On Impunity


(first published in The Truth About the Fact)

If one day they destroy my work and kill us, each one of you must become a microphone of the truth. –Archbishop Óscar Romero

I wouldn’t tell his story if he’d tell it himself. I didn’t see it—bare bone and blood—I wasn’t there, any more than I was there for Salvador’s uncivil war. But Steve is a quiet man, the sort who keeps things to himself, the sort everyone listens to when he does speak, even his high school students. I remember walking past his classroom in El Salvador during my free periods and wondering how it was I could hear every other teacher—sometimes every other student—but his closed door let nothing out. Behind it was a room packed with the same ribald students who, when I’d had them a year earlier, hung their gym clothes from my ceiling fans and hid cell phones in my plant pots; with Steve, I imagined them all leaning slightly forward in their plastic desk chairs, ignoring even the toucans out the window they were so rapt with talk of Nick and Gatsby, and that careless Daisy in a yellow car.

It is important to mention that Steve’s Salvadoran students—who were there, who witnessed what I only imagine—did not tell this story either, although for different reasons. I, on the other hand, tell Steve’s story as if it were my own, replete with embellishments and interpretation. For a while, I thought the scene—in actuality it was only a scene, the story, such as it is, is imagined—revealed what it was I couldn’t quite articulate about post-civil war El Salvador, a key to the incomprehensibility of that tiny, twisted country.

Steve didn’t tell me—his then new girlfriend—until a few weeks later when we were drinking beers after work with other “imported” teachers. Steve was leaning against our friends’ ancient blue Mercedes, sipping Pilsener and gazing out at pinking clouds around Volcán San Salvador. There was a lull in the conversation, the clatter of an empty can tossed on the cobblestones, the distant rattle of the capital city beyond the campus walls, and then, just:

“I saw something the other day. I can’t shake it.”

The disturbing something happened during a field trip away from the tightly secured campus of the elite Escuela Americana. The eleventh graders studied Salvadoran history—a sanctioned version of it, anyway, from a professor who refused to teach anything beyond 1978—and this excursion to a balsam cooperative followed by a picnic at a cacao plantation and a ride on the effectively defunct indigo train was not unusual. The students had been excused from their blue and white uniforms, and even some of the teacher chaperones would have been dressed down in blue jeans, although the class mothers—lovely, orchid-like society women—were probably not. They rode in a chartered yellow buses (nearly all of the buses in El Salvador are school buses) trailed by the requisite squadron of Wackenhut security guards in flak jackets, clutching guns as they squatted in the bed of a red pickup. The caravan careened down the Panamericana highway with the morning traffic, then merged onto the road to Sonsonate, a small city named after the Rio Zenzonatle, which means four hundred eyes of water in Nahuatl, but that Salvadorans call Cincinnati as a joke. I imagine that the school bus radios were pumping something bouncy. I imagine that the kids were shouting and teasing and gossiping, slipping between Spanish and English and that inevitable pidgin spoken in bilingual schools.

Some of our students were diplomats’ kids—diplobrats they’re called in ex-pat-ese—but most were the children of the Salvadoran elites—’garchs, we called them—many of them members of the infamous “fourteen families” of El Salvador. These particular eleventh graders had been born in the mid-eighties, some safely abroad, but some in-country, in the midst of El Salvador’s twelve-year civil war. In 1989, the year this particular class entered the Escuela Americana’s pre-kindergarten, the leftist forces, known collectively as the FMLN—The Communists, according to our students—launched their “final offensive”; in all likelihood, some of these kids remembered not just the thrumming tension and the rumors and the fear that permeated even the well-fortified walls of their families’ elegant homes, but the actual sound of mortar fire in San Salvador. On a school bus, however, these were kids like any kids; they could be from anywhere, even Cincinnati.

The students were the first to notice the body on the road to Sonsonate.

“¡Guácala!” the girls screeched, flipping glossy ponytails and scrunching noses. “¡Que gross!”

In case their English teacher didn’t understand or was trying not to listen to them, they addressed Steve directly.

“Hey Meester! ¡Mira! A dead guy!”

Steve followed his students’ gazes out the window of the school bus as it inched along in the slowed traffic. There, between the two westbound lanes, lay a dead man on his back. Human roadkill. One leg ended at the knee, abruptly, and while the version of this story that Steve told leaning against that old Mercedes took less than a minute, most of that minute dwelled on the naked whiteness of exposed bone and severed piece of leg.

“I don’t know why I was so upset by the bone,” Steve said, setting aside his beer to rub the lenses of his glasses with his t-shirt. “It just seemed so indecent, so white. I kept thinking, please, someone cover that; give the man some dignity.”

Apart from the man and his white leg bone, although that separation did not lessen the hideousness of the angle, was the missing calf, the bare foot. If the man had been wearing shoes to begin with, he had been knocked out of them by the force of the collision.

