Neris Gonzalez

As a young woman in the state of San Vicente , El Salvador , Neris Gonzalez worked to improve health care and education in her small, agricultural village of San Nicolas Lempa . Her efforts earned her the respect and admiration of the San Nicolas villagers, but they also made her a target for the violence the Salvadoran military used to exert control over the civilian population. The mid-1970’s brought conflict and terror to her village as the growing military, civilian and government conflicts grew into what would be a twelve-year civil war. On December 26, 1979 , National Guard soldiers seized Neris from an outdoor market near San Nicolas Lempa. She was taken to the basement of the National Guard Post where she was held captive, tortured and raped. Neris survived the abuse but the trauma of what she had endured haunted her. In 1997 she sought political asylum in the US and began receiving treatment for the wounds inflicted by torture. Subsequently, she directed an organization in Chicago that teaches ecological awareness and sustainable agricultural methods.  She then worked at an environmental non-profit organization in Washington D.C.  She now lives in El Salvador where she continues to work on human rights issues.

Neris’s work for agrarian and health care reform

The third of 12 children, Neris left her family’s home at the age of 16 to marry. Upon her separation from her husband, just one year after the birth of her first child, Carolina , Neris returned home and began working with the local church as a health educator. She traveled throughout the state of San Vicente fighting to improve health care and education, eventually traveling to the capital of San Salvador to plead with government officials for more money for schools and health care initiatives.

Neris was well known and respected throughout the village of San Nicolas Lempa for her contributions to the community. At one point, Neris discovered that farm managers and merchants were lying to the laborers about the weight of the goods being sold to them – stealing off the top of their already miniscule salary. In response, Neris launched a campaign to spread literacy throughout the village and became known as “the woman who taught the compesinos to count to 100." 

But political tensions and conflict continued to escalate. Neris said that the first sign of the violence that would become the 12-year civil war was the presence of National Guardsmen at every plantation in the state of San Vicente. Soon after, Neris and others began to find mutilated corpses strewn about the village streets. These were the dead bodies of labor organizers, health workers and students. 

On March 22, 1977 Father Rutilio Grande, Neris’s mentor and colleague, was ambushed and killed by National Guard forces, allegedly for speaking out for the rights of compesinos . Just weeks earlier Father Grande had delivered a sermon in which he assured his congregation: “The very violence that they [the state and military forces] create unites us and brings us together even though they beat us down”.

Her abduction and detention

On December 26, 1979 , while shopping at an outdoor market just outside her village of San Nicolas Lempa , soldiers from the Salvadoran National Guard abducted Neris. They took her to a National Guard post and imprisoned her in the basement of the facility for two weeks. During this time Neris endured horrific forms of emotional and physical torture, including repeated rape, electric shocks, beatings, and being forced to watch the torture of others. 

For Neris, though, the guardsmen’s torture reached beyond her own individual suffering; her unborn son was also their victim. She was eight months pregnant at the time of her capture and although she prayed and pleaded for her son to remain unharmed, the guardsman barbarically targeted the unborn child. She remembers, “I was feeling my own torture, but I was also feeling the torture of my son… I was almost dead thinking of my son”. Although Neris gave birth to the child, he died two months later as a result of the injuries incurred in the abuse.

After her torture, Neris was dumped, unconscious, in an area outside of San Vicente. A local villager took Neris into her home and she began her long recovery. About a week later, Neris was taken to a church in San Salvador , where she received medical treatment at a clinic and recuperated at the neighboring convent. After, she continued to work vehemently to help rebuild the communities, specifically the agricultural areas destroyed by the civil war. But she was plagued by her memories of the abuse.

Asylum in the US

Finally, thanks to the financial sponsorship of religious groups, Neris obtained political asylum in the US in 1988 and began treatment at the Marjorie Kovler Center for the Treatment of Survivors of Torture.
She began therapy three times a week and was able to earn an income working with children. Subsequently, she founded a project she named ECOVIDA, a group that promotes sustainable agriculture and supports small farming communities. In large part due to the Kovler Center , her weekly therapy, her work with children and her reunion with her two daughters, Neris says she was once again “able to find her voice and her true self.”

Case against the generals

Neris’ treatment also facilitated her quest to see those responsible for her torture brought to justice. In 1999, Neris joined the case, brought by the Center for Justice & Accountability, against former Salvadoran Ministers of Defense Jose Garcia and Carlos Vides Casanova, alleging that the generals bore “command responsibility” for her torture.

On July 23, 2002 the jury found General Vides Casanova and General Garcia responsible for the atrocities committed by their subordinates against Neris, Carlos Maurico, and Juan Romagoza. The verdict ordered the generals to pay $54.6 million to the three plaintiffs. Neris remarked after the trial that “without the case, my therapy would have been about words, not action. The case was the best therapy possible.”

Read an in depth piece on Neris’s’ life by award-winning journalist Julia Lieblich in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine.