Maclean’s Correspondent Joseph Gannon has been reporting from Central America for the past two years. Based in Managua, Nicaragua, he flew to El Salvador on Nov. 15 to cover the military offensive by leftist rebels. Last week, Gannon, 33, was detained by Salvadoran security forces in the capital, San Salvador, and accused of being a “suspected terrorist collaborator. ” His account of his ordeal:
Aweek into the most spectacular guerrilla offensive in nine years, I passed easily, if unknowingly, through army lines into the rebelheld part of Soyapango, a large working-class area of modest brick homes and narrow streets. I intended only to make a quick inspection of the changing military situation. But I found myself surrounded by fierce combat, including indiscriminate rocketing and strafing by army helicopters, and with a strict 6 p.m. curfew approaching, I decided to spend the night on the rebel side. At about 7 a.m. the next morning, Nov. 19,1 walked nervously towards army lines, holding my white flag high, my camera hung conspicuously from my neck. As I turned a street corner, I ran into an air force infantry unit. “You! You come here!” shouted
one of the soldiers. “We are looking for foreign mercenaries fighting with the terrorists.”
It was the beginning of 14 hours of fear in a country where terror tactics—including grotesque murders—are a notorious fact of life. While the rebels of the Farabundo Marti Na-
tional Liberation Front have shown themselves capable of extreme ruthlessness, in sheer numbers and brutality the incidents involving El Salvador’s security forces are the stuff of nightmares. As a Western diplomat had told me, “If Machiavelli had lived in the age of the M-16 rifle, El Salvador would have made a great laboratory for him.”
As the soldiers searched my belongings for proof that I was a terrorist, the simple tools of my trade took on ominous meanings. My can-
teen was too military-looking, as were my binoculars. A diagram of a cellblock at the Treasury Police, drawn by Canadian Lutheran minister Brian Rude, who had been held captive there three days earlier, could well be taken for a city block with targets marked off. And worst of all, my journalist’s identification card, supplied by the Salvadoran armed forces, had expired. Of course, the army was too busy fighting the rebels to issue new ones, but when I explained that to the officer in charge, he flung the card in my face as if uncovering an unconvincing lie.
Later, a soldier from the Belloso infantry battalion walked up looking agitated and tired. He drew his knife with a swift motion that made my knees go weak, and used the point to lift up my shirt. “Where are your tattoos? Where are your tattoos?” he demanded. Apparently, some foreigner with tattoos was reported to be with the rebels. And while I luckily had none, I wondered what would have happened if, while serving in the U.S. army in 1975, I had gone to a tattoo parlor when several of my buddies had. Would that have been enough to plunge me into the abyss that has
swallowed so many Salvadorans?
The soldiers also examined my two notebooks, stopping at a page with the name “Facundo Guardado” writ large. Guardado, whom I had interviewed three days before, is the highest-ranking rebel commander in San Salva-
dor, and his name in my notebook seemed another cause for fear. At one point, one of the soldiers forced me down on my stomach behind a wall, out of view of a passing Red Cross vehicle, and I asked the question that had been weighing on my mind: “Are you going to kill me?” The soldier was apparently startled by my frankness, and I repeated the question. “No,” he answered, but I was hardly reassured.
Blindfold: At about 10 a.m., an escort patrol of air force soldiers took me to a Belloso outpost farther up a hill. To get there I was forced to run through sniper fire. I protested that they could not do that to a civilian, and they eventually pushed me onto the floor of an armored jeep. The driver dropped his dachshund on my chest and ordered, “Hold my dog.” The jeep promptly took three hits from a snip-
er, but we made it to the Belloso outpost. There, I began to relax as the soldiers offered me cigarettes and we swapped army stories. But the respite was short-lived. At about 1:30 p.m., the National Police arrived to take custody of me. They forced me against a car, handcuffed me behind my back and tossed me in the backseat of their pickup truck. One of them grabbed my white flag—my one symbol of neutrality—and contemptuously threw it to the ground. Then, a policeman blindfolded me and forced my head between my knees.
