Die with Your Boots On

This post is also available in: Spanish

In December of 2004, a subjournal of El Diario del Hoy called Vértice presented a great article written by Juan Carlos Rivas. It described the work of Comandos de Salvamento along with the Blue, Green, and Red Cross during the Civil War.

To Die With Your Boots On

Caer con Las Botas Puestas

Translated by Marco

Many unknown heroes gave their lives while under fire trying to save others during the past conflict. Vértice talked to these heroic volunteers who were there helping when no one else was. This report recounts this part of their lives.

Juan Carlos Rivas

EMS workers were always present during firefights. They were able to rescue and save many Salvadorans. Foto: Comandos de Salvamento

The FMLN had attacked and taken over the city of Apopa. They closed it off with barricades and two snipers.

Meanwhile, two ambulances of the Blue Cross were stopped at the National Guard substation.

At the same time, at km 11 on the highway to Santa Ana, an Army Infantry Patrol was sent to support the Apopa National Guard but received resistance and retreated.

Back in Apopa, that was under guerrilla control, EMS workers Nicolás, Berta and Núñez were able to find refuge and cover in a street canal.

Nicolás Campos was two meters away from a National Guard soldier who was hiding behind a street pole and constantly shooting his G-3.

Upon seeing Nicolás,  the National Guard member asked him for some water. Nicolás took out his waterbottle, but just as he was about to raise his flag and move to give him some water, a bullet blast perforated his leg. He fell writhing in pain. The National Guard member fell down also injured.

Who do we rescue first?”, Nicolás’ coworkers asked themselves.

The National Guard? Our our beloved friend?

While they were trying to decide, the firefight intensified. They became determined and rescued them both.

They then drove their ambulance right through the combat zone carrying the injured. A rain of bullets were raising dust near their vehicle and hitting the wheels while others peeled paint off the walls of nearby buildings.

Their decision allowed them to save the life of their friend and that of the National Guard member.

But that day in Apopa was only one of hundreds of scenes that they lived through working in combat zones between the Army and FMLN guerrillas.

Burial of Green Cross members. The wake went through the whole length of the capitol. Foto courtesy of the Green Cross.

Thanks to their courage they were able to save thousands of lives, but at a painful cost.

Saving people under crossfire increased ones desire to survive.

Helping others while under fire, perhaps saved the rescue workers themselves. Many signed up to be volunteer EMS workers in order to avoid being recruited by the Army or FMLN.

While these youth were looking for security, they also learned about selfless service to others.”, states director of the Green Cross, Miguel Ángel Torres.

However offering to volunteer had its price and they suffered abuse, persecution, insults, assaults, intimidation, vandalism to their emergency vehicles,-and in some cases, death.

“We were beatup and intimidated many times, and there were many misunderstandings. Perhaps because our main role was that of neutrality”, states Melvin González, of the Blue Cross. While the guerrillas may kidnap us to attend to their wounded in their clandestine hospitals, the army would accuse us of collaborating with them.

“That is the risk one takes from being in a combat zone”, adds Luis Quezada Leader of Search and Rescue of the Salvadoran Red Cross.

These Guardian Angels also died. Ironically, there is no formal registry of these fallen volunteers.

We know about EMS volunteer Nicolás Campos who was saved just in time after being injured. The National Guard member had no physical injuries, yet emotional stress.  He experienced nervous shock and his destiny after that day is unknown.

Bitter Reality

But war is past and EMS agencies that were created as civilian institutions to respond to emergencies and were supported by private enterprise, international organizations, and the people, have fallen into a kind of helplessness..

Neftalí Barillas, Melvin González y Santiago Calderón, de Cruz Azul. Foto EDH/Oscar Payés

They are trained in all types of rescue and first aid. They get equipped and many members join their ranks, but they have no benefits, except for Red Cross, which receives support from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). This aid though, -after the arrival of peace, has been reduced.

The rest of these institutions suffer the same impact. “We were hoping that some day we would be able to get some sort of pay”, comments Santiago Calderón, of the Blue Cross.

López Bonilla, of the Green Cross adds, : “We also handed in our share of sacrifices, but with the signing of the Peace Accords, they forgot about us“.

In agreement, Eduardo Rivera of Comandos de Salvamento meditates on the concept: “The War was a time of anguish, hopefully we can all reflect on it so that it does not happen again“.

Bonilla concurs: “One never even wants to think about it.  It should never happen again. During a civil war, your freedoms belong to someone else. Perhaps because of this, many volunteers took different paths, like EMS volunteer Nicolás Campos, who immigrated to the USA.

Today there are four EMS agencies: Green Cross (3,500 members), Blue Cross (415), Red Cross (2,500) and Comandos de Salvamento (3,500). They are not paid and attend to many emergencies. The only help they get comes from drivers in the street, or passengers on the bus when volunteers are out solicitating donations in public, or from Salvadorans living abroad.

A Portrait of Heroes and Martyrs.

The majority of data regarding EMS members that have died or were disapeared could not be counted due to the chaos of the civil war. What little remains is mostly passed down through oral history.


