In March 2009, the former television journalist Mauricio Funes became the first leftist to win the presidency of El Salvador. ‘Now it’s the turn of the aggrieved,’ Funes said, addressing hundreds of thousands of red-clad supporters. ‘Now it’s the opportunity of the excluded.’ He was paraphrasing the poet Roque Dalton, one of the patron saints of the Latin American left.
It had been 17 years since the Salvadoran left had had cause to celebrate. In February 1992 the rebel commander Joaquín Villalobos had addressed a similarly ecstatic crowd in San Salvador’s central plaza. The war was over; the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, had forced the government to negotiate a settlement.
The victory was far from complete. The right was still in power, 70,000 people had died and economic reform hadn’t been mentioned in the final peace deal. But disappointment could wait. As Funes would last year, Villalobos spoke of reconciliation and unity. He acknowledged that the FMLN had made mistakes, and that he had too. And as Funes would, he cited Roque Dalton, quoting ‘Poema de Amor’, Dalton’s ode to his countrymen, ‘the ones who do-anything, sell-anything, eat-anything . . . the sad ones, the saddest in the world’. The young commander’s words were greeted with astonishment. Villalobos was one of the war’s heroes: he was charismatic, adored by his troops, a strategist of legendary brilliance. But among the mistakes he was acknowledging was his role in the murder of Roque Dalton.
Dalton joined the FMLN in December 1973. On 10 May 1975, he was killed by his comrades. The stories vary: he was injected with a sedative because his executioners could not bring themselves to shoot him with his eyes open; he was given poison, for the same reason; he was stood against a wall and shot in the back by a firing squad; he was shot in the back of the head, a joke dying on his lips. In almost every version — and there are more — his killers could not bear to look him in the eye.
Born in 1935, the illegitimate son of a Salvadoran nurse and a wealthy American businessman, Dalton liked to boast that he was a descendant of the Dalton brothers, outlaws of the Wild West, though he wasn’t. In the words of his biographer Luis Alvarenga, Dalton wanted to ‘make a poem of his life, and a way of living out of poetry’. The delight he took in mythologising his own life would be matched by the eagerness of others to believe the myths, to embroider and recraft them. The same would be true of his death. Dalton became a Communist, so the story goes, after interviewing Diego Rivera. The painter asked how old he was. Dalton replied that he was 18. Rivera asked if he had read Marx, and when Dalton responded that he hadn’t, Rivera told him he had spent 18 years as an imbecile. By the time Dalton turned 24, he had visited the Soviet Union, joined the Communist Party and been thrown in jail for the first time. The next year, charged with rebellion and sedition, he received his first death sentence. That time a coup saved his life. The dictator of the moment was deposed and political prisoners freed, but the climate did not improve. Dalton spent 1961 in Mexico and 1962 in Cuba.
Back in San Salvador two years later, aware that the police were looking for him again, Dalton broke the rules of life underground and, as he put it in his autobiographical novel Poor Little Poet That I Was, ‘exercised my right to go out and drink a beer’. The police found him on a bar stool and ‘disappeared’ him in a provincial jail in the town of Cojutepeque. One night, an earthquake damaged the wall of his cell, and over the next few weeks, using chicken bones and a spoon, he dug his way to freedom. The escape would become an essential part of his myth: the revolutionary the dictatorship couldn’t kill, the trickster poet favoured by the gods. Before he escaped, though, Dalton had been taken from his cell to a luxurious house, where he was interrogated by a CIA agent. The military planned to kill him, the American told him, but he had come to offer him a way out. ‘It won’t be just any life,’ he promised, ‘but a life with all the possibilities, with your wife and children, far from this country, in Mexico, for example, where we have every resource available, in France, in Chile, in England. You should live like a writer, like a scholar, not like a criminal. Why die now, like a fool?’ Dalton wasn’t swayed, and after several nights the American tried a final ruse. The CIA, he promised, would use its operatives in the Salvadoran Communist Party to spread the word that Dalton had co-operated. ‘We’ll tell them that before dying you tried to save your skin … You won’t go down in history as a hero but as a traitor.’ Dalton was shaken, but he didn’t talk, and soon afterwards he escaped from his cell. He took the American’s threat seriously enough to tell and retell the story of his interrogation. He wrote about it (‘they told me they would kill me the next day/and smear my red ghost with all the shit of the law’), and he told it to the Salvadoran novelist Manlio Argueta, to the Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal, and to the American poet Nina Serrano, whom he met in Havana in 1968.
