Santos Jaco, a small man barely five feet, four inches tall, stands on his toes and peeks over the shoulder of a bearded norteamericano wearing a Maya-style woven pullover. Jaco is trying to see a detailed charcoal drawing hanging on the gallery wall.

The drawing depicts corpses, men and women, thrown on a slab in a morgue. All have been tortured.

Jaco is one of the few Salvadorans who show up for the opening of this art exhibit at the trendy Arizona State University Art Museum.

Jaco isn't here for the social event, though. He's curious to see how native artists documented El Salvador's 12-year-long civil war, even though the exhibit brings back memories of the torture he says he suffered back in 1984, when he was a high school student. When the National Guardsmen came looking for him. When they found him.

"Yes, this is accurate," Jaco says, raising his voice so he can be heard above the festive marimba music a group of university students is playing just a few feet away.

"Yes, always, they tie the hands behind a person with a rope, then they strap the rope to a post or a tree. And the pain in the arms is incredible."

Santos Jaco left El Salvador nine years ago. Back then, he says, he was a kid who helped out the leftist cause by encouraging campesinos, or peasants, to join agricultural cooperatives.

This leftist, afterschool activity angered Jaco's father, Nicolas, a soldier in the government army. His father felt disgraced that his only son was a guerrilla sympathizer, Jaco says.

Jaco suspects his own father informed on him in 1984.
After his arrest by the National Guard, an internal Salvadoran security force, Jaco was tortured for a week and left for dead in a garbage dump on the outskirts of San Salvador, El Salvador's capital city. Jaco recovered, gradually made his way north. First Mexico City. Then Los Angeles. And finally Phoenix.

Now the 26-year-old is a social-service coordinator for a Valley church organization. In that role, he regularly explains American immigration law to recent arrivals. He is also one of thousands of Salvadorans caught up in a set of changing immigration regulations so confusing as to all but defy explanation.

The University of Central America in El Salvador says about one million Salvadorans--20 percent of the population of El Salvador--now live in the United States. The Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) offers much lower estimates. The INS guesses that about 327,000 Salvadorans live in the United States illegally. Another 190,000 Salvadorans, including Jaco, are here legally, the INS says.

For now.
In the constantly shifting morass of INS regulations, Jaco says, he and other Salvadorans never know what's going to happen next. First, the INS granted him "Temporary Protective Status," or TPS, which means he could live and work legally in the United States. But his TPS expired in 1992.

So he was classified as DED.
"Deferred Enforced Departure" meant Jaco could stay in the United States indefinitely--as long as the President of the United States extended the DED program through executive order. In fact, presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton were both pressured by the Salvadoran government to allow the 190,000 Salvadorans in the U.S. legally to remain here. El Salvador depends on Salvadorans in the U.S. to supply it with foreign currency. Each Salvadoran sends home, on average, $1,000 annually. That means exiled Salvadorans pump as much as $1 billion each year into their homeland, which is struggling to rebuild itself after a devastating civil war. Bowing to political pressure from El Salvador, Bush granted Salvadorans extra time here. Then Clinton extended their stay.

But late last year, the INS told Jaco he will face deportation proceedings in September, unless he files for asylum and can prove, during a lengthy series of interviews and hearings, that he has a well-founded fear of persecution should he return to his country. It will not be easy to prove such a claim. The INS says human-rights abuses in El Salvador have abated since the rebels and government signed peace accords in 1992; that it's safe to go home now.

Clinton refused to grant another extension for Jaco and 190,000 of his fellow countrymen to remain in the U.S.

A total of 5,490 immigrants from Liberia, Somalia, Bosnia and Rwanda are in the same boat, the U.S. Committee for Refugees says. These immigrants also face deportation after being granted temporary safe haven. But their numbers pale in comparison with the 190,000 Salvadorans, the largest DED group ever to face deportation proceedings.

Sending the Salvadorans home could be seen as well-intentioned. The 1992 peace agreement, in the eyes of the INS, signals the end of political violence in El Salvador.

