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January 25, 2024

A Death Squad Mercenary Stops for a Lunch Break in El Salvador, ca. 1980s

Death squads in El Salvador were far-right paramilitary groups acting in opposition to Marxist–Leninist guerrilla forces, most notably of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), and their allies among the civilian population before, during, and after the Salvadoran Civil War. The death squads committed the vast majority of the murders and massacres during the civil war from 1979 to 1992 and were heavily aligned with the United States-backed government.

This iconic photo was taken by Derek Hudson during the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s. “The composition is near perfect...” The photographer said he bought the man a beer and “took three shots before he went ballistic.”

Here’s what he said about the incident and photo:

“I came across this guy during the civil war in El Salvador in the 1980s. He was one of a gang of mercenaries known as the Death Squad. We were in a rural backwater called Suchitoto, which at the time could best be described as a one-donkey town, and he was sitting in the local cafe having eaten his lunch, his revolver casually placed in front of him.

“I bought him a beer and, as he raised the bottle, managed to get three shots in before he went ballistic. He was swearing and called his friends with rifles over and pushed me about. I don’t know what would have happened if they’d realized I’d shot off some frames already. I realized I’d taken a big risk, but I didn’t think about it at the time. I quickly ordered more beers, hoping to calm them down, and then just left.

“I was working freelance. I’d been in Fleet Street and a photographer said: ‘Del Boy, get your arse over to New York and make a name for yourself.’ So I did, arriving on the night of the Life magazine relaunch party. I crashed it in the hope of making connections and things went from there.

“If you were a news photographer in New York in the 1980s, conflicts in Central America were part of the beat. I ended up going to El Salvador for weeks on end. The situation was perpetually confused – nobody really knew who was killing who. It was tense and dangerous, but there was a certain respect for the media. You felt protected in a vehicle marked “TV” or “Press”, unlike nowadays in places like Syria. Of course, we did get shot at, but rarely on purpose.

“The press would stay at the Camino Real hotel in San Salvador. On this day, we heard there’d been a massacre. We jumped in our vehicles and drove into the countryside, but couldn’t get past the army barricades, so stopped at this cafe for lunch. The shot’s composition strikes me as near perfect – surprising in the circumstances. The table is at the right angle and it all comes together: the plate and gun, the bottle in his mouth, the dirty flowery wallpaper behind.

“Nearly all photographers shot in black and white in those days. I developed the picture in my hotel bathroom, then sent the pictures via the Associated Press transmitter – an arduous process far removed from the immediacy of today. It’s a picture that’s remained a favorite, an offbeat moment behind the scenes of a civil war. I’ve worked in numerous conflict zones and it’s often difficult to compose pictures. Many of the shots I took in El Salvador were too gruesome to publish.”


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