A New Rebellion in an Old Conflict

Special to The Times

The young men ran across the street, their faces covered with bandannas. One fired an automatic weapon, imitating the guerrilla warfare of an earlier generation.

The actions of the men, photographed at a demonstration here last month that left two police officers dead, have reverberated deeply in Salvadoran society, leading many to wonder whether the bad old days of civil war might return.

“We have to admit that a new revolutionary fringe is forming,” said Beatrice Alamanni de Carrillo, El Salvador’s ombudswoman for human rights. “It’s an open secret.”


A 1992 peace treaty between El Salvador’s right-wing government and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, brought this country’s civil war to an end after more than a decade of guerrilla warfare and government-sanctioned killings and massacres. The FMLN became a legitimate party and entered politics.

But frustration with the country’s lingering poverty, and the continuing political domination of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, has fed a growing discontent within the ranks of the FMLN, analysts say.

“This is a very patient country where the people have not yet seen any solution to their social and economic problems,” said Leonel Gomez, a political analyst here who has worked as an investigator on several U.S. congressional inquiries. “If there are no solutions, people start to yell. If you don’t answer them, they yell more. If even then you don’t listen to them, they will start to shoot at you.”

The attack on police officers occurred during a student demonstration outside the National University, the scene of many violent and tragic protests during the civil war. The incident began as a peaceful protest of increases in bus fares and utility rates.

According to news and police reports, a group of radical FMLN activists known as the Limon Brigade from the San Salvador suburb of Mejicanos was responsible for the attack. Many have parents who fought and died in the civil war, sources close to the group say.

“They come from a culture of social consciousness,” said one source who asked not to be named. “They live in poverty and in a community which has been packed with weapons” since a 1989 guerrilla offensive.

Photographs captured at least one young man firing an automatic weapon. Police and news reports later identified him as Jose Mario Belloso, a leader of the Limon Brigade who had held positions in the FMLN-controlled Mejicanos city government as recently as 2003. At one point, he was elected to the Mejicanos City Council.

FMLN officials said Belloso was expelled from the party last year for disobeying orders from party leaders. He remains at large.

After the incident, the FMLN issued a statement declaring its “emphatic condemnation of the use of violence.”

But the same communique called on the government to “revive” the 1992 peace treaty, saying that several provisions of the agreement are no longer being enforced.

One complaint repeated often by FMLN leaders and human rights activists is that former members of right-wing death squads hold key positions in the country’s police forces.

“We signed the treaty, but we’ve never lived the peace,” said Gregorio Rosa Chavez, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador. “Reconciliation is not just based on healing wounds, but also on healing them well.... People are losing confidence in the institutions.”

The overwhelming majority of FMLN activists and supporters have not given up on Salvadoran democracy, analysts say. But the members of the Limon Brigade and other groups think the party leadership has failed to offer strong resistance to the austerity policies and anti-crime measures of the government of conservative President Tony Saca.

“The only thing we’ve produced after the peace accords is more crime and more hunger,” Gomez said. “What these young people are saying is that they are revolutionaries.”

Saca accused leftist leaders of being involved in the deadly protest and other violent demonstrations.

“If we look at the burning of buses, the blockade of streets ... the takeovers of the [National] Cathedral, we can see that in all of these incidents the same people are present, and that they belong to groups linked to the FMLN,” Saca told the newspaper El Diario de Hoy.

“It’s necessary, for the health of our democracy, that the FMLN disassociate itself completely” from these groups.

Times staff writer Tobar reported from Mexico City and special correspondent Renderos from San Salvador.