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Undercurrent of Fear--and a Guerrilla Bomb : In Tenancingo, a Peasant Does His Duty

Times Staff Writer

At exactly 8:05 Sunday morning, Jorge Alvarenga cast the first vote in Tenancingo for president of El Salvador. At the moment he marked his ballot, a guerrilla bomb shook the town, and Roman Catholics attending Palm Sunday Mass across the square began singing, “We are the children of God.”

It may have appeared a chaotic time, but the 67-year-old peasant was not deterred from his duty.

Casting his vote, he said, was what he had to do to keep “something bad from happening.”

End to Violence, Terror

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That “something” is the return of the violence and terror that have left this town’s 1,000 residents fearful of the guerrillas and resentful of the Salvadoran military.

Tenancingo sits in a valley at the end of a rutted dirt road eight miles from the nearest other settlement and in the center of an area that has been the site of almost constant fighting since the country’s civil war broke out nine years ago.

In 1983 the town was nearly blown to bits and 40 of its people were killed when military planes bombed the area because Marxist guerrillas were suspected of hiding there.

The people fled, staying away until January, 1986, when the Catholic Church devised a plan by which both the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front and the army agreed to leave Tenancingo in peace if the other side did.

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Now, with their own hands, the townspeople are rebuilding.

However, first the army and then the guerrillas broke the agreement, and the area lately has been the site of skirmishes and constant tension.

Salvadoran law requires that all eligible voters cast ballots.

And on Sunday, with a company of soldiers--in full battle gear and camouflage face paint--looking on here in Tenancingo, voting seemed the thing to do.

Undercurrent of Fear

But the guerrillas called threateningly for an election boycott, and even as votes were cast, there was an undercurrent of fear in the town.

Although the soldiers had been here for three days, freshly painted guerrilla slogans festooned buildings around the open plaza where the ballot boxes were set up.

Sitting under a black-lettered sign that demanded “Everyone Prepare for the Grand Popular Uprising” after casting his vote, Alvarenga spent 15 minutes trying to rub off the indelible ink the election officials had forced him to put on his right little finger to show that he had voted.

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Another voter, a barefoot farmer called Paulino who had walked two hours from his home to vote, said, “I always vote; they say it’s my duty.”

Rubbed Until It Bled

Afterward, however, Paulino was so anxious to get rid of the telltale mark that he rubbed his little finger on the concrete pavement of the town plaza until it bled. But the stain remained.

Nevertheless, Paulino was remarkably wry.

“It’s not important; none of them (the candidates) is worth anything,” he said with a grin.

While most of the townspeople refused to say what candidate they supported, Paulino acknowledged voting for the National Conciliation Party, which once was the handmaiden of the military government that ruled the country until 1979.

Attracted to Rainbow Symbol

However, he said he was also attracted to the socialist Democratic Convergence because its symbol, a rainbow, “was the most beautiful.”

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By the time voting had gone on for two hours, about half the town’s 511 registered voters had shoved their folded ballots into the clear plastic bags used as vote boxes.

Dozens more people, mostly barefoot, the women carrying parasols against the hot sun, were trudging into town to add their ballots. And another bomb had gone off.


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