EF Photo / Historical Memory
45 Years after the National Guard of El Salvador Killed Efraín Arévalo, His Family Bids Him Farewell

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Víctor Peña

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The National Guard of El Salvador executed Efraín Antonio Arévalo Ibarra in November 1978, one year after his disappearance. His death is one of several documented in a recently declassified document obtained from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) on August 29, 2022 by Angelina Godoy, the Director at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington. It is one of several documents related to enforced disappearances during the country’s armed conflict that Godoy requested in 2019, which reveal further details on atrocities perpetrated by El Salvador’s National Police and National Guard between January 1, 1975 and December 31, 1980.

At the time of his disappearance, Efraín Arévalo had been working as a teacher at a rural school in the municipality of Chinameca, in the department of San Miguel, and serving as a member of the Executive Committee of ANDES 21 de Junio, the most important teachers’ union in the country. His son, José Efraín Cuéllar Arévalo, had also been detained by government forces in the city of San Miguel on October 26, 1977, so days later, on November 6, Efraín went to the National Guard barracks in San Salvador, searching of his son. He had received information that José Efraín was being held there, and Efraín, who had scheduled a meeting at the Ministry of Education later that afternoon, took advantage of his trip to the capitol to search for his son.

He never made it to the meeting. “On the day of his disappearance, Efraín was wearing brown linen pants and a yellow shirt,” wrote his wife, Iris Idalia Portillo, who would go on to search for her husband at every state security agency and nearly every hospital in the country. Iris even managed to get an audience with the Undersecretary of Defense, José Eduardo Iraheta, but she never found any answers. She sought help from Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who publicly denounced Efraín’s disappearance in one of his homilies. She spoke with media outlets about her husband’s disappearance and met with Victoria de Romero, the mother of then-President General Romero.

None of her efforts yielded any answers, but Iris held out hope that her husband had escaped the country and was still alive. In September 2022, upon the release of the declassified documents, Efraín’s family received confirmation of his death: “In November 1978, General Alfredo Alvarenga, the Director General of the National Guard of El Salvador, ordered the assassination of Salvadoran political prisoners Efraín Arévalo Ibarra, Manuel Alberto Rivera, and Carlos Antonio Madriz. They were killed by National Guard Lieutenant José Antonio Castillo and Sergeant Miguel Antonio Ramírez Mejicanos.” The bodies, the document continues, were deposited in an unknown location.

Forty-five years later and two months after learning of his death, on November 19, 2022, the Arévalo family organized a ceremony to celebrate what would have been Efraín’s 88th birthday, and to hold a funeral to bid him farewell. The gathering took place in San Salvador at the Monument to Memory and Truth, in Cuscatlán Park. “It is absurd and thoughtless to say that these events have been a ‘farce’,” said Astul Arévalo, Efraín's brother, referring to comments made by Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and his followers about events such as the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords.

“As long as Efraín is in our memory, he will always be part of history. We are doing this, as a family, to demand justice for all those crimes and human rights violations, so that they are not repeated here or anywhere else, because human rights must be respected,” said Mario Orellana, Efraín's son-in-law. “This is an act of closure and healing for our hearts,” added Roberto Castillo, Efraín’s nephew, who at only eight years old would help search for his uncle’s body among the corpses that began appearing in the streets in the early years of the war.

 

Efraín Arévalo Ibarra was working as a teacher and serving as a member on the Executive Committee of the National Association of Salvadoran Educators 21 de Junio (ANDES 21 de Junio) when he disappeared in 1977. He would have turned 88 years old on November 19, 2022, the day his family and roughly one hundred other mourners gathered at the Monument to Memory and Truth in Cuscatlán Park in San Salvador, to celebrate his life and bid him farewell. Efraín’s family placed a floral wreath on the monument, his granddaughter recited a poem, his children read letters and pasted photographs of their father on the wall, alongside the names of the thousands disappeared during El Salvador’s armed conflict, bidding him farewell with dignity.
 
Efraín Arévalo Ibarra was working as a teacher and serving as a member on the Executive Committee of the National Association of Salvadoran Educators 21 de Junio (ANDES 21 de Junio) when he disappeared in 1977. He would have turned 88 years old on November 19, 2022, the day his family and roughly one hundred other mourners gathered at the Monument to Memory and Truth in Cuscatlán Park in San Salvador, to celebrate his life and bid him farewell. Efraín’s family placed a floral wreath on the monument, his granddaughter recited a poem, his children read letters and pasted photographs of their father on the wall, alongside the names of the thousands disappeared during El Salvador’s armed conflict, bidding him farewell with dignity.

