This article shares insights from participatory research conducted with former political prisoners, all of whom survived torture during El Salvador’s armed conflict (1980–92). An analysis of declassified documents reveals that while US officials generally resisted efforts to examine abuses against guerrilla supporters, they advocated behind the scenes for international oversight of prisons, and, in doing so, helped save lives. However, former prisoners’ analyses of the documents shows that US advocacy perpetuated grave misrepresentations about the nature of state repression, further empowering the apparatus of institutional violence even as it spared selected actors. Participatory research projects like this one can offer victims of human rights abuses abetted by US foreign policy an opportunity to reckon with the records of empire. Not only does this process generate new knowledge, but it contributes to survivor-led processes of healing. This is important to counter the imperialist epistemologies that often characterize scholarship on US foreign policy.

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