Dalton fled to Mexico City, and then to Prague, where he met the leaders of the various guerrilla movements that were beginning to form all over Latin America, inspired by the Cuban Revolution and the desire to destroy the US-funded military dictatorships spanning the continent: the Tupamaros from Uruguay, the Sandinistas from Nicaragua, the Guatemalan Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias. By 1966, he was convinced that change would come to El Salvador only through armed struggle, which put him at odds with the increasingly staid and highly bureaucratic Salvadoran Communist Party. Two years later, Dalton had quit the Party and returned to Havana.
He was not alone in his impatience. In 1969, Cayetano Carpio, then still the Salvadoran Communist Party’s charismatic leader (he would resign from the Party the following year), began meeting with a group of young people who would become the nucleus of the Salvadoran revolution. Some came from the Communist Youth, others from non-Marxist Catholic groups in the student movement. Among them were a young poet called Eduardo Sancho, who had struck up a correspondence with Dalton, and a mysterious man called Alejandro Rivas Mira, who had studied in Germany and formed close ties with the European student left. Carpio’s group, the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), would become the largest of the five factions that eventually united as the FMLN. Sancho and Rivas Mira would be among the founders of a shadowy outfit initially known as ‘The Group’, which metamorphosed into the People’s Revolutionary Army, or ERP.
This was the most productive phase of Dalton’s life as a writer. He wrote about love and longing, death and dying, prison and revolution. He wasn’t interested in Neruda’s elegiac humanism (‘I deny ecstasy and exalt the bitter serenities,’ he wrote in one early poem) or the bureaucratic solemnities of socialist realism (‘It smells bad.’) His poetry was hard-edged and playful, sensuous and caustic. In less than five years, he prepared seven books of poetry, edited the oral history Miguel Mármol, and wrote a novel and a book-length critical essay on Régis Debray’s Revolution in the Revolution?, as well as scripts for Cuban television, film and theatre. But he was increasingly anxious to return home to take up arms. When in a 1969 essay he wrote in contemptuous italics of ‘the critic of society who eats three times a day’, his scorn was at least in part an index of his frustration with the limits of his own role as court intellectual in Castro’s Havana.
At the end of 1972, Rivas Mira met Dalton in Havana and invited him to join the ERP. Not long afterwards, Dalton left Cuba for the last time. The story goes that Cuban surgeons altered his appearance, but in the one surviving photograph of him in disguise, he looks much the same, except for the thick moustache, black-framed glasses and businessman’s shirt and tie. When Dalton arrived in San Salvador, the ERP was a loose federation of cells united under the leadership of Rivas Mira. Dalton, known to his comrades as Julio Delfos Marín, was placed under the revolutionary tutelage of Eduardo Sancho, who was part of a group of former students including another young poet called Lil Milagro Ramírez. She and Dalton became lovers. Another group, far more militarist in training and outlook and more closely allied with Rivas Mira, included Mario Vladimir Rogel and Jorge Meléndez, alias Jonás. A third faction emerged from the Catholic youth movement and the student wing of the Christian Democratic Party. Among its members were Ana Guadalupe Martínez, Rafael Arce Zablah and his close friend Joaquín Villalobos, a middle-class printer’s son and one-time economics student who had joined the ERP in 1971 at the age of 19.
Some see the conflict that began soon afterwards as a power struggle between Dalton and Rivas Mira: in the ERP’s official version, there was a ‘struggle for internal hegemony’ because of the petit bourgeois and ‘individualist deviations’ of the two leaders. Some have claimed that Ramírez had been Rivas Mira’s mistress, and that he couldn’t forgive Dalton for stealing her away. Some attribute the falling out to Dalton’s lack of discipline, contending that he drank, disregarded orders and was unwilling to conform to the rigid hierarchies and rules designed to protect the militants from infiltration. The conflict’s roots, though, lay in a deeper ideological division that would continue to split the Salvadoran left long after the war had ended. Rivas Mira’s vision of the revolution, which was shared by Villalobos’s and Rogel’s factions, was short-term and militaristic. A few spectacular actions, they maintained, timed to coincide with an uprising staged by their allies in the Salvadoran army, would be enough to spark a mass insurrection. The emphasis was on taking power, and doing it quickly. Dalton became the spokesman for the dissident view that the ERP’s priority should be a long-term effort to build a mass movement: they would gain power as a result of a complete social transformation. To that end, Sancho and Ramírez’s faction created a shadow structure within the ERP, the National Resistance, or RN. Though the disagreement about strategy began before Dalton’s arrival in El Salvador, Rivas Mira’s group considered him, in the words of one former militant, Roberto Cañas, to be ‘the brain’ behind all dissent.
