City of Metapan on Alert as Rebel Threat Grows : Rare Island of Peace in Salvador Braces for War

Times Staff Writer

For 7 1/2 years, while much of El Salvador has been torn by war, Metapan and its 25,000 people have been spared.

Now Metapan is a city waiting to be attacked.

Perched in the northwest province of Santa Ana, near the Guatemalan border, Metapan is a prosperous city in a country where nearly half of the people are jobless--calm and charming when all about it there is chaos.

But to the east, guerrilla forces are gathering, and they aim to disrupt the tranquillity.


Metapan may be a place apart, but the rest of Santa Ana province is in as sorry a state as any place in El Salvador. Unemployment in the city of Santa Ana, the provincial capital, is estimated at 52%--and up to 70% in the rural areas.

Because of actual and threatened guerrilla raids, labor disputes and a restrictive government pricing policy, coffee production--which forms the region’s economic base--is said to be down to about 40% of normal.

With coffee production down so sharply, about 60% of the province’s workers, who depend on the three-month coffee harvest for their income, are in for even harder times than usual.

Marco Rene Revelo, the Roman Catholic bishop of Santa Ana, told an interviewer recently: “We have unemployment and hunger, great unemployment. There is more violence, and 15 factories have been closed by subversion because of unions.”

Six years ago, Bishop Marco was a conservative who firmly supported right-wing political movements and had little sympathy for the plight of working people. Now, his attitude toward the economic and political situation is altogether different.

“The coffee growers are the most reactionary regarding social concerns,” he said, adding that on some farms, the workers get a pay raise only when the guerrillas threaten the owners.

Urges Talks With Rebels

He said peace will come only as the result of a negotiated settlement with the guerrillas--a position sharply at odds with the growers and the powerful political right.


According to Col. Benjamin Ramos Mendoza, commander of the army’s 2nd Brigade, there are 250 armed rebels in the region, members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. They are augmented, he said, by an unknown number of part-time guerrillas who can be called on for special tasks. Some diplomats estimate that this support force numbers in the thousands.

“It is possible we could have a major attack,” Col. Ramos said in an interview at his headquarters in Santa Ana.

“There is a central electrical facility at (nearby) Guajoyo that provides 70% of all the electricity in the west and 40% of all the country’s power. And the country’s only cement factories are in Metapan. If they were destroyed, it would paralyze the country.”

Most of the guerrilla activity, the colonel said, is in this general area, and the guerrillas have significant popular support here.


In addition, he said, there has been considerable migration into the area around Metapan from the province of Chalatenango to the east, where the guerrilla forces virtually control the countryside.

Bishop Marco supports this assessment.

‘Psychosis of War’

“There has been peace here in recent years,” the prelate said, “but now we have migration from the east. . . . There is a basic psychosis of war here, a growing fear of attack.”


Col. Ramos, who is nearing retirement, has a reputation for being willing to leave the barracks, but he is also known for an occasional violation of human rights.

He has about 1,200 soldiers and a few hundred National Guardsmen and police to patrol and defend El Salvador’s largest province. He has no helicopters, a single armored patrol vehicle, a couple of armored personnel carriers and a handful of pickup trucks.

He says the fighting in his area has been light since the last big rebel attacks four years ago. There have been only 26 army casualties in the past year.

Mayor Miguel Angel Valencia of Santa Ana says guerrilla activity is picking up.


“There are many attacks,” he told a reporter. “They hit electric power lines just 6 miles from town. Two months ago, they put two bombs in front of my house.”

Valencia, who owns a bakery, said there “is much resentment here” and a lack of commitment by the rich to improve the quality of life.

“I can feel the pressure,” he said. “There are people here who give (the guerrillas) guns and money. They are organized. They occupy five of the hills that surround the city. Half of the (outlying villages) are subversive.”

Every day, Radio Venceremos, the guerrillas’ clandestine transmitter, broadcasts a list of attacks in the region. The newspapers run articles, citing army sources, that describe ambushes and other incidents.


Col. Ramos is not sitting idly by. He has put two companies of soldiers in the big Guajoyo electric power plant and additional companies in the hills nearby.

In a departure from past practice, the positions are strong and well sited. The troops in the hills have sown mines and put up electrified fences.

The road to Metapan is patrolled regularly. But contrary to the advice of American military trainers, the patrols are seldom out at night. At twilight they can be seen waiting to be picked up and taken into Santa Ana.

Yet some units seem to be in a state of high readiness, eager to fight. Lt. Carlos Mena, a paratrooper trained at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and commanding officer of the contingent at the Guajoyo plant, told a reporter: “There is no war here now. We are prepared, but there is no war. I want war.”


Experts say the army needs a 10-to-1 manpower advantage in order to defeat a guerrilla movement. Col. Ramos’ force falls short of this, but he has been recruiting a civil defense force to guard the more important towns in his region, among them Metapan.

Not Too Impressive

At this stage, the civil defense force is not very impressive. It consists of 80 men, only 10 of whom are full-time, and the men are paid the equivalent of $40 to $50 a month. Only the commander, a former army sergeant, and a couple of others have had any formal training.

Their post is a house near the center of town, nowhere near any strategic target. There is a small bunker and a handmade sign that says this is a military zone.


The men are equipped with old American M-14 rifles and European G-3s. They have no grenades or machine guns. They appear to be older than regular army men.

Because all but five of them live in Metapan, their knowledge of the place is considered a plus. But at least one of them, Jose Contreras, 24, their commander, seemed less than well-informed. In response to a reporter’s question, he replied: “There are rumors of guerrillas in the area, but I don’t think there are any in town.”