"We held a press conference telling the public about the work...As a result, a death threat appeared in the newspaper threatening all members of Co-Madres that if people did not obey they would be disappeared or be decapitated one by one."
Maria Teresa Tula is a leader of the Co-Madres (Mothers of the Disappeared) of El Salvador, a group of impoverished, mostly illiterate women whose husbands or children were kidnapped or killed by death squads and government security forces during El Salvador’s bloody civil war. The 1980s conflict pitted leftist organizations and campesino farmer-based guerrillas against an entrenched alliance of landowners and the military, with each side aided by different Cold War backers. In 1992, when a peace accord was signed by the government and the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, the reign of terror that had ruled El Salvador for over a decade finally ended. After Tula was threatened, abducted, and tortured, she returned to Co-Madres to continue her work for justice and for women’s empowerment. A self-described feminist, Tula escaped to the United States, crossing the border as an illegal alien. She spent the next several years running the Co-Madres office in Washington, D.C., and fighting deportation for herself and all Salvadorans. She now lives in the U.S., fulfilling her dream of providing her children with a safe environment and a good education.
I was born on April 23, 1951, in the village of Izalco, in the Department of Sonsonate in El Salvador. My father was a bus dispatcher and my mother worked in a factory in Santa Ana nearby. I had eight brothers and sisters. Like most people in the village, we were poor. I received only a first-grade education. After that I began helping my mother in the house until the day I was married. My husband, José Rafael Canales Guevarra, was killed by the Salvadoran military in June 1980. We had five children together. I also have a sixth child, Oscar Feliciano Tula, born on July 5, 1986, while I was being held in prison without charges.
Until 1978 I was never involved in politics in any way. My husband was working in the Central Azucarrero de Izalco (Izalco Sugar Company), owned by one of the richest families in El Salvador—and I was taking care of our children and taking in washing and ironing. Conditions at the company were very bad. There was no job safety, wages were low, and there were no health benefits. The seventeen hundred workers decided to go on strike and refused to leave the plantation. Some stayed inside the processing plant. Others guarded the gates of the hacienda to make sure no trucks could get in.
My husband was very active in the strike. On the second day I went to bring him medicine and food at 10:00 a.m., just as the security forces arrived and arrested everyone. Many ran into the sugar cane fields to escape. The police beat those who were caught, tied their hands behind their backs and told them to lie face down. All of us family members were there watching and waiting to see what they were going to do with our husbands and sons. They separated twenty-two people and let the rest go. My husband was one of those they kept. He was taken to the National Guard headquarters in San Salvador and held incommunicado for three days. On the fourth day, a military tribunal sentenced him to six months in prison. The only witnesses were Guard members. At first they wouldn’t even tell me where he was, but I finally found out and visited him in Santa Tecla Prison. He told me how he had been tortured—beaten in the testicles, then hung from the ceiling and beaten all over, a torture described as "the airplane."
Then I started working with the Co-Madres—an organization of women formed in 1977 to fight for the release of husbands and other family members jailed or disappeared or assassinated and to demand that the government respect human rights. In June 1978, my husband was released from prison. We decided to move to Santa Ana, since it would have been dangerous for us to remain in Izalco. Once a person has been in prison they are in even greater danger of being assassinated or disappeared by the security forces or death squads.
In Santa Ana my husband got work as a bricklayer. He was not involved in politics. He worked and spent time at home with our children. I kept doing my work washing and ironing clothes, and kept working with Co-Madres, pressuring the government to respect human rights. During this time there were continual assassinations and disappearances. On the highway from Santa Ana to San Salvador you could see fifteen corpses in different places on any given day: students, workers, peasants, old people, women.
The Co-Madres would call press conferences when people were disappeared, or place ads in the newspaper announcing that someone was being charged and tried. I worked mostly with governmental organizations, international officials, and institutions and churches. I also distributed food to people who visited the office, visited political prisoners in jail and brought them supplies, and solicited food and other donations from international and domestic organizations.
