From the archives: Determined to Win the War

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

LAS MARIAS, El Salvador -- Margarita is much like other 15-year-old girls. She giggles when boys look at her, blushes when complimented on the pink barrettes in her hair and tries to keep her fingernails smooth and shapely.

But there is grime beneath her nails from crawling in the dirt, and the barrettes are to keep her long hair out of her eyes when she peers along the sights of her M-16 rifle. She carries the rifle slung over her right shoulder as other girls would carry a purse.

There is no girlish naivete about Margarita as she says in a hard voice that belies her soft smile, “I know I’m going to die.”

Nor is there any innocence about Tonio, a 20-year-old Marxist revolutionary with a ready grin and a nine-year history of killing soldiers.

“I joined the fight when the government killed my mother,” he said. “The army thinks that killing your family will get you down. Instead, it gets you up for the struggle.”

Tonio and Margarita are members of a large, well-organized guerrilla force that has taken control of a mountainous area in eastern El Salvador. The guerrillas’ control is so complete that they train on an open field in broad daylight, send patrols along major roads and put on outdoor dances for their people and the local populace--all within three miles of a large government military base in a region the army says has been pacified.

These hard-core fighters, members of the most militant elements of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, say they are ready for a new wave of insurrection that, as Margarita put it, “will make all this into an inferno.”

A reporter talked with Tonio and Margarita not far from here on the slope of an extinct volcano at the end of a 2 1/2-hour hike over trails covered with choking dust.

Early in El Salvador’s nine-year civil war, this part of the province of Usulutan was bitterly fought over, but in recent years the government has claimed control of it. To enter the area, journalists do not need the safe-conduct pass required by the army for travel in so-called conflicted zones.

Absence of Soldiers

But the guerrillas have a different view of who controls the area.

“The soldiers don’t come here anymore,” Tonio said.

The area’s once-rich coffee plantations are abandoned except for the guerrillas, who are using them as a headquarters and as housing for themselves and their families.

Most of the buildings, including the government waterworks, have been daubed with red and black slogans extolling the rebellion. “The Revolution will end the oppression,” one says. It is signed by the Communist Party of El Salvador and the Armed Liberation Forces, with a hammer and sickle added for emphasis.

Like other guerrilla graffiti in the area, the slogan had obviously been here for some time. More than likely, it would have been painted over if the army patrolled here regularly.

Not Far From the Capital

Unlike other areas of heavy guerrilla presence--for example, northern Morazan and Chalatenango provinces, which are remote and economically unimportant--this area of Usulutan is only about two hours by car from San Salvador. It is agriculturally rich and lies between the capital and the strategically important city of San Miguel.

The area seems so secure from military interference or government presence of any kind that it might be called a “liberated zone.”

The guerrillas run a printing plant turning out propaganda and a munitions factory turning out grenades, mortars, mines and bombs. In nearby towns, the guerrillas control the water supply and other services normally run by the government.

Uniformed, heavily armed guerrillas stand guard on the main road, directing visitors to the coffee plantation offices now used by the rebels, who make no effort to hide their presence or their purpose. Periodically, a three- or four-member patrol can be seen along the road.

Residents Called to Meeting

So complete is their control that last Sunday the guerrilla leaders were busy with a meeting for local residents called in to hear political lectures and a forecast of how the guerrillas plan to react--violently--if the current peace effort collapses.

In the evening there was a dance for the residents and the militia, also known as the masses--people who work at their jobs during the day and fight at night and also provide communications, logistics and intelligence services for the guerrillas. No one would say how many militiamen there are, except that the number is “enough.”

The lack of concern about the army was evident. Margarita and Tonio, along with seven other members of their unit, were relaxing in a grove of trees. No guards had been posted. They said they are protected by the local residents, who warn them if anyone approaches.

En route to the guerrilla area, the way had been pointed out by peasants who scrape out a living chopping wood and growing corn. The peasants wanted assurance that the visitors were not government agents. For the last 100 yards or so, the visitors were guided by a barefoot, 6-year-old boy who knew exactly where the guerrillas were, whether resting, lunching or napping.

At one point, some of the guerrillas, who have been fighting as a unit for the last two years, turned out on a soccer field for training, running and marching with their weapons across the open ground.

Even when an army helicopter passed overhead--it was the only sign of the military throughout the day--the guerrillas stood and watched, showing only a trace of the nervousness felt by their visitors.

Tonio was the leader of the group, which included Margarita; another girl, Elsa, and six other people ranging in age from 14 to 18.

The two girls were the communications team. They carried Japanese radios they said had been purchased commercially. All carried rifles, among them American-designed M-16s and Israeli Galils seized, like their uniforms, from the U.S.-supplied Salvadoran army.

Tonio, who stood out in a sleeveless purple T-shirt and black trousers, carried an AK-47, the Soviet-designed counterpart to the M-16.

“We’ve got new rifles,” he said. “We bought them from the Contras.”

New Armament Factor

This is a new factor in the guerrillas’ armament. Until recently, the guerrillas had been supplied largely with American weapons left behind in Vietnam. Now, the rebels say, AK-47s are cheap and plentiful on the Central American black market. The Contras, they say, have been selling them as their war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua collapses.

U.S. officials deny that Contras are selling their arms. They say these weapons are being shipped in directly from Nicaragua, across the Gulf of Fonseca.

The rebels here are equally well-equipped with revolutionary rhetoric. Margarita, explaining why she joined la lucha (the struggle), said: “I saw misery in the country. My father was killed by the army when I was 8. We are going to win. We are waiting, and when the commanders say, ‘Now,’ we will go. I know I will die, but I will know why, that this country will be free.”

Tonio put in: “The people are with us. The insurrection will raise the people; it will give power to the people.”

To some extent, the guerrillas in this area are doing what the late Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung said guerrillas have to do to succeed--swimming in the sea of the people.

Help From Peasants

Here the peasants feed the guerrillas, protect them, provide them with intelligence by spying on the military, inform on anyone with government sympathies and, increasingly, supply manpower.

U.S. and Salvadoran government sources say the total FMLN fighting force is about 7,000, but others estimate first-line rebel strength at 10,000, plus perhaps 40,000 supporters and sympathizers.

Many of the new recruits appear to be almost children. Except for a commander named Luis, who is 29, no one encountered in the rebel area was older than 20. Most of the newest guerrillas were 12 to 15 years old.

“We are fighting for the next generation,” a guerrilla leader said, “so it is only right that they be permitted to join the struggle.”

The Heart of A War Zone The war in El Salvador has taken a heavy toll on the nation’s young. Some of them have grown into hard-core fighters, members of the most militant elements of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, who say they are ready for a new wave of insurretion. Lined areas show three key provinces, all of which have a heavy guerilla presence.