Longform

AFTER THE TORTURE

Page 4 of 6

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.

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Terry Greene