Like other independent human rights organizations, we came under attack from the right wing. In October 1979 I was in San Salvador with a group when we learned that the body of one of these mothers’ sons had been found on the streets; he had been disappeared. It was 7 p.m. and we were returning with the body in a minibus, when we were stopped by the police. They accused us of carrying arms and made all ten of us, including a child, lie face down with our arms stretched above our heads. The six policemen walked in single file around us, beating us on our backs with rifle butts and stepping on us. We were lying about three hours, while more police arrived, including a commander. Meanwhile it kept getting closer to the curfew time—midnight—when everyone had to be off the street. If anyone was on the street after midnight they could be machinegunned. So they were detained until then—many people died this way.
Around 11:40 p.m. they started to let us go. Six women were released, but four of us—including me—they kept. They asked us questions—where were we from, our names, the names of our parents, what were we doing. Meanwhile, they kept on saying we were carrying arms, a complete lie, and joking that the boy whose corpse we were carrying had died of mosquito bites. Finally, at ten minutes to twelve, they told us to put our hands behind our head and start walking. Then they told us to stop, turn around with closed eyes, and then keep walking, then stop again, and turn around. They kept doing this until at one moment we all felt rifles against our stomachs. They asked us if we wanted to die. We were silent. I felt complete terror and thought they were surely going to kill me. Finally, they told us we could leave. It was two minutes to twelve, which meant we had only two minutes to get off the street. They brought back the chauffeur, who had been taken a short distance away; he had been badly beaten. We all got into the bus with the corpse.
Fortunately there was a funeral home nearby and we arrived there before the curfew began. This was my first personal experience of torture and the kind of tactics used by the security forces. I had heard many stories but this was the first time I had experienced it myself.
In 1980 I moved with my family to Sonsonate, where my husband had gotten a job building big houses. Barely a month later he was assassinated. On June 19 four men in civilian clothes, heavily armed, came to our house. They asked for my husband and said they were taking him to the municipal police station because he had been witness to a robbery. When he didn’t return I inquired at the police station, but he wasn’t registered there. The following day the newspaper had a picture of him saying he was a guerrilla who died in a confrontation with the armed forces in a clandestine house full of arms. This was a complete lie since he hadn’t been involved with anything since the strike. When I went to get my husband’s body, the judge who had identified it told me that it was the armed forces who had killed my husband, that his hands and feet had been bound and there was a bullet hole through his head. At the cemetery in Sonsonate, I saw his tied hands and feet and the bullet hole through his head.
My neighbors warned me that my house was "militarizado," with soldiers surrounding it and going through all our things. Once they kill one member of a family, they often kill others. So I never went back. Instead I went to San Salvador. I was pregnant at the time with my fifth child.
I continued to be very active with Co-Madres, which was under intense pressure from the right-wing death squads and security forces. In 1980 the Co-Madres office, which we shared with the nongovernmental Human Rights Commission (CDH), was bombed twice. The first bombing took place on March 13, 1980. Afterward the National Guard came, supposedly to investigate, but did nothing. The second bombing occurred in September 1980, and several unknown decapitated bodies were left at the front of the office, as a further warning of what would happen to us.
Several members of the Human Rights Commission were also assassinated during this period.
In the beginning of 1982, Archbishop Rivera y Damas recognized the work that we at Co-Madres were doing and he gave us office space along with the Human Rights Commission, Socorro Juridico, and Tutela Legal—the Archdiocese’s own human rights and legal offices. To announce our move, we held a press conference, telling the public about the work we were doing and where they should come for help. As a result, a death threat from the death squad leader Maximiliano Hernandez appeared in the newspaper threatening all members of Co-Madres that if people did not obey they would be disappeared or decapitated one by one.
Fifteen days after this, a member of Co-Madres, Ophelia, was captured by members of the security forces dressed as civilians, and then taken to the National Police Station. We started paid advertising to get her released and to force a tribunal to investigate why she had been captured. The police confirmed that she was being held, "for investigation." We later learned that during those days she had been tortured and raped, and eighteen days after she had been captured, she was dumped near the Santa Ana–San Salvador Highway, about fifty kilometers outside of San Salvador, early in the morning. Some workers called us to say a woman had been found. Her hands were still tied behind her and her mouth was gagged. She was so disfigured that we didn’t even recognize her. Her whole face was inflamed; she couldn’t talk because her teeth had been broken inside her mouth, and she had cigarette burns on her arms and body.
