Remembering Maggi Popkin

Patricia and Janet Valdez

Dear Popkin Family

I was terribly sad to hear of Maggi's death and we write to offer sincere condolences to your family.

We wanted you to know just how much family is all in our thoughts Maggi was loved by everyone who know her.

Patricia says: I had the luck to be able to share with her many moments when I was in US the last year and knew her a little a friend and as a mother. Maggi and Damian were my family during my stay in the U.S. They always guided and adviced me . She told me of her work experience in the different countries of the Americas. I cannot believe that she isn't here with us but she still continues here because she will always be in my heart as I have known her.

If there is anything we can do to help, do not hesitate to get in touch.

Kindest regards

Patricia and Janet Valdez Castro

Lima- Perú.

Carlos Villaverde

Apreciada Katya y demás compañeros de DPLF:

Acabamos de enterarnos de la noticia del fallecimiento de Maggi, que nos ha caído como un rayo. Hemos quedado totalmente apenados y desolados.

De ella, con quien compartimos momentos de tanta calidad humana y solidaridad, podíamos esperar cualquier noticia, menos la muerte.

Ahora, cuando más falta hacen las inteligencias firmes y los corazones sensibles como los de ella, cuando por todas partes brotan las injusticias y muchos hombres y mujeres reclaman derechos y despiertan a la conciencia de su dignidad, ella nos deja físicamente. Nos queda su compromiso y su alegría.

Para Uds. que compartían con ella la responsabilidad del trabajo, y especialmente para su familia, sepan que su pesar es el nuestro. Y para ella, la paz y nuestro agradecimiento por ayudarnos a ser más humanos con su ejemplo.

Carlos Villaverde
Director de Proyectos
Fundación Institucionalidad y Justicia FINJUS
República Dominicana

Linda Garrett

For Maggi

I first met Maggi in Los Angeles in 1984, just months before she – and then I - moved to El Salvador, not knowing of course that we would both spend the next decade of our lives in el pulgarcito del mundo.

Los Angeles was then the center of Central American refugee organizing, solidarity and legal work. We shared our concerns and plans to work in El Salvador. While many of us who went in the early years brought our solidarity, a few skills and a lot of idealism, Maggi, in addition, arrived as a true professional.

Our work in El Salvador took us different ways but our paths and friendships often crossed. The years of violence and death passed, punctuated by social gatherings, birthdays at El Rosal, and hurried encounters at Tutela Legal or CDH or the UCA.

That first year was not easy but somehow we all managed to find moments of relaxation – and even a little craziness. One day in October or November of 1985, Maggi, Jennifer and I talked about going to La Palma under the pretense of visiting the site of the peace talks but in reality because it would be a little adventure and an opportunity to see the artesanía workshops.

So off we went early the next morning on the first bus, hot and crowded, smashed among adults and kids, bags of rice, chickens and more. Our windows wouldn’t open. It was suffocating and we vowed the ride back would be different.

After wandering around La Palma, eating lunch and buying a few artesanías for Christmas presents we caught the return bus and climbed right on top – again surrounded by sundry baskets and bags but in the comfort of the late afternoon breeze. The driver and ayudante were both appalled but the passengers seemed to find a little pleasure at the sight of three grungy gringas atop their bus. We were ordered to dismount at several retenes along the way and soaked by a rain shower or two but made it back to San Salvador without mishap.

Maggi was beloved by her friends and colleagues and will always be remembered for her many accomplishments, her intellect, dedication and commitment to work, friends and family, but right now I prefer the memory of that glorious afternoon, the three of us hanging on to each other, laughing and fearlessly flying down the Troncal del Norte on top of that raggedy old bus, in the midst of the war.

In her New Year’s card Maggi wrote, “Let’s hope 2005 is a better year for the world.”

So far it isn’t.
Maggi will be greatly missed.

Linda Garrett

Susana Villarán

A todos los miembros de la familia de nuestra querida Maggie

Conozco a Maggie desde hace muchos años, he tenido el privilegio de contar con su amistad, de ser testigo de privilegio de su entrega y compromiso con la causa de los derechos y de la justicia en Centro américa, en América Latina.