During the 1989 Offensive

– The Blue Cross does not have any formal registry, although there were deaths due to gunshot and bombs, mostly during the guerilla offensive of 1989. “It was hard to determine, sometimes 15 would go out to work, and only 12 would return“. -remembers Santiago Calderón.


Innocent Victims

– Héctor Raúl Cotto was one of the first to be killed in the Green Cross. His unit, located in their old base station of Santa Anita had been threatened. They day he died, he was sick at home with a fever. A deathsquad arrived and shot him.


Fallen heroes in Action

– Alberto Guzmán, an experienced rescue worker from Comandos de Salvamento died while he was evacuating civilians in a combat zone. Another seven Comandos de Salvamento died while wearing the yellow uniform during the war. This is some of what exists in the memory of workers of that time.


Deaths without being Registered

– The Red Cross could not recall data on deaths of their workers. It is known that two died in San Vicente. Although there were many that had flak injury from grenades or machine gun fire to their ambulances, there was little information formally collected.

In the voice of the EMS workers

“I was in a ghost town”

Eduardo Rivera and Orlando Cruz of Comandos de Salvamento were active participants in helping people during the Salvadoran Civil War.. Foto EDH/Lizette Moreno

Eduardo Rivera, of Comandos de Salvamento “That morning, we arrived to downtown Chalatenango after receiving the call around 5pm. At 6:30 we were in Las Vueltas. I remember a small road with rocks on it and the loneliness of the place. It was winter. Before that time, I had never seen a Ghost Town before, except on television.

That day I got to. It was strange seeing stoves that were still hot, food still on people tables, a pot of beans cooking, tables set ready for families to sit down and eat; but the inside of the homes, completely destroyed.

I was 18 and I couldn’t believe what was happening, that so many massacres were happening because they believed that the Campesinos collaborated with this or that side.

60 people died there. After being there an hour or so, people started coming out from hiding in the bushes or trees and surrounded us. They said they were afraid we were combatants of either side and did not want to come out.

Later they brought us to the Sumpul River where some bodies were thrown. I went to other small villages like Verapaz and Guadalupe and was saddened to find everyone dead.

When one sees and thinks about how the people in the countryside suffered, it is difficult to to say one is apolitical“, states Eduardo Rivera, one of the most known faces of Comandos de Salvamento in San Salvador. His colleague Orlando Cruz narrates the following event.


“That night it was announced the the guerrillas had taken Berlin, Usulután. Four of our ambulances full of emergency workers were ready to enter the city but they were detained and ordered to turn off their engines. A high ranking military officer had given the order to execute them.They were unable to leave, but thanks to a national guard member that was nice, they decided not to give the order. “Give thanks to God because there could have been many killed, so your staying here”, he stated. So we stayed in a little alley until morning.

At first light we started advancing on a dirt road and ran into many of the dead: civilians, guerrillas, and military soldiers. The further we went though we caught up with a family that was coming towards us.

A Man, Woman and many children all had some clothes bunched up under their arms. Then all of a sudden an airplane dove down and bombed them. Everyone were blown into many, many pieces. This really affected me. All the EMS workers experienced shock and we all started to cry. This is one episode of the war I will never forget”.

“The War didn’t allow us to help”

“My experience was a little unique because I was stationed in our Santa Ana base in the western part of the country where the war was not as intense.

Pictured is Luis Quezada of the Red Cross, during operations in western El Salvador. This photo is one of the memories of the war he has in his home.

I remember though precisely and episode where we could not give adequate medical care due to certain circumstances of war.

An older Campesino came to ask us for help because he knew of an injured person in the small village of El Resbaladero -a mountainous zone with steep fields of coffee beans.

I went with another EMS worker and el señor brought us to the middle of a coffee field where there was an army checkpoint.

When we passed the army checkpoint by about 10km we ran into a guerrilla column and one of them presented with a significant lung injury with serious tissue damage.

We automatically knew it was some high ranking official within the guerrilla due to his security unit surrounding him.

We gave him first aid and suggested that we take him to a hospital but they did not allow us. They stated that they had a medical provider that they would meet in the afternoon. This is one of the times where we could not give adequate medical care, states Luis Quezada.

“At that time, the people helped us out”

“I was there for the big bombing of FENASTRAS (Halloween 1989),I was the one that tried to help Febe. The amount of destruction affected me so much.

Miguel Torres and Alejandro López

First, because it was difficult to enter and second, bodies  were destroyed and pieces spread all over the place.

Scalps had been pulled back as if they were whigs, who knows what kind of material was used for the bombing but there were many mutilated.

Febe was upstairs and he was unregognizable. We were bringing him to hospital Rosales,which was located near the Central Bank Reserve, but we ran out of gas.

We stopped a car that was full of piñatas and we asked if the driver could take us. Without telling him we took some piñatas out to make room for Febe.

We were able to get him alive to the hospital but he died two hours later”, narrates Miguel Torres.

Source Credit: Vértice of EDH Dic 2004

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