Editor's Note: A Spanish edition of this article is currently being proofread and will be uploaded to The Spectre in the next few days.
On March 18, 1981, a day like today, the Salvadoran and Honduran armies massacred hundreds of refugees fleeing both civil war and political persecution on the Río Lempa, a river forming the border between Honduras and El Salvador. Both armies had received money, arms, and training from the United States.
Most of the refugees came from the rural communities of Santa Marta and Peña Blanca, both in Cabañas province, El Salvador. The Salvadoran army had completely and forcibly displaced both communities in scorched earth operations intended to suppress social movements, particularly farmworkers’ unions protesting terrible living conditions and poverty wages of about only 0.25 colones per day, equivalent to around $0.03 USD per day in 1980.
Alba Laínez, who was a small child when survived the massacre, explains:
“My Papá and Mamá almost didn't explain, the only thing they said was that we were all leaving together and to stay close to Mamá, not to separate from her, because there were many people. So in March 1981 when there was the Río Lempa massacre, there I was in Río Lempa. We arrived around maybe 7 in the morning and I remember I saw many people by the river but I didn’t know where they were going. I only saw the crowd, I didn’t feel scared then. I remember that [before the massacre when fleeing her family's village in El Salvador] at night we walked and walked and walked and were very tired when we got to the river. I played in the water, and what happened after, I still feel it and what hurts me the most is what happened to my grandfather.
"My grandfather was 87, 88 years old, very elderly, with a walking stick. I remember he sat down next to the stream to play with us. I remember it like it was yesterday - we heard a bomb that had fallen into the river, so we ran, my Mamá took us to hide under a rock and then I remember that my grandfather wasn't there. I didn’t see him again. I’m telling you, he was safer because he could swim, but at his age, maybe he couldn’t, and he remained there. I’ve always said I will go bring flowers to the water for him but I don’t know if I’ll be able to. Nobody in the family saw him again. We crossed the river around 1 in the afternoon and walked towards La Virtud [a refugee camp in Honduras] and I was very scared because I saw planes.”
During the massacre, both the Salvadoran army and the Honduran army shot from their respective sides of the river at refugees attempting to cross the border. Helicopters - the result of US military aid - dropped bombs from above. While refugees set up a rope across the river to give people something to hold onto while crossing even if they couldn’t swim, the Salvadoran army opened a dam upstream of the crossing to cause hundreds of people to drown.
The scorched earth operations resulting in this massacre were part of a widespread political repression in El Salvador and were supported by the United States in order to suppress leftist organizing, including that of both farmworkers' unions and guerrillas in the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Alfredo Leiva, current president of the Santa Marta housing cooperative and a disabled veteran of the FMLN, described living conditions in Santa Marta before the war and the situation of surviving refugees after the massacre:
“There was a situation of extreme poverty and difficult living conditions. I survived extreme malnutrition as a result of my family’s conditions. And the actions people undertook had a response by the army and the government - to repress the group of people who had started to organize. So I saw myself involved in this and when the military operations began… in 1979 they burned our house while we weren’t there - we had fled from the political repression, and the military came and burned our house, so we had to hide in the mountain and find shelter from the bad weather outdoors.
"When the March 1981 operation came they expelled everyone. So people went towards Honduras, and I was in Lempa when there was the massacre. I crossed the river at 5 in the morning and the bombing started around 5:30, so my family was already on the other side at that time.
"Later they moved us to La Virtud, where we got set up in a refugee camp, but the conditions were very difficult. There were days when 7 people died every day [...] because they died from, well, diarrheas, that are diseases produced by water contamination in the environment we were living in. Later they [the Honduran military] moved us to Mesa Grande, which was a camp with living conditions a bit better but still difficult. When I was there, at age 14 I became a teacher, because here [in Santa Marta] I had studied up to second grade, so I started teaching there.”
Following the massacre, those who had survived lived in refugee camps in Honduras for years. Many of them returned to El Salvador starting in 1988, but the Salvadoran Civil War continued until the Peace Accords in 1992.
The scorched earth operations of the 1980s were an act of class warfare against people who organized for better living conditions, food, health care, and education at a time when landowners and farm owners did not want to pay anything resembling a living wage.
Both the Carter and Reagan United States presidential administrations sent military aid to the far-right military Salvadoran government, but the military aid from the United States greatly increased under the Reagan administration. In a 1981 press conference, President Reagan claimed that the United States were “helping the forces that are supporting human rights” by sending helicopters, arms, and money.
A 2016 Freedom of Information Act report on internal communications between United States diplomats showed that the diplomats already knew in 1981 that the Salvadoran military had killed hundreds of refugees, but objected to calling the massacre a “massacre” for political reasons. In light of this, the United States continued sending military aid to the Salvadoran government. The weapons trade and the training military officials from the El Salvador army received on scorched earth and torture techniques at the United States funded School of the Americas (now the "Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation", or WHINSEC), were important causes of the continuation of this state violence for over a decade. Nine months after the Río Lempa massacre, the Salvadoran army massacred over 800 more people at El Mozote.
On this, the 40th anniversary of the Río Lempa massacre, the Spectre and Oberlin in Solidarity with El Salvador remember and mourn people murdered to protect capitalist exploitation. In the past four decades, we have seen this history repeat slightly differently every time an imperialist commits a war crime, every time governments intentionally cause refugees to drown, and every time capitalists respond to workers' organizing for their rights and improved living conditions by killing people. What kinds of organizing would need to happen for these atrocities to truly stop happening again?
In solidarity with movements for social justice, economic equality, and real human rights everywhere, we send condolences to the families and communities of people murdered on this day in 1981.