The Misadventures of George Nichols: Witness to a Double Murder in El Salvador
Remembering El Salvador
The American Airlines flight I am in banks to the right. I can see the San Salvador city lights far into the horizon. As the plane begins its descend it goes into a roller-coaster-like ride. We go high into the clouds, it then comes dangerously close to the ground. It climbs back up again.
Suddenly, I can see the ground coming up towards me; this time the pilot cannot recover and the plane crashes. I walk out of the plane and stroll along a road with fields of flowers to the left and right. I look ahead, and I see Ricardo Solé Salaverria, the young director of Las Tiendas Mabellas walking towards me. He greets me with a handshake and tells me he is going to drive me to my hotel.
With my heart palpitating and completely soaked in sweat, I wake up. I sit up in bed thinking about all the times I flew to this city, the capital of El Salvador. A small Central American country the size of New Jersey, with barely 6 million inhabitants that has suffered through civil war and torn by constant political violence.
Knowing my attempt to go back to sleep would be futile, I get up, put on a pair of shorts, step into my flip-flops and go into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee.
As I sit in the dimmed lights of my living room, I sip my coffee and start remembering the various times I traveled to San Salvador, and one particular event popped into my mind.
Back in 1992, I worked for the Latin American division of a large U.S. multi-national company. The company owned manufacturing facilities globally, including Mexico, Peru and Brazil, which were under our supervision. We oversaw these operations plus managed all the marketing and sales efforts throughout the region, which included the countries south of the U.S. plus the Caribbean.
When I first joined the company, as the new-comer, I was given the toughest countries to oversee. From Mexico down to Costa Rica; then jumping over to Peru, Bolivia, and Chile. Costa Rica and Chile were great countries to cover. The rest, not quite so much. Especially troublesome were the Central American countries experiencing left-wing insurgencies, and Peru which was in the midst of an insidious insurrection by a Maoist group called “El Sendero Luminoso” or Shining Path.
The event I remembered really started one afternoon when Laura, our division administrator, came in my office to inform me that Ricardo Solé Salaverria, the same person in my dream, was on hold on line 2 waiting to speak with me. Ricardo was an important customer from El Salvador and a member of the powerful Salaverria family.
Since the 1830s, El Salvador has been run by a group of families called simply, the “fourteen families.” They represented an oligarchy deriving their wealth from land ownership and coffee plantations, in which they exercised their power fundamentally as feudal lords. The immense wealth they acquired, made them exceedingly influential politically and socially.
Their political influence was so great, in the mid-1800s these families were granted super-majority power in the national legislature, which comprised 60% of all available seats. This was an amazing display of the type of political dominance that allowed them to exploit the tenant farmer class in perhaps the cruelest fashion in all of Latin America.
Over the years these powerful families transformed themselves from landowners to financiers. While they still owned large portions of the land, when the agrarian reform movements of 1979 began to make their way through the legislature, they divested themselves of many of the coffee plantations they owned. In turn investing their fortunes into banking, retail, wholesale operations, hotels, malls and car dealerships.
A lot of their money went into bank accounts in South Florida or invested into the U.S. stock market. Many of the older members of these various families followed their fortunes by acquiring permanent U.S. visas and making residence in Miami.
This decision to not only divest themselves of many of their coffee plantation, but also to move to the U.S., was impelled by the many kidnappings and assassinations they suffered in the mid-1980s at the hands of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), or by the many other left-wing insurgent groups that operated in the country.
As each of these family members migrated to the U.S., they assigned many of their younger relatives, especially those with sufficient ambition and courage, to stay in El Salvador and run the newly acquired family businesses. This is exactly how 29 year old Ricardo Solé Salaverria became managing director of a chain of retail stores with 82 outlets and a wholesale operation that covered the entire country.
I Am a Gringo
Ricardo was an astute businessperson, with the hubris inherent of someone immersed in privilege and an adherent of the macho culture that forbids males from backing down. He reveled in his social prerogative and the knowledge that his family connections would shield him from any legal repercussions should he commit any indiscretions, in business or in society at large.
He felt his money would buy him not only indulgences but to a degree even safety. He owned a bullet proof 1991 Ford Explorer, assembled in Miami, which he boasted had a heavy metal plate underneath that could handle the explosion of a grenade. The SUV had hidden compartments in all the doors for the storing of handguns and sub machine-guns.
The first time I met him he introduced me to the two Pedros. He called them Pedro number one and number two. Pedro number one was his main body guard and private driver. Pedro number two was an ex-army sergeant, with expertise in martial arts and knowledge of a broad variety of weapons.
When he introduced them to me, he made them give me a rundown of the weapons they were carrying. Pedro number one had a 9 mm Glock in a shoulder holster; a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson strapped to his ankle; a blackjack in his back pocket; a commando knife in a sheath belted to his forearm and hidden by his long sleeve shirt; and finally a set of shiny brass knuckles. Pedro number two, was a little more modest with his armament. He simply carried a 9 mm Glock stuck in his waistband and an Uzi machinegun inside a windbreaker jacket he wore no matter how hot it was.
“This is George Nichols.” I answered line two in the most professional tone I could marshal. The voice on the other side of the call said; “Oye, gringo loco – long time no see.”