Things came to a head early in 1975. Rivas Mira began to centralise the ERP’s command structure, converting the National Directorate into a militarised General Staff, and concentrating the group’s resources in his own hands. On 13 April, according to a communiqué released by the RN a year later, the General Staff ordered Dalton’s arrest and that of another militant called Armando Arteaga, charging them with insubordination. ‘It was a coup d’état,’ Sancho told me when I spoke to him last summer. The next day, a hastily organised ‘war council’ recommended that Dalton and Arteaga be executed. But not everyone was convinced, and a few days later the leadership added that Dalton was a Cuban spy. (Rivas Mira was repositioning himself as a Maoist, and hence as anti-Soviet and anti-Castro.) When that failed to work, they added one last charge: that Dalton was an agent of the CIA. On 1 May, the RN withdrew from the ERP. The war council assigned cadres to find and kill them. Most of these attempted assassinations failed, but hostilities between the groups continued for weeks until Carpio’s group, the FPL, demanded that they cease. By then, Dalton and Arteaga were dead. Their bodies have never been found.
None of those who witnessed Dalton’s death have been willing to talk in public about what happened. His son Juan José, now a journalist, says that former members of the ERP, Sancho among them, told his family in Cuba in 1978 that it was Villalobos who killed Dalton. (Sancho and Villalobos were reconciled in the early 1980s and Sancho now claims that he doesn’t know who killed Dalton.) One former ERP militant, Juan Ramón Medrano, who wasn’t in San Salvador at the time of Dalton’s death, claims that he later heard from those who were present — Meléndez and Rogel among them — that either Rogel or Villalobos pulled the trigger. Geovani Galeas, who joined the ERP two years after Dalton was killed, says the group officially pinned the crime on Rogel, but that his own conversations with witnesses have led him to believe that either Meléndez or Villalobos killed him.
Meléndez has refused to comment on the issue for years, but when I interviewed him and asked if Rogel had pulled the trigger, he said ‘no’, then added that he didn’t think it would be right to say who had killed Dalton. The shooters, he said, ‘had no other option’: they believed Dalton would betray the organisation to the CIA. Meléndez did, however, insist: ‘It wasn’t something I did personally, never.’ Which leaves Villalobos. In a 1993 interview with Juan José Dalton, Villalobos admitted to having been part of the group that decided to kill Dalton, along with Rivas Mira, Meléndez, Rogel and two others who have since died. He didn’t say who had actually committed the crime but he did place himself at the scene: Dalton’s ‘attitude during the execution’, he recalled, ‘was to oppose it in the sense of signalling … that it was going to be a grave error, that it was an injustice.’
The immediate aftermath of the murder proved disastrous for the ERP. The Cubans were furious, as was Carpio’s FPL and the international left intelligentsia. The ERP found itself isolated. Most of its safehouses fell to the police. Several militants, including Villalobos’s friend Rafael Arce Zablah, died in an assault on a National Guard post. Others were arrested. In crisis, the ERP suspended Rivas Mira and Rogel from the leadership; Rogel was executed in March 1976, accused by his comrades of holding ‘adventurist positions’. Rivas Mira fled that August, taking with him a substantial portion of the ERP’s funds. He is still in hiding.
After Rivas Mira’s departure, Villalobos took charge. The ERP issued an official ‘self-criticism’, which according to Galeas was written by Villalobos. In tortured, dogmatic prose, it blamed the ERP’s troubles on the organisation’s ‘revolutionary immaturity’ and on the ‘bourgeois tendencies sustained’ by Rivas Mira’s ‘pragmatic line’. Villalobos wasn’t very contrite: ‘Dalton’s execution was a political-ideological error,’ he admitted, adding that ‘no petty bourgeois adventurer deserves to die just for the fact of being one.’ Villalobos confessed that the charge the poet had been a CIA agent had been fabricated by Rivas Mira, but described Dalton as a coward and a Cuban agent, and attacked the ‘inconsequential and parasitic petty bourgeois left-wing intellectuals’ who converted him into a ‘hero when the truth is that he was a victim and the author of his own death’.
