“I think that being tortured has been the best experience in my life.”
David Ayala-Zamora’s face is serious. “Being tortured is like running a marathon. It taught me how committed I am in the struggle for justice. And it’s kind of fortified me in some ways, because you learn how much capacity you have in this body.”
Ayala was a young labor organizer in El Salvador during the civil war of the 1980s when he was arrested and tortured by security forces. After a couple of months, legal bumbling by his captors and an attorney with connections led to his release. He was able to escape through Mexico to the United States.
Settling in the Pacific Northwest, Ayala resumed his work as a union and community organizer. He also advocated for peace in Central America. Since then, he’s devoted many years to organizing day laborers, immigrants, and airport workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
Ayala’s life became a vector of slow-motion blowback — intelligence jargon for the unintended consequences of covert actions. The torture and murder of tens of thousands in the 1980s by the Salvadoran military dictatorship, in close alliance with the U.S. government, forced many opposition activists like him to escape into exile in the United States. Here, some ended up working again for the same values, often with other Latin American immigrants.
You could look at it as history flipping the guatusa — a Central American gesture of insult — at President Ronald Reagan and the Salvadoran oligarchs. Or you could call it poetic justice.
For Ayala, it was an inescapable responsibility: “Those of us who were touched by people who gave everything for justice, we have to try to keep them alive and with us through the work we do. It’s almost like a ghost following me, the words of Monseñor Romero, whom they shot down. He said that our lost comrades only die when I stop fighting.
“And he said, ‘If they kill me, I’ll be reborn in the Salvadoran people.'”
God’s Kingdom Come to Earth
Ayala grew up in a middle-class Salvadoran family. In a predominantly Catholic country, he was raised Baptist.
In his youth, David recounts, he had conflicts with some of the principles of traditional Christianity. He read a lot about liberation theology: “It gave me a different frame; it helped bring my ideas and my critique of the status quo into a Christian perspective. I’m not a religious practitioner, but I still have a framing based on Christian principles.”
For example: “It’s our work to build God’s kingdom and make it come to Earth. And it’s not just this spiritual kingdom; it’s more about practical things. Jesus said that all the laws come to two things: love God with all your heart and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
A slender man with graying hair, Ayala could still pass for a bespectacled bookworm. But a tumultuous life has seasoned his principles with praxis, and his path has been a demanding and often harsh teacher.
In 1980 in El Salvador, he remembers, “I was not organized. I was just reading liberation theology and trying to figure out myself. But there was an organized revolution happening.
That January, “there was a big march of all the popular organizations” representing the Salvadoran opposition to the country’s oligarchs. When it got to the center of San Salvador, the capital, it was violently repressed by security forces.
“People were running into the cathedral. And I, instead of running away, I wanted to see what was going on. So I started moving toward the front. A little stupid, huh?
“I got to the front, to a point where the police were shooting at me. Then there was a kill, a woman behind me. There was a lot of shooting. They shot this kid’s leg. It was broken, and there was a lot of blood. And those guys were coming.
“Well, I just grabbed the kid. And I raised my hand, and I just said, ‘We need to get out of here.’ So we started walking in the other direction. And I said ‘Peace! Peace!’ holding the kid, walking. They didn’t shoot us.
“The ambulance came by and saw us. The kid was all full of blood, and I was too. And they thought I was hit, too, so they took me and the kid out. So when I got to the hospital, I said, ‘I’m not hit, it’s just the kid.’
“I was in shock, so I didn’t realize that I was messed up. So I started walking towards the house. And then suddenly a car passed by, and they yell ‘compa!’” — buddy — “and they throw me a bag. ‘Change of clothes!'”
Ayala didn’t realize it then, but those good Samaritans were helping wounded people avoid the military, who hunted them down after demonstrations.
A point of no return for many was the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero, the leader of the Salvadoran Catholic Church. In a sermon on March 23, 1980, he beseeched soldiers to disobey orders to kill civilians. The next day, a death squad directed by military leaders shot him through the heart as he celebrated mass. The same forces then machine-gunned his funeral, killing 42 mourners, and then attempted to kill the judge investigating the murders.
As the conflict descended into civil war and the military slaughter of civilians mounted, some of the political opposition and civil society gravitated towards a new coalition formed by a range of leftist groups — the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation, or FMLN.
The FMLN is now a mainstream political party. But it began as an armed revolutionary insurgency that received political support and arms from leftist governments in Nicaragua, Cuba, and the Soviet Union. It was also backed by a wide range of political and social groupings in Europe and the Americas.
