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Roberto Henriquez Colata « Afflicted with Hope

Roberto Henriquez

 

“The best decision of my life was joining the guerrilla movement . .  .”

Esta historia se escribe en Español = This story is also written in Spanish here.

Editor’s Note:  The “radistas” or radio operators were hidden in the mountains during El Salvador’s war.  These men and women worked in uncomfortable conditions underground which were cold and crowded often suffering from leg cramps.  The radistas broadcast information the government was NOT telling the citizens of the country and those living in exile beyond its borders.   Their role was an important one.  It was also a dangerous one.

During the 1980’s there were few citizens who owned cars in El Salvador; there were fewer who owned a t.v.  Many people did own a Japanese Walkman AM/FM radio, however.  Radio broadcasts were an extremely popular and vital communication link within El Salvador during its 12-year civil war.  Two guerrilla radio stations operated from deep within the mountains camouflaged from the military.  They were heavily guarded and moved from time to time as the military approached their position.  But the radios continued to broadcast throughout the course of the entire war.  Radio Venceremos (a Spanish term for “we will win/triumph” was located in the Morazan deparment.   Radio Farabundi Marti was located in the Chalatenango department.  Roberto was a radista who worked with the latter radio station writing and broadcasting its news. 

 

Roberto had neither journalism nor broadcast experience.  What he did have was a strong motivation and conviction to play a role in making social reforms on behalf of his country.  Why the social reforms?  Many of the same reasons that led up to the civil discontent and war itself were the same issues that Roberto felt personally and deeply passionate about changing.

 

Between 1961-75 landless peasants increased from 12% -41%

Lack of sanitation – 98%

Drinking water – 50%

Adequate housing – 35%

Employment expectations – 141 days per year

Illiteracy – 65%

(from Paying the Price by Teresa Whitfield, p. 67)

Given the illiteracy alone Salvadorans relied heavily on hearing radio broadcasts because they were unable to read the newspapers.  Many groups capitalized on this.  The radio station at UCA (University of Central America), the Jesuit University, provided daily broadcasts of editorial material trying to remain neutral which was often difficult to do with material and details that became more horrific as war escalated  including the murder of key priests on its own campus. 

 “El Salvador’s best ‘newspaper’ was Archbishop (Romero’s) Sunday morning sermons on its own station {YSAX.}  It was his custom to report and denounce the crimes and abuses . . .” (from Enrique Alvarez Cordova by John Lamperti, p. 178.) A Salvadoran friend reports that bombs were often placed in that office to discourage those weekly broadcasts.

The role of the two guerrilla radio stations was to offer the citizens an alternative to the government-based news.  They wanted the citizens to hear what they considered to be the truth; to hear about the attacks, the massacres, the whole picture of what was happening in the country. The messages had far-reaching effects as Salvadorans in increasing numbers fled the country in exile from death squads to other Central American nations, the U.S., and elsewhere and were sitting at their radios also listening to the reports for news back home.  In addition to news the programming also included cultural, educational, revolutionary and folk music, as well as humorous segments.

Although born in Nueva San Salvador/Santa Tecla on June 7, 1957, my parents and us six kids moved to a smaller town of Custatingo when I was eight years old.  The best part for me was the soccer field at the school 10 meters from my house.  I remember thinking I would grow up to be a great soccer player or else a professional violinist.  (Regretfully, I never played a musical instrument, but it was a dream of mine to do so.)  Being the second child I had responsibilities to look after my younger siblings.  My mother was my role model because of all her hard work in raising our family and providing educations for us.  I was a diligent student in school through ninth grade and then an average student after that.  My dad was a mechanic with the government.  My parents remain alive with some health issues.

In 1978 I was ready to begin my studies as a psychology major at the National University which offered free tuition at that time.  Living and political conditions in the country were becoming very difficult in the country.  With no hesitation or regret I joined a political group on campus called the Universitarios Revolucionarios 19 de Julio.  (This group was strongly linked to the FPL, Fuerzas Populares de Liberacion).  I was well aware of the risks to both myself and to my family by joining it, but the reality of the country at that time dictated a change and there was no alternative for me than to join this group regardless of consequences.  What I mean in terms of reality that made me join the guerrilla movement was in the country there was a lack of liberty, hunger, no freedom, and serious repressions.  My family was not starving; however, we had few clothes and shoes and my parents had to struggle for what we had.   It was a time when the National Guard gave orders to the people.

