SAN SALVADOR – THE BRIGHT LIGHTS of San Salvador cut the cool night air. Large spotlights beamed from military bases along the perimeter. Closer to the center, more lights glowed atop the heavily fortified walls of the U.S. embassy.
Dressed in black and armed with an M-16, one of my guerilla guides stopped along the rugged mountain trail. From the eastern slope of the San Salvador volcano, I could see the entire city below.
The overlook is less than two miles from the capital. “We are in the heart of the enemy,” says Elsa, the nom de guerre of a guerilla comandante.
In the past year, the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has moved the front line of the war to El Salvador’s central region. Along with a cameraman for West 57th of CBS News, I spent five days with the revels on the volcano, which towers several thousand feet about San Salvador.
The trip came amid a watershed in Salvador’s nine-year civil war. The FMLN made an unprecedented offer to participate in the upcoming presidential elections on the condition that they be delayed at least four months. But the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government plans to go ahead with March 19 elections as scheduled. In response, the guerillas have promised to increase attacks. “We will concentrate,” said Elsa, “on the capital city.”
The FMLN has been fighting since 1980. Many rebels and their civilian supporters say that victory is just around the corner, yet an FMLN takeover now seems doubtful. Nonetheless, a new rebel drive is expected. According to some, it may have the same relative impact on El Salvador’s civil war as the Tet offensive had in Vietnam 21 years ago.
A report on El Salvador by four U.S. Army lieutenant colonels a year ago described U.S. intervention here as “this country’s most significant sustained military enterprise since Vietnam.” And despite nine years and more than $3.3 billion in U.S. aid, the Salvadoran government, they say, has won neither popular support nor the war.
For at least 14 months, the rebels have held the military initiative. The numbers for the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency don’t look good. According to Salvadoran Army colonel Juan Orlando Zepeda, FMLN assaults have forced the government to deploy 85 per cent of its troops in defensive positions. Since 1987, El Salvador has been more dependent on U.S. aid than any country since the former Republic of South Vietnam.
U.S. military advisers are frustrated. “This isn’t like World War II,” said one. “There are no population centers to control and industrial centers to attack.” Looking out over the country’s rugged terrain, he said: “Out here, how to you eliminate the enemy’s ability to fight?”
U.S. advisers asked that the same question in Vietnam; FMLN rebels look to that insurgency as a model.
SITTING WITH HER legs crossed, a camouflage hat on her head, and an Ak-47 on her lap, Comandante Elsa explained the difference between the army and the FMLN. “One can’t underestimate the enemy’s potential. They know how to defend themselves,” she says. But “the interests that drive the army are not the just interests of the people.”
Behind her, a young woman transcribed numbered radio codes, while another rebel tended the campfire. The guerillas said it was the same type used by the Vietcong; it burns in a dugout hold to avoid detection.
“Our army,” says Elsa, “did not grow based upon forced recruitment. We are rooted within the population.”
Soft-spoken, pleasant, and always smiling, Elsa doesn’t fit the image of a hardened guerilla leader. But she sits on the FMLN’s Joint Command for the “Central Front,” which includes both San Salvador and Guazapa volcanoes as well as the capital city. “If we say that Guazapa is the arrow in the heart of the enemy,” she said, “on [San Salvador] volcano we are the point of the arrow.”
Unlike in more secured areas under FMLN control, here the location of the army is always in some doubt. An unexpected encounter with a government patrol is a rare but real possibility, For us, getting past army checkpoints near the volcano’s base was the most dangerous exercise, but a clandestine network of civilians facilitated in our entry. Further on, two guerillas walking “point” provided cover as our patrol marched by moonlight through fields of recently harvested coffee.
The close proximity of the volcano to both the city and the army also makes conditions difficult. Base camps, for example, must move every few days. And life as a compa – a companero, or FMLN combatant – is essentially one of the perpetual camping out. A bed consists of two pieces of heavy plastic – one for above and one for below the body. Meals are the same tin cup of rice and beans every day. And to avoid detection, conversation must be kept to a near whisper.
