Camilo Torres was born in 1929 into the upper crust of Colombian society. Torres grew up like all the other spoiled and pampered children of the oligarchy. The only hint of difference was the desire of Torres to live his life seriously which would lead him to choosing the priesthood as his career. In the seminary he began to manifest a concern for the great mass of poor Colombians. Torres finished his studies in Europe. He studied sociology and searched for the answers to the plight of the poor in science. He was a good student and became fluent in four languages.
Torres returned to Colombia where he became involved in trying to organize young people to become involved with the poor, trying to get the church to recognize its social obligations to the poor, and trying to get the government to begin programs that would really help the poor. He spent eighteen years trying. Thousands of young people followed him, but when it was time to act or when the repression started, very few remained. The church, in spite of his efforts, continued to firmly maintain the status quo with everything being controlled by the oligarchy. And the government of the oligarchy had no intention of relinquishing any real power to the people. As a result, Torres would become convinced that the only hope for Colombia was in revolution, and that he must make a choice between acting on his love for the people or continuing to support the status quo by remaining a priest. Torres believed that Christianity meant just one thing: "to love efficaciously." His love of God and the people of Colombia compelled him to leave the church. The following is the statement released to the press when he did so:
"When circumstances exist which make it impossible for people to give themselves to Christ, a priest is called upon in a special way to make war on those circumstances, even if this leads him to forfeit the celebration of the Eucharist; for the Eucharist, if it is not accompanied by the self-giving of Christians, is a ritual devoid of meaning. In the present structures of the Church it has become impossible for me to continue exercising my priesthood as far as external worship is concerned. However, the Christian priesthood does not consist only in the celebration of external rites. The Mass, chief goal of all priestly activity, is fundamentally a community action. Now the Christian community cannot offer the sacrifice of the Mass with authenticity if that same community has not been practising beforehand, and in an effective way, the love of neighbour which the gospel talks about.
I chose Christianity because I believed it to be the purest way of serving my neighbour. I was chosen by Christ to be a priest for all eternity, and I was urged on by the desire to dedicate myself twenty-four hours a day to the love of my fellow-man. As a sociologist I have tried to make that love genuinely efficacious by means of scientific research and technical advances. Analyzing Colombian society I have come to realize that the country needs a revolution in order to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked and provide well-being for the majority of our people. I believe that the revolutionary struggle is a Christian struggle, and a priestly one. Indeed, in the present specific conditions of Colombia, participation in that struggle is the only way men can show love for their neighbours as they should.
Ever since I became a priest I have tried in a hundred different ways to encourage laymen, whether Catholic or not, to join the revolutionary struggle. However, as these laymen's actions have drawn forth no response from the masses, I have resolved to dedicate myself to the cause, thus fulfilling part of my priestly mission of leading men to the love of God by the sure path of love of neighbour. As a Colombian I consider this activity to be of the very essence of my Christian life and of my priesthood.
As things stand at present in the Church mine is a mission at odds with the hierarchy's will. I do not wish to disobey that will, nor do I wish to be untrue to my own conscience. For that reason I have asked His Eminence, the cardinal, to relieve me of my clerical obligations in order to serve the people in the temporal sphere. I am giving up one of the privileges I hold most dear (the celebration of the Church's ritual) in order to create conditions which will give to that ritual a more authentic meaning.
If I make this sacrifice I do so in the belief that my commitment to my fellow-countrymen obliges me to it. The ultimate criterion on human decisions is love, supernatural love; I am prepared to run all the risks that that love may ask of me."
It would not be long afterwards that Torres would join a band of guerillas. Time had come for action. Torres was not a communist, but he did clearly recognize that the Marxists seemed to be doing more than anyone else for the poor in Latin America. As a guerilla he issued the following statement to the press as to the goals of the guerillas:
"People of Colombia:
For many years the poor of our country have waited to hear the call to arms which would launch them on the final stage of their long battle against the oligarchy.
Every time the people's despair reached breaking point the ruling classes always managed to deceive them, to distract their attention, to placate them with solutions that amounted to no real change at all. When the people looked for a leader and found one in the person of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán, the oligarchy had him killed. When the people sought peace, the oligarchy gave them violence. When the people could stand no further violence and organized guerrillas for the seizure of power, the oligarchy staged a military coup so that the guerrillas would surrender under false pretences. When the people asked for democracy, once again they were deceived, this time by a plebiscite and a National Front which imposed on them the dictatorship of the oligarchy.
