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March 6, 1983

Publication Date: 


Vintage International


“Terror is the given of the place.” The place is El Salvador in 1982, at the ghastly height of its civil war. Didion “brings the country to life” (The New York Times), delivering an anatomy of a particular brand of political terror—its mechanisms, rationales, and intimate relation to United States foreign policy.

As ash travels from battlefields to body dumps, Didion interviews a puppet president, and considers the distinctly Salvadoran grammar of the verb “to disappear.” Here, the bestselling, award-winning author of The Year of Magical Thinking and Let Me Tell You What I Mean gives us a book that is germane to any country in which bloodshed has become a standard tool of politics.

No one has interpreted the place better…Salvador shines with enlightening observations, and in its language is lean and precise, in short what we have come to expect from Ms. Didion.

—The New York Times Book Review

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The three-year-old El Salvador International Airport is glassy and white and splendidly isolated, conceived during the waning of the Molina “National Transformation” as convenient less to the capital (San Salvador is forty minutes away, until recently a drive of several hours) than to a central hallucination of the Molina and Romero regimes, the projected beach resorts, the Hyatt, the Pacific Paradise, tennis, gold, water-skiing, condos, Cosa del Sol; the visionary invention of a tourist industry in yet another republic where the leading cause of death is gastrointestinal infection. In the general absence of tourists, these hotels have since been abandoned, ghost resorts on the empty Pacific beaches, and to land at this airport built to service them is to plunge into a state in which no ground is solid, no depth of field reliable, no perception so definite that it might not dissolve into its reverse.

The only logic is that of acquiescence. Immigration is negotiated in a thicket of automatic weapons, but by whose authority the weapons are brandished (Army or National Guard or National Police or Customs Police or Treasure Police or one of a continuing proliferation of other shadowy and overlapping forces) is a blurred point. Eye contact is avoided. Documents are scrutinized upside down. Once clear of the airport, on the new highway that slices through green hills rendered phospherescent by the cloud cover of the tropical rainy season, one sees mainly underfed cattle and mongrel dogs and armored vehicles, vans and trucks and Cherokee Chiefs fitted with reinforced steel and bulletproof Plexiglas an inch thick. Such vehicles are a fixed feature of local life, and are popularly associated with disappearance and death. there was the Cherokee Chief seen following the Dutch television crew killed in Chalatenango province in March of 1982. There was the red Toyota three-quarter-ton pickup sighted near the van driven by the four American Catholic workers on the night they were killed in 1980. There were, in the late spring and summer of 1982, the three Toyota panel trucks, one yellow, one blue, and one green, none bearing plates, reported present at each of the mass detentions (a “detention” is another fixed feature of local life, and often prcedes a “disappearance”) in the Amatepec district of San Salvador. These are the details—the models and colors of armored vehicles, the makes and calibers of weapons, the particular methods of dismemberment and decapitation used in particular instances—on which the visitor to Salvador learns immediately to concentrate, to the exclusion of past or future concerns, as in a prolonged amnesiac fugue.

Terror is the given of the place. Black-and-white police cars cruise in pairs, each with the barrel of a rifle extruding from an open window. Roadblocks materialize at random, soldiers fanning our from trucks and taking positions, fingers always on triggers, safeties clicking on and off. Aim is taken as if to pass the time. Every morning El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica carry cautionary stories. …

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