 

 

Mario Orellana, 58, consoles Fresia Arévalo, his wife of 56 years and Efraín Arévalo’s third daughter, as other family members read letters to their deceased father. Mario and Fresia migrated to the United States during the war and now live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mario has known the Arévalo family since 1976 and lived through Efraín’s disappearance. He has also accompanied the family on their search for Efraín for the past 45 years. “We had already resigned ourselves to never knowing anything about what happened to him, but now that we have an answer, we want to bid him a proper Christian farewell, as his mother and wife would have wanted,” Mario says. In 2017, Carlos Efraín Orellana, the son of Mario and Fresia, met Angelina Godoy, the Director at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington, and told her about his grandfather’s 1977 disappearance. In June 2019, Godoy requested the declassification of CIA documents on enforced disappearances involving El Salvador’s National Police and National Guard that occurred between January 1975 and December 1980. In September 2022, these documents confirmed that Efraín was killed in 1978.
 
Mario Orellana, 58, consoles Fresia Arévalo, his wife of 56 years and Efraín Arévalo’s third daughter, as other family members read letters to their deceased father. Mario and Fresia migrated to the United States during the war and now live in Salt Lake City, Utah. Mario has known the Arévalo family since 1976 and lived through Efraín’s disappearance. He has also accompanied the family on their search for Efraín for the past 45 years. “We had already resigned ourselves to never knowing anything about what happened to him, but now that we have an answer, we want to bid him a proper Christian farewell, as his mother and wife would have wanted,” Mario says. In 2017, Carlos Efraín Orellana, the son of Mario and Fresia, met Angelina Godoy, the Director at the Center for Human Rights at the University of Washington, and told her about his grandfather’s 1977 disappearance. In June 2019, Godoy requested the declassification of CIA documents on enforced disappearances involving El Salvador’s National Police and National Guard that occurred between January 1975 and December 1980. In September 2022, these documents confirmed that Efraín was killed in 1978.

 

 

Efraín’s name is one of more than 600 others listed as “desaparecidos y desaparecidas” for the years 1970 to 1979 on the Monument to Memory and Truth in Cuscatlán Park — a fraction of the nearly 30,000 total victims memorialized. “This is an act of closure and healing for our hearts,” said Efraín Arévalo’s nephew, Roberto Castillo, speaking in front of the wall of names. In 1977, when Roberto was just eight years old, he accompanies his grandmother to the morgues and other places where authorities had reported deaths, to confirm whether any of the bodies were his uncle’s. Roberto says that he remembers how every day, his grandmother would sit in the doorway of her house waiting for Efraín to return. Originally, the family was from the municipality of Santa Elena, in the department of Usulután, where in 1981 the Salvadoran Army massacred more than 30 people.
 
Efraín’s name is one of more than 600 others listed as “desaparecidos y desaparecidas” for the years 1970 to 1979 on the Monument to Memory and Truth in Cuscatlán Park — a fraction of the nearly 30,000 total victims memorialized. “This is an act of closure and healing for our hearts,” said Efraín Arévalo’s nephew, Roberto Castillo, speaking in front of the wall of names. In 1977, when Roberto was just eight years old, he accompanies his grandmother to the morgues and other places where authorities had reported deaths, to confirm whether any of the bodies were his uncle’s. Roberto says that he remembers how every day, his grandmother would sit in the doorway of her house waiting for Efraín to return. Originally, the family was from the municipality of Santa Elena, in the department of Usulután, where in 1981 the Salvadoran Army massacred more than 30 people.

 

 

Nervous and breathless, Iris Márquez (left) delivers the opening remarks for her grandfather’s memorial service: “I know that it takes a lot of effort for those of you who are accompanying us here today, but I also know that my grandfather, wherever he is, is glad to be the reason for this gathering and this movement that we have built together, as a family, to support each other.” Standing next to Iris is Fresia Monroy, another of Efraín’s granddaughters, who recited a poem in honor of her grandfather.
 
