The second last time Michael D Higgins visited El Salvador the then Labour TD and his monitoring team were stopped at gunpoint from entering the country to investigate mass killings during a bloody civil war.
Last night the guns were pointed in the opposite direction by security teams protecting Mr Higgins and his Irish delegation as he returned to El Salvador for the first time in 31 years, this time as Irish President.
When Mr Higgins visited the Central American state in 1982, the conflict between left-wing rebels and government forces, supported by death squads, had claimed the lives of tens of thousands of people in atrocities. Mass killings were being denied inside and outside the country in a vicious propaganda war.
Ireland had signed up to the 1981 Franco-Mexican declaration calling El Salvador's leftist guerrillas, the a legitimate political force. The signature led Salvadoran president Napoleon Duarte to put Ireland on a blacklist of countries. As a result, Mr Higgins was held at gunpoint for several hours before being released on a flight to nearby Nicaragua. He later negotiated a safe return to El Salvador with Duarte to carry out his investigations.
Yesterday, Mr Higgins emotionally recalled a slain friend and a traumatic visit to witness first-hand a conflict that had cost 80,000 lives.
The war ended in 1992 and the government apologised in 2010 for past actions of the state, but it is only in the last two years that the war graves were opened to confirm a massacre in El Mozote – an atrocity denied by the Salvadoran government and its US allies that Mr Higgins sought to investigate in 1982. It is a vindication for the President.
“What I think as I arrive now is how much has been achieved since the horrific events 30 years ago, establishing a consensus and trying to move on with reformed democratic institutions,” he said.
In 1978, Salvadoran lawyer and human rights campaigner Marianella Garcia asked Mr Higgins to raise awareness of the killings in her country. A visitor to Ireland, she wanted to travel with him on his 1982 trip but he convinced her otherwise; it was “too risky,” he told her.
He chokes up remembering how the 34-year-old was captured, raped and murdered in El Salvador a year later.
Architecture of death
During his trip in 1982, Mr Higgins investigated an "architecture of death" where the perpetrators of murders were identified by the "signatures of death" – the mutilations to the bodies and the state of the victims – during dawn trips to rubbish dumps where the overnight toll of killings was recorded. Stomachs cut open pointed to the death squads; hands tied behind backs fingered the government forces.
Mr Higgins spoke to Mozote’s sole survivor, a “numbed” woman whose husband and four children were murdered along with more than 1,000 villagers. Reports of the killings were dismissed by the “principal embassy in El Salvador” as “incidents with troops,” Mr Higgins said, refusing to the name the US embassy. The killings were “something that had to be got out to the world accurately,” he said.
“What situations like Northern Ireland and El Salvador have in common is the sheer uselessness of saying something silly like, ‘you must put it all behind you as if it never happened’.” Mr Higgins said that as one of the witnesses to the country’s “darkest times” he is visiting this week “to congratulate them on what they are doing today and where they have come from.”