When we asked her who she was, and she managed to say "Ophelia," we couldn’t believe it. We took her to a doctor, and after she had recovered she testified about what had happened to her. She said there were photos of all of us at the National Police Station, but they were asking her about a few people in particular. I was one of the people they were asking about.
It was shortly after this that men dressed as civilians started coming to my house, asking questions. Others were constantly watching the house and whenever I left they would come and talk to the children. The children were nervous about what would happen to me. Around this time in the street the army and the security forces were also stepping up their street searches. They would make people get off buses and show their registration and they would physically search you and everything you were carrying, including diapers.
The terrorization of Co-Madres continued. In 1982, Elena Gonzalez was shot and killed by death squads in her home in Cuzcatancingo. Three Co-Madres mothers, Haydee Moran, Blanca Alvarado, and Carmen Sorto Ruano and her nineteen-year-old daughter, were taken one by one by National Police to the famous body dump, "Puerta del Diablo," where they laid their heads on a stone and told them their heads would be cut off with a machete if they didn’t talk about Co-Madres. Haydee and Blanca were released; Carmen and her daughter were imprisoned until 1983.
It was clear to me that my life was in danger. I decided to flee El Salvador for Mexico. I left on August 4, 1982, taking four of my children, and leaving the eldest in San Salvador with my mother. I stayed in Mexico until 1984, and worked there with the Co-Madres office. Then my visa expired so I was afraid of being deported back. The United Nations Committee on Refugees recognized me as a refugee and they gave me papers to apply for political asylum in Mexico, and though I had a number of interviews I never received any response. This made me even more nervous since I knew other Salvadorans whose applications were granted; I might be on some kind of blacklist.
In 1984, after the Co-Madres received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award I decided to return to El Salvador as I believed that with international attention and recognition for our work, I would now be safer. Also, Napoleon Duarte had recently been elected president after a campaign in which he promised to respect human rights and initiate investigations into disappearances and assassinations. But when the four of us applied for our visas to travel to the United States for the RFK award, they were denied. An article appeared in La Prensa Grafica quoting a U.S. State Department declaration saying they were denied since we had Communist connections. To have our names printed in the newspaper linked to Communists was very dangerous. It was like giving permission for the death squads to come in and assassinate us.
A few days after, the U.S. Embassy told the public, the Kennedy Memorial, and a human rights delegation that the visas were denied because we were dangerous and terrorists and we had direct connections to guerrillas. We asked for an audience with the ambassador so he could provide proof, but he wouldn’t see us. A visiting U.S. delegation also asked for proof, but nothing was forthcoming. From that moment we noticed an increase in surveillance, but luckily, around this same time, three of the four of us were invited for a European tour. We left on January 20, 1985, and spent three months touring Spain, Holland, Switzerland, England, Greece, West Germany, France, Italy, Norway, and Sweden. We met with Mrs. Mitterand, Mrs. Papandreou, and other prominent women; also with Willy Brandt in West Germany and with United Nations representatives in Geneva. We hoped this kind of international exposure would give us more protection, and on our return on April 20, 1985, we were accompanied by European parliamentarians.
Meanwhile, the assassinated body of a Co-Madres member, Isabel, who had disappeared some eleven months earlier, was found in her home. Only a few months later, Maria Ester Grande was detained by the Treasury Police and threatened; they picked up her son and tortured and interrogated him for fifteen days to get information about his mother and where she lived. (During this time, those of us who were active in Co-Madres never lived in one place. We moved around for fear of being picked up by the death squads or security forces). Finally, he told them and the Treasury Police went and picked her up; then they returned four times to her house, treated her children brutally and threatened to kill their mother and brother if they didn’t tell where arms were hidden. They never found any arms. But they presented her with her son tied up and beaten, and said if she wanted her son to live she would have to go back to Co-Madres and get the names of all who worked there and their addresses. Then she was dropped off at our office. Instead of cooperating with them, she told us what happened. We immediately went to the Red Cross and finally her son was transferred to Mariona Prison until 1987.