Now the people are no longer so credulous. They do not believe in elections. They know that all legal channels of action have been used up. They know that the only road left open to them is that of armed struggle. They are desperate and have made up their minds to risk everything, even life itself, in order that the next generation of Colombians may not be a generation of slaves; in order that the children of those who today are prepared to offer their lives may receive education, a decent home, food, clothing, and above all human dignity; in order that future Colombians may live in a homeland which is really theirs, free from American domination.
Every sincere revolutionary recognizes that armed struggle is the only way left. Nonetheless the people hope that their leaders, by means of personal example, will sound the call to arms.
I want to tell the Colombian people that the moment for battle has arrived. I have not betrayed them. In the plazas of every town and city I urged the organization of the popular classes for the seizure of power, and I have not ceased to insist that we give ourselves to this cause unto death. Everything is now ready. The oligarchy intends to organize one more electoral farce with all the usual trimmings: candidates who resign and then accept again, two-party committees, renewal movements based on ideas and personalities that are not only obsolete but also have betrayed the people. What more are we Colombians waiting for?
I have joined the freedom fighters. From this corner of the Colombian jungle I declare that I intend to fight and not to lay down arms until we have brought the people to power. I joined the Army of National Liberation because in it I found the very ideals that inspire the United Front: I found the desire for grass-roots unity, and indeed the achievement of that unity amongst the peasants, leaving aside all religious differences and traditional party squabbles, leaving aside also the spirit of competition with other revolutionary groups of whatever sect, movement, party or caudillo; I found a group that fights to free the people from the exploitation of the Colombian oligarchy and American imperialism, a group that will not lay down arms until the power of government is completely in the people's hands, and whose objectives are those of the United Front's platform.
Every patriotic Colombian ought to be preparing for war. In every corner of the country experienced guerrilla leaders will gradually arise. Meanwhile we must all be on the alert. We should gather together arms and ammunition, train for guerrilla combat, discuss things with our most trusted friends, collect clothing, drugs, provisions, and get ready for a long drawn-out war.
We should effect lightning attacks on the enemy whenever we are sure that the outcome will be in our favour; we can thus put so-called revolutionaries to the test and weed out the traitors. We must not overlook action, but neither should we be overimpatient. In a long drawn-out war we will all be called upon to act at a given moment; the important thing is that we be ready and armed when that moment arrives. The individual is not expected to perform every single task; the tasks should be shared out. United Front members should be in the vanguard of initiative and action. We must be patient in the period of preparation, and confident that the final victory will be ours.
The people's struggle must eventually become a nation-wide struggle. And since the battle is going to be a long one, we have decided to begin now.
Fellow citizens' listen to
the people's call, the call of the revolution!
Activists of the United Front: put your slogans into practise!
For the unity of the popular classes, unto death!
For the organization of the popular classes, unto death!
For the seizure of power by the popular classes, unto death!
Unto death, since we are determined to fight to the very end.
Unto victory, since a people which gives itself to the cause unto death always achieves victory. Unto the final victory, then, faithful to the watchwords of the Army of National Liberation.
Not one step back!
Liberation or Death!"
Torres was only with the guerillas about three months. He had trained with them, was given a pistol, and was told that he had to earn the right to carry a rifle. He insisted on going on a planned ambush. As one of the soldiers who were the victims of the ambush was brought down, Torres left his cover to retrieve the coveted rifle of the dead soldier. As he reached down to pick it up, he was shot in the shoulder; and as he tried to crawl away he was mortally shot again. Two of his comrades tried to rescue him and both of them were also shot down. Camilo Torres was killed on his first combat mission with the guerillas.
Torres faced a profound theological
dilemma. If he stayed within the established church, he would be contributing
to the oppression of the masses since the church supported the rule of
the oligarchy. This would cause him to violate God's command to love one's
neighbor as oneself. In addition, he would manifest that he loved himself,
his position and security in the church, most of all. On the other hand,
if it was true that the only way the lives of masses would ever improve
would be by revolution, then the best way he could demonstrate his love
for the people was to take part in the revolution. But such action would
involve him in violence and the taking of life--both of which are prohibited
by God. There was no escape. Torres could not run away. So in the end he
reach the conclusion that the greatest love was manifested and the most
violence avoided by the revolutionary path.
