Salvadoreans see and hear 'nothing' when neighbors disappear

At dusk, light from the blue neon crosses on the church here shines over the barren central plaza and shuttered shop windows. Like many port cities, this one has a tired, seamy look to it. In the plaza, women with small children are sleeping on benches. Cheap bars and brothels line the main street, which leads to a ghetto of wooden shacks.

The ghetto is home to many fishermen who leave at dawn in their dugout canoes to catch shrimp and sardines. Two weeks ago, a couple of fishermen, maybe three, were shot and killed, say some local residents.

Attempts to uncover how and why the fishemen died offers a glimpse into the pervasive fear that has become a fixture of life for Salvadoreans.

As with most people in this country, the residents of La Union seem to have seen and heard nothing when they are asked about deaths. The one fisherman who seems ready to say something is silenced by his relatives.

''To testify against them (the killers),'' says one resident, ''is to write your death certificate.''

Several fishermen and a key businessman say a new fishing company, Salvamex, began operations in the La Union three months ago with a fleet of six boats. The company had labor problems two weeks ago when 10 to 15 of its 15 employees went on strike for higher wages.

''The last I heard,'' the businessman says, ''the company had thrown out the strikers and hired new workers. We never heard about anyone being murdered.''

The commander of the naval station here, Capt. Fernando Menjivar, says he has not heard of either the strike or alleged killings.

Two of the strikers, however, claim that Raul Garcia and Mauricio Diaz Hernandez, who attempted to organize a union among the striking workers, were murdered by heavily armed men in civilian clothes.

Raul Garcia's grandmother, who raised him from birth, denies her grandson was killed. She says he is away on a trip. Her neighbors say they have not heard about the strike or any murders. Several say they have just returned here after a visit to another town.

The town's Roman Catholic priest also seems somewhat skeptical.

''I heard about three fishermen,'' says the Rev. Sebastian Peniche. ''But I have information that one of them, the one shot through the head, committed suicide. Even though everyone considers themselves Catholic, the families of the other two never contacted me. I don't know what happened to the bodies. . . . Perhaps they had a quarrel.''

The town's civilian authorities, interviewed by this writer, say they know nothing about any killings. Directors of funeral parlors had no information, either.

Those who apparently have authority in La Union are the military and three internal security forces. Civilian authorities, sources say, are powerless and often abused by the military.

''When the mayor sends a letter to the National Police asking about a disappearance . . . they often rip up the letter in front of the person who delivers it,'' one official says. ''At a military roadblock, when . . . Dr. Jose Septalin Santo Ponce showed his credentials to the troops they destroyed his card and beat him.''

Soldiers in the town, according to these sources, regularly collect tribute from residents and businesses, make arbitrary arrests without just cause, appropriate alcohol from the saloons, and intimidate the townspeople.

La Union, houses a military garrison and home for one of the country's most important naval bases.

''The Navy does not harrass us on land,'' says one fisherman, ''but on sea the naval boats either take a part of our day's catch or part of the money we receive after we sell our fish to the larger boats.''

Despite an ambiance of fear, residents say life is better now than it was two or three years ago.

''They would kill people and leave them sitting on the park benches or strung up in the branches. Now we occasionally find a few bodies on the road to San Miguel.''

On the way out of town, one person stops me.

''You spoke to the right people,'' this person says, ''but you have to realize that no one here can talk. We live in the midst of horror.''

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