Behind the Lines with the Rebels

With an old straw hat, a soiled yellow shirt, ragged pants, and sandals, my weathered guide could easily have passed for the ignorant peasant he often claims to be. But he is far more sophisticated than he appears. Like most Salvadoran peasants in eastern Chalatenango province, he is intensely aware of the conflict at hand.

“How is the way ahead?” he asks a passerby. “Esta bien, no hay enemigo.” (“It’s O.K — there’s no sign of the enemy.”)

The enemigo is the U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion of the Salvadoran army. During my week-long tour with the rebels in Chalatenango, the Atlacatl battalion was on patrol. Peasants in the area were almost as knowledgeable as guerrilla patrols about the battalion’s movements through the zone.

“The majority of the people there want the guerrillas, not the armed forces,” says foot soldier Julio Ernesto Cabrera. Local residents agree. Many say they have had relatives killed by the army.

Some of the residents are former refugees who escaped army repression by fleeing to neighboring Honduras earlier in the war. But more than 6,000 have returned to Chalatenango over the past seventeen months.

The Salvadoran rebels have endured nine years of U.S.-backed counterinsurgency. They have emerged as one of the most formidable guerrilla movements in the world. According to U.S. and rebel officials, the key to the rebels’ success is the support of the local population in areas they control.

“Tough, competent, highly motivated,” is how U.S. military officers describe the Salvadoran guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). The civilian/military liaison for the U.S. embassy in San Salvador describes them as having grown “more committed and more effective” with experience.

Comparing the Salvadoran rebels to insurgent movements in the Philippines and Afghanistan, a top military analyst described the FMLN to me as “the most tenacious guerrilla [movement] in the world.” The FMLN is still not strong enough to take power, but the guerrillas and their civilian supporters are convinced time is on their side.

“This isn’t like Nicaragua, where [the guerrillas] won quickly,” says Israel, a former peasant who joined the guerrillas in 1979. “It’s more like Vietnam — a prolonged war.” As the sun casts shadows across the mountains of eastern Chalatenango, a small column of guerrillas climbs the rocky path into town. Each carries an M-16 rifle. The guerrillas range in age from fourteen to twenty-one. They represent the second generation of fighters for the FMLN.

Contrary to official U.S. pronouncements, the Salvadoran government is not winning the war. The FMLN has demonstrated an ability to strike major military targets, and the guerrillas are capable of draining the government with constant small-scale attacks.

Short of forced detainment of the peasantry or outright genocide — two options under consideration in El Salvador — the government will never wean committed civilian supporters away from the FMLN. Thus the central dilemma of U.S. policy in El Salvador: If human-rights abuses are to be kept within “acceptable levels,” the rebels cannot be defeated.

The alternative would be for the United States to recognize that the FMLN represents a legitimate political-military force, and to urge the Salvadoran government to negotiate. A small but growing number of members of the U.S. Congress take this view, but in El Salvador, the pendulum has swung much further to the Right.

The ultraconservative ARENA party enjoys considerable support not only among the upper classes but also among segments of the lower class and peasantry outside FMLN zones. Most Salvadorans seem to favor neither the government nor the FMLN, preferring to wait and see which side is likely to determine their future. Since President Jose Napoleon Duarte and his Christian Democratic Party have not managed to beat the rebels, the ARENA candidate Alfredo Cristiani is expected to win El Salvador’s presidential election next month.

Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, a leading deputy of ARENA, complains that U.S. policy in El Salvador has “no will to win.” He wants the army to pursue a strategy of “total war.” Ochoa says the nine-year civil war could be terminated in less than a year if the army were given a free hand to attack the civilian populations in FMLN zones. Human rights would not be a concern.

Official U.S. embassy spokesmen continue publicly to advocate small army patrols and civic-action projects, but hard-line U.S. officials are no longer convinced. They prefer the tactic of forcibly detaining civilians who sympathize with the rebels.

“El Salvador needs a population strategy,” says a U.S. official who has advised other Central American governments in counterinsurgency operations. He says the Salvadoran government must separate the guerrillas from the population if it is to win the war.

To some extent, the Salvadoran government has tried this before. In eastern Chalatenango, for example, the air force used saturation bombing through 1985 to drive out civilians. And in 1986, the army forcibly relocated residents on Guazapa volcano near San Salvador.

But the strategy being considered now is more comprehensive. It is based on “strategic hamlets” and “development poles” currently in use in Guatemala. These are defacto prison camps. A fence surrounds each camp, and an army watchtower dominates it. Civilians must pass an army checkpoint to enter or depart. The transport of food and other necessities is strictly monitored.

El Salvador could resort to such tactics, said the U.S. official. But unlike Guatemala, El Salvador receives almost $1.5 million a day from the United States. “Liberals in Congress” will never go along with such a strategy, he complains.

The drastic military options under consideration reflect the success the guerrillas have had in building civilian support in such areas as eastern Chalatenango. During my week-long trip with the guerrillas, they moved with ease and sophistication even as the Atlacatl battalion approached.

Two miles from the advancing Atlacatl, I traveled with a six-member FMLN patrol. We heard the staccato of machine guns as an army helicopter fired at suspected rebel targets. But none were hit.

Communicating with other guerrillas by radio, the rebel patrol knew the exact location of the Atlacatl. Rather than engage the superior force, the rebels pulled back. Once the army passed by, they reassumed their positions.

The Atlacatli battalion traveled through a number of refugee communities. On one trail between the villages of San Jose Las Flores and Guadila, hundreds of FMLN leaflets were strewn in the path of the on-coming troops. They were marked by a series of crude sketches. One depicted a rebel ambush; another a recent FMLN attack on a National Guard post in San Salvador. The drawings included figures of dead soldiers. “THIS IS WHAT AWAITS YOU!” read the caption below the sketch.