What all of us who listen to Steve’s story already know is that El Salvador has a history of corpses on its roadways. Not all of them are hit-and-runs.

When the death squads were at their most active in El Salvador, during the early eighties, the dead were dumped on roadsides around the country, mutilated into messages: a cross carved across a dead man’s face, severed genitals replacing a missing tongue, a body with no head, a solitary hand. The corpses were like billboard lessons, strange propaganda. My own father, an American Friends Service Committee observer in early 1985, recalls riding on the floor of a van traveling down Salvador’s Airport Road as the most frightening experience of his life. For me, since I wasn’t in that van with my father or on that bus with Steve, El Salvador’s road-shoulder brutality is summed up by a photograph that shows a line of about a dozen bodies lying face-down, bare but for underwear, on the edge of the Airport Road.

That photographer’s poet wife wrote of Salvador:

…it is a small country.
There is nothing one man will not do to another.

So the body in the road to Sonsonate becomes for me a measure: In 2002, a full decade after the civil war officially ended, there were far fewer roadside bodies than there were the first year of the war when the US Embassy issued its “‘guarded’ breakdown on its count of 6,909 ‘reported’ political murders,” although El Salvador’s murder rate remains the second highest in the hemisphere (after Haiti). Also in that time, the style has changed—much of the flair, the blaring sadism—has gone out of Salvador’s killings, as if death short of desecration were finally enough for Salvador. What hadn’t changed, according to the evidence in the road to Sonsonate, was a general assumption of impunity, of the nebulous nature of guilt. Joan Didion sums up this uniquely Salvadoran logic: “If it is taken for granted in Salvador that the government kills, it is also taken for granted that the other side kills; that everyone has killed, everyone kills now, and, if the history of the place suggests any pattern, everyone will continue to kill.”

This perhaps explains why, twenty years after Didion’s study of that country’s dysfunction, whoever was responsible for separating man from leg and life on the road to Sonsonate in the steady morning traffic was nowhere to be seen. This may also explain why the two lanes of traffic were maneuvering around the body on either side, the right lane veering onto the shoulder and the left threading between the dead man and his jaunty appendage. I’m not sure anything can explain why no one was stopping—not the buses or the pickups packed with standing passengers or the general flow of cars representing every income bracket, not the Escuela caravan, not the truck of Wackenhut guards with their guns and their combat boots and their chilly, glazed expressions, not anyone—either to help, or simply to block traffic long enough for the dead man’s family, clustered there on the shoulder, to gather their father.

Here, I confess, I take my story stealing too far: I begin to judge. It becomes necessary for me to believe that, if I were on that bus creeping past this scene, I would have done something.

I hadn’t come to El Salvador straight out of college to dig wells or lead workshops on personal hygiene or organize cooperatives for selling vegetables as had my Peace Corps acquaintances. I had come to teach children of the elite, not for the money, there wasn’t much of that, nor for some missionary zeal for Shakespeare’s plays, although I had plenty of that, but because I thought I would become the sort of teacher who leads students to question assumptions. I was not didactic; I knew that Salvador would cause me to question my own assumptions too (why else would anyone choose such a place?), but one of my assumptions was that I would remain, at my core, my old self. And, for the sake of my idealism, my liberal American education strangely steeped in notions of noblesse oblige, for my faith in the inherent decency of human beings and my conviction that an individual can affect change, I had to believe that my old self would have done something on the road to Sonsonate.

This is why, rather than picture myself with my hands clutching a school bus window frame as I gaped at the dead man and his leg, I imagined that, if I were on that bus, I would have asked the driver to stop; I would have stepped out onto the road to Sonsonate and put up my hand like a traffic cop. The dead man’s family was afraid of being run down, but I was not them: I had not been trained in fear as Salvadorans know it, nor did I expect to be ignored, buoyed as I was by the institutions in which I trusted, from the Salvadoran police, to the truckload of Wackenhut guns at my back, to the abstract might contained within the high white walls of the US Embassy that I, unlike the long lines stretching down the block each morning, could enter at will. Unlike the dead man’s family, I could not imagine that I might end up dismembered on a roadside. Of course, my heroism began and ended with the traffic cop bit: even in fantasy, I didn’t help carry the dead man or even his leg.

“I would have done something,” I said to Steve later, gently, to soften the criticism.

“No, you wouldn’t have,” he said. Then he laughed.

But I didn’t believe him. Not yet.

