share with you a new book about the life and assassination of Sr. Maura Clarke, one of the churchwomen killed in El Salvador in 1980. Written by Eileen Markey, a delegate on our 2015 Remembering the Churchwomen delegation, Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sr. Maura explores not her murder, but her life and influences.

radicalfaithAs Eileen describes:

“This book traces not Maura’s murder but her life, asking how a beloved daughter from Queens, NY became a victim of the Cold War in a country far from home. In examining the forces that shaped Maura’s life, I was able to look closely at the inheritance of Irish nationalism, the immigrant experience in New York, the Cold War, the adaptations of the Catholic Church at Vatican II and the social and political movements that convulsed Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. Maura was shaped by each of these and is remembered with pride and affection by those who knew and worked with her–especially in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Her story continues to be relevant as the crimes of the 1980s in Central America begin to be prosecuted, the fall-out of those wars continue to reverberate in current immigration patterns, as Americans continue to grapple with the role of faith in public life and as we all negotiate a world of distraction and fear. Maura paid attention. She sincerely followed the very radical commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. I’ve tried to tell her story fully, with nuance and care so that this icon some of us know from prayer cards becomes a real woman again.”

The book may be ordered on Amazon or Indiebound.

Help spread the word about the book and Maura’s life by posting about the book on social media, asking your local bookstore to host a reading, teaching about it in college courses, or inviting Eileen to speak to your book club, school, parish study group, congregation, or organization. Download the book’s press release for contact information and to learn more.




Update from Some Women Leaders!

August 22, 2016


Last month there was a closing ceremony for a pilot education project aimed at adolescent girls in 9 education centers in the Tecoluca municipality in San Vicente. The project included workshops that taught the adolescent’s about gender equality, self-esteem, self-care, violence prevention, human rights, and sexual and reproductive health with the hopes of preparing girls to value their rights, prevent abuse, and distance themselves from violence.

To achieve these goals, it is important to have the support of local leaders and of the girls’ families. In El Salvador it is crucial for girls to receive an education creates the capacity to guarantee a better future for themselves and their families, and that permits true development in communities with a focus on solidarity and social justice. As they say, “Educating women is educating society.”SDC10053_________________________________________________________________________________

This past June an exchange was held between organized women from CCR and UCRES, with lots of support and participation from the Gender Units of the Las Vueltas and Chalatenango mayoralties and the Association of Vueltences Women. SHARE supports projects and organizations in both of these regions. The objective of the gathering was for the participants to share organizing experiences. The women from CCR talked about their organizing processes, and their work on the topic of food sovereignty and home gardens. They also talked about their experiences with micro loan cooperatives. At the same time, the women from UCRES shared the challenges they’ve had in their community, and the ways that they have solved them. Awards were given out to some of the leaders in both organizations. After, they visited the women’s municipal building in Las Vueltas, where there is a room for things like exercising, yoga, reading, and using the internet. It is an important space for women in the area. After, they visited a home garden where women shared their knowledge of plants that grow well in the area, and that have a high nutritional value. All of the amazing work these women are doing is possible thanks to supporters like you!b19fd380-3a1e-4ebe-a716-e48c81b10a91

International Sistering and Solidarity Delegation

August 18, 2016

Our International Sistering and Solidarity Delegation last month was a huge success. We were happy to see so many supporters, both new and old, attend the delgation and gathering in Arcatao, and share their experiences working with the solidarity movement. It was also an opportunity to celebrate our 30 year partnership with CRIPDES. All of this is possible thanks to supporters like you! We especially want to thank those that attended the delegation, or who donated to make it possible.

Here is the press release from all of the organizations involved, reaffirming our commitment to solidarity.


Screenshot of Arcatao Doc for Blog

The El Mozote Massacre: The Community

June 27, 2016

Guest post by Leigh Binford, author of The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications

For those who follow events in El Salvador, it’s a given that they will become acquainted at least casually with the El Mozote massacre. Along with the murder of three American nuns and one lay worker, the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, and the killing of six prestigious Jesuit intellectuals, their housekeeper, and her daughter at the Central American University, the El Mozote massacre was one of the government’s most egregious human rights violations. In this post I will describe the massacre itself as well as focus on some common misconceptions about El Mozote and the massacre.

