New Narratives of Old Wars: Testimonios from the Co-Madres of El Salvador

Heider Tun Tun, Ruby Steigerwald, and Inez Steigerwald

—Mother Alicia[1]Mother Alicia Emelina Panameño de García or Alicia was president of Co-Madres from 1977 to 2011.

Patty[3]Mother Patricia Guadalupe de Doradea or Patty was president of Co-Madres from 2011 to 2014.

Armed conflicts have influenced our understanding of the world in modern times. In the midst of global conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East, war narratives are mediated by global powers, economic interests, and political views. A common narrative is that war is a necessary evil to defend freedom, and we are offered images of noble soldiers generously sacrificing their lives for the ideals of the state or political organizations. The reality is that war is gruesome, cruel, and inhumane. In this context, the testimonios of Central American people—particularly those of women—give a framework for challenging dominant narratives about war through the stories and perspectives of those who suffer the consequences of wars instigated by powerful actors. In Central America, during the period known as the Central American Revolutions,[4]Throughout the 1960s and 1990s, civil war and political violence swept the Central American isthmus. In this period known as the Central American Revolutions, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua … Continue reading the testimonio served as a method to challenge the narratives of the Cold War, which framed the armed struggle as a conflict between guerrilla forces and repressive states. In reality, the conflicts were much broader and more complex than a war between two parties, and the civilian population was often impacted in ways that cost them their homes, their livelihood, and even their lives.

Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador was in a civil war, which has been characterized as the armed conflict between the FMLN[5]The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLN was a guerrilla organization in El Salvador that is a political party today. By the time of the signing of the peace accords in 1992 the FMLN … Continue reading and the Salvadoran government. This internal conflict was fueled by US intervention in the region which provided military aid and training to the Salvadoran government. The United States was interested in the region, mainly to prevent the spread of influence of Cuba and the Soviet Union in Central America, particularly after the triumph of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, which overthrew the US-supported dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Because of this, the armed conflict in El Salvador was connected with local, regional, and transnational interests and geopolitical tensions marked by the Cold War. In this war, it is estimated that 75,000 people died and 200,000 became refugees in Mexico and the US. It is amidst these atrocities that a group of women who were victims of human rights abuses came together to create the Committee of Mothers and Relatives of the Detained, Disappeared, and Murdered Politicians of El Salvador, Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero[6]Monseñor Romero’s name was added to the title of the committee of mothers to show his and the Catholic Church’s influence on the organization. Between 1977 and 1980 (when he was murdered), … Continue reading—also known as Co-Madres or the Mothers’ Committee. Co-Madres, a coalition of mothers who demanded that the state clarify the disappearance of their children, is the first women-led human rights organization from El Salvador. One of the main focuses of their work was to let the world know about the atrocities that were happening in their country as part of their effort to bring an end to death and destruction. They did this through contact with the media, connections with organizations like the UN and Amnesty International, and by telling what was happening to them and others through their testimonios.

These testimonios of Co-Madres teach us the human cost of war. Today, thirty years after the end of the conflict, there are still debates about the outcomes of the period of the Central American Revolutions in which guerrilla groups and groups like students, Indigenous communities, members of the Catholic Church, and union workers held the belief that societal change was possible. Today, the Salvadoran government resists any acknowledgment of the extent of traumas that are still present in the society and have not been solved. Recent efforts to understand the long-term consequences of the armed conflicts in Central America have turned their attention to the experiences of ex-combatants, Indigenous people, campesinos, and women to discuss their views of the outcomes of the wars in the region. The Co-Madres’ testimonios resist war narratives by breaking “the conspiracy of silence”;[7]Kelly McKinney, “‘Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence’: Testimony, Traumatic Memory, and Psychotherapy with Survivors of Political Violence” Ethos 35, no. 3 (2007): 275). connecting the acts of violence and their trauma with their desire to end the war. The cruelty of war is a truth central to the testimonios of Co-Madres. The perpetrators of the war in El Salvador bulldozed student protesters, decapitated suspected insurgents (including young children), and left families separated. Avoiding war was not only a diplomatic or political ideal, but a necessary position for all who recognize the innate humanity of everyday people. Co-Madres understood the brutal conditions that workers, campesinos, and students were living in before and during the civil war in El Salvador. Even with this intimate knowledge of suffering, the members of Co-Madres still refused to take up arms or fight with anything other than their words and their powerful organizing.