All that made for dangerous politics in the Cold War era. Washington was still reeling from the 1979 uprising in neighboring Nicaragua, which had overthrown the 45-year Somoza family dictatorship. Like the “Fourteen Families” — the violent oligarchs who’d ruled El Salvador for decades — the Somozas had been stalwart U.S. allies. Washington policymakers viewed the Salvadoran military as a reliable, if embarrassingly brutal, bulwark against further revolutionary change in Central America.
As the war escalated, the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations responded with lavish aid. During the 1980s, the U.S. gave El Salvador, a tiny nation of a little over 5 million people, nearly $1 billion in military funding, along with other economic assistance totaling nearly $2.6 billion. It was the fourth-largest U.S. aid program in the world at the time.
Elite Salvadoran forces, most famously the Atlacatl Battalion, were trained by the U.S. military as poster children for the effectiveness of new counter-insurgency doctrines. In the field, however, they proved unable to defeat the FMLN guerrillas. Instead, they committed major massacres of hundreds of civilians, murdered prominent Jesuit priests, and systematically terrorized rural populations.
Covering the carnage with a flimsy negligée of “democracy promotion,” the U.S. State Department and CIA funded and staged elections that excluded the most important opposition parties and were held under a state of siege. The civilian governments they installed exercised virtually no control over the military and its death squads.
As Archbishop Romero had asserted in a sermon opposing U.S. aid, “Political power is in the hands of the armed forces, which are unscrupulous in their use of this power. They only know how to repress the people and defend the interests of the Salvadorian oligarchy.”
A Good Fish
When the war broke out, Ayala was working for the government institute that managed pensions for public employees.
“I started seeing a lot of injustices there,” he recalls. “So we put together the union in our institution. Unions are different down there. Unions are created from the base.”
Ayala was elected grievance secretary. There was a lot of violence against unions then in El Salvador, he remembers. And the person most likely to be assassinated was the grievance secretary, who dealt with all the workers’ complaints —”the one who was fierce and brave and faced the management all the time,” he puts it.
Ayala’s owlish and shy demeanor seemed improbable for the role. “The third time I was elected, I said ‘Wait, why you are electing me? I’m a peaceful guy.’ And one worker said: ‘That’s the difference, because you confuse management.'”
By then El Salvador had become “a society of terror,” he said. “There were other places where managers had been killed, but mostly union secretaries or union people were being killed.”
“I was a really committed guy,” he says. “I wasn’t part of the FMLN guerrilla movement, but we coincided on some issues with the FMLN, like a negotiated end of the war. I was on television as a union leader, part of the umbrella of unions later on, calling to end the war, opposing the status quo.”
Ayala’s visibility as an opposition figure eventually led to his arrest by the government in 1989.
He was going to a government office to try to renew his passport so he could travel outside the country. Another member of his union had recently been arrested, which Ayala thinks may have put him on the radar of the security services. While he was waiting outside the office, four Treasury Police arrived. One said, “I know you,” and called him by name.
“I thought of running. I didn’t know if they would kill me. But if I ran, the people around me could be hurt. So I decided not to run, to face the whole thing.
“They handcuffed me and put me in a car, a Ford, down on the floor so nobody could see me. They drove all around so I wouldn’t be able to tell where we were going.
“Finally, we came to a place where they knocked on a big iron door — bam, bam, bam. Inside, somebody said, ‘What you got for me today?’ The driver said, ‘Oh, I’ve got a good fish for you. He’s a labor leader and university student. Went to Nicaragua twice.’ They could see it on my old passport. That’s how it began.”
According to Ayala, after a political arrest the government had three days to “log you in” — that is, to acknowledge having you in custody. “For those first three days,” he explains, “you can be killed. If they don’t log you in, they don’t accept responsibility that they have you.”
Then, for the first 15 days of official custody, statute allowed the government to keep political prisoners out of the legal system — and effectively, to torture them — before they were transferred to a regular prison.
“They disappeared me,” Ayala says. “For 15 days I was in their hands.”
Ayala had been trained by the national coalition of popular movements in how the system worked, and how to withstand torture. The training taught him “to keep your head cool.”
He and his fellow political prisoners kept track of the different techniques of torture the government used.
For the first three days, they beat him. “That nearly drove me crazy. They hit me to knock the wind out of me. They would hit you to break your wrist. Lots of hits. They had learned where to hit you so that it hurt but didn’t leave a mark. And they would tie you up in painful positions.”