The Massacre

Between December 11 and 13, 1981, the Salvadoran Altlacatl Battalion massacred more than a thousand men, women and children in and around the hamlet of El Mozote, located in the northeastern department of Morazán. The massacre occurred toward the end of the second year of a brutal civil war between the government and the rebel FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) that terminated in 1992. The war resulted in at least 75,000 dead and 7,000 disappeared, 85 percent at the hands of the government military and 10 percent by the paramilitary and death squads linked to them, according to a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report. Government forces committed dozens of massacres, but the massacre at and around El Mozote is the one that most people recall, in part because several journalists visited the area several weeks after the event and published articles in major U.S. newspapers that forced the newly-installed Reagan administration to undertake a cursory investigation.

Figure 2 El Mozote shortly after the massacre

El Mozote shortly after the massacre

When the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion entered El Mozote on December 10, the resident population had been swollen by an influx of people from surrounding rural areas, apparently heeding a suggestion passed along by a respected local merchant that those concentrating there would be spared by the soldiers during its planned scorched earth operation, aimed at an FMLN encampment several miles to the west. The Atlacatl troops assembled the population, forced people to lie face down (boca abajo) and roughly interrogated them. It then separated men and boys from women and children for the night. The killing began the morning of December 11 when soldiers marched most of the men from the church in small groups into the fields and wooded areas, where they forced them to lie on the ground and dispatched them with shots to their heads. Late in the afternoon, groups of women were led from the houses in which they had been interned and forced into another house where they were apparently machine gunned en mass. Rufina Amaya, believed by many to be the lone survivor of the massacre, was in one of the last of these groups. During the chaotic scene in which a few soldiers attempted to control more than a dozen desperate, begging, pleading, praying and crying women aware of the death that awaited them, Amaya dropped down behind a tree and was not seen by the distracted guards. Later, she crawled into an adjacent cactus field and eventually abandoned the area, though not before she heard the agonized cries as the soldiers killed dozens of children, hers included. Amaya was certainly the principal and most important witness, but dozens of people avoided detection.

Over the course of the next two days Atlacatl companies rampaged across the landscape, murdering all those they encountered, dispatching farm animals and burning homes. At least six hamlets were affected and the dead totaled a minimum of 1061 as of April 2012, according to a careful, genealogically-based study carried out among surviving family members in Morazán, San Miguel, San Francisco Gotera, and other destinations of people displaced by the war.

Forensic work conducted by the Argentine Anthropology Forensic Team (Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense, EAAF) in 1992-1993 and later during the first decade of the new millennium added more detail to our knowledge of the massacre and provided clear evidence that disputed the Salvadoran government’s repeated claims that FMLN guerrillas in El Mozote used civilians as human shields. Responsibility for the atrocity was put to rest in 2012 when President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) visited El Mozote on the twentieth anniversary of the peace accords that terminated the armed conflict and asked forgiveness from the residents for the government’s wartime actions. In April of that same year, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights heard the El Mozote case in Guayaquil, Ecuador and in a ruling made public on December 10, 2012—the significance of the choice of that date was clear—found uniformly for the plaintiffs in the case and ordered the government to make monetary and nonmonetary reparations.

The El Mozote massacre seemed to have come full circle, from atrocity and denial to admission and (hopefully) reparations. While reparations cannot undue the wrong committed, they might, according to psychologist María Sol Yáñez, make it possible for the survivors to “confide in life again and develop a life project.”

But missing from this story is any sense of or apparent interest in the social and economic relationships and beliefs that predominated in El Mozote and its environs before the civil war. Who died at El Mozote? How did they live? Few people ask these questions, and when they are asked, most of the answers provided are downright wrong. I want to share briefly my understanding of the pre-war community in the hope that doing so will cast new light on this atrocity and further dignify the lives that were snuffed out in it.