Here, we present testimonios of mothers Alicia and Patty, the first and second presidents of Co-Madres. What makes testimonios powerful as a counternarrative is that they are defined by the absence of relatives that disappeared during the conflict. The testimonios of Co-Madres such as Patty and Alicia inspire us by embodying the story of loss and absence and by breaking an impenetrable silence in order to seek some form of justice. This invitation to examine the consequences of war through the lens of Co-Madres reflects the desires of Alicia and Patty, and other Salvadorian mothers like them who were part of Co-Madres, that their testimonios be shared with the world. Their testimonios of a brutal war which disappeared their children, continue to challenge dominant narratives about the conflict in El Salvador.

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—Patty

These testimonios are part of Co-Madres: Testimonio de la lucha por los derechos humanos en El Salvador: 1975-1994, a Spanish-language book published in El Salvador in November 2023.[8]Heider Tun Tun, Ruby Steigerwald, and Inez Steigerwald, Co-Madres: Testimonio de la lucha por los derechos humanos en El Salvador: 1975-1994 (Ojo de Cuervo: San Salvador, El Salvador, 2023). This project began when Ruby Steigerwald, one of the authors of Co-Madres and a public school teacher in the US, visited El Salvador in 2005 and met Alicia, who expressed her desire for a book that documents the Committee’s history. Many years later, in 2023, this book, which traces a history of the Committee from the years before the war through the aftermath of the peace accords, was completed. It is a testament to women such as Alicia and Patty, who suffered abuses and responded to injustices by organizing Co-Madres. Ruby and her daughter Inez Steigerwald (a university student at the time and a public school librarian today) then spent several years traveling to El Salvador to interview members of Co-Madres. As per Alicia and Patty’s request to Ruby and Inez, the book contains photographs of the activities of Co-Madres as well as images of dead bodies. Alicia and Patty asked that photos of tortured and assassinated people be included in the book because it was important to show people the full brutality and the complexities of the war in El Salvador. When Heider Tun Tun was integrated into this project, he transcribed the testimonios, digitized the photo archives, and worked closely with the mothers, specifically in relation to the committee’s research agenda of the preservation of historical memory. As a doctoral student of history—and later professor of Latin American history—he situated the histories of Co-Madres within the larger historical context of the experiences of the Central American people, thus highlighting their importance and characteristics. While this book has served the purpose of documenting and showcasing the views and perspectives of Co-Madres, it also provides valuable information about how local human rights organizations in Central America were created in the 1980s and how women lived, perceived, and navigated the civil war in El Salvador.

—Mother Alicia

Much has been written about the importance, limits, and complications of the testimonios which gained popularity as a mode of resistance through storytelling in Central and South America. During and after the decades of the Central American Revolutions, thousands of people, especially from Indigenous communities, were killed or disappeared in this region. For the Co-Madres, sharing their histories is not just a way to challenge the institutional narratives of the armed conflict; it is also a process of continuous healing, which has become inseparable from the work of archiving the historical memory of the Committee. Documenting and archiving the testimonios of these women is a priority for the historians, especially because we are in danger of losing them forever. According to the last internal census from 2015, it was estimated that Co-Madres had 1250 active members, a statistic which represents almost three times fewer members in comparison to the previous decade; in 2007 there were 3019 members, many of whom have since then passed away in very precarious circumstances.

The testimonios of Co-Madres mark a break from dominant narratives of the Cold War in Central America by showing that the consequences and traumas of the civil war did not end with the peace accords in 1992. They bring the war and its consequences into the present and the future by registering the presence of those who have been disappeared. The testimonios highlight the alliances that the women of Co-Madres built through their shared experiences of losing their loved ones to forced disappearance. Today, in the context of current President Nayib Bukele’s controversial new security policy of zero tolerance for gangs in the country, the testimonios carry a huge significance. As historical memory of Co-Madres, their testimonios invite us to reflect on what it was like to live in a society where arbitrary arrests happened every day, and where there was no due legal procedure or recourse for those whose relatives were detained by the government.

In July of 2023, the Secretary of Security of El Salvador, Gustavo Villatoro, reported that the government had detained 71,000 people as part of Bukele’s new policy. As the Co-Madres had denounced unlawful detentions and the existence of political prisoners during the years of the war, current detentions in El Salvador have renewed the discussion about the existence of political prisoners in the country. This conversation extends to situations in which the government has targeted people without gang affiliations without proof of their crime. The experiences of these mothers explain how—in modern Salvadoran history—the government has used categories such as “subersivo”, “terrorista”, or “pandillero” to justify the militarization of the country against its civilian population.