In the cramped space of the interview room, Elbio Fernandez could have been just another of the many who have a cause to push. Like a Chevrolet dealer or a politician's front man, his handshake lingered, as if fingers could hold one's attention, and his briefcase bulged with the promotional pamphlets of his cause--letters, copies of letters and the inevitable newspaper clippings telling of government atrocities.
We had tried from the beginning to discourage him, first on the phone when he had called the day before. ("Sir," one reporter had told him, "we're a local newspaper. We can't do an investigation in Nicaragua. Why don't you try the Associated Press?") Then, when he had persisted, we invited him to our offices, knowing that the inconvenience (and expense) of a cab ride downtown from Grand Prairie might do what our reasoning could not.
We had, of course, heard of Nicaragua and of the revolution there. We had published stories on it--on the front page in September, when it seemed certain the government of Anastasio Somoza would fall (even the United States, renowned for propping up failing dictators in the face of popular uprisings, had yanked its military support.)
But Somoza, with arms from Israel, Chile and Argentina, had held out, the crisis had passed and the opposition Sandinistas had fallen back. The stories on the civil war there grew shorter and shorter, supplanted by a treaty in the Mideast, war in Africa and a gasoline crisis here at home. Eventually, they disappeared altogether and with them went our interest.
Elbio Fernandez, however, was undaunted by his $20 cab fare, unmindful of the icy coldness of the interview room where the air conditioning seemingly ran uncontrolled, unconcerned that his two daughters and his granddaughter had to stand alone in an unfamiliar hallway because the little room could hold no more than three--himself, his wife and the stranger in whom he was about to confide.
Indeed, Don Elbio was not even worried by memories that once, while he was working on a project in Ecuador, his boss at the American company that employs him, that keeps him on in Grand Prairie even though there is no real work for him, had warned him to stay clear of politics, had told him that his penchant for political discussion had been a meeting topic of the company's top management.
Instead, he slid a yellowing newspaper across the formica-topped table to the stranger on the other side. The newspaper, with broad, black headlines in Spanish, carried the lurid pictures of war, of bloody bodies and smashed buildings.
"My daughter," he began, "once said to me that we cannot be afraid to leave orphans, that we can't be afraid that we might die. Because if we always fear that something might happen, then we will do nothing and the government will last forever."
His index finger strayed across the page, pointing to a row of tiny pictures underneath the headline "Six Revolutionaries Killed in Leon."
"That," he said, pointing to the second photo, to a woman's face covered with rivulets of blood, "that is my daughter."
Elbio fernandez has never tried to hide his distaste for the government of the Somoza family, which has ruled Nicaragua since 1934. In his mid 20s, he marched in the streets of Managua against the presidency of Anastasio Somoza's father, even as he served the then-young Anastasio as an accountant in his air freight company. He refused an offer to continue working for Somoza when the air freight company was sold, and now, at age 53, he says with pride that not once in his life has he voted. ("I always knew who would be the winner and I wanted no part of it.")
Still, it was with dismay that he learned his oldest daughter, Idania, "the prettiest thing I ever had in my life," had decided to become, as he put it, an "active guerrilla," a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, whose avowed goal is the overthrow of the Somoza regime.
Not that Don Elbio wasn't aware of his daughter's feelings toward the government. Once, when Idania was in high school, he was called by the school's principal to dissuade her from leading a student takeover aimed at persuading the government to release some political prisoners. Don Elbio came to the school and did as he was asked. But Idania refused his request and Don Elbio withdrew, telling the school's director, "It is her will. If she feels it is right, we aren't going to stop her."
Nevertheless, he recalls, the parents of the demonstrating students spent the night in the school's courtyard, lest Somoza's National Guard choose that school as the place to start breaking up the city-wide demonstration. The National Guard, Don Elbio recalls, struck instead at the university. Many were arrested.