La partida de Maggie nos sorprende, nos duele y es irreparable. Compartimos su dolor y nos solidarizamos en este momento tan difícil para todos ustedes.

Para quienes somos creyentes, la muerte no es la palabra final. Es la vida de Maggie, sus afectos, su compromiso, sus logros en la búsqueda de la justicia lo que tenemos que celebrar. Dar gracias por el privilegio de haberla conocido y de habernos nutrido con su extraordinaria, dulce y firme personalidad.

Con todo afecto y solidaridad

Susana Villarán

Chris Norton

I met Maggi in El Salvador when we were both trying to get established, she as a human rights advocate and me as a journalist. We both moved into a house in Colonia Centroamerica that Mark Fazllolah had found. It was comfortable, in a quiet middle-class neighborhood, and best of all in easy walking distance of the Hotel Camino Real, the hub of the press in San Salvador. Mark had rented an ancient, and extremely noisy, telex machine from the phone company, which he used to send stories to the Daily Telegraph in London at ungodly hours. Other than that Mark was a sweetheart.

It wasn't an easy time to get Washington to pay attention to human rights abuses. The Reagan Administration has maneuvered an acceptable Notre Dame grad, Napoleon Duarte, into the presidency and was proudly proclaiming the full flowering of democracy in El Salvador. There wasn't much interest in the victims of our democratic allies, the Salvadoran military.

Plus navigating the Byzantine labyrinth of Salvadoran revolutionary politics could be daunting.

There were five revolutionary organizations, most of which had at one time split from another. The groups were theoretically united but in practice anything but. Human rights victims were often targeted by the army because they were suspected of being rebels or their collaborators. But gaining the confidence of one group might mean losing the trust of another, as the Salvadoran left expected gringos to play by the same rules they did. I remember many late nights in our kitchen, with Maggi venting about her frustrations over a glass of Concha y Toro. But she persevered and was gradually perceived by all as a professional and an honest broker. She also leapt into El Salvador without any solid job, having to create her work as she went. Eventually her perseverance also paid off when she was hired by the prestigious and well-respected Jesuit University, UCA, and created a position that allowed her to become of major advocate for human rights. She returned to her office when the UCA reopened following the trauma of army murder of the six Jesuit priests, including the head of the UCA and her direct boss, Father Segundo Montes. She kept reporting human rights abuses and helped provide the backup that allowed the Jesuits to pressure for prosecutions of those directly responsible although those who ordered by killings have never been charged.

Finally, shocked by the strength of the 1989 guerrilla offensive, the Bush One Administration realized the war was unwinnable and allowed serious peace talks that ended the civil war in 1992. Although the role of the Salvadoran military was curtailed by the peace agreement, judicial reform hadn't been as well thought out. Maggi applied her fine intellect to analyzing those problems and distilling lessons for the future.

I left El Salvador in 1991 for northern California and Maggi, later, settled in Washington. We were lucky to have her visit us several times when she was in California and the shock of her death leaves a big hole in our lives.

I'll always remember the time spent in our kitchen in Centroamerica, the breakfasts of french toast and Cafe Listo, Maggi baking chocolate chip cookies to take to the political prisoners in Mariona prison on visiting day, her coy smile as she teased you with a piece of political gossip you wanted and that she would ultimately surrender, Maggi and Jennifer returning from their early morning runs, her dedication to Maria Luz and her sons Eduardo and Juan Carlos, the live garrobo lizard that Maria Luz brought home and which scared me half to death when I walked into it in the living room. I remember the day of the 1986 earthquake, returning to our house to find it undamaged asides from some cracks but with the kitchen floor covered by glass from the jars the earthquake had shaken from the refrigerator. And, I, an earthquake-trained resident of California, went racing outside to shut off the gas, until, I realized that we didn't have any gas lines. We rented small propane tanks to run our stove like everybody else in our neighborhood. That night we all went to Linda, Jennifer and Nancy's house where our dinner in their garage was interrupted every fifteen or twenty minutes as we ran shrieking into the street, spooked by the strong aftershocks.

