The Road to Peace: Salvadorans Rediscovering the Freedom to Drive

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 30-mile route from downtown San Salvador to the northern city of Suchitoto took 45 minutes the other day, and except for a couple of city stoplights, a few jeep-swallowing potholes and the occasional road-hogging cow, there was nothing to slow down the drive.

That may not sound like much. But to anyone who has spent time in El Salvador in the last 12 years, that three-quarters of an hour of uneventful motoring was a true test of the times, a marking of the transition from war to peace, the end of one of the region's most vicious civil wars.

It is not just the freedom to drive that underscores Salvador at peace. There is construction everywhere--stores and houses in the cities, new farm-to-market roads and farmhouses in the country.

People are working, long-abandoned fields are being planted, new businesses are opening, money is flowing back into the country, and newer and newer cars are choking the roads.

Children also are returning to schools, and the politicians who once called for the deaths of opponents in the war are now busily seeking alliances with their erstwhile enemies.

But the ease of travel is what is most notable.

From 1980 and even up to a few weeks ago, it was impossible to just drive to Suchitoto, or in most other areas of El Salvador, including inside San Salvador itself. If there weren't roadblocks, there were mines or the possibility of ambushes by one side or the other.

And if those didn't stop you, then the bridges had been blown.

If you could get through on the roads themselves, then the army wouldn't extend the prerequisite passes, salvoconductos , or the rebel forces of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front would collect "war taxes." Or, if they were particularly angry, they would burn your vehicle .

There were constant, pervasive army patrols and sudden inspections for bombs, contraband, arms, even men. And always there were the tumulos , the Salvadoran name for unmarked speed bumps arranged around military and government facilities, near bridges and often, for no apparent reason, just in the middle of the road. Some wags called these "war by speed bumps," and hitting one unawares made sense out of the name tumulo , which, in standard Spanish, means tomb or tombstone.

Now, they are all gone--the roadblocks, the salvoconductos, the war taxes, the ambushes, even the tumulos . They all have been removed to mark the first peace since the war assumed national proportions in 1980. You can drive past the president's home and the military headquarters without hindrance.

Still, not everything smells of roses. City workers in San Salvador are on strike because wage increases have not kept pace with sudden economic growth, and the streets are increasingly littered with stinking, uncollected garbage.

But in most ways, life has become so routine it is easy to forget that only a few weeks ago, Salvador's night music was the sound of gunfire and bombs.

If there are problems on the streets, they are caused by an enormous increase in cars; the Toyota distributor here reports an increase in sales of more than 25% since February, most of it in luxury models. And like bears emerging from hibernation caves, the really fancy cars are sliding out of garages and taking their places in the sun.

"I haven't driven my (Mercedes) in years," one doctor said. "It was a target before for any guerrilla who wanted to make a point. Now I can take it anywhere. I just wish there weren't so many potholes."

Potholes there are. But more and more of the country is beginning to look good, at least if new buildings are a sign of prosperity. Salvadorans who have been taking money out of the country for a decade or more are bringing it back.

According to foreign economic experts, dollars are flowing into the country at a rate of more than $700 million a year, an increase of more than $200 million from 1991.

Most of this "remittance money" comes from Salvadorans living in the United States. But the current increase is attributed to wealthy Salvadorans who had invested abroad because of the war.

This is all happening, one U.S. economic expert said, without any serious foreign investment. "It's still too early for a lot of outside money," the economist said. "But when people are confident that war is truly over, investment will grow. Salvadorans work hard, are well-trained, and the government is honest and pretty efficient. The money will come."

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