And in Panama City, where Idania went to college, became an economist and married, Don Elbio knew she was cooperating with the Sandinistas, distributing their leaflets, helping them raise money, giving to them what she could to help their cause. "I would go to her house," Don Elbio remembers, "and I would say 'Where is your television set?' 'Oh, Father, it is in the home of this guerrilla,' she would say.
"Or I would send her some money to get herself something to eat, but she would invite all the guerrillas to eat with her. Truly, sometimes I thought they were taking advantage of her. That is one reason I did not send her much money."
Then in April of last year, as Don Elbio was preparing to assume a new assignment in Guayaquil, Ecuador, Idania suggested that perhaps he would take her 2-year-old daughter, Claudia, with him. It was then that she told him that she planned to become a guerrilla.
"That is when I became the parent," he remembers. "Itold her that her daughter needed her, that we did not want to take her, that she should stay with her mother. I told her it was not a woman's work to fight. I told her she could make music with her songs, with her guitar. I told her I would rather have a daughter live, than a hero dead. I told her I did not want her to be involved.
"At the airport, she cried deeply. She put her head on my shoulder and she cried and cried and cried. It was very unusual. She was such a controlled girl. But this time she cried and I knew she had made up her mind."
A month later, May 24, 1978, Idania's husband, David, arrived at the Fernandez's home in Ecuador with Claudia. In a letter to her parents, Idania wrote:
"Forgive me for sending you Claudia. I know that all this is going to worry you. But you must be proud that you have a daughter who has patriotic thoughts and feelings. Maybe you think it's crazy, but I have never thought more clearly and been so sure of anything before.
"Don't be sad. I am happier than ever before. I have the opportunity to lead a full life, to do something of value. I want you to understand. Claudia will understand. I want her to grow up in a free country. I ask that you give her a happy life. I ask that my sisters fill the void that I have left.
"Please try to explain to her what I have done and tell her about me so that she will never forget me. I promise to write and I want you to know that David is as worried as you about my decision, but he respects it and understands it.
I can assure that nothing is going to happen to me because I can take care of myself. And if something does, please know that I am happy.
Your loving daughter,
Until Victory. "A free fatherland
Don Elbio did not give up. He argued with Idania, reminded her of her duties as a mother, offered to buy her a house in Panama if she would forsake the guerrillas. But by July, she was already deep in training and weary of the arguments. When Don Elbio came to Panama City on business, he dropped by her house to see her. It was July 23, Idania's 26th birthday. But the only person there was another woman, a longtime family friend who, Idania once had told him, was also a guerrilla. The woman said she had no idea where Idania was. "Perhaps Pilar was thinking I had come to take Idania away. I don't know, But when I opened the refrigerator, there was the birthday cake."
The next day, Idania called her father while he was visiting another daughter who lived in Panama City. That night she visited him at his hotel. "We spent the entire week together. She took her meals with me. She stayed the nights at my. hotel. We talked and talked, about politics, about happy times, about Christmas times with all the family and the Christmas tree. We were very, very happy."
But the week ended and Don Elbio returned to Ecuador without Idania. In December, Idania asked that Claudia be sent home to Panama City for Christmas. A month later, Claudia was returned to Ecuador.
In late February, Don Elbio sent his two youngest daughters to Panama to visit Idania and March 4, the girls celebrated the youngest's 15th birthday. Don Elbio sent them money, bought Idania clothes, shoes. "She went to several parties with them. They went everywhere. Maybe she was anticipating her death.' Maybe she was saying goodbye to life."
On March 15, Idania called her parents in Ecuador and talked to her young daughter for at least an hour.
Then on March 18, the Fernandezes arrived in Panama City on their way to Don Elbio's new position in Grand Prairie. When they looked for Idania, she was gone. A guerrilla told them she had completed her training in Panama and had crossed the border into Nicaragua on the 16th. "She did not tell us. She knew we were coming on the 18th. She knew that if I found her I would try to. talk her out of it. She was always trying to escape from my words."
Don Elbio knows little of his daughter's activities once she crossed into Nicaragua. He knows that one of her missions was to disrupt communications and that another was to organize an underground. He also knows that sometime before April 16, Idania and her compatriots, four men and another woman, were discovered, that they sought refuge in the home of a well-to-do family in an upper class suburb of Leon, Nicaragua's second largest city, and that sometime before 10 p.m. that day she had been shot to death.