Large battalions such as the Atlacatl are able to move through rebel-held terrain, but they rarely find any guerrillas. Most military engagements are carried out on rebel terms, and the vast majority of army casualties come from guerrilla ambushes or mines.

In a guerrilla war, it is usually the rebels who must move under cover. But here, the army’s Long Range Reconnaissance Patrols are mostly a threat during the rainy season, when the foliage is thicker. And, unlike FMLN guerrillas who rely on their local infrastructure for supplies, the army patrols depend on helicopter drops for extra food and ammunition.

Similarly, the army suffers from poor intelligence. The patrols can’t count on information from local residents, so they depend upon aerial reconnaissance and other technology to other intelligence. This information is often dated and incomplete.

Since U.S. involvement in the war began, the Salvadoran government has enjoyed a huge technological advantage over the rebels. But according to U.S. military advisers, the point has been reached when additional U.S assistance will produce decreasing marginal gains.

A pig scrounges the ground for food, while children play in the dirt. Behind them, wet clothes hang on a line strung between a wooden awning and a tree.

A nude eighteen-year-old male lies on an old plank table. His left upper thigh is grossly disfigured. Guerrilla doctors are preparing to perform surgery.

The patient has a multiple-fractured femur bone. A bullet from an automatic rifle of the type used by the National Guard had pierced his leg. He has been crippled for the past year, waiting for this operation.

The operation is almost canceled when doctors receive word by radio that elite army troops are on the move nearby. By evening, the doctors say it is safe.

In this hospital with no walls and a dirt floor, the operation is expected to last two hours. But complications arise. Without proper equipment except for such items as liquid anesthesia, it takes more than five.

The surgeon uses a carpenter’s drill to make holes for metal rods in the patient’s leg. Reaching into a mess cup of boiled water, he removes a Swiss Army knife with its saw blade exposed.

“The equipment is not optimal,” he says. As I look on with a crowd of children and armed guerrillas, the doctor uses the camping knife to remove a large piece of femur. About ten metal rods, used to immobilize the bone, remain protruding from the patient’s thigh after the wound is closed. Rather than put the leg in a conventional cast, the doctor’s use split bamboo and plaster wrap to keep them in place.

The next day, the patient is put into hiding. “If the army finds him like this,” says one of the doctors, “they’ll kill him or take him away.”

“The worst thing is not the conditions as you see it,” says the chief surgeon, “but that we have to move all the time.” The doctor has been with the rebels for more than seven years. He is one of many medical volunteers who have joined the FMLN. In addition to his medical equipment, he carries an M-16 rifle.

The FMLN also provides health care for civilians living in guerrilla zones. In one case, I travelled with a physician to the home of a young woman who had a severely distended belly. The doctor drained two liters of abdominal fluid. In another case, a child cut his wrist with a machete. Rebel doctors sewed his severed tendons back together.

The Salvadoran government considers rebel medical facilities to be legitimate military targets. A mobile unit, the five-member medical team is constantly avoiding helicopters and army patrols. Medicine and medical instruments must be carried on the doctors’ and nurses’ backs.

An A-37 gunship buzzes the parade ground as army troops stand at attention in full battle gear. Behind the troops, several hundred peasants stand in formation. Representing ninety-eight rural villages, they have been invited to a ceremony at the army’s Third Brigade in San Miguel. The ceremony is part of a U.S.-inspired effort to win “hearts and minds.”

Colonel Rene Emilio Ponce, newly appointed armed forces chief of staff, is the main speaker. U.S. military advisers and officials are also present. They hope that by building better relations with the population, Ponce will be able to turn the war around.

The villagers hold placards indicating which town they come from. At one point, an army lieutenant directs the entire group to march past the podium for review. During Ponce’s speech, the lieutenant paces up and down in front of the peasants. With his back turned to the podium, he orders the peasants to stay in line and tells them when to cheer.

“The army helps us,” says one peasant. “‘But there are still many things we need.”

Some of the peasants say they have received food and basic supplies from the army. They are participating in the ceremony, they say, because they hope to receive more.

But in the past, the army has found it hard to deliver. A nationwide civic-action program that began two years ago has failed. Support for the army lasts only as long as the flow of free provisions continues.

The FMLN, by contrast, builds its support from the bottom up. The guerrillas encourage peasants to organize themselves. The method is similar to that developed by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire and adopted by Christian “base communities” of the Catholic Church. During my trip, I observed two such “dynamic exercises” — one led by “popular” teachers, the other by a young Jesuit priest.

Participants in these exercises are matched in pairs. They speak to each other for about fifteen minutes and then they rejoin the larger group, introducing the partner and relaying key facts about his or her life to the others present. Then the group takes up issues of basic needs and problems. As a result, the level of community organization is greatly enhanced, and peasants learn to take control of their lives.

In one village, residents discuss methods of payment for supplies at the modest dental clinic they have built. In another meeting, they discuss which fields to plant and how to cope with a shortage of seeds. Land in the area is now cultivated collectively after having been seized from absentee owners.

Peasants in these communities do not merely sympathize with the guerrillas. They see the armed and the unarmed struggle as two sides of the same coin. In the words of the young Jesuit, “the struggle of the guerrillas is the struggle of the poor.”

The guerrillas are attracting new volunteers. The rebels once relied partly on forced conscription, but even U.S. officials now admit that this practice has been abandoned.

A shy teen-age girl says she is being trained as a radio operator at a secret mountain location. “You have to fight for the people,” she says.

By the end of my week-long trip, I had found a better appreciation of the FMLN’s popular support in eastern Chalatenango. In one small town, the locally elected town council sponsored a dance. Government planes flew overhead, even as FMLN fighters, their M-16s slung over their shoulders, danced to La Bamba with their girlfriends from town.