Tulio Mendoza first heard the whisper from a boy he used to teach in Atiquizaya, a small town in the north of El Salvador. The boy came to his home last Christmas Eve. He was crying as he revealed that he now served in a government death squad. A new list of victims had been drawn up, he said. Mendoza, a regional teachers’ union leader, was on it. “I could see from the boy’s face that it was true,” 38-year-old Mendoza said in Washington last week. “I spent Christmas Day in a state of mental turmoil. The next day I instructed my wife and four children to pack.”
The Mendozas took the bus to Mexico, hoping his last pay cheque, about $400, would see them through. It didn’t. What with fares and food and bribes for visas, the money ran out in Guadalajara. Mendoza persuaded his wife and children to stay while he went ahead. But he was caught crossing the border at San Ysidro, Calif.
What happened then was what, as human rights workers in San Diego are now charging, routinely has been happening to 400 Salvadoran refugees a month since last summer. After fingerprinting and photographing at an alien detention centre he was offered a form agreeing to deportation, with the advice that if he didn’t sign it he would spend a year in jail and “suffer a lot.” Thinking he would be returned to Mexico, Mendoza signed, only to find himself in a holding prison at El Centro, Calif., with dozens of other Salvadorans waiting to be sent home. Worse: as a matter of protocol the American authorities were informing the authorities in El Salvador in advance of the names and addresses of returnees—thus exposing them to investigation and reprisal.
What form the reprisals take exactly is a matter of conjecture. But at least one reporter, Fernando Moreno of New York’s highly regarded El Diario-La Prensa, has no doubt:“Those wanted by the death squads are met at the airport, tortured and murdered,” he said. “I have interviewed many people who have seen these deportation flights landing.” According to Moreno, 42 of the 70 deportees aboard one flight to San Salvador
in January were later found dead.
Mendoza escaped deportation by organizing a hunger strike at El Centro. It attracted the attention of Antigona Martinez, co-ordinator of the San Diego-based Refugee Defense Committee, a group formed originally to help fleeing Nicaraguans. She managed to raise $1,500 to bail out one person and the Salvadorans in El Centro chose Mendoza to put their case.
Lawyers with the American Civil Lib-
erties Union have managed to annul the “voluntary” deportation form he signed and have filed for political asylum. Meanwhile, the Catholic Concern for Latin America and two other human rights organizations have issued a statement saying that the Reagan administration’s treatment of the Salvadorans is “unprecedented, but apparently not without motive.” To concede asylum to them, says the statement, would be to admit what opponents of the junta have claimed all along—that it is persecuting its own citizens.
The state department says there is no “concrete evidence” that refugees are being murdered on their return. Asked why supporters of the right-wing Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza were given blanket political asylum while the Salvadorans are being deported, a spokesman said: “I have no idea.” Mendoza, for his part, has now lost touch with his family. Mexican authorities in Guadalajara cannot trace them. But in one respect he can count himself fortunate. He will probably be allowed to stay in the U.S. until his case is sorted out. And that, say human rights officials, could take years.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.