In early 2010, on a group solidarity trip to El Salvador, we inadvertently and unexpectedly became global witnesses to a crime of international proportion.
To make a long story short, we traveled up a very steep one lane rutted mountain road in a remote sector of a rugged region. Our mission was to listen, and offer encouragement to local organizers in their efforts to prevent more ecological damage than had already been inflicted upon them by a multinational mining company. We were living, breathing icons of an outside world that seemed much too far away. Suddenly we were the eyes and ears of the international community to a series of horrific murders perpetrated against those local activists.
The first murder happened only months before we arrived. The leader of the local activists had disappeared for several weeks, they told us in hushed tones. Then they unfolded the story in gruesome detail. Sitting behind closed doors in a twenty by twenty windowless cinderblock room, a half dozen residents with grim faces and watery eyes spoke through a translator to a dozen unsuspecting middle-class North Americans from Western New York. They were members of the opposition, they told us, to a giant gold mining operation in the region that was turning their only source of water into toxic sludge.
First they raised their concerns with the government in San Salvador, then joined forces with other activist groups down river. Then their leader went missing. Then others were harassed and threatened. Eventually the leader’s body was found – decomposing in the bottom of an abandoned well. The tips of his fingers had been cut off before he was shot.
Then, they told us, the vice president of their resistance committee was shot. He survived, only to be murdered four months later. Six days after that, a woman organizer eight months pregnant was murdered. Each of those telling us their story had been threatened or attacked themselves. The eyes we stared into belonged to people who were clearly afraid for their lives.
Assuming we were people with influence, they urged us to tell the outside world. We were not, but in that time and place, we knew we had more influence than the people telling us their story. They lived at the top of an isolated mountain in a country so poor it depends upon money Salvadorans in the U.S. send home.
We were not influential but we did get the word out as best we knew how. We even helped fund a movie that became widely used in El Salvador and in other regions of Central America where international mining companies were being resisted. *
Another time I served as chaplain to a medical mission in which local authorities insisted we travel with armed guards to protect us from potential gang attacks. Our local health committee hosts tried to keep us in neutral territory, but rival gangs coming to the clinic at the same time could be trouble. While something similar might happen in U.S. cities, the thin blue line between order and chaos is not quite so frayed and shear.
When you see CNN images of women with young children huddled at our border seeking asylum, it is not a ruse or scam to gain entrance. The terror is real, the desperation authentic, and the need utterly urgent.
*On March 29, 2017, the government of El Salvador banned all mining.