The United Nations reported last year that from July to September 1994, it logged 222 charges of human-rights abuses in El Salvador, including torture, arbitrary executions and death threats. Asylum lawyers who work with Salvadorans, however, say INS immigration judges tend to blame the current violence in El Salvador on nameless apolitical thugs, not politically motivated death squads.

And to Jaco and many Salvadorans, the INS's change of heart is simply an extension of anti-immigrant, anti-Hispanic sentiment in the United States. All of these shifts in INS policy have turned Jaco's life into a Kafkaesque nightmare.

He figures if he ever returns to El Salvador, he'll be killed by his father. Or his political enemies. Or a band of armed thieves.

He knows there's a slim chance he can stay in the U.S. He can apply for a special type of asylum under a Byzantine set of guidelines stemming from a 1985 federal discrimination lawsuit in California (American Baptist Churches v. Thornburgh).

In that case, a 1990 settlement allows Salvadorans to apply for a special type of asylum in the U.S.; those applications will be considered by hearing officers who are sensitive to current conditions in El Salvador. But to navigate the INS immigration bureaucracy, the 190,000 Salvadorans need lawyers. Good lawyers. Inexpensive lawyers.

Jaco is poor. And at the very time he needs a legal-aid lawyer, there is little legal aid to help Salvadorans apply for asylum under the federal court guidelines. "You know how these things go; it's almost faddish," says Chris Brelje, chairman of the Arizona Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "Certain geographical areas are hot, and then there's a shift in interest.

"I'm not sure why there's less interest, because there are still serious conditions in Central America."

The Arizona Center for Immigration, which had operated for 13 years and was the one place in Phoenix that might have given Jaco legal aid for his asylum case, closed its doors in 1994--shortly before the INS changed its policy on Salvadorans. "A lot of these people have legitimate claims [for asylum]," says Carol Salvati, former director of ACI. "But there's no way they can apply on their own and succeed."

Santos Jaco was born in 1969, the only child of a depressed, often tearful middle-aged woman named Virginia and her husband, Nicolas. The family lived on the outskirts of a town named El Congo, in a western section of El Salvador called Santa Ana. Like most Salvadorans, Jaco grew up poor. He also grew up in the midst of a civil war that, from 1980 to 1992, killed or simply "disappeared" 75,000 Salvadorans.

Jaco was 11 years old when Monsignor Oscar Romero, one of the country's most revered Catholic leaders, was gunned down in San Salvador. At the time, Jaco recalls, his mother wept; his father didn't respond. He noticed his parents reacted in a similar fashion when people talked of massacres in places like Rio Sumpul and El Mozote.

Like most campesinos, Nicolas Jaco worked for a large landowner. To make more money, he joined the military. As the war heated up in the 1980s, Nicolas would disappear for weeks at a time. He told his son he trained other soldiers in the "techniques of combat." "My father was an uneducated man; my mother had to teach him to read and write because that is the only way they would let him join the army," Jaco says.

Sometimes, when he returned drunk to the family's one-room adobe shack, Nicolas would pull out his gun and shoot at Virginia's feet, Jaco says. More than once Nicolas ran a knife across his son's chest and related how he once watched a man die after his head had been sliced apart with a machete. It was a relief when Nicolas disappeared for a few weeks on a war campaign, but it also meant that Virginia was forced to take in laundry and sell tortillas to make ends meet.

Early on, Virginia Jaco encouraged her son to attend school in Sonsonate, a neighboring state. He boarded with relatives first, then with a teacher.

Soon Jaco could read and write better than his father, which irked Nicolas. What angered Nicolas even more was that his son was starting to spout leftist rhetoric. Young Santos blamed the United States for perpetuating the war by funding the Salvadoran military, by training the very soldiers who conspired with death squads.

He remembers his father telling him he sounded like a damn rebel, that all that schooling filled his head with leftist ideas.

Nicolas was correct.
Jaco says the teacher he lived with was a guerrilla.
But of course, he never told his father. And it was fairly easy to hide things from Nicolas, because the high school was at least a day's walk from El Congo. Jaco lived with his teacher and his family, and rarely returned home.