El Mozote Before the Massacre

I carried out ten fieldtrips to northern Morazán between 1991 and 2012, conducting interviews in municipalities through the region and participating in dozens of cooperative meetings, NGO orientations, local government functions, church services, fiestas and so on. While I was particularly interested in the civil war and reconstruction and reconciliation, I knew that I needed baseline knowledge of the pre-war period in order to be in a position to grasp local and sub-regional differences in degrees of adherence to the government, the actions of security and paramilitary forces, and incorporation into the FMLN. El Mozote, which means “The Thistle,” turned out to be unique and one-of-a-kind, the most unlikely site imaginable for the recruitment of people to an organization dedicated to overthrowing the government. No single factor explained the resistance that FMLN recruiters encountered in El Mozote. But the fact that most people residing in and around the hamlet had achieved substantial benefits from working within the system goes a long way to explain why they had little interest in seeing it replaced or opposing it.

A small group of local merchants and landowners spearheaded a series of impressive social and economic achievements. In the late 1950s the inhabitants spent several years raising money and donating labor in order to build the church in which the Atlacatl interned the men and boys before killing them. A decade earlier residents of El Mozote had formed a ten-person directorate, acquired a plot of land, constructed a rudimentary edifice and solicited a schoolteacher from a representative of the government Ministry of Education. A census enumerated 75 eligible schoolchildren, and in 1946 the ministry provided a teacher for the school, which locals named “El Jícaro” (The Calabash Tree). El Jícaro remained the area’s sole educational institution until a brick school building, constructed with government assistance, opened near the center of the hamlet in the 1970s.

Then in the mid-1970s El Mozote was chosen to be the site of an agricultural school that would train peasants in agriculture, bricklaying, carpentry and other practical skills. The school was to be a gift of the Venezuelan government. The government made location of the project in El Mozote contingent on the community’s acquisition of 5 manzanas (roughly 8.5 acres) of land. A portion of the land was donated, and the remainder was purchased with community funds obtained from the sale of the abandoned El Jícaro site. An engineer measured the site in 1978, and representatives from the Venezuelan embassy arrived to approve the project. But construction was suspended because of the deteriorating political situation in northern Morazán.

Figure 3

One of El Mozote’s main streets shortly after the massacre

Finally, it is important to mention the Cooperative Association of Agricultural Production “23 May,” established in 1975. Most of the half-dozen pre-war cooperatives that I have documented in northern Morazán began as “revolving credit” associations; their members bought raw materials and sold agricultural products but never accumulated sufficient capital or developed the organizational and accounting skills necessary to move into production. Members of the El Mozote cooperative were required to make small, monthly donations that were deposited in a bank account in San Francisco Gotera, the departmental capital. They used this money as collateral with which to contract bank loans for the purchase of fertilizer and cattle. During the cooperative’s last years, the membership bought a motorized machine to extract henequen fiber, used to make rope and other products, from the cactus plants that most of them cultivated. The machine cheapened the cost of production, although it also reduced the need for human labor power.

The accomplishments that I have discussed—and there were others—were initiated and moved forward by a core group of highly motivated peasants and petty merchants, but they improved the quality of life in El Mozote for everyone. Without leaving the area, people in and around El Mozote and nearby hamlets could purchase many key consumer items, send their children to school, attend church, and bury their dead. (Unlike other hamlets in northern Morazán, El Mozote also had its own cemetery.) These services saved time and resources for everyone who lived within walking distance of the hamlet center. Those who resided farther away had to expend more time to shop, worship, and attend school. With its “main street” and cluster of cement-block and tile-roofed buildings around the little plaza, El Mozote even looked like an embryonic municipal center, a far cry from most northern Morazanian hamlets. Some people in El Mozote even had aspirations of achieving municipal status; had they been able to do so, the educational, transportation and economic infrastructure would have improved even more.