Nonetheless, morale is exceptionally high. “Vergon!” – Salvadoran slang for the greatest – is the way most compass answer ‘How’s it going?” Among scores of combatants I’ve interviewed in the last several months, all but one were convinced or an eventual rebel victory. If morale is an indication, the odds are heavily weighed against the army.
And morale doesn’t fall from the sky. It is the rebels who define the terms of the conflict. They initiate most engagements, and government casualties are disproportionately high. In contrast to the guerillas, army soldiers usually say “A saber, va” – Who knows? – when asked which side is winning the war.
Literally dragged from movie theaters, bus stops, and high schools into military service, most army soldiers seem more interested in getting a visa to the United States than fighting guerillas. According to FMLN rebels, soldiers are notorious for firing their weapons in the air to give away their location – and thereby avoid a confrontation.
But according to Comandante Elsa, the key to the rebel’s success on San Salvador volcano is the civilian population.
IT IS DIFFICULT to determine popular support in any guerilla war. Most upper- and middle-class Salvadorans reject the rebels and their cause. But the FMLN is predominantly a rural-based insurgency.
“The masses are the ones who provide supplies,” said Elsa. “They also, up to a certain point, go out on scouting explorations to inform us about the location of the enemy.”
We met with a group of peasants working in a field. A rebel sent two men out to keep watch for the army; they trimmed coffee trees as a cover. Other peasants, mostly women, dropped about two handfuls of fresh tortillas each in a straw basket, which we later carried back to camp.
“To struggle you don’t need a weapon,” said Aristides, the guerilla leading our patrol. “Just to make tortillas is enough.”
Most of the people living on the volcano pick coffee. El Salvador’s leading export, coffee earns more than 60 per cent of the country’s foreign exchange. These pickers and others like them constitute the primary work force of the country.
Aristides emphasized class divisions. “Those who work a lot,” he told them, “earn a little. But those who hardly work have millions of colones [worth five to the dollar].”
El Salvador’s U.S.-backed land reform affected about 18 per cent of the country’s peasants. Most of them are organized in cooperatives, many of which remain strapped for access to credit, equipment, and seed. A land-to-the-tiller program had less success. Out of a potential 117,000 beneficiaries, only 18,000 received definitive land titles. And eight years after it was conceived, the breakup of the large coffee farms – on paper, the meat of the reform – is still blocked by landowners.
The rebels’ simple Marxist message made sense to the pickers. Landless and illiterate, they don’t understand the material dialectics, but they do know the different between rich and poor. For them, the guerillas have not only brought a sense of hope for their future, but an immediate material gain in their lives.
“Thanks to them, we make more now,” said one weather-beaten man. Before, the pickers received the equivalent of 65 cents for picking 25 pounds of beans; now they receive about $1.10.
“We sent letters to the owners of these farms asking them to raise the workers’ salaries,” said Aristides. And now, he said, “the majority of the owners on this volcano are paying what we ask.”
“And what happens to the growers who don’t want to pay more?” I said.
“Well… there are laws, laws of war that have their limits. If a grower doesn’t pay what we say, then we sabotage his property,” he said. “We’ll burn his farm or destroy his property in San Salvador.”
A shy wrinkled old woman sat on the ground eating a tortilla. I asked her what she thought of the rebels’ coercive tactics.
“Está bien.” – It’s good, she said.
“Because we eat more,” she said laughing, crumbs falling from her mouth. “Because we eat more.”
The army, on the other hang, protects the growers. Washington pundits may look to Sunday’s presidential elections as proof of democracy, but the drama being played out around San Salvador and Guazapa volcanoes, Usulutan, San Miguel, Santa Ana, and the other agro-export regions remains a class-based war.
“I became aware that they were paying more,” said army colonel Zepeda. The government’s counterpart to Comandante Elsa, Zepeda is responsible for the same territory as the Central Front.
Zepeda said that one Guazapa the rebels also demand a war tax from the growers. He met with growers from both volcanoes. Nobody, he told them, has to pay a tax or give workers more than the government’s set minimum wage. Thus, the minimum wage becomes a maximum wage; anyone demanding more – guerilla or peasant – is a subversive.
