Juan Romagoza discussed how he helped bring justice to some of the perpetrators of El Salvador’s civil conflict before a crowd in ICC Auditorium yesterday afternoon.
“This was a way to give life to people who had been murdered,” he said.
Romagoza was born and grew up in a small town in El Salvador. Although he eventually became a doctor, his original dream was to be a minister.
“I was drawn to the church and had great enthusiasm when I went to seminary,” he said. “But the seminary was something else. It was a huge contradiction to what I had learned so when I went to visit home, I never went back to the seminary.”
Through military connections, Romagoza was able to obtain a special scholarship to study medicine. He completed his studies and became a doctor.
Yet he was no typical physician. With a tightly held passion for helping the less fortunate, Romagoza helped organize medical clinics for poor people including one on the grounds of his university.
Throughout this time, El Salvador descended into chaos.
“Enormous misery and hunger in every home led the people to get organized and the government saw that as a threat so the government began to repress all these organized groups, especially the farmers,” he said.
Romagoza began to make visits to rural parts of the country to help those who could not make it to the city for medical care. During one rural visit in December 1980, military personnel entered the town he was working with and killed numerous villagers. They then shot Romagoza and abducted him.
Ramagoza believes he was saved only because the soldiers thought he was a high-ranking guerilla commander.
“They began interrogating me every three or four hours,” he said. “All interrogations focused on why I was with the poor people all the time.”
Ramagoza was brutally tortured by the military.
“They began to torture me and threatened to kill my family, rape and mutilate them,” he said. “They chose to make it impossible for me to heal people as a surgeon and shot me in my left arm to show I was a leftist. They were trying to get me to say something that involved my family.”
Ramagoza was eventually released to the custody of his uncle who urged him to leave the country immediately. He made his way to Guatemala and ended up in Mexico.
“Relatives and friends got me to the Mexican border and left me at the door to a church,” he said. “A priest helped me to heal my wounds and get into Mexico.”
After continuing to care for the Salvadorean exile and refugee community in Mexico, Ramagoza went to the Mexican-U.S. border and entered the United States.
Although he believes the United States played a largely negative role in his country’s civil war, America was where he was able to achieve some measure of justice for the first time.
“News came to me that military leaders responsible for our torture were living in Florida. It wasn’t strange that they were here because all the time they had been protected by U.S. government policy,” he said. “This made me feel bad. It’s not right these people who had committed crimes against humanity should be living here.”
Ramagoza brought his torturers to court in 2003 and won a major case in U.S. District Court against two former army generals.
Today as the executive director of La Clinica del Pueblo, a clinic providing services to Latino immigrants, Ramagoza continues to help the community and educate the public. Ramagoza’s presentation moved many students in the audience.
“For me it was very uplifting and inspiring because I’m considering teaching in Nicaragua,” Sinead cDermott (MSB ’04) said. “One of my sole motivations is to work for human rights so this touched me personally.”
The speech was part of a series of events to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of D.C. Schools on the Georgetown campus. D.C. Schools is an organization dedicated to tutoring youth in the Washington, D.C.