There were, without a doubt, serious limits to the developments that I have documented here. The population grew rapidly in the decades before the civil war, leaving a growing number of people without land or without enough of it on which to sustain a household, for which reason many males migrated seasonally to coffee and other agro-export areas in the west and northwest. Some people even abandoned Morazán altogether. But compared with the vast majority of those residing outside municipal centers, people in and around El Mozote were in a privileged situation. In effect El Mozote was a relatively successful example of liberal rural development theory put into practice, the kind of community about which USAID bureaucrats rhapsodize. Its success goes a considerable way to explain why few people were attracted by the FMLN call to arms, and why fewer still heeded that call, as rebel spokespersons admitted. Many people in El Mozote had little to gain and much to lose by opposing the system. That makes it all the more ironic that their community was eradicated by government forces.

Correcting the Misconceptions

In addition to adding to our knowledge about the El Mozote before the massacre, I want to speak to three common misconceptions about the massacre. The three common misrepresentations are the following: first, that all or almost all the inhabitants died in the massacre; second, that El Mozote had escaped political violence until the Atlacatl battalion conducted its scorched earth operation in December of 1981; and third, that most residents in the hamlet were evangelical Protestants. These three misrepresentations have been produced and reproduced in books, articles, blog posts and elsewhere for over two decades.

Multiple Survivors

The first of those misrepresentations is that all or almost all the population was wiped out in the massacre. It is a fact that Rufina Amaya, a humble peasant woman, married to Domingo Claros and mother of six children, who is believed by many to have been the only survivor, was the only person who was rounded up by the Atlacatl, marked for imminent death and then escaped, though José Guevara (later known as “Chepe Mozote”), ten-years old at the time of the massacre, ran from soldiers when he observed them hanging children from a tree near the school. However, dozens of people left their homes shortly ahead of Atlacatl soldiers and hid nearby; they heard or observed as people were lined up and shot and their homes torched. Most of these survivors found their way to the United Nations refugee camp in Colomoncagua, Honduras, where they remained until camp residents returned to northern Morazán in late 1989 and early 1990 to form Community Segundo Montes. Numerous survivors of the massacre, including Rufina Amaya, resided in Segundo Montes and I had no difficulty locating and speaking to them during the summer of 1993. Indeed, Rufina Amaya was only one among a number of people who went to the departmental capital of San Francisco Gotera in 1990 to file a formal complaint about the massacre. Over the course of the next fifteen years, former residents of El Mozote and other hamlets wiped out in the Atlacatl operation pursued justice (to no avail) with the assistance of Tutela Legal of the San Salvador archdiocese.

The number of witnesses willing to come forward and give testimony multiplied after 2006, when a human rights organization formed in the now repopulated El Mozote. Dozens of people contributed written and videotaped testimony in a 2010 complaint delivered to the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights and later to judges of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which heard the case in April 2012 in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Three women born in northern Morazán made the trip to Ecuador in order to give verbal testimony before the court: Dorila Márquez de Márquez of El Mozote, María del Rosario López Sánchez of La Joya, and María Margarita Chicas Márquez of Arambala. These women survived because they lived on the edges of the operation where the killing was selective and not within the operation zone where it was complete (María Margarita), or because Atlacatl soldiers “missed” the house, perhaps thinking that it had been abandoned (Dorila), or because they did not trust the army and left just before it arrived (María del Rosario).

It seems certain that many people from outlying areas concentrated in the hamlet center, probably because they were told by Marcos Díaz that they would be spared. However, many others either ignored Díaz’s warning or did not learn of it and remained in their homes. Most of the survivors—Rufina Amaya and José Guevara excepted—lived outside the hamlet center or in rural settlements scattered over the extensive countryside. This was a chaotic time and people made all manner of decisions based on incomplete and uncertain information as well as their own beliefs concerning the army’s intentions.

