Student allegedly kidnapped in El Salvador speaks out

Max Rust

In early September, third-year student Jeffrey Popowski left the University for the Central American country of El Salvador for an independent study of conflict resolution in Spanish. On Saturday afternoon in the town of Ciudad Delgado, he says, he experienced an event that he hadn’t planned.
While trying to set up a meeting between members of the right-wing El Salvadoran National Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the Impartial Election Observing Mission, Popowski said, El Salvadoran legislative Deputy Edgardo Zelaya kidnapped and interrogated him, and threatened his life.
Popowski, who was working with the mission– which watches for fraud in world elections– meets with campaigning political parties and reports any human rights violations. In the 1994 elections, the mission helped many people who weren’t informed about the election process, find out what steps to take for casting a vote.
“He wasn’t extremely rude at first,” said Popowski on initially meeting Zelaya. “He shook my hand and smiled.”
Popowksi said the deputy then took him into a small, isolated room containing two chairs and ARENA party flags.
“As soon as we got in, he locked the door to the room and had two security people come in the room to guard the door. One of them had a club,” Popowski said.
The guards stood in front of the door to prevent his exit for the duration of the incident, Popowski said. Two more guards were called upon by Zelaya to guard the outside of the room.
“He immediately began questioning me,” said Popowski. “He wanted to know what I was doing there. I told him I was an international observer and that I was trying to set up a meeting between his party and other international election observers.
“He said he already knew who I was and that I was working with the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front).”
The liberation front is the leading opposition party to ARENA. A poll last month conducted by the Technical University of El Salvador put FMLN ahead of ARENA in the political race, said Jessica Sudin, a director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. There are 84 seats in the legislative body of El Salvador up for election, as well as 262 municipalities.
Popowski explained that Zelaya further interrogated him by asking him to prove his identity.
“He asked me for my observer identification,” Popowski said. “I was trying to tell him I was in the process of getting it. Before I could finish, he began screaming and yelling, ‘Give it to me!’ in a really hostile manner.”
Popowski didn’t have his passport with him either because, he said, crime is very potent in the country and he had already been robbed once.
“He called me a communist terrorist who worked with Tupac Amaru and Chinese communists,” Popowski said. “He was yelling so close I could feel his spit.”
The Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement is a leftist group that is in direct opposition with ARENA.
“He was talking about the ARENA flag,” Popowski said. “He said the red on the flag was the blood of the Salvadoran people and that the U.S. had destroyed the country and robbed the land from them.”
Popowski said Zelaya then accused him of drug trafficking, of being in El Salvador to have sexual relations with Salvadoran women, and of having AIDS.
At this point, Popowski said he was permitted to go to the bathroom, escorted by the two guards who locked him in the bathroom.
“When I got back into the room, he opened his vest to expose the gun he had,” Popowski said. “It was in plain view and used to intimidate me. He said I was not going to leave the room.”
Popowski said Zelaya threatened to send him to Mariona, a prison in El Salvador notorious for being overcrowded.
“He said that there were 20 men in a line there, waiting to rape and then kill me,” he said.
Popowski said Zelyana then opened the student’s bag and took out an FMLN hat. Popowski had previously attended a meeting between the FMLN and election observers, where he obtained the hat. He said a video recorder was then brought into the room and he was told to put the hat on.
“He told me to say to the video camera that I was not with FMLN and that FMLN was forcing me to work with them,” Popowski said.
Popowski said Zelaya then left the room and returned, drinking shots of some alcohol with Coke.
“He then said I was going to be cut in half,” Popowski said. “He came up to me and showed me physically how it was going to be done. He said they were going to cut me from my genitals up through my head.”
Eventually, the National Civilian Police came and took Popowski to the border police station.
From there, he was taken to the U.S. Embassy in the capital city of San Salvador.
“They were pretty non-nonchalant about the ordeal,” Popowski said. “Then they said they were prohibited by law from intervening in a civil dispute, but that they could express concerns to appropriate authorities.”
Tom Lapic, communications director for Sen. Paul Wellstone’s office, said the U.S. Embassy is supposed to inform someone on how the judicial system works in a case like this.
“The embassy’s responsibility is to find out what happened and to see if he wanted to leave the country,” Lapic said. “I think the embassy would have provided him with that.”
The embassy also stated, Popowski said, that the incident was an isolated case.
“The United States Embassy said that it was just some guy who had a bad day,” said Popowski. “He had a little bit to drink and … was taking his frustration out on what appeared to be a hippie.”