The most difficult thing I saw were the lifeless bodies lying on the steps of the National Cathedral in 1978 as a result of the student massacre.  My family thought I was among the dead.  I survived it, but it impacted me greatly even to this day.

In February or March of 1979 Archbishop Romero helped negotiate talks for our freedom during a strike as the army surrounded our company.  I was a university student when Romero spoke on our behalf and kept us from being captured.  Again my family assumed I had been killed when they heard the number of deaths reported.

Although I was raised in the Roman Catholic faith as a child and was an altar boy, I do not consider myself to be a man of faith.  Yes, I knew Archbishop Romero personally.  I viewed him a bit differently than others.  I saw his human side rather than his relationship with a church.  I had a good impression of him and consider him a good example in society of leading his people and wanting better living conditions including housing, food, health care, education for all Salvadorans.  I admired the Archbishop and after he was killed, his death left a big void because he impacted the process of social reform in a people who needed him so desperately.

After the first four months and first semester of classes ended, the persecution from the military and targeting by the death squads was great.  They were chasing me and I was unable to even go home to sleep at night.  I made the decision to leave the university and go into the clandestine movement and join the guerrillas.

The best decision of my life was joining the guerrilla movement because I felt I was doing something so important for society by following that process.  From the time I left home in 1978 I did not return until the war was over in 1992.  This way there was less chance of putting my family’s welfare in danger.   Although I never completed my university studies for my chosen career, I never regretted that decision.  I feel like I learned from “the school of life” instead.

The guerrilla organization was comprised of five different groups.  The group I was part of founded the radio station Radio Farabundi Marti operating in Chalatenango department.  I did not work directly in the station until 1990.  Prior to that point for ten years I was receiving training and taking part in other clandestine activities on behalf of the movement.  One of the activities we did during this 10-year period of time was to take control of/commandeer commercial radio stations and broadcast our pre-recorded messages or read scripts to the public for a few hours.  The purpose was to inform the public of an alternative message from the one the government was giving.

By 1982 I became a respected leader of the group operating in the southern part of San Salvador whose mission included eliminating the enemy.  Although I did not personally kill soldiers, I gave orders to do so.  I was never captured, but I came very close to it many times in the mountains.

In 1984 I was sent to Guazapa, a town located between the country and city in the northern part of San Salvador, for political and military training where I learned about guns and military information.  I had to cross the Acelhuate River.  We had to leave because the army invaded the area.  Then we needed to go to Cinquera (in Cabanas) for another political military course but again the military troops were in the area.  This time it was the Bracamonte, a contra-insurgent group trained especially to fight the guerrilla.  I walked 15 hours to escape them and when I reached a safe place there were literally no soles left on my shoes.

I saw men I became attached to being killed and wounded as early as 1985.  In Las Delicias (near Guazapa) we escaped from the army where they were attacking with cannons.  It was the first time we saw tatu, underground hiding places.  Sometimes citizens would hide in them and if a child cried, it compromised the location.  You were generally safe from the A-37 American military planes that I saw carrying 500-pound bombs over my head.  Many suffered ear damage when they dropped.

It was common for the military to randomly stop vehicles and busses to register and require individuals to present their ID.  One day I was traveling alone to a village near Cinquera on a bus in an area where no one knew me when the military stopped our bus.  I was holding a handful of fruit and considered myself a dead man.  A girl sitting beside me sensed the danger and pretended to be my girlfriend.  She may have been a guerrilla sympathizer.  Her quick-thinking actions saved my life.

Often I served in a role of providing security and/or transportation for leaders in the organization.  Salvador Samayoa was the minister of education who joined the guerrilla movement causing a scandal at the time.  When he came to our area I provided his security.  In terms of transportation, we often had to confiscate a car from a driver when we needed it.  If he would not give it willingly, we took it by force, but the owner usually gave it up.  When we were finished with it, we called the owner and reported where he could pick it up.

