By Paul Avallone, author of Tattoo Zoo
(WARNING: Reading and sharing this article, or even speaking aloud of it, may put you at risk of being labeled insensitive, as those so judging you will assume that you believe that the moral of this story applies to the recent riots in Baltimore and Ferguson and the coming-soon riots in a depressed neighborhood near you, even though neither Baltimore nor Ferguson are mentioned or implied in the story, except here in the warning. END WARNING.)
The photograph above doesn’t really hit home, does it? It’s jarring, it’s unfamiliar, isn’t it? That’s because the looters aren’t red-blooded Americans; they’re Salvadorans. I know; I took the photo. Thirty-five years ago. On a Sunday afternoon, March 30th, 1980. In San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador.
I was just a few weeks detached from my Green Beret enlistment in Panama, hanging out in El Salvador as a freelance photojournalist in anticipation of the civil war about to erupt in copycat to the previous year’s Communist takeover of neighboring Nicaragua. Yes, I was a civilian photojournalist, on a civilian passport, leave it at that, and the U.S. Government at that time would have properly denied any knowledge of my activities.
Six days before the rioting, on Monday, March 24th, the country’s top Catholic priest, Monsignor Oscar Romero, had been gunned down, assassinated, while giving evening mass in a small church in the capital. Romero had been an outspoken supporter of the rising revolutionaries, publicly calling on the country’s soldiers to reject the corrupt oligarchy and align themselves with the poor, and it was generally assumed that the government’s paramilitary had been the assassins.
The assassination was viewed as a boon for both the government and the then-fledgling rebels. For the government it was essential to rid the country of a well respected, well loved, moral leader who could unite the people against the oligarchs. The rebels, on the other hand, looked at the assassination as the spark that would fully ignite the revolution.
Both the government and the (then mostly university student) rebels held their fire for the rest of the week. The city was quiet, in anticipation of the monsignor’s funeral scheduled for the coming Sunday in the capital’s downtown cathedral.
There was no government presence at all—neither police nor military—on the streets all that Sunday morning as the crowd of more than 100,000 citizens converged upon the cathedral. The mourners were both organized protesters and individual citizens, (see my photos below). There was no violence, no weapons displayed, no disarray. And, again, no police or military presence.
The cathedral took up an entire city block, and the streets around it were packed. The cathedral as well was overflowing. The mid-day sun was scorching, bleaching. An hour into the actual funeral ceremony inside, outside there was an explosion, like a bomb, followed by some scattered rifle shots, and the crowd in the street panicked.
About three dozen were trampled to death in the stampede that followed. Within minutes the streets were empty, but for the few men loading bodies to haul away and the handful of rebels taking cover and brandishing handguns against an enemy that did not appear.
The assumption later would be that the bomb and shots had come from the multi-story National Police Headquarters building catty-corner to the cathedral. That’s rational; a tyrannical government would want to stamp out opposition. On the other hand, insurgents would prize the raging fire that chaos and violence bring to a beginning rebellion, and had motive to start the chaos themselves.
In the immediate aftermath of the panicked stampede, the streets were empty and silent. Everywhere in the central city. Not a person out, not a cop, not a soldier. A rare car may go by, but then fast, speeding, to get away, as if fearing an invisible harm brewing in the quiet still vacuum.
I repeat, there was no government authority anywhere, there was no law. Within that vacuum the looting began.
It wasn’t but a couple of minutes after I snapped the looting photo atop that a word quickly zapped through the looters. “Vienen.” That’s it, just “Vienen,” going from person to person, fast. Meaning “They’re coming.” Whoever the “they” were, if it was said I did not make it out of the colloquial Spanish.
It didn’t matter. “They’re coming” was enough. It was like rats fleeing a sinking ship. The looting stopped instantly. Loot was discarded. Everyone was gone. The streets were again empty and still.
I remained. I was an American, tall, with cameras, obviously a journalist, I wouldn’t be confused for a looter by whomever the “they” were.
And then “they” appeared. Civilian-attired men in twos and threes coming forward from the different streets. Separated, each alone. Salvadoran men, typical height, maybe 5’6″. Ages, middle-twenties. Civilian street clothes. Intense, serious, unsmiling faces. Each one with a wooden-stock carbine in hand. At his waist, pointed forward.
Salvadoran paramilitary. Not to be messed with.
And you won’t find a photo of them here because I did not take one. I may be brazen, but I’m not stupid. Experience and instinct told me better than to raise one of my cameras or show any indication of clandestinely photographing those men. Instead, watching them approach, I turned a camera away backwards and shot blindly from my hip these girls below watching safely behind their locked gate.
Not a shot was fired there where I was. And none, I learned later, from any of the other areas of rioting and looting. There was no further rioting and no further looting that Sunday in San Salvador. The streets were still and very quiet. And peaceful.
You know why. Because every Salvadoran knew that those “they,” those elite paramilitary government soldiers, would shoot a looter on sight. And not ask questions later.
And just as soon shoot a gringo photojournalist aiming his camera where he has no business aiming.
Did I say it already? There were no shots fired. No one was killed. And no further street violence and looting. Without a shot being fired.
Because those short, wiry little paramilitary guys, well, people took them seriously.
(DISCLAIMER: The author claims no moral to this story and realizes that the story itself could be disputed as nonsense and fanciful wishful thinking, except for the photographs, which verify that he actually was there, never mind what the U.S. Government might avow.)
Paul Avallone spent three-plus years in Afghanistan as a Green Beret then an embedded civilian journalist. His big, literary novel of the Afghan War, Tattoo Zoo, was published in December. See more here.