Ultimately, I'll remember Maggi's fine intellect, her dedication to defending the rights of those usually forgotten and ignored, her love for her son and her family and her loyalty to her friends. May you rest in peace, Maggie. We can be proud to have known you.

Chris Norton

Sandy Coliver

I first met Maggi in law school. She started out one year ahead of me, and then I took off a year after getting involved in the Coalition for a Diversified Faculty (which provoked unpleasant reactions from several at the law school). Maggi was a great role model. I admired her for her Lawyers Guild work and for her sense of purposefulness. I followed her career from a distance thereafter, noting with admiration, and some envy, when she got her job with the National Center for Immigrants Rights, and marveling when she moved to El Salvador.

I began my own career in human rights around that time. I continued to hear about Maggi, and occasionally received her reports from El Salvador.

In 1999, I had my first chance to work with Maggi. I decided to apply for a grant from USAID to produce a guide to judicial independence around the world. I sought out Maggi's help to conceptualize the project and produce the section on Latin America, which was the most important region from which lessons could be drawn, given USAID's history of supporting "justice reform" efforts there, often as part of thinly disguised efforts to justify the giving of large sums of military aid. Maggi's perspective and experience were crucial in ensuring that the guide took a sober look at judicial reform efforts in Latin America to-date. She commissioned chapters from leading experts in 10 countries, worked with the authors so that each chapter addressed the same set of issues, and wrote a chapter that synthesized the experiences, best practices and lessons of the other chapters. The Rule of Law Program at USAID reported that the Guide was one of its most useful publications. Maggi made a significant impact by introducing USAID to several outstanding people with whom USAID had not previously worked. Putting people other than herself in the limelight, and providing insightful criticism to keep projects true to the realities on the ground were hallmarks of Maggi's work.

The second time I had the chance to work with Maggi was starting in 2001 when I became the Executive Director of the Center for Justice & Accountability. Maggi had agreed to serve as an expert witness in our landmark trial against Generals Vides Casanova and Garcia. Her testimony at trial in 2002 helped persuade a jury that the generals, who served as Defense Ministers and also head of the National Guard, bore command responsibility for the torture of our clients from 1979-83. Maggi's testimony - clear, precise, knowledgeable, directly on point- demonstrated why she was such a valuable expert. She was called to testify about the Salvadoran judicial system's handling of human rights abuses. After establishing her credentials at some length, she explained the facts that led to her expert opinion that Salvador's justice system was unable and unwilling to handle claims by victims of human rights abuses during the 1979-83 period, and that responsibility for this failure lay squarely with the generals.

On cross-examination, the generals' defense counsel repeatedly asked Maggi questions about divisions within the military, implying to the jury that the justice system's inability to adjudicate human rights claims against the military could be attributed to infighting within the military, and should not be blamed on actions, policies or practices that the generals could control. Maggi repeatedly declined to answer questions about the military, pointing out that (a) she had not been qualified by counsel to testify on that subject, and (b) any divisions within the military could in no way justify the failure of the National Guard to investigate claims of human rights abuses by members of the security and military forces. After opposing counsel's third or fourth effort to get Maggi to answer questions about the military, she answered with authority and not a little bit of impatience, that she was an expert on the topics about which she knew, and was not going to testify about matters on which she was not an expert. That statement well reflected Maggi's style and expertise, and her great value as an expert: concerning matters to which she devoted herself, she became an expert, and she wouldn't make claims that reached beyond her expertise. Her testimony is attached to this note.

Maggi was a role model, a steadying force when I tried to do too much, a voice of reason when I tried to push our work to do more than it could, a shining example of what one exceptionally talented and dedicated person can accomplish. I miss her tremendously. I am very grateful that Maggi's family members and friends shared stories about her as a girl, a young adult, a mother and an aunt. I now better understand from where she got her strength, warmth and clarity of purpose.

With much love to her family and friends,
Sandy Coliver
Center for Justice & Accountability

Donations in Honor of Maggi

We invite you to make an individual donation in Maggi's memory to the Due Process of Law Foundation to help support the continuation of the work to which she devoted her life.