The word “gringo” in Latin America as well as Spain and Portugal refers to a foreigner who speaks in a different language. Sometimes the sobriquet is used in a derogatory manner; other times endearingly. To Ricardo any blond blue-eyed person or a redhead with freckles like me, hailing from the U.S. was a gringo. This was irrespective of whether he liked that person or not.
“When are you coming back to San Salvador?” he asked. “You are not chickening out on me, are you?” He continued. “No. I am not chickening out. I am just not going back to your hacienda again. In fact, I am not ever going outside of the San Salvador city limits, period.” I said, in a half kidding half serious tone. In the back of my mind, however, the words; ‘maybe I don’t go back to San Salvador at all’, kept echoing.
By the way, Ricardo was educated in the U.S. from the time he was 14, when he attended La Salle, a private Catholic School in Miami. He then received his bachelors from Colombia University. Prior, in El Salvador, he attended prestigious Academia Americana, a private college prep institution in San Salvador. He communicated in flawless English with a slight trace of Miami-Hispanic accent. To be honest, I kind of liked him, although he was a little too exuberant at times.
We had cemented an odd friendship after a series of crazy incidents that I encountered during my first trip to El Salvador some three months prior to his call. He became aware of my anxiety and empathized with me.
End of a Civil War - the Camino Real Hotel - ARENA Party
I had stayed away from this small country, as it had been in the midst of a bloody civil war that lasted for 12 years and ended in January of 1992. No amount of business was worth risking my life. However, once the civil war ended and the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed by both sides of the conflict, I decided to make my first trip.
“I understand what you are saying, and I promise we’ll stay in the capital, nice and safe.” Ricardo said rather sheepishly. “But still, I need for you to come and discuss a contract that will give me some assurances Siman is not going to undercut my prices.” He affirmed.
Ricardo showed his shrewdness, and what he was really alluding to, was negotiating a one-sided contract of exclusivity, which he was not going to get.
Once I started traveling to El Salvador, my main goal was to rebuild the business we had lost over the period of the war. I needed Ricardo’s business, but I also needed to secure the business of other strong retailers, such as Siman. Obviously, I needed to find a way to placate Ricardo, but at the same time maintain a degree of flexibility in the market.
Considering that I had never traveled to that country before my trip three months prior to this conversation with Ricardo, I did a great deal of research to make sure I knew basic information. Some of the questions to which I needed answers were simple: Which customers had the most potential? How solid was the economy? Since safety was a main concern, I also wanted to ascertain; what is the best and safest way to get around town? Which is the safest hotel?
Regarding the hotel, the resounding consensus from everyone I asked pointed to El Camino Real in the capital. This was the hotel journalists stayed, and the unspoken rule was; nobody messes with journalists since they are the ones that can make or break any political cause.
After I had made the decision to travel during June of that year, I began to send telexes to the half dozen companies I wanted to meet. Among that list was Ricardo’s Tiendas Mabellas and Margarita Siman of Almacenes Siman. She was the great granddaughter of Don Jose Siman, a Palestinian immigrant, and founder of the retail chain.
My enthusiasm for traveling to a new country in search of fresh business opportunities, was evenly matched by my naiveté as well as lack of cultural and historical perspective. The truth was that given the history of violence in El Salvador dating back to the 1931 uprising led by Farabundo Marti and the subsequent massacre of 31,000 insurgent indigenous farmers by government forces, political bloodshed has been a way of life in this country.
Barely six months after the cessation of hostilities, the ARENA party or National Republican Alliance, continued unleashing the death squads responsible for the political assassinations of tens of thousands of left-wing sympathizers. Conversely, the opposition would take revenge whenever the opportunity would arise.
This first trip was eye-opening. In a macabrely ironic twist, once I checked into the hotel late in the afternoon, and decided to sit at the bar to order a much needed scotch on the rocks, I found out that the parking lot of the Camino Real was the ARENA’s death-squad preferred dumping ground for dead bodies. The reason was the journalist themselves. The death-squads wanted publicity; a way to intimidate the opposition. But also of equal importance in their sick minds, was to use the journalists as a way to notify the relatives of the victims so they could go to the morgue to claim their bodies.
Of course, my very first day at the hotel, while sitting at the bar, the half dozen journalists present, suddenly got up from their stools and went to the parking lot to photograph three men; freshly executed. Stupidly, I followed them and saw the lifeless bodies.
The journalist photographed the victim, but also their faces. One journalist commented, “Hopefully, this guy’s relatives will be able to recognize him.”
Suddenly a shill ran through my back and I began to shake. Realizing this was no regular business trip, I began to wonder whether I should have come to El Salvador at all. I went back to the bar and downed another two scotch on the rocks. Once my body was numb, I went to my room and slept.
Siman - Invited to a Barbecue at the Hacienda - Four Nuns
My first appointment the following day was with Margarita Siman of Almacenes Siman. She informed me she would be moving to Paris within the next couple of weeks, but would recommend to the buying committee to accept and promote our lineup of products. The new buyer would be contacting me at a later day. She apologized for not being the one to work with me, but she had been getting a lot of threats from kidnappers and felt no need to put herself at further risk.
