Alicia de Garcia

Alicia Garcia - 11-30-09

“Our Efforts Are A Light in the Darkness . . . Will Remain For All Humanity For All Time.”


Click here for the article in Spanish

[Editor’s Preface: Alicia (anglicized) apologizes for her tardiness to today’s interview while her secretary has been occupying us by allowing us to leaf through the very graphic photo albums of victims of the country’s war.  She cautions us about looking in the black and white album which is filled with photos of corpses lying on the streets, all victims of senseless violence. The walls above us loom with large framed photos of the disappeared, their eyes begging for answers.  Among them is Alicia’s brother.  His disappearance served as the catalyst for Alicia’s founding COMADRES, the Committee of Mothers For People Who Have Disappeared.  His face serves as a daily reminder of the value of this group’s efforts and energies.

 Alicia now explains that many people compete for her time.   She has served as this organization’s director since 1993.  We are grateful she has graced us by setting aside this time slot to share her story.  For nearly five hours she sits on a small wooden backless piano stool with her legs crossed at the ankle never changing that position. Despite the relentless heat, she seldom sips on the water her secretary brings but does dab the tears and sweat with a towel when she divulges her personal story of torture and loss.  I’ve heard most of this story before.  I was excited now to record it so that her experiences and strength of faith could be shared and would never be forgotten.  She is a living legacy.

Alicia is 62; there was a dramatic turning point in her life at age 33 where I begin to tell her story..  This course of  events has determined her life’s quest for justice.]

Alicia’s story:

When I was thirty years old and was looking out the third-floor window of the maternity hospital in the Santa Lucia area of San Salvador where I worked as a maternity nurse since the age of eighteen, I witnessed something that proved to be a turning point in my life.  There was a protest march by students at the university.  It was captivating to watch the young people who were happy and energetic on the one side; however, on the other side was a truck full of soldiers with a totally different demeanor.  All of a sudden the soldiers began shooting the marchers with huge fusillades, and people began falling everywhere.  Soldiers were gouging their legs and throwing the dead and wounded into their truck.  On this day, July 30, 1975, my eyes were opened.  I was introduced to human rights’ activism and what it meant to stand up for one’s beliefs.  This was a significant event in this city and the march is still celebrated each year on this date.

The march took on a very personal overtone for me.  My brother, who was studying at the university, was a participant in that march.  He never returned home afterwards and could not be accounted for after three days of searching at the university, the hospitals, or the morgues. We scoured the prisons, both in the city and far outside the city.  There were twenty-seven young people missing from that march.  We family members found three in San Miguel and four in another location but with no help from authorities.

We never located my brother. I felt anguish and desperation. In addition to the emotional angst,  I experienced what this unsettled situation does to a family to have no closure, never knowing if your loved one is dead or alive.  Being unable to have a respectful burial simply perpetuates the mourning process.

While visiting the prison in San Miguel, in the far eastern section of the country, in search of my brother and other missing students, we met a prison inmate from Switzerland named Gabriel, who had been severely tortured.  He asked us to buy medicine for his wounds, which we did.  However, the officials at the prison denied us access a second time to deliver it.  We saw a priest in the streets wearing his vestments and asked for his help, assuming he would be permitted admission.  He not only agreed but also kindly offered us a ride into town.  He gave us, too, an open-ended offer, “If you ever need help again, feel free to contact me.”  Two years later I would again meet with this same priest after he took on a more prominent role.  But at this time outside the prison on the streets of San Miguel, we didn’t know we had just met Oscar Romero himself.

My goal was simple – to find my brother.  I thought it would end there.  Little did I know that thirty-five years later, this quest would turn out to be my impassioned work in leading and organizing others in finding the missing and disappeared.  I discovered a huge need with so many other families in similar circumstances.  We were all doing the same thing and needed to collaborate our efforts, streamline and organize them by working together.  In time more people found out about our efforts in our movement and have joined our group, which has been a very natural process.

Our organization’s focus was to gather the names of the missing to provide documentation,  prepare a file on each, take the information to the authorities, demand that the cases be investigated, take photos of bodies in clandestine cemeteries, protest cases not being handled, and demand release of political prisoners.

The price of involvement in social activism is high.  By the time I met more people and became more consumed with and committed to our efforts,  I was so deeply entrenched in fulfilling this need, that I never really thought about the dangers to me personally.  They are very real.  Our putting pictures and articles in the paper has not been looked upon kindly by the military.  Forty-eight members of our group have been detained.  Many including myself have been tortured.  Three have disappeared.  Five have been assassinated.  One of our young active women whose husband was missing was killed in her bed along with her young children.  Our headquarters here has been bombed on eight occasions.  We have learned to copy all our information and have it all archived in other countries far away for safe-keeping.  Notice there is no sign outside this building.  [Editor’s note:  our local taxi driver made numerous stops contacting other taxi drivers and had us on several dead-end streets even trying to locate this place!]