The End of the War in El Salvador for the Co-Madres 

—Patty

Mother Patty and Alicia at the Co-Madres Office in 2009. This was the same year that cancer was diagnosed in both of them.

Patty and Alicia were diagnosed with cervical cancer in the same year, 2009. Alicia died in 2010, and Patty died in 2013. Dying from cervical cancer has been common for the women of Co-Madres who were involved in the organization during the war. Many of these women were raped during that period and got infected with the human papilloma virus (HPV) which eventually developed into cancer. The use of rape as a weapon of war by the state was widespread, as it is in many armed conflicts today, and has left a physical mark; the war wounds of these women have continued affecting their bodies today. In this last testimonio Patty refers to Alicia as her mother even though she was not her biological mother. Patty met the Co-Madres after her exile from Mexico. She visited Monsignor Romero, who recommended she contact the Co-Madres since Patty would be in danger if she returned to her family. Beginning in the late seventies, Patricia joined the Committee and received the support of the Co-Mothers until her death. This relationship between Patty and Alicia as daughter and mother is an example of the support the members of Co-Madres gave each other. That support transcended the boundaries of the biological families of its members and created a community amongst themselves. This community included any woman who came to the office of Co-Madres seeking help, even if they were mothers of soldiers in the governmental armed forces. This motherhood is also a key reason the madres were able to continue working despite the violence, continual threats, and brutality of the war.

Both Patty and Alicia’s testimonios express the same feeling as mothers or relatives of people who were disappeared during the war in El Salvador. Even after the end of the war, the traumas have continued, and as these mothers said, things will never be the same after the war. These testimonios show how their future is still marked by their traumatic past that might not have a clear resolution. The continuous absence of the relatives of many women in El Salvador is, in fact, a powerful presence in the historical and living memories of war; these memories continue to exist in women’s bodies and can even result in death, as in the case of cervical and uterine cancer. They serve as permanent reminders that what we lose in wars cannot be recovered. The pain of the absences of their relatives cannot be resolved. And yet, the histories of the Co-Madres serve as a reference point for modern activists seeking to transform their societies. They tell us how the madres worked together, how they organized and persevered. They teach us to refuse the dominant narratives that justify war. Their testimonios insist on underlining the complexities, costs, and the long-term traumas of the war for the victims and allow us to appreciate why Co-Madres never gave up on their mission, even in the face of great challenges after the end of the war.


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Notes

Notes
1 Mother Alicia Emelina Panameño de García or Alicia was president of Co-Madres from 1977 to 2011.
2 Here Patty refers to the offensive as the period between November 11 to early December of 1989 in which the FMLN organized their largest military operation against the Salvadoran government.
3 Mother Patricia Guadalupe de Doradea or Patty was president of Co-Madres from 2011 to 2014.
4 Throughout the 1960s and 1990s, civil war and political violence swept the Central American isthmus. In this period known as the Central American Revolutions, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua experienced internal armed conflicts. Each of these countries has named this period in different ways; however, it is characterized by the reports of human rights abuses, the involvement of the US and Cuba in the region, and the persecution of members of civil society, particularly members of the Catholic Church.
5 The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLN was a guerrilla organization in El Salvador that is a political party today. By the time of the signing of the peace accords in 1992 the FMLN was an umbrella organization that represented other guerrilla groups: Fuerzas Populares de Liberación (FPL), Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación (FAL), Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (ERP), Resistencia Nacional (RN) and the Ejército Revolucionario de los Trabajadores Centroamericanos (ERTC).
6 Monseñor Romero’s name was added to the title of the committee of mothers to show his and the Catholic Church’s influence on the organization. Between 1977 and 1980 (when he was murdered), Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador and an important figure who denounced the violence and atrocities that occurred in the country even before the official beginning of the war. Given the fact that the vast majority of Salvadorans in the 1980s were Catholics, Romero’s accusation gave moral support to the creation of Co-Madres. In 2018, the Vatican declared Romero a Saint in recognition of his work and sacrifice, denouncing the violence in El Salvador.
7 Kelly McKinney, “‘Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence’: Testimony, Traumatic Memory, and Psychotherapy with Survivors of Political Violence” Ethos 35, no. 3 (2007): 275).
8 Heider Tun Tun, Ruby Steigerwald, and Inez Steigerwald, Co-Madres: Testimonio de la lucha por los derechos humanos en El Salvador: 1975-1994 (Ojo de Cuervo: San Salvador, El Salvador, 2023).

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