Official government reports say Idania and her compatriots, including Edgard Lang, the 28-year-old son of one of Nicaragua's wealthiest men and a cousin of Somoza, fired on a National Guard patrol and were killed about 6 p.m. in the ensuing battle.
But neighborhood witnesses told Federico Lang, who owns a large chain of hardware stores as well as Leon's local Volkswagen dealership, that there had been no battle, that the National Guard surrounded the house about 4:30 p.m. with a tank, two machine-gun-equipped jeeps and 80 soldiers and that the soldiers stormed the house without firing a shot.
Then, 45 minutes later, there were several bursts of machine gun fire from inside the house. At 6 p.m. four bodies were carried from the house and the two women, Idania and a Mexican national named Aracelli Perez Darias, were taken to National Guard headquarters as prisoners. Four hours later, six bodies were carried from headquarters to the morgue at Leon San Vicente Hospital.
Lang, whose wife is related to Somoza's wife, publicly accused the guardsmen of taking Idania, Edgard and their compatriots captive, executing the four men by machine gun fire, then killing the two women at National Guard headquarters. He charged that his son had been shot at least 20 times and that the bodies of the other male prisoners bore a similar number of wounds. Idania, Don Elbio would later learn, had been shot once in the forehead. Powder burns, he would be told, indicated the shot had been fired from close range.
When Edgard Lang was buried, more than 1,800 persons attended his funeral and news services carried the story worldwide.
Idania, too, would be buried in Leon before her parents learned that she was dead?
Fourteen days after his daughter's death, Don Elbio, his wife, Catalina, and two of their three surviving daughters (the third lives in Panama) are sitting quietly on the couch in the two-bedroom apartment that they have called home since coming to Grand Prairie in March. The room is sparsely furnished, no paintings adorn the white walls. An expensive stereo with tape deck and a color television, Don Elbio's first purchases on arriving in Grand Prairie ("All our belongings are being sent from Ecuador," he explained) account for all the furniture on one side of the room.
Don Elbio, smoking yet another cigarette, is fiddling with the dials of a portable short-wave radio, searching for the Spanish-language Voice of America newscast.
It was just such a newscast that Catalina heard Wednesday morning, April 18, as Don Elbio was preparing for work. The broad. cast told of six guerrillas, four men and two women, dying in Leon. When Don Elbio got to work, he called Panama and talked to a friend of Idania, who told him it was 90 percent certain that Angela, as the guerrillas had caned Idania, was one of the dead. By 11:30 that evening, Don Elbio received confirmation that indeed Idania was dead.
"I cannot bear it," he had said earlier that evening. "To think of her perhaps begging for her life. You know, Claudia gets very anxious when she cuts her finger or scrapes her knee. Her mother was just like that. I hate to think that she was taken prisoner, that she knew she was going to be killed.
"We talked about going down there, about having her body moved to Managua. But she always said the guerrillas were just like her brothers and so I think maybe we'll just let her rest therewith them awhile.
"I have never seen so bloody a thing in my life. Yesterday, the radio said there were 28 killed, today 61. Something has to be done. Something has to be done to stop this."
For Don Elbio, "stopping this" has become a theme of much of his conversation. Leafing through a Nicaraguan magazine published by the revolutionaries, he stops at each page.
"This guerrilla boy is dead," he says. "This guy here is dead, this one is dead, also. These ones here are dead. He was killed in October." Then, as if to point out that some still go on to carry out the fight, he points to two others. "They are still alive," he says, as if that in itself were an accomplishment.
Earlier he had wept openly as he read his daughter's letters and played the tapes that she had sent them. His wife had stayed in the bedroom, the closed door still not hiding her sobs, until finally one of the daughters shut off the machine.
"If Somoza was a dictator who was good for his people, I would go with him," he said in response to nothing in particular. "I wouldn't care.
"But Somoza only takes from the people. Let's talk about the university. In Panama, they have a beautiful University, with 30,000 students that just $10 a semester to attend. In Nicaragua, we have nothing. The schools are so crowded the students must go in three different shifts. The highways are never repaired and Somoza runs everything.