Another tactic was to leave you alone for a few days, so “you start thinking that they forgot about you.” Then they may put you in with people you don’t know and who may be informers, even though “they may talk nicely about being in the struggle.”
“There are psychologists behind this stuff who know how you are responding to the torture that they are applying,” Ayala recalled. They mixed physical torture with psychological and physiological abuse.
Sometimes they withheld food and water. “I was not fed for three days. I was given water once, a little tiny bit a day. And then they were abusing me physically. They were slapping my face. They hit it so hard, and this stuff inside bleeds really easily, so there was blood, but there’s no mark.”
Another technique they used was the capucha, or hood. “In some ways it’s like waterboarding. But it’s not water here, it’s like harina — a plastic bag with flour inside. And sometimes the powder gets inside you, and it doesn’t let you breathe right. Meanwhile there’s one guy in the back of you holding your head back, and somebody’s hitting your face and asking you questions: ‘Where are the bombs? Where are the bombs?'”
“There was one moment that I almost died,” Ayala remembers. He was handcuffed and stretched out, and he fainted. The torturers believed he was almost dead and called in a higher officer. “I heard their conversation, and they were worried,” because they had already logged him in.
His training taught him: “Keep the conversation with the torturer going, because if he is talking he’s not beating you up.”
Ayala was close to finishing a degree in psychology. One of his captors asked him, “‘So are you a psychologist?’ And we start talking about psychology, and I start asking questions about all this stuff. It was a nice conversation.”
Another interrogator talked about communism, and Ayala explained that he wasn’t a communist. “It was a really interesting conversation, but that leaves you mentally tired.”
The training taught him other ways of keeping his spirits up. When he was being tortured, he repeated to himself a sort of mantra that helped him a lot: “I’m not the first and I’m not the last that this will happen to. Many have been tortured, many more will be tortured. This shows that I’m on the good side of justice.”
Another principle they taught him was: “Nobody is your friend inside prison. They may put informers in there with you.”
A strain of gallows humor developed among the prisoners. Ayala remembers being pulled out of his cell and lined up, face to the wall, with other prisoners he couldn’t see. The guards were brutally beating a man in handcuffs, a professor they’d made stand face to the wall all day. Then one guard yelled: “Professor, three frog jumps.” The professor tried to do the frog jumps, but he fell down. The guards laughed at him and beat him some more.
Later, the guards left all the prisoners standing there against the wall. When they were out of earshot, one of the prisoners said, imitating the voice of the guard: “Professor, three frog jumps.” And the professor tried again to do three frog jumps.
After Ayala was transferred to Mariona, the public prison, he saw the professor again. He called out to him: “Professor, three frog jumps.” The professor turned and stared at him: “It was you, wasn’t it, asshole!”
At other moments, the pressure got to Ayala. “I remember one time that I felt really down, because that’s what they want.” One of his fellow union organizers had escaped from El Salvador before they could arrest him and was granted refugee status in another country. The interrogators asked for information about the other organizer. “And then they said, well, we know that he’s out, we know that he’s eating well, and look at you! You’re fucked up!” Ayala let out a deep belly laugh.
“And then I didn’t want to be given electrical shocks. I didn’t want to be raped, you know? And then my fear in those moments was dealing with answering questions and being focused, but at the same time being defensive and trying to evade that stuff.”
In one of those moments of weakness, he prayed: “Do what you have to do, but let me do what I can do. Because I have eyes, I have a mind, I have hands, I can do stuff.”
Numerous Salvadoran officers, including many top commanders, had been trained at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
There, militaries from around Latin America were taught torture techniques from the same CIA manuals later used under the George W. Bush administration, as revealed in the recent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on CIA torture. Some of the Salvadoran officers trained there were implicated in the worst massacres and assassinations committed during the war.
But many prisoners had training of their own.
“One day I was so crummy and tired and down,” Ayala remembers. “And they brought me to hear someone get beaten up. I was praying that they wouldn’t torture me. Because if they torture me, I will start talking, making stuff up to give them answers.
“And I was there, front to the wall, hearing this guy they’re beating up, but the guy was reacting in a different way. Because if the torturer hits you, don’t show that you’re suffering. That’s part of the playbook. Show that they need to respect you.
