Rubia Palacios, president of the Commandos, works on a patient
Rubia Palacios, President of the Commandos, works on a patient | Photo courtesy of Rubia Palacios

Woman commando leads El Salvador emergency responders

We looked across a ravine, which had become a terrible, raging river, and saw children on the other side. We threw ourselves at the river, using sustained ties to get in and out. As I carried the children across, I prayed to God they would not let go of me.

Rubia Palacios is the president of the El Salvador Commandos.
Interview Subject
Rubia Guadalupe Palacios, 52, a teacher by profession, earned her degree in early childhood education and won a medal of honor for teaching. She now serves as president of the Commandos of El Salvador. For 28 years, she has served as a volunteer in Zacatecoluca in the La Paz district of El Salvador.

Her emergency responses have included traffic accidents, pre-hospital care, medical brigades, and rescues for catastrophes like earthquakes, landslides, and evacuations due to floods. As president of the Comandos de Salvamento relief corps, she is committed to supporting female emergency responders.
Background Information
Comandos de Salvamento is a rescue group in El Salvador. Their central base is located in San Salvador and they have delegations throughout the country. The non-profit institution founded in 1960 helps citizens who are in danger. In El Salvador, at least 47 traffic accidents and floods occur daily during rainy seasons in high-risk areas. Comandos de Salvamento is one of the relief bodies that helps the population in these emergencies.

ZACATECOLUCA, El Salvador ꟷ Since the age of 10, I witnessed traffic accidents in my neighborhood. Growing up on the edge of a highway near the volcanic city of Zacatecoluca, with its dense population, the traffic never stops.

During the coffee harvest, people fill the streets. My brothers, uncle, and parents helped many victims. Assisting them as a child filled me with emotion and the images remain with me.

For 28 years now, I have made myself available 24 hours a day to serve the people of Zacatecoluca in the El Paz district of El Salvador. I attend to emergencies like traffic accidents, medical brigades, and social transfers.

When I arrive at an accident in my yellow shirt, I become a superhero. Attending to a patient who needs my attention, I give my heart, soul, and life to safeguard them. From the moment I arrive on scene and exit the ambulance, I begin evaluating the environment. We attend to patients from the moment of arrival until we reach the hospital.

Child victim of vehicular accident inspires emergency responder

One day, when I was 14 years old, my brother and I witnessed a vehicle run over a child who was our neighbor. If my uncles were there, we would have transported the child to the hospital, but this time we had to seek help. A group of adults nearby helped us stop a vehicle in traffic to take the child to the hospital.

Now, at 52 years old, I still feel those same emotions, no matter how much I study or prepare. Despite my training and diplomas in pre-hospital care and emergency delivery, I always feel fear attending the scene. What if the patient dies on the way? I begin every response praying the victim makes it to the hospital alive. Seconds can mean the difference between a patient living or dying.

Traveling to an emergency from one place to another is in my blood; it is not a job title. A team of us use a WhatsApp group when emergencies happen, to communicate and converge on the scene. I have attended emergencies like this throughout our nation.

Emergency responder saves children during Hurricane Ida

Hurricane Ida killed and stranded hundreds of people in El Salvador in 2009. It was one of the most dangerous emergency responses I ever experienced. The strong storm destroyed houses and flooded neighborhoods. Evacuating people from La Paz became treacherous.

We looked across a ravine, which became a terrible, raging river, and saw children on the other side. The other responders and I had to act. We threw ourselves at the river, using sustained ties to get in and out. As I carried the children across, I prayed to God they would not let go of me.

Despite the challenges of this work, I see no obstacles; I am doing what I like. As president of the Commandos, pride and satisfaction fill me, knowing we are doing good. Our work is internationally recognized. We are the first to arrive and our response knows no bounds. We face emergencies, traffic accidents, natural disasters, and man-made catastrophes.

Female commando helps other women lead emergency response efforts

My work goes beyond emergency response. I open doors for other women in Comandos de Salvamento by offering assistance in financial arrangements. Additionally, I create healthy psychological and socio-emotional environments where they can gain leadership and experience empathy.

It is not difficult for me to be a woman and the president of the commandos. While I have not experienced negative comments or harassment, I am the only woman on the Board of Directors among eight men. The experience is curious at times. We all have opinions, and some may not be in my favor. Still, I remain content, as the process proves democratic.

Moving forward, I want more women to be seen as and take on the role of leader. With so many women in the institution, I hope more of them become recognized. 

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Cecilia Fuentes is a Salvadoran journalist who has worked in various print and digital media there for more than three years. She is always looking for stories to tell the world and to give a voice to those who need it most.