Voices in Danger: For putting on a play, Carlos Santos was tortured by an El Salvador death squad

“I still have the scars on my hands from when I was hung from the roof”

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After 20 days of torture at the hands of the Death Squads, Carlos Santos begged to have his life ended.  His torturer paused for a moment to whisper in his ear, “Only two more days, and you will be released.”  His crime: writing and performing a 25 minute theatre piece with four of his fellow students on the streets of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.  The year was 1983.  He was only 16-years-old.

The group of 5 had been performing Carlos’s political play in open, public spaces across the city for 6 months.  At 5 p.m. one winter afternoon, it was business as usual. Cinema-goers sauntered out from the latest film and others sat in the park while the group of friends walked to the bus-stop after their latest enactment. As soon as the public saw the Death Squads approaching, people immediately disappeared back indoors.  For Carlos and his friends though, there was no escape.  Twelve men in dark clothes surrounded the 5 teenagers and stuffed them into a big black van.  They were blindfolded and driven for an hour before they were taken to a basement to be tortured. 

“We knew the Death Squads killed a lot of people,” said Carlos.  “So we were very scared.  We didn’t think we would survive it.”  The Death Squads used various torture tactics on Carlos and his classmates.  He explains:  “They put us in a pick-up truck and drove us around the city, and tell us they were going to kill us.  They also used sleep deprivation.  I still have the scars today on my hands from when I was hung from the roof for a full night and day.”  He showed me the scars.

The Death Squads is like a black swarm that terrorises the people.  It is a faceless, nameless organisation in El Salvador, trained and recruited by the military.  Its vehicles are plateless, and the members are in disguise.  They blend in with the population, but when they are out to capture victims, they dress in black.  Not even the President of El Salvador will stand against them. 

After one month of torture, all 5 friends were moved to a political prison that held 800 inmates. They continued to put on their plays for the year they were incarcerated. “We started to heal ourselves by doing what we do,” Carlos said.  But, it took his body 2 years to heal from the physical wounds, and still he continues to battle post-traumatic stress disorder to this day. 

Upon his release, he fled to Mexico where he could develop his literary and journalist career.  He returned to El Salvador after the Civil War ended in 1991.  Today Carlos Santos is a freelance journalist and President of The Salvadoran Association of Survivors of Torture (SAST).  They report that 30,000 people between the ages of 12 to 90 years old were tortured by the government during the Salvadoran Civil War between 1978 and 1991. More recently, he worked with Al Jazeera on the documentary called “Quest for Justice” about ‘The Yellow Book’ - a government ‘hitlist’ of people that are targeted for torture and assassination.  Since the documentary’s release in August 2013, Carlos has received numerous threats, one of which included the murder of his dog. 

Carlos, together with his wife and 4-month-old baby, left El Salvador “to let things cool off”. “Since I’ve been away for three months,” explained Carlos, “I’m actually more scared.  I know when I go back I will be picking up where I left off, but at least while I am there I will have more control.  Right now, I have no control.  For example, while I’ve been away, the doctor who has been working with us has been approached by two men with pistols. They said, ‘This is not the guy we are looking for,’ and they let him go.” 

For other journalists experiencing similar abuses, Carlos advises: “It’s hard sometimes, especially with your personal life, but there is a duty that we have.  We belong to the society, and we have to report these kinds of abuses to avoid them in the future.  You have already chosen to side with the people.”

Carlos Santos returned to El Salvador on 19 December 2013, where he continues to live in hiding, away from his wife and newborn. 

Esther Major of Amnesty International for Central America says, “In El Salvador, impunity is the norm for perpetrators of massacres, disappearances, rape and other torture.  Seeking the truth about crimes against humanity in El Salvador is dangerous work. Recent acts of violence and intimidation - such as the attack suffered by the organisation Pro-Búsqueda where three members staff were held at gunpoint and swathes of records about stolen children set on fire and destroyed, just go to show how risky it is.”

Every year, El Salvador is condemned for its laws which give amnesty and protection to war criminals.  The Supreme Court of El Salvador only recently accepted demands to examine the Amnesty Laws as being unconstitutional.  If the Laws are declared unconstitutional, the people of El Salvador can finally seek the justice they rightly deserve.

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