Longform

AFTER THE TORTURE

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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.

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Terry Greene