There have been 8,600 cases of disappeared or detained persons reported to the COMADRES.  Of those cases, 4,012 remain incomplete.  More cases are continuing to arrive.  Only two persons have been recovered and found alive.  Their stories of survival are a combination of heroism and, perhaps, luck; some may say divine intervention.

The harrowing story of the one survivor tells how he managed to escape, not one, but three separate sets of jail bars.  He had lost a great deal of weight from being limited to one tortilla a day for some time.  However, he, unlike his friend who did not survive, was given chili inside that tortilla.  He feels that extra protein in the chili gave him the burst of energy required for his thin body to squeeze through those three sets of bars to escape and then climb the plantain tree over the fence where he found a sleeping guard.

The other was a survivor of a beach massacre where he lay still and silent, pretending to be dead among those who were.  They were victims whose throats had been slashed by the military who were on a drunken spree the night before.  Although he was badly wounded, he was the only survivor and obviously presumed dead by the attackers.

In addition to my brother’s disappearance there have been many other difficult and horrific situations in my life, but my faith in God has helped me resist and withstand the pain and suffering I’ve experienced.  I credit my grandparents, who raised me, with providing an early exposure to religion and strong commitment to faith.  I was born in a very small rural area on March 26, 1942, to a fourteen-year-old mother and a fifteen-year-old father, neither equipped to raise a child.  When I was three, my mother found someone she loved and left me to live with my grandparents.  I can clearly recall the day she left me.  Each of my biological parents came and went during my childhood, but my grandparents remained constant.

My grandparents’ commitment to my faith formation as a child is the most important gift they gave me.  I am forever grateful for this devoted responsibility they offered me while raising me in their home.  Going to Mass was a big sacrifice for my grandmother.  We lived far out in the country, and the closest available potable water source was a river with a natural springs one half kilometer away.  My grandmother and I would rise every Sunday at 4 A.M. to walk that distance to go bathe in the river and then continue on to church before the 6 A.M. service.  My grandfather remained at home to boil the milk from our cows.  On the way home from Mass, my grandmother would buy a loaf of bread, and the three of us would have either hot chocolate or coffee with this freshly boiled milk and fresh bread.  This pattern was a very enjoyable weekly tradition of worship followed by a cherished family ritual. I had a happy childhood.  We grew corn, beans, yucca, and sugar cane, extracting the starch from each to make sweets.  [Editor’s note: We are now given samples of this very sweet treat to try.]

My grandparents worked hard day in and day out to survive at a very basic standard of living. My grandfather would tell me stories while cooking down the yucca.  One I will never forget is about how he was a survivor of the 1932 massacre.  He had been tortured by hanging by one of his testicles from an open barn but somehow managed to survive.  He nearly died and many others did.  His one testicle remained enlarged the rest of his life as a result of this torture.  Hearing this story made me fear army officers.  If I saw them on the streets, I would cross to the other side to avoid them.

Not all my childhood experiences with religion were positive.  We had one priest who instilled fear about Communism in the whole parish.  When I asked my grandfather to explain Communism, he said it meant to share things with one another.  I saw no objection to that.  That is the model of living I saw my grandparents live out of a sense of community despite having little themselves.  The priest’s message was very doomsday: Communism was coming the next day, and we would all die.  Listening to this as a small child, I was terrified into thinking these people called Communists would arrive the next day killing all of us.  The priest went so far as to place a cardboard box in the center of the sanctuary and announce, “Since you are all going to die tomorrow anyway, what good will your extra clothes and money do for you?  Bring them in and put them in this box for others in need.”  Everyone went home after that service and remained silent.  Of course, we each awoke alive the next morning.  The priest took advantage of that good fortune crediting his power of prayer for saving us through the night!   He was later killed by military death squads during the war. Fortunately, the priest’s attitude didn’t affect me that much.  I can laugh about such a ridiculous scare tactic now. What upsets me now when I think back is how the priest instilled fear in the people in order to get donations.

Prayer was always a calming practice that brought me peace.  I’ve always had a strong, firm, and deep faith, and it has served me well and directed me in life.  It has been a huge resource to me.  Through all the obstacles I’ve faced I’ve never become resentful or questioned God.  I figure God knows why things happen and we must struggle and fight to counteract and resist to overcome the bad things in life in order for good things to flourish and be abundant.

