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How center guided one man from torture to hope.

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Roberto Gomez Hernandez was tortured in El Salvador, but even after he moved to Minnesota, he was afraid to walk the streets. "I was afraid to get killed," he said. "I was afraid to look outside the window, because I had the feeling somebody with a gun was looking at me."

Today, Gomez walks the streets without fear. He gives television interviews and talks in schools about how the United States cooperated with repression in El Salvador during the 1980s. Gomez said he is now able to face the world without fear because of the help he received for more than three years at the Center for the Victims of Torture in Minneapolis. He also credits his faith: "You won't believe the faith I have in God and in Our Lady of Guadalupe."

Gomez is rare among center patients in that he talks publicly. Center staff neither encourage nor discourage patients from doing that, respecting each one's wishes. They do express concern that potential patients know the staff will never ask them to speak, recognizing that in their weakness, patients might construe the request as pressure.

Gomez, however, finds talking therapeutic, especially talking about what the American government was doing in El Salvador.

Gomez learned much about that when El Salvador's President Jose Napoleon Duarte in 1981 appointed him regional president of an American subsidiary that was selling arms to El Salvador.

Gomez long had been a colleague of Duarte, who cofounded El Salvador's Christian Democratic party with Gomez's parents.

As head of the subsidiary, said Gomez, he discovered that the Salvadoran army was selling arms to guerrillas in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras and to the contras in Nicaragua. He said he also learned the army was selling cocaine in El Salvador, Mexico and the United States.

In November 1982, Gomez held a press conference to reveal his findings. Then the army arrested him, and 18 days of torture began. His hands and ribs were broken. He was hanged. Torturers applied electric shocks to his genitals and dug into his teeth with an ice pick. They filled a hood with lime and tied it over his head, causing severe bleeding from his eyes and nose.

After the 18 days, Gomez was held in solitary confinement for 18 months before being released to the general prison population. He went to trial 14 times because jurors, who had been threatened, would not appear for his trial. Eventually he was found innocent.

Gomez spent two years in Mexico, then in 1988 the Arizona sanctuary movement helped him travel to the United States. Charlie Clemens, who had worked with campesinos in El Salvador and who wrote the book Witness of War, sponsored Gomez' trip to Minnesota so he could receive help from the Center for the Victims of Torture.

"My experience at the center helped me to be myself again," he attested. "Psychologists helped me. Doctors operated on my hands so I can move them." Gomez visited the center three times a week. In January this year, he "graduated."

Psychiatrists were especially helpful, he said, helping him face not only his experience in El Salvador but also the deaths of his wife and three children. He found out after he arrived in Minnesota that they had been tortured and murdered, he said.

Gomez needs one more operation -- "my Adam's apple became dislocated when they hanged me" -- and he still suffers nightmares. Nevertheless, he is full of gratitude to center staff and to Minnesota church people -- Catholics, Episcopalians, Jews, Lutherans and Presbyterians -- who helped him survive and bring his brother's 13-member family to Minnesota.

The Gomez brothers plan to open a specialty supermarket serving the West St. Paul Hispanic community.

"The center made me strong," Gomez insisted, but center staff told him his strength came from "'not just us, but the great faith you have in God and Our Lady of Guadalupe.'

"That is something very important, your faith," said Gomez, "you should never lose faith."
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Title Annotation:Center for the Victims of Torture, Minneapolis, Minnesota
Author:Gibeau, Dawn
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Apr 23, 1993
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