There were places referred to as “security houses” where the leaders of the guerrilla met to plan and strategize.  The members acted like a family posing as fathers/sons but the army referred to them as terrorist cells.   Work within the security house consisted of reviewing the previous day’s activities, and planning and strategizing future military activities and attacks.  The major guerrilla leaders attended these meetings.  The guards carried Uzis (type of gun) for protection.  Some of these guns were captured from dead military.  Once I was responsible for the security of Commandante Marcial, the founder of the FPL, my group, at a meeting in my security house.  I found him to be a humble man and was both honored and felt trusted to protect him.

At the height of my career in the last two years of the war I worked with Radio Farabundi Marti in Chalatenango writing and broadcasting news.  I was 30 years old when I began this work in 1990.  As a school student I used to enjoy writing and would write poems.  Friends in the guerrilla movement thought I had the necessary skills to do the radio broadcasts.  I never had any formal journalism training.  I never had any formal broadcasting training.  In fact, I had never spoken into a microphone before!  That presented me with my biggest challenge during the war.  Everyone participating in the war used a different name from his/her own for obvious reasons.  My war name was “Ernesto.”  I also picked up the nickname of “Santa Claus” after I did a broadcast on the character one day in December to lighten the mood.

The equipment for the radio station and the radio itself were hidden underground in the mountains in Chalatenango department near the Honduras border.  Of course, the antenna could not be underground.  It was camouflaged high in the mountains discreetly hidden to avoid detection from military planes.  There were two radio systems so that when one was out of operation, the other was activated.

Guards and scouts protected the radio station and us radistas.  All equipment needed to be mobile since we had to re-locate from time to time when the military troops got physically close to us.

There were generally 15-20 of us working in the cramped quarters of the station.  A typical day at this radio station consisted of getting up very early in the morning.  We first listened to all the government news reports and watched TV to be informed.  We used that as a basis to re-formulate our news.  Sometimes the information we heard was incorrect and had to be re-written entirely.  We also had our own news sources that traveled throughout the country telling accomplishments of the guerrilla activity such as the most recent combat information.   At the end of each day we held a team meeting reflecting and analyzing the current day’s broadcast.  We got feedback from other guerrillas and made decisions whether we needed to retract any information.

Cooperation and coordination was outstanding.  We worked with the other five organizations.  There was also exchange of information between our station and Radio Venceremos, the other guerrilla operating radio station, located in Morazan department at the other end of the country.  Both stations continued to operate uninterrupted throughout the course of the civil war.

 

What frustrated many of us after the war ended was that the struggle did not result in the social reforms we had hoped and fought for.   In 1995 I began to experience psychological depression.  It did not interfere with my social relationships.  However, it has impacted on my physical health.  I suffer from colitis, migraines, and insomnia.  I have some minimal health insurance and health care benefits.

Despite all that has happened since the war, my participation in the guerrilla movement remains the highlight of my life.  My position was ideologically and politically based.  I am proud to have been part of a group that challenged the injustices taking place in my country.  I would do it all over again if my older, less energetic and less strong body would cooperate.  My heart remains convicted for the needs of the people.

I’ve been in relationships with several women and have three daughters, one son, and five grandchildren.  Sad personal events in my life are watching two of my teenage children become pregnant and then one losing the one-month old daughter, my granddaughter.  This just happened recently.  Currently I live with my parents but would not discount living with another woman at some future point.

 

 

I am not necessarily hopeful that the new President of El Salvador will be able to make the structural changes in the country’s economy that need to change.  I see it as a problem of capitalism.  El Salvador is too rigid and poverty is as deep as ever.  True social change to me means that everyone in the country would have a house, ample food, health care, education, and all their basic needs satisfied.

Editor’s Note:  When Roberto was asked how he felt the U.S. could be helpful to the Salvadorans, he responded: “I feel the citizens of the U.S. should accompany the Salvadorans during the time of reconstructive tasks.  I believe the American people are a great people.  I am, however, opposed to the U.S. foreign policy.”

(Note: non-family photos are stock from Bing.)

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