"You know there is a story about Somoza, and I think it is a true one, that one day he was driving along and noticed a beautiful farm. He told his driver to stop the car and find out who owned the farm so he could buy it. 'But, General,' his driver said, 'you are the owner of this farm,' He owns so much land that he doesn't know what he owns.
"Did you know that there is no public hospital in Managua? There is a private one and a Baptist one. The old hospital was destroyed in the earthquake (that devastated Nicaragua in 1972) and has never been rebuilt.
"Most of the aid from the earthquake went to the government. Somoza said do not give the aid to the people because they are not accustomed to good food. If you give them good food they will get sick. The wives of the National Guard used to sell this food to the people.
"You know, Somoza says the guerrillas are leftists, that the people who oppose him are communists, socialists. This is not true. They are businessmen, millionaires. I have never in my life had a leftist idea. But if I could fight against Somoza I would.
"You know, I hear nothing of this in this country. To hear the news I must use the short-wave to find London or Madrid or Cuba. Maybe our problem is too small for the U.S. But I want the United States to know about my country, to know why my daughter died. I want that to be my memorial to her."
So be it.
Written by Mark Seibel is assistant
city editor of The Dallas Morning News.
March 8, 1979
Dear little daughter,
During these times we are going through moments of great importance to humanity--today in Nicaragua, and further ahead in all in Latin America…one day to be realized in all of the continents of the world
The Revolution demands everything from each one of us and our degree of consciousness forces us to demand of ourselves individually to put all the energy possible in order to be more useful to the process. My deepest desires are that some day in the not too distant future, you will be able to live in a free society. Where you will be able to realize yourself as a true human being, where men will be brothers and not enemies.
I would like to take you by the hand and walk with you through the streets and see the happy smiles of all the children, and see the parks and the rivers smile in happiness, and see our people grow like a happy child being transformed into the new man pure and conscious of his responsibility toward humanity.
You must know how to value all of that paradise of peace and freedom which you will be able to enjoy, and I tell you this because for this cause, the best men of our valiant people have given their precious blood, and they have given it with love--with love for the people, for freedom and peace, for the future generations, for the children like you--so that they won't live in the oppression, the humility, the hunger and the misery in which many men, women and children have lived in our beautiful Nicaragua.
I tell you this in case no one tells you or in case I won't be able to tell you--and this is possible because I am and we all are conscious of what we are going towards, and of what the enemy is--and we feel tranquil if we know that we die like true men in the full sense of the word. We have been able to situate ourselves in the historical context, and have known how to assume our responsibility and our duty--that is the greatest satisfaction for us as revolutionaries, as men, as mothers.
Mother is not a woman who stops a son and protects him; to be a mother is to feel the pain in one's flesh of all the children and all the men and young, as if they had come out of one's own womb. And my deepest desire is that one day you become a true woman, with pure feelings and a great love for humanity….and that you know how to defend justice always rather than let it be disrespected; that you defend it against whatever and against whoever. For this, so that you might know what it is to be a true man, know-read-assimilate the great men of our revolution and of all the revolutions of other countries; take as examples the best of each one and put it into practice so that you be better each time. I know that you are going to do it, and that you can do it gives me a deep peace.
I do not want to leave words, promises or morals; I leave you an attitude of life--mine (even though I know that it is not yet the best) and that of all my brother Sandinistas; I know that you will know how to assimilate it.
Well, my little one--if I have the privilege of seeing you again--which is also very possible--we shall talk of life and of the Revolution in length, and we shall go hand in hand accomplishing the duties that the process will impose on us. And. we will sing with the guitar, and we will be together to play, to work and to know each other better and to learn, from each other.
uando recuerdo tu lindo rostro,
(When I remember your lovely face,)
L indo como la flores y la libertad, (lovely as the flowers and freedom,)
A umento mi esfuerzo en ia lucha; (my strength increases for the fight;)
U niendo tu risa y nuestra realidad, (uniting your smile and our reality,)
D iariamente te recuerdo daily, (I remember you,)
I magino siempre como estas (imagining always how you are.)
A ma siempre a nuestro pueblo y a la humanidad. (Love our people and humanity always.)
With all you mother's love,
Until Victory Always
A free country or death
Assassinated in Leon on April 16, 1979 at the hands of Somosa's National Guard