El Salvador, in celebrating Roque Dalton, confronted by bitter past

An old killing has come back to haunt the government of President Mauricio Funes, scarcely a year after he took office as El Salvador’s first leftist leader.

Roque Dalton, the nation’s most famous poet, was killed 35 years ago by comrades in the leftist guerrilla movement that fought in the long civil war.

Now the slaying has emerged as a thorny problem for Funes just as his government prepared a calendar full of official ceremonies commemorating Dalton, who would have turned 75 this month. A former guerrilla whom Dalton’s family accuses of the killing works as a senior official in the Funes administration, and the family is demanding his dismissal and prosecution.

“The most harmful thing for our family,” said Jorge Dalton, one of the poet’s sons, “is that the president of the first leftist government … augments our pain by keeping one of the assassins of Roque Dalton in his Cabinet.”

A figure of near-mythic stature, Roque Dalton was a leftist writer who had been jailed by El Salvador’s military dictatorship and subsequently lived in exile in the 1960s, mostly in communist Eastern Europe and then Cuba. He returned to El Salvador in 1973 and clandestinely joined one of the guerrilla factions, the People’s Revolutionary Army, or ERP.

Dalton’s fate was sealed when his fellow rebels accused him of insubordination and, eventually, of being a spy for the CIA. They executed him on May 10, 1975. His remains have yet to be found.

The ERP, with four other guerrilla factions, formed the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, in 1980 and battled U.S.-backed forces in a brutal 12-year civil war in which about 75,000 people were killed.

After the war ended in 1992, the FMLN morphed into a political party. A 1993 amnesty law that protects those accused of war crimes would not apply to the Dalton case because it took place before the official start of the war.

Funes was never a guerrilla, but he led the FMLN to victory in presidential elections last year. He began his presidency in June.

Dalton’s sons, Juan Jose, a journalist, and Jorge, a filmmaker, accuse former guerrilla commander Jorge Melendez, head of El Salvador’s equivalent of FEMA, as their father’s killer. Melendez denies pulling the trigger but acknowledges he was part of what he described as “a political trial against Roque Dalton” that ended in his execution.

The sons this month petitioned the attorney general’s office to charge Melendez and former guerrilla commander Joaquin Villalobos, who now lives in Britain, with homicide in the death of Dalton.

“My father’s killers have a name,” Juan Jose Dalton said.

The Daltons demanded that Funes fire Melendez and that authorities prosecute both Melendez and Villalobos. The president has refused to dismiss Melendez.

They also accuse Funes of being immoral and hypocritical by praising Dalton as “our greatest poet” while endorsing the impunity represented by letting his killers go unpunished.

A bitter and very public spat has unfolded during days that were meant to honor Dalton’s memory.

While the family disavowed all government ceremonies, Funes retorted that Dalton’s legacy belongs to the entire nation, not just his family. He said Melendez, who used the nom de guerre Jonas, had to be considered innocent unless proven otherwise and that his government’s “philosophy of change” meant moving beyond the bloody past.

“Dalton does not belong anymore to the sons or the poet’s widow,” Funes said. “He is the essence of our cultural patrimony and not a personal patrimony.”

The Daltons also wrote to Mexican President Felipe Calderon to demand he fire Villalobos, who served as an advisor to a former attorney general. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office in Mexico could not say whether it currently employed Villalobos.

Villalobos spoke of the slain poet in a 1993 interview with Juan Jose Dalton, then a correspondent for Inter Press Service, a news agency. In it, Villalobos acknowledged that the ERP leadership, including himself and Melendez, ordered the execution of Dalton. He said it was a terrible mistake, and he subsequently asked the Dalton family for forgiveness.

Melendez, however, says he’s not a murderer. This month, he told the Salvadoran online newspaper ContraPunto — Juan Jose Dalton is the editor — that he participated “with pride” in ERP leadership decisions, including those involving Roque Dalton.

But a few days later he seemed to attempt to distance himself from the matter, telling another digital paper, La Pagina, that the Dalton sons were defaming him.

“We are not talking about a poor little poet that was murdered,” Melendez said, “but about a political actor that died in an armed process” like so many other Salvadorans.