Given what I have said, one might wonder about the proportion of the population, and not just the number, killed in the massacre. It was, I think, much smaller than is generally believed. During the summer of 1993, I collected 14 genealogies from people originating from El Mozote and the surrounding area who had either begun to repopulate the community or were living in Segundo Montes. These 14 extended family units included 586 persons alive in December 1981 on the eve of the arrival of the Atlacatl to El Mozote. According to interviewees, 168 persons (28.6 percent) died in the massacre. What of the remaining 71.4 percent? The vast majority had already left El Mozote in the months, weeks, days or just minutes before the massacre occurred. Several large groups of civilians were led to safety by FMLN guides, well informed about the coming operation and aware of the potential for a massive human rights violation. Readers will be surprised to learn that one of the guides was Joe David Sanderson, an American adventurer who joined the FMLN in January of 1981. (Sanderson himself died in combat on April 27, 1982 near the Torola River and his remains lie somewhere beneath the ground in northern Morazán.) In short, most area inhabitants were driven by the spread of political violence in northern Morazán to seek safety outside the area, while many that remained were guided out by the FMLN. Otherwise the loss of life would have been several times greater.

Political Violence

This brings me to the second misconception about El Mozote, which projects the absence of political violence during the late 1970s and beginning of the 1980s. The Atlacatl assault seemed to come out of nowhere and targeted a population that trusted in the government and its military forces. El Mozote was certainly less conflictive than many other communities in northern Morazán, but it was far from the placid island in a sea of armed confrontation some maintain. Based on fieldwork over two decades and an exhaustive study of the available documentation, I conclude that there occurred a minimum of twenty politically-motivated murders and assassinations in and around El Mozote between January 1980 and early December 1981. The majority took place not in El Mozote proper but in nearby hamlets and rural areas. The violence was dispersed over a wide area and was intermittent rather than continuous, which made it extremely difficult for people to get a firm handle on the reasons for it or the causal agents who enacted it. In northern Morazán as in San Salvador (or Guatemala or Argentina), people learning of an assassination tended to presume guilt rather than innocence. “Por algo murió” (S/he must have died for a reason) was a common response. Of course speakers taking this tact usually knew that they were innocent of political wrongdoing, knowledge that might have made many feel less vulnerable than they in fact were. Even so, the rise in politically-motivated violence in the area, and the more acute violence elsewhere in northern Morazán—where death squads regularly executed or disappeared people and the FMLN battled the army and National Guard—convinced growing numbers of people to leave the zone.

Political Conservatism

The third misconception concerns the argument that the population’s political passivity could be explained by its embrace of evangelical Protestantism associated with pro-government sentiments. However, the residents of the hamlet were overwhelmingly Catholic, albeit traditionalist or conservative in their orientation as opposed to the more radical Liberation Theology current.

José Carmen Romero, the local catechist or lay preacher, had indeed studied Liberation Theology at El Castaño in the department of San Miguel, but he failed to implement the teachings when he returned to Morazán and remained faithful to Fr. Andrés Argueta, for many years the region’s sole priest. Argueta urged the poor to accept their fate, promising that suffering on earth would receive its reward in the afterlife. Ironically, Argueta’s nephew, Miguel Ventura, was appointed curate of the newly-created Torola parish in 1972. Ventura was trained in Liberation Theology in a San Salvador seminary; when he attempted to organize poor workers and peasants to improve their lives, he clashed with his uncle. Ventura cultivated a coterie of progressive catechists who developed a network of Christian Base Communities (CEBs) in which poor people analyzed their lives through the insights gained from Bible discussion and worked together to resolve some of their most pressing problems. When the CEBs in Torola and elsewhere were harassed by the National Guard, and as threats against the peasants multiplied and people began to disappear, Ventura even put catechists in contact with Rafael Arce Zablah, an early leader of one of the factions that eventually formed the FMLN. But Ventura never visited El Mozote, which was located in the midst of the Jocoaitique parish controlled by Argueta, his uncle.