Zepeda also denies that the rebels have a legitimate social base. They only survive because of outside assistance, he says. “If Nicaragua were to stop providing aid to this Marxist movement, we could finish the conflict in a short time.”
“Yes, we receive some support,” said Noe, another FMLN comandante within the Central Front, when asked about foreign backing. “It comes from other countries in the world that support our cause.” But they get most out of their material, he added, from inside the country.
MASKING TAPE, coiled wire, flashlight batteries, PVC pipe, fuses, plastic bags, and containers with a variety of powdered chemicals were laid out on a plastic tarp.
“At first we weren’t sure about it,” said a scraggly looking guerilla, as he presided over his collection of homemade bombs. “But later…” He broke into a smile.
Homemade land minds are the rebels’ most common and effective weapon; they cause at least 60 per cent of army casualties. The rebels said they started experimenting with them to repel the army’s counterinsurgency sweep, “Operation Phoenix,” on Guazapa volcano.
A contact bomb, the mine is housed in the closed end of a three-inch piece of plastic PVC water pipe. It can be filled with almost any type of explosive or homemade gunpowder. The most essential ingredient is potassium nitrate, or saltpeter – available, said a rebel, from the local pharmacy.
PVC is used because it doesn’t conduct electricity, but other containers, even shampoo bottles, he says, will work as well. Two AA batteries are places inside the container and connected to an electrical detonator. Stepping on the buried mine from above completes the circuit.
Of all the materials required, only the detonator must be secured from the outside. For larger bombs, the rebels sometimes use TNT, which also must come from outside. But most often they use a highly explosive homemade mixture of ammonia and aluminum powder. This mixture is also used for rampas – a projectile that looks like a small soccer ball wrapped in masking tape. The rampa is hurled by an exploding charge set beneath a crude-looking wooden catapult.
The rebels have also converted car bombs into a more powerful catapult-like device. These have been effective against military bases throughout the capital city. But the two-charge bombs often misfire. In the latest attacks, they have killed more civilians than soldiers. The FMLN announced it was suspending their use late last month.
On the volcano, the rebels plant land mines around their perimeter and remove them whenever they change their camp. I learned the location of both the mines and the latrine – and made sure not confuse the two.
Later that day, I watched music videos with a guerilla on his handheld Sony Watchman. The beat was interrupted by the sound of machine guns. A firefight had broken out between the army and another rebel unit less than one mile away.
“What was that?” I asked, hearing an explosion.
“A mine.” Apparently an army soldier had discovered the perimeter of the other rebel camp.
A new U2 video came on, with images of Times Square and Richard Nixon. By the time the screen had changed to Madonna, the battle was just about over.
HELLO, COMMANDER TWO ZERO
– GO AHEAD, OVER.
– LISTEN IN – THE SHIT IS HITTING THE FAN PRETTY BAD OUT HERE … I’M … I’M BAILING OUT OF HERE, I’M GETTING OUT OF HERE…I’M BREAKING THROUGH.
On February 21, FMLN guerillas attacked a Salvadoran army base in Zacatecoluca, 27 miles southeast of the capital. U.S. Embassy spokesman Barry Jacobs confirmed that it was a U.S. Special Forces adviser was present at the base. During the attack, the adviser – Commander Two Zero – reported his situation by radio to the U.S. Military Group command – Retelo – in San Salvador. A tape recording of that transmission indicates that the adviser – one of the 55 officially posted in the country – felt his life to be in immediate danger.
– GOT TO GET OUT OF HERE. THE SHIT IS HITTING THE FAN, OVER? … I’M TELLING YOU … I DON’T WANT NOBODY TO CALL ON ME TONIGHT … JUST COME OUT FOR ME TOMORROW, OVER.
The transmission took place from 4:00 to 4:30 a.m. The adviser originally referred to the rebel action as an exploratory “probe.”
– COMMANDER TWO ZERO, THIS IS ROTELO. GO AHEAD, OVER.
– AS YOU KNOW, WE ARE BEING PROBED, WE ARE BEING PROBED, WE ARE ALSO RECEIVING RAMPAS, OVER.