In the seventh grade there was an opportunity for me to study nursing here in San Salvador.  My mother’s history repeated itself when I fell in love and married at age fifteen.  People said it would not last but it was a normal marriage and on this past October 18, my husband and I celebrated 50 years of marriage.  I had nine pregnancies, one of which was killed in the womb during a torture.  I have good children and was a very responsible parent.  My sister helped me care for them also.  I never neglected them.  I think they have turned out so well–healthy, good people with no addictions or problems today–because of all the good care and attention they received.

The disappearance of my brother was very difficult and broke my heart.  But then when my sixteen-year old son disappeared on January 10, 1978, it was even more painful.  This time my soul hurt and my spirit was wounded.  It still feels as raw and fresh as if it happened today. We still know nothing of what happened to him.   My seventeen-year-old nephew’s body was so disfigured when he was found that he was only identified because of the clothes he was wearing.  In 1991 my daughter disappeared, which was another terrible experience, but a U.S. congressman intervened to help get her out of prison.


Cruelty Unmasked

When they ordained Bishop Romero as Archbishop in 1977,  we recognized him as the priest who helped us at the prison in San Miguel in 1975.  We also remembered his offer to help us if we needed him.  Obviously he was in an even better position to respond now.  Three days after his ordination a group of us went to visit him, carrying all the information we had gathered about those missing.  Every week in his public homily he would name those who were missing as well as denounce groups who were responsible.  He was very direct in encouraging us to organize ourselves.  “Women, you need to organize yourselves and form a committee and have an official identity.”  We didn’t understand how important that was.  One day he invited a group of 45 mothers, priests, seminarians, and a lawyer to come to a dinner.  He gave us an official name:


He told us, “It is going to fall on you to make a path where there are no trails.  There will be stones and obstacles in your path but this is a very noble struggle and it gives life to people and gives dignity to people.  You are going to achieve and overcome the obstacles.  You are the Marys of this day who are out searching for your loved ones and your children who are persecuted.”

After Monsignor Romero was killed in 1980, there was a notable decrease in support from the clergy.  Two priests in Suchitoto who were particularly helpful were exiled from the country.  Our defense lawyers have also stopped taking our cases in court because of the threats by military officers.  Lawyers can offer us advice, but those of us working in this group know our cases so well that we have been fairly successful in court.  Of the 32 cases we took on, we won every case due to our intimate knowledge of them.

[Editor’s note: It takes Alicia great effort, much time, and floods of tears as she recounts the next  horrific experience.  As unpleasant as this is to share these details,  she  knows how important this is to her story.  I deeply admire her willingness to bare her soul here.]     On October 9, 1981, I was captured, driven off in the back of a truck into a desolated area where I was raped and tortured repeatedly over a number of days.  I was pregnant at the time, and my torturers killed the baby inside of me.  I thought this was the end of my life.  I didn’t know how I could possibly resist so much torture.  The only way I got through was with my belief in God.  I kept trying over and over to pray the “Our Father” while I was being tortured, but I couldn’t remember the words.  On the one day they were torturing me, I was determined to pray the entire prayer.  When I got through it all, that was the day I said to myself,  “I am going to get out of here alive.  They are not going to kill me.”  I prayed to God saying, “You are stronger than these people who are torturing me, so please help me.”  God helped me stay strong.

All of these events have been very difficult, but my faith in God has helped me withstand the suffering and channel that pain into a positive direction to help other mothers and families in the same situation.  I get up every morning and pray speaking to God for this organization, my family, for followers of God.  Then I can walk out the door feeling calm and safe and secure knowing that God travels with me.   In the evening I pray a shorter prayer thanking God for getting through the day, for being well and healthy and safe because you never know what the next day will bring.  I ask for forgiveness for the errors I have made during the day and the things I have neglected to do.  I ask for continued faith.  I ask on behalf of my ancestors that did not have a firm faith.  If I don’t communicate with God on a daily basis, I feel empty.

I am committed to my work in Christian formation.  I participate in a faith community.  On Saturdays  I am part of a faith- sharing group and Bible study group.  I feel we need to always challenge ourselves to grow in our faith.  When I was young, I used to be afraid of death, but I no longer am.  God will decide when it is my time.  It took me two very difficult years struggling with my grief after my son died to get to the point where I feel that God decided to take him so he wouldn’t get lost in another path on his journey.  Gangs were rising in that time, and maybe this was God’s way of his avoiding a dark life of violence.  I feel the Holy Spirit is always with me.  Some days I feel stronger than others.

