updated 08/09/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/09/1982 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The gaunt-faced man followed the shimmering desert highway south to the Mexican border. His hands, painfully swollen by arthritis, rested lightly on the steering wheel of the ancient Chevy pickup, but no pain or weakness or uncertainty showed on his face. The fact that he was about to commit a federal crime troubled Jim Corbett not at all.

In Mexico City, a family of refugees from El Salvador, frightened and destitute, waited in a dingy hotel room for the man they hoped would save them. Jim Corbett's plan was to smuggle them into the United States. If he succeeded, Antonio Gonzalez-Diaz, 42, his wife, Leticia, 39, and three of their six children might be guaranteed a safe future. If he failed, they could be back in San Salvador, possibly facing death. Corbett would not be paid a penny if his plan worked. If it didn't, he might spend five years in prison.

A 52-year-old retired rancher, a Quaker and a Harvard-educated philosopher, Jim Corbett is a key figure in a shadowy human rescue chain that stretches from El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico to the U.S. It is a modern-day reincarnation of the Underground Railroad, which carried American slaves to freedom during the Civil War era, although conditions in El Salvador, no matter how grim, don't exactly amount to slavery. The movement includes volunteers from at least 70 U.S. churches, many of which have markedly left-wing leanings. Several thousand Salvadorans and other Central Americans have traveled along this makeshift road to escape from atrocities committed by the warring factions—both right-wing government forces and guerrillas as well. At Tucson's Southside Presbyterian Church, coordinating center for the sanctuary pipeline, pastor John Fife explains, "Our motivation is to help anyone in danger of being killed. We don't care what side that person's on if he's desperate and fleeing for his life."

By their account, Tonio and Letty Gonzalez were simple, poorly educated people whose lives revolved around their six children and their small candy and toy store in San Salvador. Then in 1977, they say, a childhood friend, Maria Magdalena Henriquez, first asked Tonio to help the Catholic Church's Human Rights Commission to obtain a passport for a political dissident. The commission, for which Henriquez was a secretary, has kept track of the 35,000 civilian casualties in the bloody five-year civil war. Although U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders called the Human Rights Commission "an organization working for the insurgents," it is supported by moderate leaders in El Salvador. Tonio says his occasional task was merely to act as go-between for legal exit papers. Tonio says he knew that associating with the commission might bring him to the attention of the police but denies that he did it for anything other than basic Christian concern. "I am not political. I have only two years' education. I have not that awareness," he insists.

The Gonzalezes' real troubles began on June 6, 1980, when the couple's eldest son, Alfredo, then 20, vanished without explanation. The only member of the family to graduate from high school, Alfredo left behind a steady girlfriend and a good job. His parents were sure he had been kidnapped and killed by a death squad, one of the gangs that have executed thousands of civilians in El Salvador. Searching the hillside garbage dump where death squad victims are often left, Letty found the mutilated body of her brother-in-law, a clerk in the city's water department, who had mysteriously disappeared. There was no sign of Alfredo, who Tonio insists was apolitical. "He was more educated, so he was aware of politics," the boy's father says. "But he never spoke of politics."

The next blow fell four months later, when Maria Magdalena, the human rights worker, was snatched off a neighborhood street by a group of armed men, some of them police. The second Gonzalez son, Omar, then 16, happened to witness the pregnant Maria's last struggles and the murder of a friend who was shot down as he fled in panic from the scene. Omar later testified to the Human Rights Commission that a policeman "came to me and said, 'Your friend was armed and fired on us first.' I said, 'Okay.' I thought they would kill me too." Within a week Maria's mutilated body was recovered from a shallow grave. Three days later Omar vanished. The boy has not been seen to this day.

Last December the police came for Tonio. In eight days of captivity, Tonio says, he was kicked and beaten repeatedly, then tortured with electric shocks to his genitals. Letty says that she and a Human Rights Commission lawyer arrived at the police station just in time to save his life. "I wouldn't budge," Letty boasts proudly. The police fined Tonio the equivalent of $32 for being "a veteran subversive" and released him on Christmas Eve.

Letty and Tonio were now swallowed up in the fog of violence and mystery that envelops daily life in San Salvador. Letty neglected their shop to cook for the Human Rights workers, in hopes they would find her son.

On March 12, 1982 a young man in a wheelchair was pushed into the Mexican Embassy in San Salvador, where he requested political asylum. He had open bullet wounds in his abdomen and was paralyzed from the waist down. The circumstances strongly suggested that he had been wounded while fighting with the guerrilla forces against the government. From a newspaper photograph, Letty recognized the man as her missing son Alfredo. The Mexican Embassy confirmed for her that the wounded man was Alfredo, but he had been flown to Mexico City. By the time she returned home, police had ransacked the house and terrorized the family, searching for evidence against Alfredo. Two days later police arrested Letty, blindfolded her and put a pistol to her head. After 26 hours of threats and nonstop interrogation, she was released. Tonio and Letty Gonzalez knew at last that they must flee. They hid in the country for one month while intermediaries arranged for passports and clothing for the couple and their four remaining children, daughters Maritza, 20, Yanira, 16, and Estela, 2, and son Tito, 12. Then the family drove north from San Salvador, bribing their way through checkpoints in El Salvador, Guatemala and Mexico. Five days later they arrived in Mexico City.

Misfortune followed them north. Eventually they located the Hotel Ontario, a well-known shelter for refugees, and discovered that Alfredo had been staying there. Six days earlier he had been taken away, no one knew for sure where. As the family was absorbing this bewildering turn of events, daughter Yanira went out to mail a letter to her boyfriend in El Salvador. She carried no papers and little money on what should have been a brief errand. She never returned.

