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In Christ: New Hope for Juan Pablo -- and Us All

While Quetzalcoatl is a foundation that offers workshops to prison inmates with a focus on mental health and AIDS awareness and prevention, it also offers a new perspective on life from a variety of angles.

Pastoral accompaniment, encouragement and friendship are part of this program, as a natural part of our day-to-day contacts with the participants.

Brian with 3 Quetzalcoati co-workers

One of our inmate co-facilitators has a gift for focusing his energy and determination on accomplishing the task at hand. As a former member of the elite Comandos battalion of the Salvadoran Armed Forces, specially selected and trained to carry out the most brutal counterinsurgency operations during the "civil" war, Juan Pablo used to dedicate himself to obeying his commander's orders, which included even massacring women and children in rural communities and villages.

To be able to do this, he and his comrades received specialized training. This was designed to make them tough-or really to dehumanize them, in order to carry out such orders without thought or feeling. Juan Pablo described to me proudly and in gruesome detail (though still with considerable censorship, no doubt) what such training involved: frequent starvation; long marches, even when exhausted, wounded or crippled; eating raw dog flesh and drinking dog's blood; enduring the physical and emotional abuse of the higher-ups.

Most recruits were not able to endure the training, and the numbers dropped rapidly-from 120 initially to only 8 by the end. As Juan Pablo evaluated the gruelling conditions, he felt that the advantages made the suffering worthwhile. The few survivors of this demanding program were treated with more respect, and were granted more privileges than the ordinary, everyday soldiers: more and longer home leaves; more nourishing food rations; better quality uniforms and boots. Besides these rewards, the reward of proving to oneself and to the rest that one was braver, stronger, superior-more of a man-than the rest, was adequate compensation.

Not wanting to undermine his pride and bravado, nevertheless I occasionally interjected such comments as: "I would have been the first one to desert." or "I respect my body and health too much to put up with that."

His leaders he portrayed to me as real heroes and role models. I was curious as to where these leaders were now-probably living a life of ease and luxury in Miami, Juan Pablo figured. "While you and your buddies are serving extended prison terms?" I queried. "Do you think that's fair?"

Over time, Juan Pablo came to adopt a different perspective on his experiences during the war and where they have led him. He eventually came to believe that it wouldn't be such a bad idea if his military mentors also had to face justice. He began to think that perhaps he and his comrades had been used and abused, rather than reputably trained and honoured.

The prison setting does provide him with some challenging circumstances in which to put his leadership to the test. He has jumped in as mediator in some violent disputes, on one occasion suffering severe head injuries, requiring surgery and a couple weeks of recovery.

Now, Juan Pablo devotes himself to promoting and multiplying our Quetzalcoatl program, which means encouraging people to love and care for themselves and their relationships, avoiding risky behaviour and seeking healthier ways of living and relating to one another.

Juan Pablo's participation and collaboration has also helped me to discover something important: Those we considered to be the "enemy" during the civil war years in El Salvador can also be transformed into trusted and respected colleagues and friends.

Or is it me who is being transformed?

-- Brian Rude

Brian with Ivett and Mirna, two nurses working in El Salvador prison hospital HIV/AIDS ward


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