As a member of a wealthy family, she did not need to work. “The war has ended but the violence has continued. There is no end in sight.” Margarita said. “Most of my family members have fled the country. It is time for me to do the same.” As she said those final words, it hit me. No amount of business is worth risking your or your family’s lives over. Perhaps I should heed that advice.
My next appointment was with Ricardo Solé Salaverria. This meeting was substantially more upbeat. Ricardo was not about to back down or flee the country. He was staying firmly, fighting for what was rightfully his. He was extremely interested in striking a business relationship with my company and offered viable suggestions on how to promote our product line.
His approach to doing business with a foreign company was similar to the way I had learned from the very first international job I had held. Forge a deep relationship with overseas partners based on mutual cooperation. Work hard; play hard; meld your minds and talents in a way to dissect the market and create business opportunities.
When he asked me to join him and his relatives for a barbecue at his hacienda that Friday, I saw no risk in either a business sense or otherwise. I accepted without forethought.
He, accompanied by the two Pedros would pick me up at the hotel in the morning. He assured me I would be back before sundown so I could pack and be ready for my flight back to Miami Saturday morning.
The word hacienda has some attributes that go beyond its meaning. In El Salvador, as in every other Latin American country it relates to a plantation or an estate, not within the city limits, but rather in untamed areas. In El Salvador, reaching a hacienda, meant driving for hours through country roads often made of grabble, dirt and mud.
Worse yet; these roads often meandered through heavily wooded areas, where anyone could hide.
I should have made the connection and avoided breaking one of my own rules; don't venture far from cities.
Back in 1979 the Salvadoran Civil War started after a U.S. government backed military coup brought the JRG - Junta Revolucionaria de Gobierno, or Revolutionary Government Junta, to power. The junta’s brutal treatment of impoverish people came under international condemnation and by local Catholic activists. As retaliation for their criticism, government assassins killed Oscar Romero, Archbishop of El Salvador.
Shortly after, four American nuns; Sisters Kazel, Donovan, Clarke and Ford were driving through the only available dirt roads from the San Salvador Airport to the city, and were kidnapped, beaten, raped and murdered by government military wearing civilian clothes.
The newly constructed airport did not have adequate highways connecting it to the capital. A few years later, a highway was built that went up the side of the mountain to the valley on which San Salvador was built.
The Hacienda Party - Witness to a Double Murder
As we are driving through one of these ramshackle roads, I say…”isn’t this where the four American nuns were murdered.” Pedro number two responded, “No. It was on the old road that went from the Airport to the capital.” Ricardo could immediately recognize my anguish, and said, “Ah, don’t worry. This Explorer can handle a hail of bullets. Besides, whatever they give us, they are going to get back three fold.”
He continued; “All the people going to the barbecue use shortwave radios. We stay in touch.” He said; “Anyone who detects trouble, will let everyone else know.” He added; "besides, I have bulletproof vests behind the back seat. Any sign of trouble, reach back there and put one on.” I said to myself; "This is not a comforting thought in the least bit."
When we finally arrived, I saw an impressive hacienda that sat on approximately one hundred acres of land. The main building was an expansive one floor house surrounded by a high wall. The interior had beige Italian marble tiles, heavy antique Victorian style furniture and original artwork all throughout the house, giving it a stately and wealthy appeal.
The barbecue went smoothly. There were several bodyguards walking around the property, with three on top of the roof acting as lookouts. Most males were packing guns. There were no children. While all of this should have been comforting, the reality was I kept on thinking of all the possible ways, this party could end up in a tragedy.
A strange feeling swept over me, I felt not to belong. This was not my battle; not my country; not even my family. “Was all this worth the risk?” I asked myself.
Despite the tension these Salvadorans felt every day, this was a time for gregariousness and intimacy. Ricardo introduced me to friends and family members alike, and for some brief moments I felt at ease.
When it was time to leave, we joined a small caravan of four SUV’s and headed back to the city. As promised by Ricardo, I was back at the hotel by sundown. It was time for me to prepare to return to Miami.
Upon arriving at the hotel, Ricardo told me he would also be flying to Miami the next day on the same American Airlines flight I was on. He and the two Pedros would pick me up at the hotel on their way to the airport.
San Salvador is located in the Boquerón Volcano Valley at an altitude of approximately 2200 feet. The city’s major highway encircles the metropolitan area by following the base of the mountains that surround it. The highway ends at an intersection with Autopista Comalopa, the new highway that goes directly to the airport.
As Ricardo’s SUV stood at the traffic light where highway Comalopa begins, I notice one car with one male driver and a passenger. One car was blocking its ability to move forward. Two cars were behind, impeding its ability to back up. Two men came out of one of the vehicles, reached behind their pants and pulled out semiautomatic pistols and emptied their clips on the two men sitting in the barricaded car.
I could see glass flying and empty shells exiting the pistols the two assassins were using. The faint sounds that came through the bullet proof window of the SUV reminded me of aluminum cans being kicked by kids on a cement sidewalk. Pedro number one commented; “This country will never be normal again.” The moment the light turned green, he calmly continued driving to the airport.