A Salvadoran Family Mourns for Rosa Beltrán, a Victim of Random Violence in a Country at War
San Salvador, 12:15 p.m., Oct. 25
In the hillside neighborhood next to the presidential palace, the pulsing, shrill refrain, “Dance, dance into the fire,” of Duran Duran’s A View to a Kill rises above the rumble of a city bus grinding up a winding incline. Radio broadcasts from homes and shops echo against the high concrete walls of the military barracks next to the palace. From their bunkered lookout posts atop one corner of the wall, alert young soldiers with automatic rifles scan the intersection below. Less than 24 hours earlier President Duarte’s daughter had been exchanged for rebel prisoners, and the mood in San Salvador, especially among the armed forces, is tense. In the hair-trigger atmosphere bred by El Salvador’s six-year-old civil war, violence can erupt anywhere, anytime.
Across the street from the barracks, Rosa Beltran, 62, and her 10-year-old grandson Jose are busy in the kitchen of her rented three-bedroom house. Jose, a robust third grader at the grammar school next door, has finished his morning classes and is about to split open a coconut with a machete. Dona Rosa, as neighbors call the woman who lives with her grandson, is mopping the ceramic tile floor with quick, efficient strokes. A small, wiry woman, she is sniffling from a bad cold that has obliged her to take a few days off from her side walk busInéss selling candies, pastries, beer, cigarettes and other items. When this happens, her deep-fried doughnutlike churros, decoratively arranged in a wicker basket, are especially missed by neighborhood customers.
The midday break has just begun for a group of men repairing the asphalt street surface outside Rosa’s home. They lean their picks and shovels against a tree trunk and sit down in the shade to eat. Nearby two children are playing tag behind the metal bars of a yard gate. In the muggy heat a small crowd of university students and office workers wait lethargically for a bus.
Suddenly a blue Peugeot races into view, followed by a van. When the car reaches the intersection below the lookout posts, gunfire blazes from the van. The soldiers on the wall think they are under guerrilla attack. They open fire in long, hammering bursts at both the car and the van. “Stop!” screams someone from the van. “We’re police! We’re chasing a thief!” But the soldiers don’t hear, their spray of bullets ripping into the car and the van and on across the street where people are running and leaping for cover.
Rosa and Jose run into a bedroom to hide beneath two mattresses. The shooting stops for several minutes, and Rosa cautiously crawls out, telling Jose to stay where he is. Without warning the shooting starts again. As Jose flinches, he hears a flat crack from the next room as the mop handle falls to the floor.
“I think she was looking out the front window,” Jose recalls later. “She thought the shooting was over.” Jose says he stayed under the mattress until all was quiet. It felt like a long time. Hearing no sounds from his grandmother, he overcame his fear and slowly left the bedroom. There on the floor lay the woman who had raised him since he was a baby. Face up, her hair and clothes drenched in blood, she was frighteningly still. “I touched her, and she was cold,” Jose remembers. A neighbor heard him sobbing, entered the house and the two rushed off to notify Jose’s mother, Vilma, 29, who works in an office on the other side of the city. Curious neighbors crowded around the front door of the house. Few spoke; only one woman, a friend, entered briefly, then departed. “She wanted to see her grandchildren grow up,” whispered the woman as she gazed absently at Mount San Salvador, the volcano that looms over the city.
Another neighbor, a middle-aged man, glanced at a soldier on the wall and said, shaking his head, “They just went crazy. They were shooting like madmen. There’s no excuse….” His voice trailed off, and others, some with expressions of fear, added their memories of the woman whose blood had by now trickled into sight through the doorway and halfway down one step. “Just yesterday I asked her how she was,” a teenage girl volunteered. ” ‘Oh, getting better,’ she said.” And another voice: “Such a hard worker, always busy. We used to call her the little brown one because her skin was so dark.” A stranger in suit and tie passed, guessed what had occurred, then briefly studied the waist-high wall in front of the house. With a shrug and a shake of his head, he hurried off, saying whoever lived in the house should have built a higher wall. “My wall is higher than all my windows,” he added.
Up the block, a soldier with a garden hose was washing the blood from the pavement where the thief in the car had died from bullet wounds. Also wounded in the cross fire, which investigators said at first appeared to be an attack on the palace, were at least 10 other innocent people. These included two of the road-repair workers, a woman bystander, two policemen and a passenger in the bus—a 6-year-old deaf girl.
By the time judicial investigators arrived at Rosa’s house to gather details, the wounded had been rushed away for treatment. Rosa was carried by her neighbors on a stretcher to a coroner’s van.
Minutes later Jose’s mother, Vilma, and her brother, Armando Murataya, 40 (two of Rosa’s four grown children), arrived by car. Until then, no one had actually cried except Jose, when he discovered his dead grandmother. Only later, when family members identified Rosa Beltran at the city morgue, only when the coroner’s report was read to them, only then were there tears. Off to one side a young morgue employee looked away, as if he were unwilling to intrude on their grief. “It happens almost every day,” he said. “Why do the innocent have to pay?”
The next day, while her children, 15 grandchildren and many other relatives looked on, Rosa was buried near her birthplace, Alegnía, the Spanish word for happiness.