You may make a general donation to DPLF's work, or contribute to the Spanish translation and publication of Maggi's book, Peace Without Justice. This is something that she was working very hard to accomplish at the time of her passing.

Checks should be made out to the Due Process of Law Foundation. Please indicate "general" or "book" on the memo line and send to:

Due Process of Law Foundation
Maggi Memorial Campaign
1779 Massachusetts Ave. NW #510A
Washington, DC 20036

DPLF is a 501(c)(3) organization. Your contribution is tax-deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law.

Carolyn Patty Blum

I met Maggi back in the early 1980s when we were both working on issues affecting Central American refugees in the United States. Maggi was representing alot of individual asylum-seekers and, because of the government's discriminatory policies, was forced to take alot of those cases to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Her appellate work laid the foundation for that court's deepened appreciation of the proper meaning of "refugee" under U.S. law and for the particular human rights catastrophe faced by Salvadoran and Guatemalan asylum-seeker. She quietly, conscientiously, and thoroughly did first rate work....But that was Maggi's hallmark her whole career. She did the work. And she did not stand in the limelight. And she made a real difference.

Then, deeply affected by what she heard from those clients, Maggi moved to El Salvador. And her work there was so important and crucial and complementary to the on-going work here around protection of Central Americans in the U.S. And she had the guts to go do it. But it didn't even seem like guts when Maggi did it. It just seemed like her way, the natural way it should happen. That's just where she was meant to be.

My career and Maggi's have overlapped many times over the twenty years since those days. We always asked about each other kids tho I was never privileged to meet hers. But it was a shared concern and care. A few years ago, we worked closely together on the case, Romagoza et. al. v. Garcia and Vides, which has been mentioned by a few other people. Maggi was one of our expert witnesses and expert she was. I learned so much from Maggi about El Salvador and how to think about the important issues we needed to grapple with in our case. Our victory was hers too.

I recently called on her to ask for some help in getting some documents. Of course, she generously offered to track them down for me. Maggi's way again....always the offer, assist in any way possible, do the work, help make change.

She is sorely missed and will be long remembered.

Patty Blum
Senior Legal Advisor,
Center for Justice and Accountability
co-counsel, Romagoza-Arce et. al. v. Garcia and Vides-Casanova


The following letter was sent to a friend of Maggi’s. It was not intended for submission to this website but, with the author’s permission, we include it anonymously.

I had a glance at David Holiday's blog site a couple of days ago and was very saddened to hear of Maggi's death. That must have been a huge kick in the stomach for a lot of people in El Salvador and in those circles, and not least yourself.

We couldn't claim to have been friends of Maggi's, but we did know each other and spoke from time to time when our paths crossed - often in the UCA, occasionally at meals in other houses.

I don't feel that I want to contribute to the memorial website, as I don't want to 'claim' too much from our acquaintance, but our limited experience of Maggi was enormously positive. In those early days of our time in El Salvador, we were aware of a number of 'giants' who we knew were there for the long haul, and/or with a profound commitment to the people and the various processes of social transformation. Maggi was one among them. Even without the benefit of close friendship, we sensed a gentleness and acceptance from Maggi that quietly affirmed our fledgling, often naive attempts at solidarity and gave us a place. I would like to find a better way to say this that doesn’t sound so corny and trite. That might improve the poetry but it won't better the sincerity. Maggi, along with others on that 'senior level', by who they were and what they gave, made it easier for us to be there, affirmed our choice to be there, and inspired confidence to get on with it.

We hadn’t seen Maggi for a long time, and, not really being in that 'tanda' (ironic choice of word, I know), didn't hear much news of her. Nonetheless, on hearing of her death we were suddenly back in the heat of El Salvador, the tension of the wartime coyuntura, the narrow road between the IDHUCA and the Pastoral Centre, around a table and a meal, the scraps of news to be fitted together, the speculations, and Maggi's gentle, passionate presence feeding the faith to listen, to learn and to act.

Those brief encounters with her were solid enough to bring a taste of emptiness at the news of her death. And enough for us to know that the sense of loss for others will be greater and more keenly felt.

Our thoughts for you, and for other friends we know who loved her more and will miss her most.