Nervous and breathless, Iris Márquez (left) delivers the opening remarks for her grandfather’s memorial service: “I know that it takes a lot of effort for those of you who are accompanying us here today, but I also know that my grandfather, wherever he is, is glad to be the reason for this gathering and this movement that we have built together, as a family, to support each other.” Standing next to Iris is Fresia Monroy, another of Efraín’s granddaughters, who recited a poem in honor of her grandfather.

 

 

Next to the photograph of Efraín Arévalo Ibarra were two more portraits pasted on the wall: Alfredo Aguilar (center), another teacher disappeared during the armed conflict, and José Efraín Arévalo (right), the oldest of Efraín Arévalo’s five sons, who was captured by the National Guard on October 26, 1977, in the city of San Miguel. José Efraín reappeared on November 10, 1977 in the emergency room at Rosales Hospital in San Salvador. He had been tortured and had cigarette burns on his wrists. His family said that when they found him in the hospital, he was skin and bones. They mistook him for his father. On Wednesday, March 13, 1980, José Efraín was found dead on the outskirts of the city of San Miguel. He had been shot in the head after filing a compaint at the National Institute in response to killings that took place on March 8. José Efraín’s murder was one of several incidents denounced by Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero during his penultimate homily on Sunday, March 16, 1980, nine days before his assassination.
 
Next to the photograph of Efraín Arévalo Ibarra were two more portraits pasted on the wall: Alfredo Aguilar (center), another teacher disappeared during the armed conflict, and José Efraín Arévalo (right), the oldest of Efraín Arévalo’s five sons, who was captured by the National Guard on October 26, 1977, in the city of San Miguel. José Efraín reappeared on November 10, 1977 in the emergency room at Rosales Hospital in San Salvador. He had been tortured and had cigarette burns on his wrists. His family said that when they found him in the hospital, he was skin and bones. They mistook him for his father. On Wednesday, March 13, 1980, José Efraín was found dead on the outskirts of the city of San Miguel. He had been shot in the head after filing a compaint at the National Institute in response to killings that took place on March 8. José Efraín’s murder was one of several incidents denounced by Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero during his penultimate homily on Sunday, March 16, 1980, nine days before his assassination.

 

 

Renán (third from left) is Efraín Arévalo’s youngest son. He was born on December 21, 1977, one month after his father’s disappearance. He grew up in Los Planes Segundos, a canton in the municipality of Chinameca, in the department of San Miguel, the same community where his father worked as director of the Escuela Rural Mixta José A. Mora. When he was 14 years old, his teacher showed him a photograph of Efraín Arévalo, which had been published in a 1977 newspaper. This was the first time Renán, who had grown up separate from the rest of the family, had seen his father’s face, and from that point on, he began developing an interest in meeting his other siblings. In 2008, he finally met his three sisters. “They say I look just like my dad. I feel proud because now I know he was an exemplary person who fought against injustice and for inequality in my country,” he says. Now, Renán is the same age as his father was when he disappeared. He attended his father’s funeral accompanied by his wife and three children.
 
Renán (third from left) is Efraín Arévalo’s youngest son. He was born on December 21, 1977, one month after his father’s disappearance. He grew up in Los Planes Segundos, a canton in the municipality of Chinameca, in the department of San Miguel, the same community where his father worked as director of the Escuela Rural Mixta José A. Mora. When he was 14 years old, his teacher showed him a photograph of Efraín Arévalo, which had been published in a 1977 newspaper. This was the first time Renán, who had grown up separate from the rest of the family, had seen his father’s face, and from that point on, he began developing an interest in meeting his other siblings. In 2008, he finally met his three sisters. “They say I look just like my dad. I feel proud because now I know he was an exemplary person who fought against injustice and for inequality in my country,” he says. Now, Renán is the same age as his father was when he disappeared. He attended his father’s funeral accompanied by his wife and three children.

 

 

At the end of the ceremony, the family and loved ones of Efraín Arévalo Ibarra, spoke and recited quotations one by one in his honor, and placed roses at the foot of the Monument to Memory and Truth, to celebrate his birthday and his funeral. The Arévalo family still holds out hope that they will one day find Efraín’s remains.
 
At the end of the ceremony, the family and loved ones of Efraín Arévalo Ibarra, spoke and recited quotations one by one in his honor, and placed roses at the foot of the Monument to Memory and Truth, to celebrate his birthday and his funeral. The Arévalo family still holds out hope that they will one day find Efraín’s remains.


*Translated by Max Granger

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