“You could hear how hard he was being hit.” Ayala grunted gutturally. “And then he said, ‘Sir, you’re hurting me.’ And then later on there’s a political argument. And the torturer was saying, ‘You’re fucking killing people.’ And the guy says, ‘No, you are the ones who are doing that.’
“And I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ That guy inspired me.”
Simple things became transcendent. “It’s incredible how attached you are to your clothes. Your clothes are part of you. And I realized that at the moment they were going to take my photo to log me in. They kept me all the time with shorts and a military t-shirt. But when they were going to take my photo, they brought me my own shoes and clothes.
“It was interesting, the feeling I had about seeing my blue All-Star sneakers, my blue jeans, my striped blue shirt. I still remember that stuff. It was like a fresh breeze under a mango tree after a long day’s work, a long journey. Just that stuff coming to me. Simple things.”
Jail at Last
After the 15 days of torture, they finally brought Ayala to the public jail. “It was very nice when I came to jail. There was a bunch of union members.” He estimates he spent a month and a half there, and was one of the first released.
His release occurred because of a legal mistake. The day before going to court, interrogators were supposed to type up the accusations against the defendant into a document. Then a picture would be taken of the accused signing it. The coerced confession would be presented to the judge in court.
When Ayala’s turn came, they dressed him up and brought him into the room to sign. But the document wasn’t ready. “And the guy who wanted to take the picture was afraid that if it was late, he would be killed,” Ayala says. So the photographer got permission to take the picture of Ayala signing what was actually a blank page.
Afterwards, though, they forgot that he hadn’t signed the actual document. “So when I got to the court, the woman read the charges and asked, ‘Do you agree with those charges?’
“So I say, ‘Have I signed the document?’
“‘Of course you signed the document,'” she replied. “‘Everybody signs the document.'”
Ayala persisted. “Have I signed the document?”
The woman looked at the blank piece of paper with a signature. “No, you haven’t.”
Ayala grinned ruefully. “So there was no proof against me.”
Even after that break, his attorney had to go all the way up to the Salvadoran attorney general to finally resolve his case.
Organizing El Norte
From his job in the pension institute, Ayala had saved enough money to rapidly get a Mexican visa and a flight to Tijuana. When he got there, a coyote was waiting to help him get across the border to the United States.
Evening, he recalls, brought “an incredible moment, seeing thousands of people just waiting for the sun to go away, and then moving in” toward the fence while helicopters hovered overhead.
“I come from a war,” he thought at the time. “I’m a survivor. I have some skills here. But I was the first one arrested that night. In the first wave. The first one they brought to the corralón,” or holding pen. “I was so ashamed of myself.”
The U.S. authorities sent him back to Mexico. But a friend in the U.S. paid to connect him with a Mexican group that put him in a safe house.
He made it across on his next try. His group walked across the border through a sewer a few blocks from the main highway crossing. Then they brought him to another house in Los Angeles, guarded by “a guy with an AK-47.”
When Ayala arrived in the United States, he found a Reagan administration that was virulently, if less violently, anti-labor. So before long, the indefatigable Salvadoran was back organizing again in his new home.
He’s worked in Seattle and Portland, Oregon, with Latino day laborers and immigrant rights groups. The Service Employees International Union hired him for campaigns with low-wage workers. For the past year, he’s been organizing airport service workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for a low-wage labor organization, Working Washington.
Many of the workers he’s involved with also come from Central America and Mexico. For one job as union organizer, in fact, he was hired by SEIU Local 6 president Sergio Salinas — another Salvadoran who’d been an organizer before he was forced into exile in the United States.
Every now and then, Ayala sees dark patterns familiar from his days in El Salvador.
He recalls seeing reports from Abu Ghraib, the U.S. military prison in Iraq. “Same, same, same playbook,” he says. “Long hours blindfolded standing in front of a wall. Hearing people being beat up, being without shoes, feeling you’re stepping on bodies, stepping on blood and feces.”
And in stateside cities like Baltimore, he says, “You can clearly see the same low-intensity war principles that were applied to us now applied to American society.”
Ayala also drew some lessons for organizing from his experiences in El Salvador. “One of the things is: Trust your guts, trust your instincts. Build it, build it, build it. I have been facing death several times. And you just have your body, your thoughts, your manners, your body language.”
Watching the maturing leadership of the workers he’s been organizing, Ayala sees what they called contextura in El Salvador. “It’s like creating a different skin, a stronger skin. I think it was Che Guevara who said that we have to be strong for justice, but at the same time we have to be more tender with the people around us.”