Shortly after this, there was a break-in of the Co-Madres office and everything was taken—documents, testimony, tapes, photos, and money. As a result they had those lists of everyone involved with Co-Madres. From this point on, there was constant surveillance and repression. In November 1985, Joaquin Antonio Caceres, of the Human Rights Commission, with whom we worked closely, was captured and held for forty-five days and later brought to prison and accused of being a guerrilla. Around the same time, Co-Madres was awarded the Bruno Krisky Human Rights Award. I traveled to Austria to receive it, visiting other European countries as well. I was away until March, and when I returned, all my movements were monitored by the police. I lived in constant fear.
On May 6, 1986, I was grabbed suddenly by a man at a bus stop, a pistol was pressed in my side and I was told to walk and not make any noise. Then I was pushed into a white car that was waiting with its doors open. They forced me to lie on the floor with my head down, so that I couldn’t see outside, and then the car drove around in circles so I wouldn’t know where I was being taken. Finally I was taken to a house with the three men who captured me. They blindfolded me and put me in a chair with my hands tied behind my back, and they started interrogating me about who I was, what was I doing in the neighborhood, and whether I knew people from Co-Madres. I was held for three days, during which time I was beaten and raped by the three men, all while blindfolded. I was seven months pregnant at the time. There was no way for me to know if it was day or night. They gave me no food and only a little water. Later they started carving my belly with a knife. They didn’t make deep wounds but scrapes which left blood.
They questioned me about Co-Madres and when I continued to tell them I knew nothing, they told me I would die. Then they left me for the night, blindfolded, with my hands tied to the chair.
The next day they asked me the same questions and again wounded me with the sharp object, but this time the wounds were deeper—I still have scars. Finally, they blindfolded me again, put me in a car, and told me not to look where we were going or they would shoot me in the head.
Then they dropped me in the Cucatlan Park. It was nine in the morning. I was bleeding, disoriented, and my clothes were torn since they had sliced them with the sharp, pointed object. I was holding my wound to stop the bleeding. I had no money; they had taken everything from me. I asked a woman at a bus stop to help me, telling her that I had been robbed. She gave me some money. I didn’t know if I should go first to the hospital, my home, or the office. I decided the office and told them everything that had happened. Several days later we published a "denuncia" (an accusation).
The security forces’ arrests of people connected with human rights organizations intensified. And on Friday, May 26, I was arrested again. They were dressed as civilians, heavily armed, but I later learned that they were members of the Treasury Police. I was tortured for four days, beaten all over, on my head, my back. At one point a towel was put over my head and one of my torturers sat on my head and neck. Ten days later I was visited by the International Red Cross and the Human Rights Commission who told me that I was accused of being a terrorist. Though I was never tried or sentenced, I was held in Ilopango Women’s Prison until late 1986. I was able to find homes for four of my children. But my six-year-old daughter stayed with me in prison, along with my son, who was born there.
On September 22, I was ordered released by President Duarte, in a public ceremony. At that ceremony I pointed to a man there who had been one of my torturers. Following my release I was terrified to go to the Co-Madres office, I was scared at bus stops, and if any vehicle stopped, I was afraid someone would jump out and grab me. I was frightened that I would be machine-gunned on the street. My house continued under surveillance and attacks against the Human Rights Commission also continued. I knew that there was no way I could remain in El Salvador. I began planning my escape.
I learned that I was being invited to the United States in January to talk to members of Congress and other groups: this would be a good opportunity to find temporary safety. I was no longer safe in El Salvador or Mexico, which was no longer accepting Salvadorans for asylum. I was forced to leave three of my children in Mexico, living with different families. My two youngest children came with me.
There is another story to tell about my efforts to get asylum in the United States in the 1980s, when many in the U.S. government were supporting the regime in power, but that is for another time. I rejoice that peace has come to my country at last and that the human rights we fought for during those dark years now seem within our reach, not just in our dreams.