In fact, Jaco says, his teacher led a band of guerrillas into combat when he wasn't drilling kids on their multiplication and division tables. His rebel group was associated with the FMLN, or the Faribundo Marti Liberation Front, which more or less coordinated the guerrilla war.

Troubled by his son's leftist rhetoric, Nicolas decided Santos should join the Salvadoran army. The boy was 14 years old, about the right age. Nicolas took him into the mountains for basic training with other young boys.

Santos Jaco says he did not like the physical and mental stress. He lasted about three months before deserting.

Jaco raced off to Sonsonate, seeking refuge with his teacher.
Sometimes, he'd sneak over to see his mother. He knew his father was suspicious of his activities. He also knew his father had buddies who served in the National Guard, the country's feared internal security force.

You can't come home anymore, Virginia would say. It's too dangerous.
After school, Jaco learned to organize campesinos into cooperatives that demanded fair prices for their coffee beans. He also encouraged peasants who worked for wealthy landowners to ask for higher wages. The organization that trained him was called the Federacion de Cooperativas Agricolas de El Salvador, or Fedecoopades, he says.

In June 1984, Jaco and his teacher took time off from school and traveled to San Salvador to strategize and organize. Jaco says he cannot remember the date when uniformed members of the National Guard arrested him, his teacher and a few others. To this day, he wonders if his father informed on him. "Part of me thinks he informed on me, because when a son doesn't follow his father's footsteps, the father will find a way for him to obey. That is the law of the campo," he says.

For a week, Jaco says, he was periodically tortured. His hands were tied behind his back. His testicles and the inside of his mouth were repeatedly shocked with what appeared to be an electrical cord. "If you don't tell us who the other guerrillas are, we're going to gouge your eye out with a spoon," one man said as he hit the side of Jaco's head over and over.

"I would have killed myself if I'd had a way," he says.
"Dioscito, let me die, I would pray. I thought God had abandoned me.
"Now I know God wanted me to live."

Jaco says he later heard that human-rights workers pressured the National Guard to release the leftist activists. He says he heard that one newspaper carried the names of some of the released prisoners, including his teacher.

He says he was taken to what appeared to be a garbage dump on the outskirts of San Salvador. He was thrown off the edge of an embankment; he passed out.

He woke up in the mountains someplace, and his father was kicking him. "Wake up, you idiot," he remembers Nicolas saying. "You are a stupid fool for putting your nose in such things." Then Nicolas bellowed at Virginia, saying she was responsible for the whole matter, because she sent the boy to school.

Jaco remembers Virginia screaming at Nicolas. Then Jaco passed out.
He never saw his father again.
Weeks later, when he was strong enough, his mother told him he had been left to die at the garbage dump. Poor people searching for food found him, she said. Leftist sympathizers took Jaco to a mountain hideout in Chalatenango, in an area friendly to rebels.

But Jaco wonders if his mother was telling the entire truth. Could his father have arranged for the torture to teach him a lesson? Is respect for his father the reason the National Guard let Jaco live? Or had the National Guard really left him for dead?

Jaco and his mother stayed in Chalatenango for a year, sleeping on the floor of a hut. A woman named Rosa prepared medicinal teas, and eventually, Jaco could walk again.

In 1986, campesinos helped smuggle him through Guatemala and into Mexico.
During that same year, Department of Public Safety director Ralph Milstead defended that the Phoenix Police Department and DPS had hosted 16 Salvadoran officers for a week of training in Phoenix. The Salvadoran officers were reported to be members of the National Guard and National Police. The Salvadorans were studying community relations, then-Phoenix police chief Ruben Ortega said at the time.

Santos Jaco says he had not physically or mentally recovered from his torture at the hands of the Salvadoran National Guard when he sneaked into the United States six years ago.

He'd decided to come to the United States after spending three years in Mexico City. He hadn't liked Mexico much. Too many cops hassling Central Americans, he says. He kept to himself, studied a little, worked in cafes. He suspected there were spies in Mexico, just like in El Salvador. Keep your mouth shut, he told himself.

He listened to what others said in Mexico, though. And he heard that a person could speak his mind in the United States without getting clobbered by the government. He wondered if perhaps the leftist guerrillas in El Salvador had painted the United States, which financially supported the Salvadoran military, in the worst possible light.

