Massacre at Palo Blanco
There was a time in my life when I did not believe in the existence of evil. I thought it was a hocus-pocus word. I believed that what people called evil was really something else, something far less Gothic. People weren't evil, I thought. They just made mistakes. Or they were incompetent. They had misunderstandings. They got drunk. They became over-excited. Maybe they went temporarily insane. But evil as a thing in itself? I didn't believe in it. It was too romantic-sounding, a fairy-tale word. That was what I thought then.
I was the product of privileged circumstances in central Canada, an exceptionally peaceful corner of this unruly world. My early life had been a sort of North American idyll — Pony Club meetings on Saturdays and riding lessons at the Hunt Club on Sundays (from Buck Ishoy, the dashing, bull-chested Dane). My summers were a swirl of horse shows and tennis matches. There'd be fox hunting in the fall, skiing every weekend in the winter, and annual pilgrimages to Antigua or St. Lucia in the early spring, with my mother and father and innumerable sisters. I'd been extremely lucky in my choice of places to be born and in my selection of parents to bear me. I certainly hadn't encountered much, if anything, in the way of evil during my early life.
That would change in El Salvador, where I soon learned that evil was not simply a menacing word, any more than cancer is just a concept, or good is only a whim. It was real and it had come to a place called Palo Blanco.
Palo Blanco at the time consisted of a smattering of mud-brick houses covered with thatched grass or smoky clay tiles. The village crouched in the broad shade of a grove of amate trees, all folded into the pleated hills that rose above the northeastern edge of Lake Ilopango, an hour's drive east of the capital. It would be hard to imagine a more idyllic setting for a massacre.
A series of loamy terraces scaled the nearby slopes, strewn in mid-March with the yellowed hulls of corn stalks that rattled in the shriveling breeze. The expanse of Lake Ilopango unfurled to the west far below, a royal-blue banner spread across the crater of an old and now dormant volcano. To the south, almost directly beneath the village, a fine sandy delta swam out into the lake, fringed by palm groves. Goats bleated in the distance, and the sun sang down.
You wouldn't think that terrible things could happen here, but such were the ironies of evil and of war that they most certainly did. Eighteen people perished in Palo Blanco one night late in the Salvadoran dry season. Five of them were women. Eleven of them were children. One of the children was just two years old. All but one of the women had been raped repeatedly before being killed, as had three of the children — two girls aged twelve, and another girl, Rufina Hernández, aged fourteen.
Eighteen people. It was a small affair, by Salvadoran standards in those grim days. But the massacre at Palo Blanco had several remarkable aspects that distinguished it from run-of-the-mill Salvadoran atrocities. And that was why we — two other foreign reporters and I — spent a lot of time out there in that quiet hamlet, turning over stones, both real and figurative, to see what lay beneath.
Two weeks after the killings, it was already difficult to imagine the events of that night — they seemed so out of place. The trip to Palo Blanco from the capital was a gorgeous drive. The Pan-American Highway threaded its way along a serpentine route of hilltops and ridges, the dry-season terrain unfolding on all sides — the baking cornfields, the sinewy hills. The roadsides burst with sprays of purple and orange bougainvillea, and the constant jumble of Central American rural life tumbled past: choking country buses; rickety market stalls crowded in the shade of ceiba trees; hordes of goats and chickens; flocks of school children.
I made that drive many times in the wake of the Palo Blanco killings. The three of us had stumbled onto the fact of this massacre, and now we were tracking down the details. We chain-smoked Marlboros, talked Salvadoran politics, and shared the latest gallows humour — a way to soothe rattled nerves among the Central American press corps. We drove fast and carelessly, the way you do in a rented car in a subtropical country bristling with guns. We had imbibed that strange sweaty recklessness, one of the many contagions of war. But we were reckless for just so long. As we drew closer to the vicinity of Palo Blanco, we would grow wary and less talkative. Whoever was driving would take more care. There'd be a firmer grip on the wheel, a lighter touch on the gas. I don't know if people have a sixth sense about death. I do know we had an acute sense of fear.
Eventually, we skirted north, above the broad blue flag of Lake Ilopango, and soon we wound up near the market town of Cojutepeque in the province of Cuscatlán. From there, it was a short detour off the Pan-American Highway, along a series of rutted tracks that led to Palo Blanco itself. And that would be a careful drive. As we edged past them, local people eyed us suspiciously, or we thought they did. We had begun to feel afraid, all three of us had, and that was odd. What did we think — that these people could be killers, too? It seems crazy, but it was so. Almost anyone could be a killer now. And we were strangers here . . .