– … ALL WE GOT IS …THEY’RE …THE 22 DEFENSIVE POSITIONS … AT THIS TIME IT IS JUST PROBING FIRE … THEY FIRED A COUPLE OF R. P. SEVENS [rocket propelled grenades], BUT THAT’S ABOUT IT, OVER.
– YOU ARE…YOU’VE GOT APPROXIMATELY THE SIZE OF THE FORCE DOING THE PROBING? OVER.
– SAY AGAIN…UH… REAL QUICK… UH…
– HOW MANY PEOPLE YOU THINK ARE DOING THE PROBE? OVER.
– RIGHT NOW I ESTIMATE FOUR TO FIVE. THEY MIGHT BE THE … THEY MAY BE THE … UH… FRONT ELEMENT OF A BIGGER UNIT WITH RAMPAS, BUT I’M NOT SURE RIGHT NOW…THEY’RE COMING AGAIN. WE ARE GETTING RAMPAS, OVER.
– HELLOW, THIS IS COMMANDO TWO ZERO.
– COMMANDO TWO ZERO, RETELO, GO AHEAD, OVER.
– YEAH, THE PROBE HAS TURNED INTO A… AN ATTACK FROM THE NORTHEAST. WE GOT, AH… THREE WOUNDED ALREADY, WE HAVE ONE BLINDADO [armor-plated assault vehicle] IN AMBUSH… AND WE GOT ONE KID – HE’S IN PRETTY BAD SHAPE. HE’S PROBABLY GOING TO GO AWAY. AND WE HAVE TWO OTHER WOUNDED, OVER.
Later that day, a Salvadoran military officer at the scene said that four soldiers were killed and another 13 were wounded. A Salvadoran army major was among the dead. It appears that the U.S. adviser suffered no injury.
– THIS IS COMMANDER TWO ZERO, OVER.
– ROGER, AH… CAN YOU AH… GIVE US THE DIRECTION WHICH YOU THINK THAT THEY…AH…ARE RETREATING TO, OVER?
– THERE IS A…THERE IS A… A CREEK, A CREEK AND THAT’S THE WAY…I DON’T KNOW EXACTLY WHICH WAY THEY ARE GOING…BUT THEY ARE PROBABLY GOING NORTH. THERE IS PROBABLY A GROUP GOING NORTH AND ONE GROUP GOING SOUTH. THERE IS ALSO AN ELEMENT SOUTHWEST FROM HERE THAT AMBUSED A VEHICLE. WE GOT THOSE PEOPLE HERE. WE ALSO GOT PEOPLE THAT THE LEFT THE PERIMETER. SO…AND WE GOT AMBUSGED COORDINATD TO GET THEM ON THE WITHDRAWAL, OVER.
– ROGER, STAND BY.
– COMMANDER TWO ZERO. WE ALSO PREPARED A UNIT TO…AH…TO CHACE…PUT A CHASE ON THEM AS SOON AS DAYBREAK, OVER.
– RETELO. ROGER, UNDERSTAND
U.S. officials admit to only three occasions of U.S. military personnel engaging in combat in El Salvador – once in 1987 and twice last year. But U.S. advisers are widely believed to have found themselves in conflict situations more frequently than is reported. Advisers are posted at even minor military bases throughout the country. Said a Western diplomat after the Zacatecoluca attack, “I would presume that every time a military base is attacked, a U.S. soldier comes under attack.”
Nine years after the American advisers were first deployed here, Vice-President Dan Quayle said that the congressionally imposed 55-man ceiling should be lifted. Including the U.S. Embassy’s 13-man Military Group command and the Special Forces advisers rotated into the country on 90-day temporary duty assignment, there is already an average of 150 U.S. military personnel in El Salvador at any given time. Many of these advisers are experienced in counterinsurgency. One Special Forces adviser with three years here, for instance, did four years of duty leading ARVN reconnaissance patrols in Vietnam.
CHARRING KERNELS over a hot stone slab, a woman looks up and says hello. She uses roast corn, she explained, to make a cheap substitute for coffee.
A displaced peasant, she lives in one of the many poor barrios on the fringe of the city. The woman said she remembered me from my last visit two months ago.
I asked her if she thought the rebels would win. “I don’t know,” she said. “I hope so. What do you think?”