Red Star Over Salvador
© by Scott Wallace
The more time you spent inside the air-conditioned journalistic incest at the Camino Real, the more isolated and out of synch you felt. That’s when I’d park myself in front of the huge topographic map of El Salvador, 1:100,000 scale, in the CBS bureau. A map of the U.S. on that scale would have covered an entire football field. It would mesmerize, that map, with its full-blown yellow and green contours that suggested steep mountain hollows and meandering brooks, and the countless hamlets with exotic names — Anamoros, Santa Clara, Yamabal, Cacahuatique — places where nobody on the Second Floor was going to and where you knew you’d find the war for yourself, in all its living color. Every office had that map, stretching the length and height of an entire wall. They were covered with clear plastic overlays smeared with grease pencils showing the zones controlled by the five rebel armies of the Farabundo Marti, zones that were up for grabs, Army garrisons, alleged arms smuggling routes…
No other country in Central America, much less any of the others locked in guerrilla war, made maps of such detail available to the public. During a one-year stretch, their sale was suspended in Salvador too, but then we heard the Geological Institute was cranking them out again. We all went down and bought them out — they came in six separate pieces — and we carried them with us on forays into the countryside. They became our guide for exploring the war zones. But even so, you had to keep them under wraps, not strewn out on the backseat. Being caught with them at an Army rockblock would arouse suspicions that you were headed to remote locations they didn’t want you to get to. And if the guerrillas found them in your car, good chance at the very least they would confiscate them for their own use.
One afternoon in brilliant sunlight, I peeled off on to a backroad I’d never been up before, toward the mountain-ringed village of Anamoros. The rebels had overwhelmed the Army garrison there days before, so they were obviously operating in the zone. I expected to run into them sooner or later along that road, at least by the time I reached the village. After consulting the map at the turnoff from the Military Road, I tossed it on the backseat and forgot it there, until about a half-hour later, when I rounded a bend and saw a dozen or so well armed men blocking the dirt road up ahead. “Oh, shit,” I thought. No chance of turning back, no time to reach around and rein in the map. The men were wearing black uniforms, with no insignias or shoulder patches, and they were waving me to a halt. Some of them had beards, not normal Army protocol. Nonetheless, I had heard about government soldiers who deliberately obfuscated their identity in order to confuse and intimidate. These guys were irregulars, but they were too neatly outfitted, and their uniforms were too homogenous; they had an air that suggested government forces.
I saluted them through the windshield, presented my Army press credentials, and before they had time to poke around the backseat, I pulled out the map, spread it over the hood of the car and said: “So, brothers, tell me. What’s going on in the zone?” Now they were no longer sure who I was. “We’re on a sweep through here,” their evident leader said. “But what did you come up here looking for – the terrorists?” This was no time for equivocation. “Not at all,” I said. “My Colonel Cruz told me the Army had taken control of the area again, so I came up to have a look.” It was not entirely untrue. I had indeed been with Col. Cruz only the day before. But rather than assuring me of the Army’s presence in the zone, Cruz ranted about guerrillas, outraged that they’d overwhelmed his native town, Anamoros. The soldiers let me pass, and I imagined them watching my car disappear in a plume of dust in the direction of the looming mountains. As long as they thought I might be someone on a mission — who knows? an advisor? CIA? — I had bought myself some breathing space, I’d be all right. But I stuffed the maps way down under the seat and vowed never to get caught with them out in the open again.
Even smaller maps had the power to fire the brain. There was a tour map put out by Texaco, and it showed the land in a deep electric green. It was actually of little use out in the field, once you turned off either of the two long, lonely lines of red that marked the main highways that spanned Salvador — the Pan-American and the Litoral. A blazing Texaco star indicated the location of each pumping station in the country, and the map jumped with them. Highlighted against the gray ruffles of mountain ranges, the little red stars looked like flash-points on a TV graphic, and indeed, many of them were. At a glance, you could see that Texaco was well represented in El Salvador — or had been, back in the days when the map was drawn. By now, the war had reduced many filling stations to graffiti-dappled ruins, with wild vines climbing up the signposts, strangling the tattered Red Stars, hell-bent, it seemed, on dragging the whole mess back into the jungle for good.