“For me,” he asserts, “organizing isn’t brainwashing people. It’s about helping them to discover and understand the power that we have when we work together for a common goal. I think that this whole experience is going to bring us to conceive new techniques and new ways to bring workers to justice.”
Ayala is grateful for what he’s learned in the States. “I never expected to live in this country, to knock on doors campaigning for a president of this country. But I thank this country very much. In El Salvador, the frame of reference was small and local. Here in the United States, the perspective is much broader — it’s the whole world. So I’ve learned more about other aspects of the struggle here.”
But his heart is still with those who were lost in El Salvador. “My respect for those who are no longer living is a big positive for me. They gave their lives, with so much love and commitment, so that others could have a better life. I show my respect for them by continuing the work that they began.”
Has Ayala ever wished for revenge against his torturers? “I believe there’s so much more power in forgiving than in revenge. But I did have the opportunity once.”
Five or six years after he got legal status in the U. S., an immigration official called Ayala at home. “You were tortured by the Treasury Police,” he recalls them saying. “Well, look, we have a pair of former Treasury Police here who are applying for asylum. And we believe they may be the ones who tortured you.”
“I said to them, ‘Thanks for the information, thanks for the call. But I’ve already forgiven them.’ Life takes care of revenge.”
The Salvadoran civil war finally ended in 1992 with the Chapultepec Peace Agreement, signed in Mexico City and brokered by the United Nations.
The report of the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador confirmed what human rights groups had been reporting throughout the war. It estimated that over 70,000 people had been killed, thousands more had been disappeared, and more than 25 percent of the population had been displaced as refugees. It also found that death squad killings and torture were overwhelmingly the work of government forces. Some 85 percent of the large sample of complaints it collected attributed the violence to the military and its death squads. Only 5 percent of the complaints accused the FMLN.
During the first elections after the peace, Ayala returned to El Salvador to work for the FMLN, which had become a political party. The first elections didn’t go so well. “We were completely defeated. I remember coming back in the airplane, I was crying. I was remembering all the folks who died for peace, and I was thinking, ‘They don’t deserve this.'”
The right-wing party founded by Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, the kingpin of the death squads who ordered the murder of Archbishop Romero, governed the country for a decade and a half more. That changed in the 2009 elections, when the FMLN won the presidency and a plurality in the National Assembly. In 2014, the party narrowly won the presidential elections again.
Meanwhile, international developments also hold out some hope to victims of war crimes that a measure of justice may yet be attainable. Despite an earlier amnesty declared by the Salvadoran government, three torture victims who brought a civil suit in a U. S. federal court against two retired Salvadoran generals — both former defense ministers — won a 2002 judgment of $54.6 million in compensation. One of the generals was deported by the United States to El Salvador this April based on his complicity in the torture, rape, and murder of civilians.
In 2011, a Spanish judge issued indictments and arrest warrants for 20 former Salvadoran military officers, charging them with crimes against humanity and state terrorism for their roles in the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her 16-year-old daughter. And just this April, the U.S. government filed a request for the arrest and extradition to Spain of one of the officers for his role in the killings.
Finally, this past May, Pope Francis beatified the martyred Archbishop Romero, clearing his path to sainthood.
Today, Ayala has a son who just graduated from university, and two younger daughters.
A few months ago I ran into David with his daughters at a rally celebrating Seattle’s minimum wage increase. He said they often go with him to events like this. The key for him is not forcing the issue, but rather trying to communicate at their level. “I need to use my best tools to organize my kids to join the fight,” he explains, “so they don’t feel that it’s something crazy my dad is doing. I don’t make them come with me.”
Eight-year-old Maura wrote a story at school about some people who were trying to put on a play. The theatre manager, though, told them he didn’t think they could sell enough tickets. “But we’re going to pass out fliers, we’re going to knock on doors,” the people replied. “It was really good to see that,” Ayala said, “because it’s about the things that her dad is doing, that sometimes we do together.”
His 12-year-old, Maggie, is now a seasoned demonstrator. “It’s interesting the questions they ask sometimes. We once went together to a march for Martin Luther King’s birthday. And the chants were about the minimum wage. And my daughter asked me, ‘Dad, why are they shouting “Fifteen dollars now!” and not “Long live Martin Luther King”? The march is in his memory.’
“It was a lovely moment that gave us a chance to think about it, to say that Martin Luther King was very involved with labor, and that it was an aspect of his thinking that was very controversial back then.
“I have a lot of pictures of them marching with me.”