Beaten: At National Police headquarters, I was relieved of the handcuffs and blindfold. “Just procedure,” said a polite captain, apolo-
gizing. He then told me that I would be given a “paraffin test” to check for gunpowder residue on my hands, indicating whether I had been firing a weapon. The police put hot wax on the back of my hands, and when it cooled, they took a cast of the hands and applied a chemical to it. If there was gunpowder on the wax, it would change color. But hours passed, during which I was kept in a holding area, and no one told me the results of the test. Given my proximity to the intense fighting the previous day, I was left to wonder whether I had somehow picked up gunpowder traces and failed the test.
Finally, at 4:30 p.m., I was told a truck would take me to my hotel or the U.S. Embassy. But when my plainclothes escorts stopped their vehicle a few minutes later, we were in front of a guard post of the dreaded Treasury Police, one of the most brutal of El Salvador's security forces. It was there that an American relief worker, who had been detained earlier and was later deported, said that she had heard a Frenchman in the cell next to hers being beaten unconscious because he had failed the gunpowder test.
As I waited inside, a grim-faced policeman entered the post and sat down between me and two blindfolded, quaking campesinos. Lowering his rifle to my chest, he demanded, “Why do all you North American journalists come here to work clandestinely with the terrorists?” It was not an original line: state radio broadcasts had branded the foreign press corps as Communist sympathizers.
I was now truly terrified and clung desperately to what I regarded as my only hope—that my Salvadoran taxi driver had spread the alarm when I failed to return from what was intended to be a short trip into the Soyapango district about 29 hours earlier. As it turned out, he had.
And my friends and colleagues had been working furiously on my behalf through the U.S. and British embassies to force the security forces to acknowledge that they were holding me. Finally, a corporal called me to the phone. The voice was that of U.S. consul Brian Ramos, and tears welled up in my eyes when I heard him. It was after curfew, he said, and he was forbidden to venture out. “But don’t worry, Joe,” he told me. “They know I know you are there, and nothing horrible will happen. The corporal will protect you, and I’ll be there first thing in the morning.”
Ordeal: Somehow, I was not entirely reassured, especially when my presumed protector among the Treasury Police went off duty and was replaced by a surly stranger. Two hours later, however, a colonel came in and ordered that four troopers take me to the British residence, where, at 9:33 p.m., I was left in the custody of the head of the mission, Iain Murray. I was finally free.
But the incident was not quite over. On Monday night, back at my hotel, the door to my room suddenly opened. The hotel manager had
used his passkey, and, when he stood aside, three armed National Police officers barged in. A lieutenant said they were just making a “register” of all the journalists in the hotel. “Just procedure,” he assured me. But he clearly had more interest in searching my luggage than taking down my name. I could feel my panic returning, and it intensified when the manager whispered that the police had arrived thinking I was still in jail at the Treasury Police. But the momentary crisis ended when some 30 fellow journalists arrived outside my room, camera lights on, and the three policemen left sheepishly, their caps pulled down over their faces.
On Thursday afternoon, my ordeal reached
its slightly absurdist ending. Four days after I had been gruffly treated by government security forces, I was invited to the presidential palace to meet President Alfredo Cristiani and U.S. Ambassador William Walker. Two heads of the foreign press association were also present. Cristiani assured us that no foreign nationals would be harassed by authorities because of denunciations by other people and that he would look into the radio broadcasts that had pointed suspiciously at the foreign press corps.
I was left with frightening memories and one particular momento: a copy of my release form given to me by Murray, the British diplomat. I had been detained, it said, for “suspicion of collaboration with terrorist elements in this country.” Said Murray: “That’ll make a nice souvenir.” And it will. But I decided that, because of the potential for further police harassment, I would leave my souvenir in the safekeeping of a friend until I leave El Salvador. It is not the kind of thing I want to keep around. □
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