Mejicanos, El Salvador — The Mariona prison is perched on a small hill in this squalid town outside San Salvador. Armed National Police officers in rumpled khakis pace above the crowded courtyards. Below are about 1,100 inmates. More than half of them are political prisoners - among them the leaders of the largest Salvadorean labor unions.
This nation's labor organizers lead especially precarious lives. The government watches them like hawks. Numerous workers and labor organizers have disappeared, been assassinated, and have seen their union offices bombed. Major labor confederations have been outlawed.
With the abduction of three union leaders last week, relations between the government and unions are as tense as they have been in years. The government appears intent on thwarting the sort of upheaval that occurred in the late 1970s here, when general strikes involved as much as 90 percent of the work force.
The unions say they want peaceful change. A list of demands published by the National Federation of Unions of Salvadorean Workers (Fenastras) in 1980 calls for: release of detained prisoners, return of peasant land, dissolution of right-wing death squads, salary raises, consumer price controls, and the end of military administration of seven large industries and public utilities.
Their demands got them nowhere. A three-day strike this year ended with the arrest and disappearances of dozens of workers. All electric, water, and telephone plants, as well as the Port Authority were put under military control. Fenastras leaders were imprisoned.
Hector Bernabe Recinos, Fenastras's secretary for national and international relations, lives in a cramped cell with three other inmates at Mariona.
''The military closes the avenues to those who want peaceful change,'' he says, ''and they wonder why they have a rebellion.'' Although his union is frustrated by government inattention to its demands, members have not joined the guerrillas, he says.
Recinos worked as an electrician for the state electrical company, and was arrested in 1977 and 1978 for striking.
He has been in Mariona Prison since 1980. Today he weaves tiny black crosses, which he sells for 10 cents a piece to pay for rice and tortillas.
''We called strikes at the end of the 1970s to pressure the military to comply with its labor code,'' the labor organizer says. ''It didn't offer very much to our workers, but the military refused to even comply with this.''
Recinos says labor disputes would often be resolved but that the owners and government would renege on the agreements. ''Neither the oligarchy nor the military are accustomed to respecting the laws here,'' he says.
Recinos was in the Soyapango electrical plant in 1980 during the strike that led to his current imprisonment. National Police arrested 16 directorate members; 18 other unionists were arrested by the government and assassinated, he says.
Labor leaders at Mariona say they were subjected to beatings and mock executions. Recinos says he was repeatedly slashed with a razor blade. All were sure they were going to be killed, he says.
During their initial detention at National Police headquarters, the unionists claimed they were questioned by the guard's commander, Col. Lopez Nulia, who is a member of the government's Commission on Human Rights.
''We were forced to sign many confessions,'' Recinos says, ''but we were never allowed to read them.''
When Recinos was transferred to Mariona, he was placed in a cell with 37 other union leaders.
''The guards set gases off in the cell that emitted a dust. This dust entered our skin and eyes and forced us to cough up blood. After three weeks, two labor leaders were set free. They were killed as soon as they left the prison,'' he says.
''They took my glasses,'' the soft-spoken labor organizer says, ''and three times administered the capucha (a rubber hood used to induce asphyxiation) until I was unconscious.''
''All this means nothing to me now,'' Recinos says quietly. ''A year ago they took away my wife and daughter.'' He stops and his eyes begin to tear. ''You know,'' he adds, ''that when they disappear people in this country they do not come back.''
Recinos's wife and daughter were abducted on the second-year anniversary of the strike. His three other children are now in hiding.
After his wife and daughter were abducted, Recinos says armed men took the family's possessions away from their home in trucks. ''They left nothing behind, '' he says. ''I do not even have a picture of my wife and children.''