Four minutes before midnight on December 31, 1991, one man who did finally step into the road and put up his hand like a traffic cop on El Salvador’s behalf was the Secretary General to the United Nations, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, who finalized negotiations for peace in Salvador. The resulting Chapultepec Peace Accords are a model of diplomacy and successfully broke through the stalemate Salvador had arrived at without excluding or greatly favoring any of the major stakeholders. The FMLN disarmed and reinvented itself as a political party. The Armed Forces were purged, formally banned from operating domestically, and subordinated to civilian authority. Even the fates of the elite were brought under the dictates of the democratic process. But how does a country, roughly the size of Massachusetts, reconcile itself after twelve years of murder and “disappearances,” mass graves and massacres, and the general, all around terror of what has been called a “fratricidal war”? How, when your father, brother, sister, child has been hauled from bed only to reappear piecemeal on a roadside flocked with vultures, do you shake hands and declare the match a draw?

The Peace Accords’ answer to this problem was to charter a Truth Commission to investigate what had happened in El Salvador and expose the atrocities Salvadorans had committed against Salvadorans, for the sake of healing, if not justice.

The Truth Commission took testimony, theorized about the phenomenology of violence, and named names in its quest for “the overall truth and the specific truth, the radiant but quiet truth” for the sake of “the new society.” In the flux of 1992, the Truth Commission studied the ashes of 1980, 1981, 1982—: 17 March– Four Dutch journalists traveling with FMLN operatives are shot to death in an ambush on the Chalatenango Road; 24 May – More than 150 corpses are dumped at Puerto del Diablo; 27 May– Six members of the Christian Democratic Party are found dead at El Playón; 22 August– Over 200 civilian prisoners – men, women, and children included – are massacred by Atlacatl Battalion at El Calabozo; and on and on. The Truth Commission, which could not change the past, hoped their work uncovering these sad facts would impact the future.

Charged with putting an “end to impunity,” the Truth Commission was also required to take into account “the need to create confidence in the positive changes which the peace process [was] promoting and to assist the transition to national reconciliation.” Thus the Truth Commission took great pains to show, in addition to guilt, an absence of innocence: a Salvadoran sort of Original Sin. “A new people,” the Commission reported, “is rising from the ashes of a war in which all were unjust.” Everyone has killed, everyone kills now.


There is a dead man in the road to Sonsonate. At least four hundred eyes observe him casually. A body—a casualty—is nothing Salvador hasn’t seen before. The dead man might as well be a dead dog, worth veering around, worth pointing out, but too gruesome to think of dragging to the shoulder.

Or is there something more to it?

Steve, who was actually there, who actually witnessed the scene, has another take on what he saw on that road to Sonsonate. In recalling that continuous stream of traffic, he sees a collective action problem, an imbalance of risk and reciprocity: in order to risk yourself for the sake of your neighbors, you must trust that those neighbors would, in turn, reciprocate, rather than run you down.

“I can’t stop thinking of ‘body politic’,” Steve said. To him, the body on the road is a visual representation of what happened to the body of a nation: disincorporation, people severed from one another, a nation undone and unable to put itself together. Opposite the body politic, when one invokes Hobbes, is the state of war, the “continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” El Salvador is no longer at war, but perhaps one might say it has not yet emerged fully from the state of war. In which case, was the dead man evidence of a collective inaction born out of the wreckage of the war—a let-sleeping-dogs-lie-because-it-could-be-unthinkably-worse logic?

Or, is it peace that ran over that man, peace and the paralysis of reconciliation?

“Lo que pasa es que,” our students began too many of their agent-less sentences. What happened is that…

The school bus caravan followed the right lane of traffic off onto the dusty shoulder, passing between the terrified family and the dead man, students clambering over to the left side of the bus to get a good look at the corpse and his raw, white bone.

“Look Meester! A dead guy!”

Everyone—elites, workers, foreigners, soldiers-for-hire—kept on going and left the dead man to lie where he lay.

It is not difficult to see El Salvador starkly, from outside or within. What is difficult, perhaps impossible, is to know the place without being implicated in some way in the murkiness of it all.

For the better part of a year, I fixated on Steve’s story of the dead man in the road to Sonsonate, and on how I believed I would have handled it differently, and then I was in a taxi, speeding through San Salvador on my way to take the GRE and move on, stop teaching, leave Salvador. At a red light on a pruned avenue lined with office buildings, my eyes caught a smooth brown shape in the leaf litter clogging the street gutter by an ungrated drain. The shape, an arm’s length if I stretched from my passenger door, not two feet from the taxi’s rear wheel, had arms and feet itself. Very small arms and very small feet.

I assumed the naked body curled fetal was a boy’s. Where, I wondered, were his clothes. I wondered this before I wondered whether he was dead, or juiced on glue, or very, very tired. I stared hard for signs of life, but the exhaust from my taxi was playing tricks with the heat, or perhaps a breeze was rustling the leaves around him, and I could not say for sure that he was breathing. Not without getting out of the taxi. Not without touching the body.

