Spring 1992, Chalatenango, El Salvador and LAX
The FMLN banners were in the streets, people were waving flags, giving speeches and selling souvenirs. Way different than two years before when we had to pose as Agronomists when crossing over into rebel territory to visit Miguel Angel.
We made it up to Chalate in the Pastors for Peace Caravan and spent most of the day sorting out the donations. Garden supplies, computers and computer parts, baby clothes, school supplies, household items. We had to turn a lot of stuff away in Portland, like sweaters and electrical appliances, as you can imagine, and we thought well intentioned progressive folks were hoping to unload some of their stuff lying around.
The Caravan was a US and Canada joint effort, with 35 big cargo trucks, not eighteen wheelers, but moving van size, all crossing the border at the same time with the press and border patrol there, sometimes harassing them for hours. I went by plane and met up with everyone in San Salvador.
Because a lot of the donations were earmarked for certain provinces, we first unloaded everything from all of the trucks and then re packed it, each truck with a particular destination, like Chalatenango in our case. We did this sorting at the University where the six Jesuit priests were murdered, and countless others, many students and faculty, had been disappeared by ARENA security forces or private death squads. One guy pointed to the large silver 20 story building looming above us. It was empty, the windows were mostly shattered, and he laughed when he told me the Duarte government of the 1980’s, during Reagan and the height of the war, kept putting new windows in and the rebels kept blowing them out. It was like a game, and no one ever used it as a business or office complex. I thought of the great black obelisk in 2001 A Space Odyssey.
While we were unloading the trucks, a lot of people living in the town wanted to talk to us, and a couple people took me aside to ask for more help. Money for the family, they wanted to give me an address to send things, or just to hear their stories. I didn’t understand very much Spanish but listened intently until one of the coordinators asked me to help carry something or what have you, urging me not to give anything extra, no one was allowed because it wasn’t fair to others.
We spent a few days in the same village, and that’s where we met Comandante Maria Serrano, from Mariah’s Story the Documentary. In the middle of the village there were big trailers exactly like the ones at big construction sites. These were marked UN, and these ever present letters were on air conditioned trucks all over the country, diplomats, civil servants and office workers, swooping down in their helicopters to pour over data and coordinate the cease fire and Peace Accords agreements.
There were a few tables set up in the center of the town with UN people. Leading up to each table was a long line of ex combatants from the rebel forces, carrying a weapon to be dismantled. These were the terms of the cease fire, it had to be monitored down to every last known gun and soldier. The rebels had to give up their weapons, many of them stolen after retreating government forces left them behind. After all, many in the ARENA army were forcibly recruited, often sons were snatched off park benches or bus stops by police officers and taken to military barracks, forced into conscription under threat of death. The line of soldiers extended up the path and into the mountains behind the town. The sound and smell of soldering and welding filled the air with a metallic, sulfuric patina. Straight faced UN people, way too far from Geneva, wrote on clipboards and filled UN wheelbarrows with pieces of broken weapons to be carted off to a run down tin farm building.
They took us to the cache of dismantled weapons. Bazookas, pistols, all type of machine guns, rocket launchers and sniper rifles. Raining down death on whole families, now inert in a pile. They told us we could take anything we wanted so I scrounged around, only a couple of us did. I found a Chinese made AK47, its barrel sawed off, welded together and the firing pin pulled out. The wooden stock was intact, as well as the bullet magazine and trigger. Put a cardboard tube on the end and wrap it with electrical type and by God you’ve got a real looking machine gun. I supposed it was more memorable than buying one of the plaque mounted guns they were selling in the Zocalo, it held more personal meaning for me to select it from such a variety of choices.
When the two weeks were over, the delegation split up and went back home. I was flying through Los Angeles, LAX, and hoped I wouldn’t have any problems. I cleverly wrapped the AK47 in a towel and put it in the middle of all my stuff in a big suitcase. No radar picked it up, so far so good out of El Salvador.
Coming into customs at LAX, we were standing in line, one nervous guy in front of me, I thought he may have something in his little bag, he was getting jittery. I was not feeling nervous at all. I looked over and saw a shorter line and got into it. When I got to the desk the lady asked me if I had any foodstuffs to declare and I said no. Apparently this was the line specifically for people with fruit baskets, wine, or whatever food items you were bringing back home. She asked me to step to the side please and a couple officers would be over in a second.
I stared into space and felt two huge figures approaching me from behind. I didn’t want to turn around. They came around to my side and I was staring into the chests of two huge LAX Customs Police, fingerless gloves and looking up I saw the inevitable crew cuts. They were twins, I thought, but didn’t ask for confirmation. I heard one of them ask me to please open my suitcase.
Now I was getting a little nervous. As I unzipped the big suitcase, they asked me if I had any weapons. I didn’t flinch and said no, but I think it came out a little uneasy cause then they asked me if I had anything made of metal in my suitcase.
How could I explain, it wasn’t illegal what I was doing, check that jittery guy for the cocaine instead. I said well you know the war is over and the rebels gave up. I have a souvenir from the war, uh they were selling them as mementos you know, end of twelve years of Civil War and Communist insurrection.
They looked at me without saying anything, but one of the twins unsnapped his Glock, motioning with his chin for me to open the suitcase and remove the contents. I glanced over at the other people in line as my hand reached the towel. They were looking at me too, watching as I put both hands under the towel to lift it out, like a little baby in swaddling clothes, all the time explaining now you know its just a souvenir and its completely dismantled, you know the UN was there and they destroyed all the weapons and then gave them to people, so I just got this one…I was handing him the towel, but the other twin unsnapped his Glock, kept his hand on it and put one foot back. Open the towel sir.
The stock of the weapon came into view first and then the rest of the weapon, stark against the fluffy white towel. I saw one person in line lean back to the person behind them, eyes trained on me, as they whispered something. The customs people in the booth craned their necks to see what was going on. The twins were mesmerized. I pointed it right at them, finger on the trigger. They asked me questions about where and how did I get it, was it really a souvenir, what about this 12 year civil war I was talking about. One of them smiled and asked me if he could hold it. I gave it to him and he examined it, nodding in approval and verifying that indeed the weapon was useless and they could see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to take it home with me, just like any old basket of fruit.
I did put a cardboard tube on the end and covered it with electrical tape. Some friends rented Clinton St. Theater in Portland for ninety dollars one Friday Cabaret Night and used it in a short play they had written. I don’t remember what the piece was about and I don’t remember ever getting my AK47 back either.