Evangelical groups did recruit and function in rural areas outside of El Mozote, but in northern Morazán evangelicals exercised limited influence until the civil war concluded. The political conservatism of many people in El Mozote is probably best explained by the combination of material progress (compared to other rural hamlets)—which I discussed above—and the traditionalist religious message imparted by Fr. Argueta and his local surrogate, José Carmen Romero. Even so, I’ve also suggested that responses to the growth in political violence in northern Morazán and rumors of an army invasion were understood in a wide variety of ways, and those understandings informed different courses of action: some people left early, some left just ahead of the Atlacatl’s arrival. About 30 percent of the pre-war population remained, and was murdered.

A historical and ethnographic understanding of El Mozote and the surrounding area teaches us that while the lives of people living in northern Morazán might seem simple, they were really quite complex. Moreover, people living in and around El Mozote were, no less than ourselves, products of history. Their understandings were historically and culturally shaped. They reasoned from and not outside those understandings, and it is clear that however much some people had benefited from the system, there existed a great deal of distrust in the government and its army. Had that distrust not existed, many more people likely would have died.


Leigh Binford is a Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York. He began working on human rights and development in northern Morazán in 1991 and has made ten field trips to the region. He is the author of The El Mozote Massacre: Human Rights and Global Implications.


Delegate Spotlight: Mary Louise

April 1, 2016

Our blog series, Delegate Spotlight, feature past participants from SHARE’s major delegations. A delegate is someone who travels with a group (delegation) to El Salvador to learn about the history, politics, and people to better accompany the Salvadoran people. Interested in becoming a SHARE delegate? Check out our major delegation page for information on the upcoming International Solidarity Delegation in July!

Mary Louise Chesley-Cora

Spotlight On: Mary Louise Chesley-Cora, Hockessin, DE

SHARE Delegation Experience: 2015 Churchwomen Commemoration Delegation

Why did I decide to participate? There was a strong spiritual “pull” to look at this possibility and then to take steps needed to participate. Initially, I knew no one in the delegation and went by myself.

What did I gain? I gained a much greater understanding of what happened in El Salvador in the past 50 years and the unfortunate role the US government played in the civil war there causing the deaths of thousands of the people as well as a greater appreciation of what is presently happening to build up hope and justice for the people, especially those who continue to suffer injustice and threats of terror from gangs and organized crime (mostly women and children).  I was inspired by the strength of the women who seem fearless and determined to make their country a beautiful and safe place to live.

What was most memorable? The most memorable day was being with the people at the Mass on December 2 to celebrate the lives of these courageous and faith-filled women who were martyred at that spot 35 years before. It was also the exact day a year ago that I was celebrating the life of my dear husband, George, (12/2/14) at our parish of the Resurrection in Delaware. I envisioned them all “in glory”…rejoicing with us!

What was my favorite part? I was very touched by the great hospitality shown to our delegation as well as the gratitude of the people toward us to have come to “walk with,  pray with and celebrate with” on their journey for greater justice and peace. Despite the tremendous losses and hardships, they showed great resilience, compassion and hope for their lives and those of their children. I also valued meeting all the delegates and sharing with them. I found “connections” I couldn’t believe with various ones. It was a wonderful group of “new friends” journeying together.  Our team was also “outstanding”!!!

How was I challenged? I was challenged to be open to all kinds of new experiences, people, travel, language. I welcomed this opportunity to grow in faith, to support those who continue to work for justice and peace and to join them in prayer for a  more hope-filled future.

For those thinking of joining a SHARE delegation: The SHARE opportunity was so well planned and organized. It included important meetings with representatives of the government, media and local people, meaningful prayer experiences, enjoyable times for meals and conversation as a group and with the local people. It was a wonderful, worthwhile experience and it made such a difference for the people there and for each of us in the delegation.

How does it continue to inspire?: It is only 2 months since the trip and I am still “unpacking” the experience and discerning how this can inspire and inform others to reach out in  mercy, justice and reconciliation to these sisters and brothers in El Salvador. I would like to continue to be involved in some way but it is not yet clear what that will mean. I am filled with GRATITUDE for this experience and all the people I met during those days.

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