José “Chencho” Alas | El Salvador
José Inocencio Alas is a community organizer and former Catholic priest who lives in El Salvador and Texas. Today, he works openly to transform problems of violence, poverty, and hunger in his native country of El Salvador and throughout Mesoamerica. But he hasn’t always had this luxury. For years, he operated under constant harassment, in full knowledge that his nonviolent activism could get him killed.
“Chencho,” as he is affectionately known, began his career by promoting education and land reform for the peasants in his parish. As his nonviolent activism gained support in the countryside, he became unpopular among landowners who feared his influence. In January 1970, while attending a land reform conference, Chencho was abducted, beaten, and drugged, before being thrown out of a moving car. This was not the last time he would be targeted. In 1976, after bombings to his house and multiple unwarranted arrests, he was forced to flee the country to preserve his life.
In the face of this hardship, Chencho continued his work, turning to faith to give him strength. When he returned to El Salvador, he helped establish the Foundation for Self-Sufficiency in Central America, which supports a wide variety of programs for low-income communities. In his view, only by simultaneously addressing the problems of poverty, violence, education and spiritual development can the country achieve lasting reconciliation. To this end, Chencho also launched an ambitious initiative to declare El Salvador’s Lower Lempa region a “Zone of Peace” – an area committed to changing the culture of violence to one of collaboration, mutual problem solving, and peace. Chencho served as the President and Executive Director of Eco Viva until 2005 when he stepped down to devote himself to the organization’s Mesoamerican Peace Project full-time, which later became a standalone organization. The Foundation for Sustainability and Peacemaking in Mesoamerica expanded beyond El Salvador and Chencho works in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, where he notices regional patterns of socio-economic causes of conflicts across borders.
Chencho’s most recent work utilizes his evolving approach to peacebuilding on a more holistic and geopolitical scale, which he has shared with other members of the Peacemakers in Action Network, including Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge. Not to be confined to one outlet of peacebuilding, Chencho is also involved in earth and ecology work, conducting workshops and trainings for rural peasants and indigenous groups throughout Central America.
Chencho Alas’ tireless work continues. Although he is no longer in the priesthood, he is still known as “Father” to his constituents, and religion continues to drive and define his work.