William Wilbur was one of the most well-known foreigners that used to visit the house. On the staff of the American Embassy, he not only talked politics and diplomacy with Dom Carlito, but was also the family friend, especially of Carlito’s wife Elisabeth, who was still active in the American community.
“Good afternoon, Wilbur,” said Dom Carlito.”I haven’t seen you for a long time. Do you have good news for me?” Wilbur got up, nodded and went to greet them.
“Sir; Antonia; how are you?”
They shook hands.
“Are you going back to Europe after your father’s party?” asked Wilbur, glancing towards Antonia.
“No,” she answered politely.”I’m staying here for a few months because I have some business to see to.”
She looked at her watch. It was four o’clock.
“Well gentlemen, I think I’ll leave you. I know that you have a lot to talk about,” she said.
Antonia said good-bye to both of them and went out to the verandah. Don Carlito put his hand on Wilbur’s shoulder and they went into the library.
They closed the doors. Coffee and biscuits were on the table. There were three bookcases full of books on Law and the Annals of Congress. A careful observer would recognize collections of famous literary works. The paintings, rugs and classical furniture revealed Don Carlito’s predilection for antiques.
The two men, sitting side by side, were talking in English. Wilbur had brought the latest news of his trip to Washington, specially the movements in coffee and sugar futures. They were exchanging trivialities, in a tangled and circular conversation.
“I don’t think that the economic fight with Japan will lead us into a new world crisis,” said Wilbur.”But I still recommend caution. The United States are going to try to reduce their trade deficit, even if it means restricting imports from friendly countries.”
Don Carlito nodded in agreement. He poured some coffee.
“No sugar, thanks. Don Carlito, I came specially to ask you a favour. We have been friends for years and I know that it might seem indelicate to come to your house to talk about this sort of thing, but Washington wants some priority. We have definite information that the KGB is planning something extremely daring, a certain operation about which we have only a few clues… Unfortunately, it’s going to happen here, in El Salvador.”
“They live on the other side of the world and they still make our lives hell.”
“There’s no doubt that they’re preparing a big guerrilla offensive. The president wants effective and discreet action to avoid an imbalance in the war.”
“What is it , Wilbur?”
“I don’t know and even if I did I couldn’t say. You have to understand that it is a question of maximum security. We count on your loyalty.”
Don Carlito scratched his chin.
“I see… How can I be useful? Biscuits, he offered.
“Don Carlito, we need one of your assistants. He would have to act on our information. We can’t take risks in having CIA agents working here. If something went wrong it would be good stuff for the press, to accuse us of interfering.”
“Who do you want?”
“I don’t have specific names, one of your two trusted men, perhaps. It’s not dirty work and Washington will pay well for his participation in the operation.”
“Washington will value your loyalty highly.”
Don Carlito got up.
“Is the deal being organized by the people from the Central department?”
“Directly from there. They’re the people from the Department of Latin American Affairs.”
“Well, Wilbur, I never could say no to you. What am I supposed to do?”
“You’ve only to decide who you want to choose and send him to the embassy.”
“Tomorrow your man will be there. No problem. As for the salary…”
“We can talk about that later. Let’s not talk about money in your house. There’s only one more thing, it may be asking too much…”
“Come on, Wilbur. Spit it out.”
“It’s something delicate. I know that I’m going to ask for something extremely difficult, but I have personal instructions from Washington. Please, don’t be irritated if it offends you. I’d like to be free enough to say what I’m supposed to, and I won’t be upset if you can’t help us.”
Don Carlito felt his companion’s tension. He said:
“Wilbur, you don’t have to be formal with me. Come with me to the veranda. On the way you tell me what it is.”
Keith was talking to himself.
“I’m not happy. When I first thought about writing something on the situation in this continent I didn’t expect it to be so difficult. I’m busy with what is going on here, but, despite the work, images from London still come to my mind. This may have to do with the way I used to live before I left. I am really dissatisfied and only now can I see clearly the extent of my unease. I can reconstruct the whole scene. Ralph made me read something about certain possibilities that Barry had discovered, particularly contacts that might lead us straight to the high command of the guerrilla movement, hints about a secret military operation. It could be good stuff. Barry wasn’t the right man because he’d gone back to hitting the bottle. I wasn’t immediately interested in the nature of the subject. Central America was much too far from our reality. There were other options. There was one in Italy and a specially interesting one in India. I was so confused that I chose the most distant option and the least interesting. Ralph urged me to travel, but now I see that I could easily be somewhere else.