This organization has worked for twenty-five years to get the United Nations to declare recognition by way of a declaration against the disappearance of people.  We submitted a request with peoples’ names asking them to recognize us as a non-governmental organization.  In 1984 we went to Geneva and had a three-day hunger strike.  Our request was accepted.  As a result we were recognized as a Category 2 NGO and were allowed to enter an assembly of the UN.  We asked them to study our proposal in depth.  As a result we were given a letter by the UN recognizing our organization as an official NGO, which was  eventually approved unanimously in December, 2006, and signed in France by 57 countries on February 6, 2007, and now by 78 countries.  Neither the United States nor El Salvador has signed this document.  We continue the process of getting more countries to sign.  It is a permanent struggle.  Now it is a global law with characteristics to defend people which serves as “a light in the darkness.” This will remain for all humanity for all times.

We are hoping that the government in El Salvador will be willing to meet with the victims of the disappeared in a public place and ask for forgiveness.  We recognize that it is not the current administration who committed the crimes; however, they are in control now and it is their responsibility to make amends on behalf of the past government.  We are not asking just for simple forgiveness; we want them to make a commitment of reparations for affected victims and their survivors.  For example, there are thousands of mothers and children who lost their homes either as a direct or indirect result of the violence.  There are thousands who need mental health attention.  Lobbying needs to be done with work focusing in the mental health area.  COMADRES has extremely limited funds dependent largely on individual contributions.  We are able to help about sixty-five persons a year with mental health issues, but the help is inadequate to heal their deep wounds.  Many people are left abandoned and need assistance.

We have communicated with our new president, President Mauricio Fumes of the FLMN party, but have not yet heard from him.  We have collaborated with the new Chancellor, Martinez, who is supportive of our efforts.  When he was a congressman, he served on the Committee of Justice and Human Rights.  We wanted August 30 declared as the Day of Remembrance for the Detained and Disappeared.  He took it to the legislative assembly, and one of the representatives of the ARENA party, recently ousted from majority rule, took the proposal and ripped it in half in front on the entire assembly.  It was a complete insult to all the people who have been victims and a mockery of the situation.

[Editor’s summary:  Alicia has traveled world-wide professing human rights.  It seems that her own losses and suffering have served to fortify her personal resolve and determination to fight for human rights.   In 1984 she received the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award.  The Kennedy family and musician Bonnie Raitt are among her long-standing supporters.  The COMADRES continues to be a political watchdog for human rights abuse.  It has been connected with Amnesty International.  The focus has branched out from its original goals; it now serves as a model for other countries to hold the state accountable for human rights violation committed during wars.  It seeks to make sure that the recommendations of the United Nations Truth Commission are followed.  It seeks better protection of political prisoners and assurances of human rights that abuses won’t be committed.  It works against domestic violence, striving to educate women about political economic projects with which they can support themselves, such as small sewing co-operatives.  The Monument to Truth and Memory, a long granite wall filled with names of the disappeared and killed, strongly resembling the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., exists in San Salvador largely due to the efforts of the COMADRES organization who do not want the victims of the violence ever to be forgotten.]

Post Script 1/17, 2010:  This is a summary of information that was posted on Tim’s blog today.

The BBC reported that President Mauricio Funes, of El Salvador, made the first public apology since the end of the country’s 12-year conflict.  He asked the victims and families of the 75,000 or more who died for forgiveness.  He recognized that grave human rights abuses had been committed and constitutional order had been violated.

This was done as part of a ceremony commemor-ating the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords.

One cannot help but wonder if this was not at least in part a result of the requests of the Comadres organizaton.


This Salvadoran thicket of mangrove roots secures its coastline.  In the thicket of despair Alicia lived a faith rooted in God that brings strength to the people of the world.

August 11, 2010 – Sadness fills my heart and soul as I awake to read the startling news today that Alicia has died.  The shock overwhelms me at a personal level. She is the rock of Comadres around which everything revolves. She impacted countless numbers of lives of persons she never even met.

The following are snippets from her local obituary.

“This woman is one of those representations that El Salvador has as example of courage and perseverance for the struggle for effective respect of human rights.  The quota she paid for La Lucha (the struggle) was extremely high   . . .{captures, tortures, threats, etc.}.  All this did not stop her love for life, her dignity never had a price, rather her courage . . .managed to bring down the pride of assassins and tortures.  Alicia today turns in to one more of those stars that will keep guiding us with her example, her “entrega” for life . . measured by the countless days in which she dedicated her energies to seek for the truth, to dignify the victims of the war, she said ‘apologies can’t come alone, there is still justice to be made.’

. . We have lost a piece of historical memory of El Salvador,  legacy to our new generations, as human beings also we have lost a heart full of compassion and great example of courage.”

What a privilege it was to so candidly interact with this brave, courageous woman who now rests.


    Afflicted with Hope / is one of many outreach ministries at
    Saint Stephen Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA)
    30 West Main Street, PO Box 266
    New Kingstown, PA 17072

    Tax deductible donations for support of this work in El Salvador may be sent to the above address.