So he sneaked across the border at Tijuana and made his way to Los Angeles, where he'd heard about a large Salvadoran community. He was 20 years old, broke, a bewildered campesino carrying only a spare change of clothes and a head full of nightmares.

During his first days in Los Angeles, he slept on the street, begged in the bus terminal. When he spotted a UPS truck going down a street, he ran and hid, thinking the militarios were out to arrest him. When a news helicopter whizzed overhead, he ducked.

"You cannot imagine how confused and disoriented I was when I arrived," he says. "If I had known that I had the right to apply for political asylum, I certainly would have applied right then. But I didn't know what my rights were. I was in a fog."

One afternoon, a Salvadoran directed him to El Rescate, a shelter that cares for Central American refugees. In no time, he found work. First he helped build houses in Pasadena. Then he mowed lawns.

He ran into his teacher, the former guerrilla, in Los Angeles. He's counting on the teacher to testify for him when he applies for asylum.

He refused to give New Times the teacher's name or phone number. The teacher, he says, has testified before the United Nations Truth Commission and still lives in fear for his life.

It will not be easy for Jaco to document his case. And this is a plight many Salvadorans find themselves in, says Robert Foss, an attorney for El Rescate in Los Angeles. "Proving these things is very difficult. If you really believe you're going to be killed, and you've already been interrogated or tortured, the first thing on your mind is getting across the border. You don't think about collecting newspaper articles or the names of witnesses."

And generally the torturers are not likely to testify or provide documentation on behalf of the people they tortured, he adds. Many documents detailing arrests were not even available to United Nations investigators. They had been destroyed.

What can be substantiated is that the areas in which Jaco lived, Sonsonate and Santa Ana, were particularly violent, according to a 1993 report on violence in El Salvador by the United Nations Truth Commission.

The UN says the National Guard often went after organizers of campesino groups. "Members [of the National Guard] cooperated actively with large landowners, at times going so far as to crack down brutally on the peasant leagues and other rural groups that threatened their interests," the UN report says. In 1984, the year in which Jaco was tortured, 1,965 people lost their lives at the hands of "the army, security forces [including the National Guard] and death squads," the UN commission says.

Which means that Jaco's case was noteworthy, by Salvadoran standards, only because he managed to survive.

Jaco says he lived with his teacher in California for a while, but things weren't the same. The teacher's family was having difficulty coping with life in California. The teacher himself seemed somewhat despondent.

Jaco didn't have immigration documents until 1991, when he signed up for Temporary Protective Status because it enabled him to work legally. "I didn't want to apply, because I didn't want the INS to control my life," he says.

Jaco had difficulty adjusting to American life. For one thing, he couldn't make himself believe newspapers. In El Salvador, newspapers simply regurgitated propaganda. This is why he had difficulty believing that el Sida, or AIDS, was a real disease and not an effort on the part of the government to frighten and drive away Central Americans. And then there was the matter of being punctual. "I like this concept of timeliness and appointments," he says. "But it was hard to adjust to. In the campo, we don't have weekly or monthly planners that we carry around with us. We just tried to survive day by day. It's hard to understand at first that when someone wants you to show up at 10 in the morning, you have to be there." And the women were different. Haughty and unmanageable. In Central America, he says, a man wants a woman at his feet.

"I once had this girlfriend in Los Angeles," he recalls. "One night she stayed over, and I said, 'I'm going to work, so make me my breakfast.' And do you know what she said? She said, 'I came to this country to get away from all that. Not you, not my mother has a right to tell me what to do. I am free.'"

"I said, 'Well, fine. If you don't want to make my breakfast, fine, but get out of my apartment.' That relationship lasted only a week, thank God."

Although as many as 500,000 Salvadorans live in the Los Angeles area, Jaco could not get used to the city. He didn't like the violence, and he didn't like the police presence. In 1992, after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, he hightailed it to Phoenix.