“I don’t understand this country and its people. Everything here is trapped, slippery. I don’t know how to put together the information I’ve received, the setting is so unreal. Whenever I walk through the streets and see the chaos of the traffic, the puddles and the trash on the pavements, those sickly people heaped together on old buses and lorries, I can’t help missing London. The heat of this country, the mosquitoes, the incompetence…
Whenever I read and hear about the atrocities that the war generates here, it doesn’t seem to me that underdevelopment is the only reason for this state of things. Barry is right. The nature of these people is wild and grotesque.
“There are no advantages in being here. I don’t like the food, the weather… Something is happening and I’m here, stagnating, without courage or emotion. The misery of these people makes me feel pity and anger at the same time.
“What laziness! Something may justify my presence here, mixed up in a strange war…”
The press conference of the Salvadorean president and parliamentarians started forty minutes late. It was an unusual day, extremely hot, which made the appointment somewhat galling for Keith’s weary spirit. Squeezed into the small Congressional press room, journalists from various parts of the world were checking information and noting down statements from Salvadorean authorities.
The government was trying hard to improve its international image. The president answered questions relating to the war and the economy. He criticized the armistice suggested by the Christian Democrats some time ago, avoiding questions from Latin-American journalists who were forcing him to face the difficulties that ARENA had imposed at the time of the negotiation.”The government can’t tolerate two sets of armed forces,” he argued, reiterating the demand that the guerrillas surrender their arms to allow negotiations to begin.
Keith was watching the confrontation between two Latin Americans. One of them, president of a chaotic and ungovernable country and the other, a typical hack who offended the expert and professional English journalists. The president would concede nothing, nor would the journalist relax his insistent pressure. Keith recognized in his colleague’s behaviour a vice which he thought fatal to the verification of facts.”You can’t deal with someone in authority if you give away your ideological position,” thought Keith, looking at the people around him.”This guy is a sympathizer who wants to embarrass someone in authority “.
The Englishman glanced around and nodded discreetly to friends from Europe. It was hot. Sweat was running down his face while he noted the president’s gestures: he crossed and uncrossed his hands, held his chin, emphasized one or another declaration with his wrinkled forehead and counted on his fingers the main elements of his government’s plans for economic recovery.
Keith preferred not to ask a question during the interview. It was more interesting to observe, taking notes of this or that statement. Anyway, if it were necessary, it wouldn’t be difficult for him to have an exclusive interview with the president at another time. London didn’t want rhetoric, but a special report. The session with the journalists was just an excuse to improve his listening skills.
The microphone passed from one to another of the members of the government present. They were finding it tough going repeating the arguments of the president. A deputy became irritated with an Argentinian journalist. Alfredo Cristiani, who was covering himself against further probing, took on the question. Keith didn’t like him very much, but gazed at him with slight smile as he spoke loudly and pompously:
“I want dialogue, not war! We intend to govern for all five million Salvadoreans. We’ll transform El Salvador into a Central American Formosa.”
Behind the president’s self-assurance it was possible to detect a certain bewilderment among the Salvadorean executive. The country was, in fact, becoming increasingly uncontrollable and this was one of many attempts to put up a facade of normality.
The Salvadorean leader indicated that he was going to terminate the interview. He stood up and he was followed by other members from the table. Keith approached the president and was introduced to him. They exchanged trivialities and the Englishman took the chance to make contact with some politicians whose names he had been given by members of the British Club. He arranged meetings and made appointments. The most interesting of all was a long conversation with Dom Carlito Vidal.
The deputy made an effort to see the journalist personally. He invited Keith to have lunch with him after the president’s press conference. During the conversation, he volunteered to clear up any doubts that Keith might have and offered an excellent opportunity to meet personally the chief of the Armed forces and other people from the military and political commands.
The meeting lasted two hours. Keith was impressed with the liberal tone of the deputy’s remarks. Don Carlito was firm when he said that he supported the fight against communism, but that he didn’t give up the idea of a negotiated solution for the war in the country.
“It’s more important for our people. Very few want to know about winners and losers: the absolute majority of the population want only to live in peace,” he said.
“It is ten years since the war started,” commented Keith.
“There are citizens that have never known the meaning of either order or progress,” continued the deputy.”We need to give them the opportunity to work in peace.”
” As for the guerrillas, deputy, do you believe they could be trusted in the event of an armistice?”
