More (Way) Back Story

January 3, 2011

I have kept diaries a few times during my life, mostly when I was very young, most of which have perished.   These will not be missed.   One I do wish I had back was one I kept during 1983, when I lived in El Salvador at the height of the civil war, working for the AFL-CIO’s labor program in El Salvador.  I had a title nearly as long but not quite as grandiose as Idi Amin’s[1]: Country Director of the American Institute for Free Labor Development’s Program in El Salvador.   On paper, I was there to train Salvadoran labor leaders in the dark arts of organizing workers into unions, teaching them collective bargaining strategies

My real job description, never written, was to organize a number of Salvadoran trade unions from different sectors —  the communication workers, construction workers, public employees, and, by far the largest, the peasant farmers – into a political force that supported the Revolutionary Junta, a group of Generals led by the once and current President, Napoleon Duarte, in whom the State Department had invested it’s hopes to stave off the fall of a third domino (after Nicaragua and Grenada) to the communists.  But while Duarte tried to build a centrist political base of workers, peasant farmers and lower middle class professionals, a rogue cashiered Major named Roberto D’Abuisson was compiling lists of “potential subversives” within this same segment of society and proactively slaughtering them before they got any ideas about supporting the insurgency.   Duarte initiated a number of economic reforms designed to weaken the stranglehold of “the fourteen families” who controlled most of the productive farm land and business monopolies in the country.   The most controversial initiative, in which I played a large role, was the expropriation of thousands of acres of farmland from the 14 families and its redistribution to several hundred thousand landless peasant farmers.  

If it sounds like dangerous work, it was.   Two years earlier my boss, Mike Hammer, had been murdered along with the head of the Salvadoran Land Reform Agency, Rudolfo Viera, and a young Seattle lawyer about my age, Mark Pearlman, by a right wing Death Squad as they ate dinner at the San Salvador Sheraton Hotel.   Hans Christ, one of the Salvadoran landlords who had his farm expropriated under the land reform program had recognized my boss and his colleagues as they entered the restaurant.  Christ appealed to  one of his friends, Lopez Sibrian, Deputy Chief of Intelligence in the Salvadoran National Guard, asking if he could take advantage of this golden opportunity to avenge himself upon the people who had forced him to sell his farm.

Two low ranking National Guardsmen were ordered to carry out the assassination, with weapons provided by Lopez Sibrian and an accomplice, Captain Eduardo Avila.   Avila was one of D’Abuisson’s chief Death Squad operatives and played a key role in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, a crime nearly as audacious as the murder of four American nuns by members of the security forces several years earlier.

Unfortunately, Hammer had moved to a private dining room for more privacy, and this made the hit easier.   The two Guardsmen, armed with sub machine guns which fired more than 15 rounds per second, burst in on them as they were finishing dinner and having coffee.   Viera, who had already escaped several attempts on his life and always carried an Uzi, got the weapon as high as his chest before he was hit with a dozen bullets in the face.  Pearlman was hit twice in the center of his chest and died instantly.   Hammer was found lying at a locked exit door, American passport in hand, with two bullets in the back of his head.

That happened the night of January 3, 1981.   Thirty years ago to the day.

Mike was a good man who deserves to be remembered.  


[1]His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.

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