I wanted to stay angry about his missing clothing, but reality was seeping through my surprise, and the red light stayed red, giving me an ample chance to come to my senses and make a decision.

A Salvadoran should stop, my mind insisted. What could I offer that kid? A few bucks? I only had enough cash for the cab ride! My sweater? The testing center—I really thought this—would be air-conditioned. And also: I would be late; I would miss my test. A Salvadoran would surely stop—I thought this too, as if I had never heard Steve’s story of the dead man on the road to Sonsonate—someone who could speak to the boy in something more than bilingual school pidgin if he were alive, someone who could carry him somewhere more dignified if he were not. That small child, I thought at my lowest point, might even be dangerous.

In my own country, I would know what to do. Once, as an adolescent swimming at a waterfall, I had investigated another child’s still body drifting in the shallows and found it blue-cold, but not beyond resuscitation: my conviction was not purely theoretical. But this was El Salvador, I told myself. Helping that child in the gutter would be one of those frantic gestures of futility that foreigners commit in hard places, and it would likely break my heart more than doing nothing. There is no guilt in El Salvador, but there are no heroes either.

I glanced at the taxi driver who was watching me in his mirror. I hoped he would do something and let me off the hook. The driver shrugged his shoulders, as if he were a tour guide who couldn’t be blamed for the spilt garbage.

I looked back at the body in the leaves. Such thin arms. Such smooth skin. Warm or cold, it would be soft to touch, but I did not find this out for myself.

In the spirit of reconciliation, the Truth Commission was careful to distribute blame for what had gone wrong in El Salvador widely. It did, however, recommend how the most egregious cases of the 25,000 it investigated ought to be handled and punished, even warning that the judicial system in El Salvador was “incapable of fairly assessing and carrying out” that punishment. Justification, the Commission knew, comes easier to Salvador than justice.

Five days after the Truth Commission published its arguably tepid call for token consequences, a report called From Madness to Hope, the government of El Salvador essentially shredded it. The hurriedly passed Amnesty Law pardoned “any crime committed by anyone for the motive, occasion or as a consequence of the armed conflict.” Full accountability, announced then-President Cristiani, would destabilize the political order. Instead there would be no accountability at all.

In the end, amnesty trumped truth. The testimonies that had been synthesized into From Madness to Hope were securely archived in the US, where they can do no damage and heal no wounds. Without looking back, or forward either, El Salvador limps away from the wreckage of itself.

Now, somewhere within the fragile political order of El Salvador, there is a driver who struck a man in the road to Sonsonate and left that man to die, the white of his leg bone exposed to the eyes of all who passed. That driver sped off in full confidence that no one would report his or her identity, and that, if someone should actually do so, the likelihood of being held accountable was nil. In a troubling way, this does ring of justice: if the people who massacred hundreds of civilians, who shot women and children, who mutilated bodies and pitched them into roadside ditches, are immune to consequence, why should some driver who can’t possibly have meant to hit a man on the road to Sonsonate that morning be punished?

Atrocity. Accident. Inaction. Impunity. If the history of the place suggests any pattern, everyone will continue to kill.

“Then the kids went back to farting around,” Steve said, tossing his beer can down on the grass and pushing himself off the ancient Mercedes and gazing off at the volcano that loomed over the Escuela’s campus.

The students had carried on, had eaten their picnic of cold chicken beside cacao groves. On the train, a woman was selling chicharón, chunks of deep fried meat torn off the hindquarter of a hog that she carried above her head.

“There wasn’t any discussion, any talking about it, any jokes,” Steve said.

The dead man was broken, past repair. El Salvador was better, but still broken, too.

As for me, I just keep telling these stories. I tell them because I appreciate the quiet, radiant truth—like Gatsby’s distant, green light of a better future across dark water. Because I have to do something. Because I had chances to do something, to act according to my conscience, to offer some small degree of dignity, if nothing more, but I didn’t. Not then.

“What was he wearing?” I stop writing to ask Steve, who is now my husband and a political scientist.

“Shorts. Maybe a t-shirt. Maybe he was bare-chested; I don’t remember.”

“What color shorts?”

“Probably beige.”

“Could you see his eyes?”

“I don’t remember his eyes.”

“Did he have a panza? Or was he thin?”

“Not skinny. Not big, either. He looked like—I shouldn’t say this—like any campesino. He had very dark skin. The dark skin is what contrasted with the clean white bone, that’s why that stood out so starkly. He looked like the guy who cut the grass at the Escuela. Do you remember him?”

“Yes. I remember him.”

I remember all of them: The guy who cut the grass at the Escuela, with a scythe and a machete. The dead campesino on the road to Sonsonate I did not see. The naked child in the gutter I did not have the courage to touch or will to help. A noisy crowd of war-born teenagers on a yellow bus. The living and the dead of El Salvador limping towards that distant green light of hope.