Postscript : Requiem for a Betrayed Poet : Two decades later, the bitter truth: Salvadoran Roque Dalton (right) was slain by the revolutionaries he loved.


There are no ‘mysteries’ in History.

Only suppressions,

the lies of those who write History.

-- from poem titled “Reflection” from “The Banned History of Tom Thumb” by Roque Dalton



As one of this country’s best-known poets and an unabashed revolutionary, Roque Dalton escaped many brushes with death. Right-wing Salvadoran dictatorships captured him time and again, but he always got away.

It was at the hands of his own leftist guerrilla comrades that Dalton’s luck ran out. His murder nearly 20 years ago by men who would claim he was a spy became one of those hushed truths that form the lore surrounding El Salvador’s long and brutal civil war. Everyone knew who killed Dalton, but it was a topic that shamed and divided the left and did not much interest the right. It was taboo.

Only now, with the war over and the past seemingly less threatening, is the Dalton case finally coming to a close. The ending is not pretty.


Guerrillas had assured the Dalton family that they would help recover the poet’s body for a humane burial. The Daltons wanted to pay homage to their dead husband and father. But it was a lie: The family has now learned that the rebels who killed Dalton buried his body in such a shallow, makeshift grave that the remains were devoured by animals within days of the murder.

Perhaps the cruelest irony for the family is that the body of the leftist author of “Clandestine Poems” and “Turn of the Offended” was deposited at El Playon, the notorious trash dump more commonly associated with right-wing death squads who used it to discard thousands of victims during the war.

In El Salvador and throughout Central America, societies recovering from a lost decade of war and misery in the 1980s are struggling to come to terms with the past. The graves ofmassacre victims are being unearthed in Guatemala and Honduras; army officers are being tried in Panama for crimes that date back to the early 1980s, and even in tranquil Costa Rica investigators are probing unsolved terrorist bombings--all in a quest to find justice, to clarify the fates of loved ones, or simply to learn who did what to whom.

For Salvadorans victimized by the left, and for the far greater number victimized by the right, both justice and satisfaction have been fleeting. Neither the right-wing government nor the military want to delve into the past, and many on the left would also prefer to move on.


The Dalton matter always posed a dilemma for leftist intellectuals in Latin America who wanted to express solidarity for their slain colleague but who did not want to jeopardize a larger cause.

The resolution of the Dalton case is testimony to the determination of one family to find the whole truth, as unsettling as the answers may be, and it has forced leftist leaders to admit to past sins.

Killing Dalton “was a tremendous error,” former guerrilla commander Joaquin Villalobos now concedes. Villalobos, probably the most famous of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels, was part of the “tribunal” that ordered Dalton’s execution.

“If there is a part of the history of our organization that I would like to erase, it would be this,” Villalobos said in an extraordinary interview with Dalton’s son, Juan Jose, who is a journalist.


Roque Dalton was killed on May 10, 1975, four days before his 40th birthday. The son of a Salvadoran mother and an American father, he became a poet and then a communist. Even as he lived in exile or in hiding through the late 1950s, the ‘60s and the beginning of the ‘70s, his writing earned international acclaim.

Most of his work was banned in El Salvador because of its leftist, anti-Establishment tone, and he was frequently arrested and condemned. According to the legend, Dalton twice eluded death sentences: In 1960, the right-wing government of Col. Jose Maria Lemus fell in a coup just days before he was to be executed; later, an earthquake split open his death-row cell and he fled.

Known for his raucous sense of humor and a simple, conversational style of verse, Dalton spent years in Mexico, Cuba and Czechoslovakia and raised three sons. Finally in 1973 he returned to El Salvador secretly and joined the Revolutionary People’s Army, one of five guerrilla armies that would eventually unite to form the FMLN.

He remained a bohemian, however, and his free spirit rankled the orthodox Marxist hard-liners with whom he had joined forces. They began to voice doubts about Dalton and his lack of discipline. It came to a head when Villalobos and other members of the rebel leadership ordered Dalton’s arrest and court-martial, accusing him, remarkably, of spying for both the Cubans and the CIA.


After days of intense debate and as he pleaded tearfully for his life, Dalton was shot and killed, along with another rebel known as “Pancho.”

The execution provoked a crisis for the guerrillas, and dissidents in the Revolutionary People’s Army split away, forming a separate faction that nevertheless joined the FMLN.

Two of Dalton’s sons, despite the betrayal of their father, also fought alongside the guerrillas, although not with the Villalobos faction. Roque Jr. was killed in combat in 1981, and Juan Jose, the journalist, was wounded and captured the same year. His wounds prevented him from continuing to fight, and he lived in exile until returning to El Salvador in 1991, as the war began to wind down.

By then, the younger Dalton had left the ranks of the FMLN and embarked on a mission to recover his father’s body and force the truth into the light of day. The guerrillas, who had begun the process of disarming and re-integrating into civilian society, promised help, saying at one point that the remains were secure. But no remains were ever produced.


The Dalton family last year turned to the U.N. peacekeeping mission in El Salvador, which launched its own investigation. The United Nations found that, contrary to the assurances that the family had been given, the remains no longer existed.

Dalton and Pancho had been buried barely 20 inches under the earth’s surface, in a grave so shallow that their feet stuck out. Animals started the job of unearthing the bodies, which was finished when a judge and police summoned by townspeople picked up the two men’s remains and tossed them into the trash-filled ravine of El Playon, the United Nations concluded.

“The physical recuperation of the body of Roque Dalton is not possible,” wrote Diego Garcia-Sayan, director, in a letter to the family.

The family was stunned by the results.


“It is hard, knowing the truth,” Juan Jose Dalton said. “But we have arrived at a point where the victimizers of my father have recognized publicly that they did it, and that they did it unjustly.”

Villalobos has not commented further on the case since information about the body was publicized. He has blamed the “historic error” on the group’s political immaturity, and he admits the espionage allegations were concocted.

The Dalton case exposed serious flaws within El Salvador’s left, issues that it continues to struggle with to this day. In many ways, family members say, Dalton was killed because of a lack of tolerance for dissent and critical analysis.