“We have already had experience in the past. They don’t understand the idea of a longlasting or, at least, a stable social peace. This is the problem of marxist doctrine: it reduces everything to armed conflict between the classes. As soon as they regather their strength, they’re the first ones to break the truce.”
“There are some people that say that death squads are active even during an armistice.”
“The squads are a kind of cancer inside the government.
“Our Christian spirit tells us to reject these men, but we can’t simply start fighting them and weakening each other.” “There’s a common enemy and a more powerful one. With the extreme right we try to maintain a dialogue. We can convince them that respect for human rights is fundamental to the credibility of the government. Christian Democracy is open to an understanding.”
“Do you think it might be possible for me to meet any of the guerrilla leaders ?” asked Keith.
The deputy spoke quietly, in a deeper voice:
“It wouldn’t go down well with the authorities and it would be a waste of time. We are at war and the enemy uses propaganda to spread confusion. What reasons could a guerrilla have for telling the truth to a journalist from a Western power ? If I were you, I would forget all about this subject and concentrate on the theme you want to develop about the relationship between the economy, investiments and an exhausting war. This material will give you an excellent article.”
After listening to Don Carlito’s comments about investiments in the country, reports on the principal political movements and personalities from El Salvador, Keith was invited to the Vidals’ mansion for the party to celebrate his fifty years of political life.
“It’s next week. On Saturday next, not this one,” said Don Carlito.
It was ten to midnight. The telephone rang in the bedroom.
“Keith O’Brien?” asked a distant and tremulous voice. in the background, there was some noise coming from a television and the murmur of people speaking.
Keith rubbed his eyes.
“Santiago here. Barry might’ve mentioned me.”
Keith sat up. He paid more attention.
“Of course he did. I can hardly hear what you’re saying, because of the noise. Could you please speak loudly and slowly? I don’t speak Spanish very well.”
“OK. I’m in a telephone box. Listen, I don’t have much time. I want to know one thing. Are you still interested in talking to us?”
“Yes, of course I am,” Keith replied.
“Good. Has Barry told you about the risks ?” asked the executive member of the”Frente Farabundo Marti de Libertacion Nacional.”
“I know how to deal with them.”
“Well, try to find the bar `Pizarro’. Tomorrow evening, go there and wait. Between five and a quarter past I’ll ‘phone you again. Go alone. Your name will be Ramon Arenas. I am going to send you to many places before we meet. Be discreet. Are you blond ?”
“No; and I can pass for an Hispanic.”
“That’s fine, then, Mr. O’Brien. Tomorrow at five. Goodbye.”
The call ended abruptly. Keith sat up in bed and turned the lamp on. Things were warming up. It’s not always that a member of the organization that represents the legal and armed opposition in a country looks you up. Barry’s contact could clarify some of his suspicions.
He drank a little water from the bedside table. He turned off the light and tried to sleep again.
He had a restless night.
The following afternoon, Keith left the hotel at about four o’clock. He hailed a taxi and went downtown. He got out near the corner where he would receive the telephone call.
The district he was wandering through was unknown to him. It looked as though the place was full of junk shops. The sidewalks and the shops were full of second-hand goods. Traders tempted buyers with their bargains.
“Un grabador cassete!”
Keith had dressed as best he could according to local custom. While he waited for the time arranged for the call, he went in and out of a few shops, browsing among the things there. He asked about prices and amused himself bargaining for stuff he was not at all interested in buying.
“How much is this jacket?”
“For you, senor, it’s cheap. It’s only 2000.”
“It doesn’t suit me.”
“Senor, it’s real leather, here, feel it.”
“A coat like this for 1800?”
“I didn’t want to spend more than 600.”
“600! Senor? That wouldn’t even pay the freight. It’s yours for 1200 and that’s a deal.”
“Sorry, but I’m going to walk around a bit. It’s not that cold,” said Keith, getting out of further negotiation.
He left the shop, looked at his watch and walked to the bar with the telephone mentioned by the guerrilla. A man came into the shop soon after and asked the salesman:
“What was he looking after?”
The Salvadorean pretended he wasn’t listening. The man slipped some notes from his pocket and tossed them on the counter.
“He wanted a leather jacket,” said the salesman.
It was twenty past five when the telephone rang. Keith sat at the bar and waited. He drank two shots of tequilla. He gazed at the ceiling fans, the dirt in the corners and the ancient, loose floorboards.