Like many Californians, he considered Arizona a safer place to live.
There was no Salvadoran community to come to--no one even knows how many Salvadorans live here. But Jaco began to build a life in Phoenix, because it seemed to him his position in the United States was pretty secure. The INS had given him a new legal status--DED--and President Bush had extended it. Then President Clinton extended Bush's extension.

Jaco washed dishes at a pie shop, chopped green peppers and onions at a pizza joint. Then he landed a job as a social-service coordinator for a group of Valley churches. He earns $6,000 a year, plus room and board.

He sends money orders to his mother whenever he can--they total about $1,000 a year. "I send the money in my mother's name," he says. "I tell her to buy my father some clothes if he needs them, but not to let him get ahold of the money. He would drink it all away.

"My father wrote me a while ago and asked me for enough money to buy a little house. I did not answer the letter. I threw it in the garbage."

Jaco lives and offices in a house that offers temporary shelter to Central American refugees. Many of the guests are from the Salvadoran campo and are as confused and bewildered as he was when he arrived.

And frightened. The Salvadoran civil war took its toll on both the left and the right. The United Nations has logged numerous cases of atrocities committed by the guerrillas as well as by the military. Innocent campesinos were often brutalized simply because they lived in villages deemed to be sympathetic to one side or the other, the UN commission wrote.

This explains why so many Salvadorans are terrified of returning home. Although many Salvadorans are here simply to make money, others have fled persecution from either the guerrillas or the military.

Julio Menendez, whose family members were military sympathizers in El Salvador, now lives in Phoenix and is Jaco's friend. In 1989, Menendez says, his brother was killed by guerrillas. In 1992, another brother was killed, probably by guerrillas. In 1994, someone killed his father when he was drinking at the village well.

Although Menendez and Jaco were on different sides during the civil war, they are bonded here by their common nationality. In fact, Jaco counts among his friends a former Salvadoran death-squad member and a guerrilla who still has government bullets in his body.

"We're friends until people start drinking," says Jaco, who doesn't drink. "Then people sometimes start accusing each other of horrible things."

That's why Jaco does not allow guests to drink. It's also why he taped a sign to the wall that forbids strong political discourse in the living room.

As a social-service coordinator, part of Santos Jaco's job is to explain the new immigration regulations to Salvadorans who are at risk. In January, he held a meeting that was attended by 65 people. He told people that their work permits were good, in INS's eyes, even though they'd expired.

He tried to explain that come September, people would either have to return to El Salvador or have an asylum application in the works--that is, if they weren't married to a norteamericano. The asylum applications are complicated, he said, and people should seek the help of qualified immigration lawyers when filling them out. Then he had to explain that there was no legal aid available for most poor Salvadorans who needed help with asylum applications. What he's found is that many Salvadorans don't take the INS's change of heart seriously. The government will let us stay, they tell him. We've had so many extensions. The politics will change.

Jaco now regrets deeply that he was too ignorant to have applied for asylum six years ago, when he arrived in Los Angeles.

He knows that those who apply for asylum in the United States often endure years of hearings and appeals, and that asylum is difficult to obtain.

But Santos Jaco says he cannot return to El Salvador and expect to live. Just look at the television news, he says, you can see how bad things are in El Salvador. Kidnapings. Murders. Bombings. Who's to say the violence isn't direct retribution for long-standing wartime grudges? Some days, his mind starts racing and he knows it's ridiculous, but he can't stop the racing.

Like when he saw the televised testimony of Rosa Lopez, the self-contradictory, often-confused Salvadoran housekeeper in the O.J. Simpson trial. This must be propaganda against Salvadorans, he thought to himself; this is a government plot to make us look bad. They don't want us here anymore.

When the stress of not knowing what's going to happen next gets to Jaco, he takes time off. Goes to the library or maybe climbs Squaw Peak. On real vacations, he tries to see America. He's visited Salt Lake City. Las Vegas. Portland, Maine.

Not a bad country, he says. He's saving up for a lawyer, because he plans to apply for asylum. He figures the INS will see it his way, agree that he has a well-founded fear of persecution if he returns to El Salvador.

The civil war might be over for now, he says, but his enemies, including his father, remain in El Salvador.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Terry Greene