Adrián Esquino Lisco, 68; Indigenous Salvadorans' Spiritual Chief

Adri¿n Esquino Lisco, center, dances with other indigenous Salvadorans and tourists in El Salvador at a December 1999 spiritual ceremony for the new millennium.
Adri¿n Esquino Lisco, center, dances with other indigenous Salvadorans and tourists in El Salvador at a December 1999 spiritual ceremony for the new millennium. (1999 Associated Press Photo)
By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 20, 2007

Adrián Esquino Lisco, 68, who rose to prominence in El Salvador as a spiritual leader of the indigenous community and who called attention to atrocities committed during the 1980-92 civil war, died Sept. 8 at a hospital in San Salvador. He had kidney failure and other complications of diabetes.

El Salvador's small indigenous population, about 1 percent of the 7 million who live there, long endured bloody conflicts with the government, which has been led mostly by army officers or oligarchs.

A farmer and artisan, Mr. Esquino Lisco made international news by publicizing the Feb. 23, 1983, army-led attack on an indigenous farm cooperative in Las Hojas, a village in the western end of the country. He said the soldiers rounded up 74 men, tied their thumbs behind their backs and shot them in their skulls. A federal judge reported 18 deaths.

Mr. Esquino Lisco and his supporters blamed wealthy landowners troubled by the farm cooperative, which they considered subversive. Agrarian reform had blossomed briefly in the late 1970s but was soon revoked, causing a generation of resentment on all sides.

Mr. Esquino Lisco accused the landowners of using an army battalion to make their problem -- the cooperative -- disappear.

A federal commission in El Salvador to study human rights violations went nowhere, reportedly under army pressure. In the early 1990s, the officers widely thought to have commanded the troops at Las Hojas were granted amnesty in a Central American peace plan.

Mr. Esquino Lisco said he once confronted one of the leading commanders, Col. Elmer González Araujo, who replied that his men were defending themselves against armed subversives.

"I asked the army high command how guerrillas could die with their hands tied behind their backs," he told the New York Times.

Mr. Esquino Lisco, of Nahoa heritage, was born Dec. 2, 1938, in Comarca San Ramon, in the western Sonsonate province. An older brother was among the tens of thousands of indigenous casualties in the 1932 peasant uprising, which the dictatorship violently suppressed.

In 1954, Mr. Esquino Lisco's father started the Asociación Nacional de Ind¿genas de El Salvador (ANIS) to maintain the customs, ceremonies and language of the Maya, Lenca and Nahoa peoples. Mr. Esquino Lisco, a soft-spoken man less than 5 feet tall, inherited the title of spiritual chief in 1976 and said he attracted thousands of followers.

For years, the organization worked quietly to preserve the indigenous heritage. Since the 1932 massacres, many considered it dangerous to publicly display their native dress and speak their languages.

In the late 1970s, Mr. Esquino Lisco participated in worldwide conferences of indigenous peoples that brought him valuable contacts with native communities throughout North America. ANIS won legal recognition by the Salvadoran government in 1980, under President José Napoleón Duarte's administration, which had also promised land reforms.

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