The bar was an old building from the beginning of the century: wide windows, walls with decorated tiles and pictures of catholic saints. There was a high counter capped with steel and on it there were some glass cases filled with odd trifles. There were a few people in the place: three dark men next to the door and a strange couple at a table at the back. The owner was behind the counter pulling at his moustache and watching the two exchanging kisses. Then another man came in, bought a cigarette and stood by a pillar opposite the bar. The telephone rang.
“Senor Ramon Arenas!” shouted the owner.
Keith hurried to answer.
“Keith O’Brien? OK. Answer only yes or no. Are you alone?”
“Good. When you leave the bar, you have to go along this street for three more blocks and then turn right for two blocks. There you’ll find a bar and another telephone. Be there at ten to six.”
Keith looked at his watch.
“I don’t know if …”
“Yes or no, only.”
Keith paid his bill and left quickly. Discreetly, two men followed him. At the corner, one turned to the left and the other followed Keith.
Time was passing. Keith walked faster. At six-twelve the telephone rang in the other bar.
“Our men think that there’s somebody following you. It’s only a hunch. Let’s do it this way. Go into the toilet and leave by the back door. There you’ll find a lane. Turn left, going down, walk two blocks and turn again, but this time to the right. A door will open. Just go in. If the door doesn’t open it’s because the meeting has been postponed. Do you want to go on?”
It was getting dark. Keith noticed that he was in the red light district. Drunk and ragged men and noisy women were haggling over prices. Keith was exhausted. He was sweating and his body ached. He went to the bathroom. He felt sick. The walls were yellow, something stank beyond the hum of mosquitoes. He left and turned towards the back door.
He headed for the rendezvous. He passed through narrow lanes and steep climbs past old and dilapidated houses, subdivided into tenements.
Women standing on the sidewalks approached passers-by. Middle-aged men, soldiers and youths were milling about. Keith hurried on. It was the rush that kept him calm despite the effort and the nausea. He found himself in a dark lane. A door in the basement of one of the houses crack.
“Senor Arenas,” somebody spoke in a low voice.
Keith walked towards the door. He looked around and saw nobody. He went in. A dark corridor preceded a set of stairs that was clearly some sort of a service area. A dark man carrying a small machine gun followed him. Keith was nervous, but it was impossible to go back. They went up four flights of stairs, through a small door and came out into a red corridor, illuminated by blue lamps. The stench of the place was unbearable.
“Senor, we are near. Santiago is waiting in that room,” he said, pointing.”I’ll check if everything is in order.”
The man went to the end of the corridor. He looked along a further landing full of half-opened doors and semi-naked women. Someone waved. He was signalling that something was going wrong.
The tension in the air became an explosion of noise. A man ran in Keith’s direction, shouting:
He kicked open the door of the room where Santiago was. A frightened woman cried out. The guerrilla dived into the bathroom and came out pulling his friend. They ran passed Keith with guns in their hands.
“Get out, man!” Keith heard.
The two men entered another room. Some women and their clients stuck their heads out to see what was going on. From a distance came the noise of sirens and shouts.
Keith snappedfrom a state of shock into action. Guided only by his instincts, he turned back, ran to the small door and then towards the stairs. His heart was pounding. He couldn’t think. His muscles had taken over his body.
Instead of going downstairs, he clambered desperately up to a kind of attic. He looked through the window. The street was full of police and army vehicles.
Inside the house he heard the sound of gunshots and shouts. Machine gun blasts. Keith found for a side-window, broke it, clambered on to the window sill and jumped to the next-door building. He searched frantically a window, climbed in, and mingled with the people from the neighbouring brothel.
“The situation looks bad, my friend. Things are different from where you come from,” said a policeman. Keith was staring at Santiago’s body. Others, stretched out in the mortuary fridge, were also so riddled with gunshots that it was impossible to recognize their faces.
The policeman continued:
“You’d better keep yourself to yourself, it’s less risky for you and for anyone else. This is not Europe with all its subtlety. The police have been looking for this group for more than five years. They were responsible for the kidnapping and murder of more than eight businessmen. They were brutes. They were the ones who tried to kidnap the German Ambassador. The bums would have held you hostage for either money or the release of prisoners. They play to win, why should they compromise ?”
Keith breathed deeply and swallowed with difficulty. He left as quickly as he could and returned to the hotel.
1989 – Copyright of the Portuguese version by
Alvaro Andrade Garcia
Chapter 28 (click to continue)