Under Villalobos, the ERP did its best to convert its principal weakness — its reputation for foolhardy audacity — into a strength. The new comandante stepped up the pace of assaults: planting bombs, robbing banks, kidnapping businessmen, attacking police posts and barracks. The group became known as ‘los locos’. Young recruits were attracted by their boldness, but, in the end, it was the slow and steady organisation of a mass popular movement — and the dictatorship’s determination to make it impossible for change to come legally or peacefully — that pushed El Salvador into open insurrection. Government repression of the growing peasant and union movements inspired more Salvadorans to take up arms than the displays of machismo by young, middle-class ERP cadres. Nevertheless, Villalobos’s strategy did ensure that the ERP would not be ignored. By the time the civil war began in 1980, the ERP was the most efficient military organisation on the Salvadoran left and in October that year the major armed groups combined to form the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Villalobos soon developed a reputation for brash strategic brilliance. That, along with the exigencies of battle, allowed his comrades-at-arms to put aside the rumours that their baby-faced comandante was responsible for Dalton’s death. Even within the ERP, Dalton was still revered. His poems were read on Radio Venceremos, the rebel station which broadcast for most of the war from Villalobos’s command post in the hills of Morazán.
When the war ended after six years of negotiations, Villalobos had transformed himself from the FMLN’s notoriously ruthless commander into its brightest, most conciliatory face. He played a prominent role in the peace talks, symbolically surrendering his M-16 to the Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari when the final truce was signed. He talked of social democracy, of abandoning the rigid ideologies of the past. And when he spoke Dalton’s name in his victory speech in February 1992, it seemed not an act of hubris, but of humility and hope.
By May 1993, when he agreed to be interviewed by Dalton’s son Juan José, it seemed possible that he might emerge almost unscathed. Polls were finding him the fourth most popular politician in the country. For much of the left, he still had his wartime halo; the right seemed open to his advances. The man who had once called the Reagan administration his principal enemy and whose kidnappings made him the terror of the Salvadoran oligarchy had become a frequent guest in the homes of El Salvador’s wealthiest families and a friend of the American ambassador. He was the first official visitor to the vast, new US embassy complex in San Salvador’s Zona Rosa.
But ‘peace is more difficult than war,’ as Villalobos later wrote. Without combat and a common enemy to hold it together, the FMLN crumbled. On one level, the disagreement was what it had always been: the prolonged struggle that Dalton and Carpio had advocated versus Villalobos’s less patient approach. After the peace accord was signed, according to Nidia Díaz, who is now the FMLN’s representative in the Central American Parliament, Villalobos ‘came to the conclusion that the democratic revolution had already been achieved’. As far as most of the former guerrillas were concerned, it was just beginning, and the FMLN’s place was in opposition. The ruling party’s links to the death squads rendered power-sharing unthinkable.
Censured by the FMLN for forging alliances with the right, in 1995 Villalobos broke away and formed the Democratic Party, or PD. Most of his former ERP and RN comrades followed. Two months later, he cut a deal with the then president, Armando Calderón Sol, agreeing to support a host of neoliberal reforms — a steep hike in VAT, privatisation, a reduction in safeguards for workers and civil servants — in return for the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista’s backing of PD initiatives. It was a miscalculation: Arena reneged on its part of the deal and the left saw Villalobos as a traitor. The centre, which he had hoped to occupy, turned out not to exist.