The best Letty and Tonio could hope was that Yanira had been picked up by Mexican immigration police and deported. But a crueler fate was more likely. Attractive young refugees are the favorite prey of corrupt immigration officers and alien-smuggling "coyotes," who abduct them from the streets and force them into prostitution. Driven almost mad with worry, Tonio and Letty turned to a Catholic relief agency in Mexico City; a nun there brought them to Carolyn Campbell, a worker for the Tucson underground railroad: "Someone's got to help them."

When Jim Corbett arrived in Mexico City, he decided to try to track down Yanira before trying to move the family to the U.S. He traveled down to the Mexico-Guatemala border to show Yanira's passport photo around the bars and brothels in the red-light districts. One small-town prostitute thought the picture looked familiar, but immigration police had taken away about 50 Salvadoran women in a recent raid and Yanira, if indeed it was she, was no longer around. At Ciudad Hidalgo, a small border station virtually under siege by some 40,000 refugees living on the banks of a nearby river, Corbett plowed through hundreds of stacked deportation forms looking unsuccessfully for Yanira's name. Dispirited, he made a last call in the southern Mexican town of Tapachula, where he had previously recruited volunteers to aid refugees. Father Carlos Lomeli, assistant to the archbishop, looked at Yanira's photo and shook his head wearily. The pathetic tide of refugees with their tales of massacre, rape and torture has become an unending horror for the priest. "No human being in his right mind could do these things," he said, "but sometimes my benches and my whole floor are covered by those to whom it has happened."

Corbett brought the bad news back to the Gonzalez family. Then, in a slow, calm voice, he talked to them about their future. Prospects were bleak in Mexico; the country has a 40 percent unemployment rate, does not permit aliens to work, and probably would not permit the Gonzalezes to stay beyond their 30-day visa. When Tonio asked, Corbett explained that U.S. immigration officials would not accept them as immigrants but might grant political asylum, which theoretically is available to any alien with "a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion." However, the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has been reluctant to grant asylum to refugees from governments the U.S. officially supports, like El Salvador. More than 6,000 Salvadorans applied for asylum last year, and only two were approved, because the U.S. regards Salvadorans as "economic migrants." "Sure El Salvador is a crummy place to live," says an immigration official in Tucson. "So is the South Bronx."

Corbett told the couple that the network of Christians and activists who make up the underground railroad could try to get them to the U.S., but there would be no guarantees. "You will be illegal aliens hunted by the law," he said. If caught by the Mexican authorities or the U.S. Border Patrol, the family would probably be deported to El Salvador, which could amount to a death sentence. Letty and Tonio decided to take their chances.

Corbett has brought more than 200 Salvadorans to safety, sometimes leaving the Tucson home he shares with his librarian second wife, Pat, for weeks at a time. He called his strategy for the Gonzalezes' journey "simple and audacious." Tonio, in a new cowboy hat, and Letty, in a borrowed dress, would pose as middle-class Mexicans. Corbett, wearing a conspicuous wooden cross, would be their traveling companion, an American priest. The children were warned to keep quiet to hide their distinctive Central American accents. The other underground railroad volunteer, Carolyn Campbell, would assist them.

The first leg of the trip took the desperate group north by train. Each Mexican town along the line held the risk of arrest or a shakedown of the Salvadorans by police or immigration agents. Tonio's face froze with alarm when he once saw the conductor approaching with a police official. The conductor punched their tickets, looked closely at the family, and moved on. The party rested overnight in one church where the priest welcomed them, then laced into Tonio and Letty for "abandoning their country." The diatribe left Carolyn in tears. "Letty and Tonio have gone through so much, they don't deserve to be smashed down," she sobbed. "They only have so much courage and it has to last."

After 36 hours the refugees neared the last and most treacherous leg of the journey. Some 30 miles south of the Arizona border, the control point of Benjamin Hill is notorious among fleeing Salvadorans. The police are ruthless in arresting aliens; hundreds of them languish in a nearby prison. Corbett hired a car and followed circuitous back roads to skirt the town. It was in desert country like this that 13 Salvadorans attempting a border crossing died of thirst and heat stroke two years ago. Just after dusk, they sighted an incongruous symbol of salvation on the distant skyline. "There's McDonald's," Jim announced. "That's America." A few minutes later they pulled into the courtyard of an expansive safe house, whose owner runs a way station of the refugee railroad. He would accept no money from Tonio but asked him to return the favor to another refugee someday.

The final, greatest obstacle remained—the U.S. border crossing which divides the town of Nogales into Mexican and American sectors. Corbett decided to minimize the risk by sending his charges over in three groups. At daybreak Tonio slipped through an unguarded spot in the fence with the help of a guide. The two older children, Maritza and Tito, filed through the pedestrian gate with borrowed identity cards. The real owners, Mexicans who received the U.S.-issued cards because they live on the border, bear no resemblance to two Salvadoran children, but the hurried guards gave the photographs only cursory glances. Letty faced the last and most difficult crossing. Her borrowed card describes a woman with a 4-year-old boy—two years older than Estela. Carolyn scissored the baby's hair into a boyish cut. Estela made a game of it and gurgled, "Mi hombre." The disguise worked. After only one question, the border guard waved them on through. The reunited family then drove into Tucson for an exuberant welcome from fellow refugees and members of the Southside Presbyterian Church.

On July 6, on the advice of attorneys provided by the refugee railroad, Letty and Tonio surrendered themselves to immigration authorities in Denver and applied for political asylum. Because of enormous backlogs, their case may not be decided for three to four years—time enough, Corbett hopes, for American public opinion to bring about a more charitable attitude to Salvadoran refugees.

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