War Without End in the New El Salvador
(originally entitled “You Must Go Home Again”)
from Harper’s, August 2000
© by Scott Wallace
Some sixteen years after the rebel attack on Tenancingo and seven years after peace treaties ending the war were signed, I’m sitting in the back of a police pickup as we hurdle past the outskirts of the town and wind our way up a dirt track toward the mossy green peaks of Guazapa. The rebels have long since departed, and the landmines that once blocked access to their mountain base have been removed. Gone, too, are the legions of foreign journalists who documented the carnage of the 1980s in meticulous detail. But the events set in motion years ago have not yet run their course, and America has exported a new form of violence to El Salvador. The police agents aboard the Toyota 4×4 chamber a round, and train their rifles on the dense underbrush on our flanks.
El Salvador’s troops are on the move again. In cities and towns across the country they battle L.A. two street gangs whose members fled the civil war only to be deported back to El Salvador. Here in the Guazapa area, they’re pursuing one of a dozen criminal gangs comprised of ex-soldiers and former guerrillas who now use the volcanic massif as a base to wage a campaign of terror and banditry across central El Salvador. Our Toyota 4×4—and the fidgety cops aboard—represents a key link in the chain that resupplies the beleaguered government patrols with fresh troops, warm bottled water, and tin cans of chicken fricassee.
In the 1980s the outlaws roving Guazapa were Marxist rebels fighting for social change, with names like the “Revolutionary Army of the People,” and the “Popular Liberation Front” that succinctly captured their ideals. But the triumph of Capital has spawed a new breed of outlaws who have a whole new nomenclature more befitting their current sources of inspiration: “Los Millionarios,” “The Fat Ones,” “Los Power Ranger” and “Hatchet Face.” Only a few days before, a small army of masked gunmen calling themselves the “Armed Social Group” forced a farmer to flee his home on the volcano’s northern slopes. They shot up his home, wounding a laborer, and delivered a note directing the owner to hand over his twelve-year-old daughter—evidently she was to serve as collateral against a yet-to-be-articulated demand for ransom. Scrawled in a pathetic chicken scratch and laced with misspelled words, the letter warned the landowner that his entire family faced a “massacre” if he refused to give up the girl.
Such threats are not to be taken lightly. On the other side of the volcano, another gang recently executed a 19-year-old university student they had kidnapped from the town of Aguilares after his mother failed to come up with the five million colones—about $350,000—they demanded for his release. Even after her son’s murder, the kidnappers continued to torment the mother, calling her several times a day to deliver fresh threats. The mayor of Aguilares had also received death threats, and extortionists were driving farmers from the slopes of Guazapa with promises to put their crops to the torch if they refused to pay for protection.
A cluster of six separate peaks, Guazapa was created thousands of years ago when a powerful eruption blew the entire top off the massive volcano. That distant geological event left behind an intricate labyrinth of jagged ridgelines and densely vegetated hollows that radiate outward for miles in every direction. Nahuatl warriors took to the hills to wage hit-and-run war against Spanish conquistadors, and in the 1980s, Guazapa’s rugged folds afforded FMLN guerrillas a virtually impenetrable fortress only fifteen miles north of the capital of San Salvador. Back then Salvadoran officers and their U.S. advisors jokingly referred to Guazapa as “Asshole Hill,” because they were always trying to “wipe it clean.” U.S.-supplied Dragonfly jets and hovering gunships that flew round-the-clock storties made Guazapa the most heavily bombed piece of real estate in the history of the Western Hemisphere. I would lie in bed at night and listen to the bombardments rolling in like distant thunder on the wind.