In the autumn of 1995, funded by a grant from the Foreign Office, Villalobos moved with his wife and children to England. He arrived not as a political refugee, but as a Chevening scholar at St Antony’s College, Oxford. Marrack Goulding, who became warden of the college, had been the UN’s undersecretary general for peacekeeping and sat across the table from Villalobos at the negotiations in Mexico City. Villalobos’s classmates included the soon to be president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe. He finished his degree in 1998, but stayed in Oxford, where he has reinvented himself yet again. In the jacket photo of his book on the Salvadoran peace process, Without Conquerors or Conquered (2000), Villalobos sits with a book open on his knee, wearing hound’s-tooth tweed and an uncertain smile. His guerrilla credentials and anti-leftist views have allowed him to publish with chameleon ease in outlets like the Nation,Il Manifesto and El País, as well as in the conservative Salvadoran dailies. As a consultant and expert on conflict resolution, he has become a regular on the conference circuit, sitting on panels with former heads of state. When a reporter needs a quote on Hugo Chávez or Iraq, Villalobos is there to help. As many of his compatriots have noted, the life Villalobos leads today resembles the one promised to Dalton by the CIA in 1964, ‘a life with all the possibilities’.
Villalobos’s apostasy is an extreme example of the more general crisis of the left in Latin America — and around the world — at the end of the Cold War. His break with the FMLN was the first in a series of defections and expulsions that hobbled the party for more than a decade. Nearly all the more moderate social democrats and ‘renovators’ were purged or eventually left the party, though none strayed as far as Villalobos. This allows him to continue to describe himself as a man of the left without being entirely disingenuous. He remains critical of US foreign policy, both in Central America in the 1980s and in the Middle East today. In Latin America, though, his politics are those of the right. He champions US schemes like Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative. He is supposedly against ‘security politics that prioritise force’, but has become a key spokesman for the policies pursued in Colombia by Uribe, which have been condemned by international human rights groups. Since 2005 he has worked as consultant to the Mexican government, and, among other things, has been an advocate for Calderón’s militarisation of Mexico’s drug war, writing of the staggering increase in violence — 5000 dead in 2008, 6500 in 2009 — as a measure of Calderón’s success.
When it comes to El Salvador, his barbs are mostly directed towards his former comrades. While his criticism of the disastrous effects of Arena’s economic policies — which he once supported — can be sharp and even brilliant, his analysis of the FMLN is less convincing. Many others who have split with the party criticise its lack of internal democracy, but Villalobos goes much further. The apparently moderate Funes, he warned in November 2008, was merely a ‘vote-hunting trap’, who would be controlled by his vice president, the former FPL commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén, and the Marxist old guard that he represents. El Salvador, he claimed, was in danger of becoming another of ‘the colonel’s toys’ — the reference is to Chávez — and a security threat to the ‘paranoiac society’ of the United States. It was ‘perfectly possible’, he went on, that the FMLN would ‘unleash a revanchist violence’ against the middle class.
Fear of vengeance was a common theme in Villalobos’s pre-election columns. Post-conflict justice must be removed from the realm of morality, he argues, and especially from the question of punishment. ‘The correlation of forces’ — a favourite phrase — should determine ‘how much truth is possible and necessary to make justice’. As for his own past, the correlation of forces, it seems, has changed. In a response to a letter the Dalton family sent to El País in 1999, Villalobos retracted what little responsibility he had assumed. ‘In 1975, I was neither the military nor the political chief’ of the ERP, he wrote. ‘As such, I could not have been responsible, either intellectually or materially, for Dalton’s death.’
The FMLN’s electoral victory and the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the war have re-opened the conversation about truth, justice and the meaning of forgiveness. Other than a few grand gestures, though, the Salvadoran president has shown little interest in revisiting the crimes of the past. So far this year, Funes has issued two apologies on behalf of the Salvadoran state for atrocities and abuses committed by the military during the civil war, though he has declined to open investigations of even the most notorious incidents. Shortly after Funes appointed Jorge Meléndez to lead El Salvador’s disaster management agency, his secretary of culture declared 2010 ‘The Year of Roque Dalton’.
Not everyone, though, is so readily inclined to forgive. On 4 May this year, just days before the 35th anniversary of Dalton’s death, the poet’s sons called a press conference in San Salvador. They announced their intention to send a letter to the Mexican government exposing Villalobos as a war criminal and denounced the Funes administration for including Jorge Meléndez in its ranks. Paying homage to Dalton while honouring one of his suspected killers, Jorge Dalton said, ‘is the greatest offence done to the poet Roque Dalton by the government in the 35 years since his murder’. In a final stab of historic irony, they asked that officials of El Salvador’s first leftist government never again mention their father’s name or allude to his work in public.
Research support for this article was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.