Chirilagua, El Salvador — Ernesto stands on the small bridge leading out of town. Over his shoulder is an M-16 rifle and strapped to his hip is a Belgian automatic pistol. Over the left-hand pocket on his khaki shirt are the letters ERP-FMLN. The embroidery was done by his wife.
Ernesto is the guerrillas' political commissar for Chirilagua. In his knapsack are a variety of pamphlets and other literature intended to entice people to join the rebels.
Two nights ago, Ernesto gathered town members to see a movie about the guerrilla coalition, the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). He himself belongs to the ERP (People's Revolutionary Army), one of the coalition's five member groups. The movie, filmed by a crew that travels with the guerrillas , included footage from recent military encounters.
After the film, the townspeople were invited to a dance. But few residents of the village felt comfortable enough with their occupiers to stay and socialize.
Despite these tensions, life in Chirilagua - as in most guerrilla-controlled zones in El Salvador - continues with a semblance of normality.
The town's local officials remain in office. The church choir still meets two nights a week to practice. And Salvadorean government employees have arrived twice since the Sept. 26 takeover of Chirilagua to collect the water and electric bills.
The guerrillas soft-pedal their ideology here - preferring in town meetings to speak of the social injustices of the present government rather than the structure of the society they hope to create. They have not collected tribute payments and, with a few exceptions, appear to respect private property.
Any vehicle in the town can be commandeered by the guerrillas at any moment, however. And, although the vehicles are always returned, owners complain about rough treatment of their cars.
The guerrillas, as usual, have outlawed the use of alcohol in Chirilagua. When they first arrived in the town, they took all the bottles of liquor from the two bars and smashed them on the pavement.
''We told the owners of the bars,'' Ernesto says, ''to sell something useful to the people, not a substance that helps blind them to the repression and injustice around them.''
In their own ranks, the drinking of alcohol is punishable by execution.
In controlled zones, the guerrillas espouse a nominal pluralism. But their philosophy is heavily doused with Marxist analysis and calls for a ''workers' state.''
''We fight because we are tired of being hungry, because we no longer want to live under the boot of the United States, the military, and the oligarchy,'' Ernesto says. ''We see them in luxury and our children without enough food. Of course we have an ideology, and that ideology includes a respect for Marx, but most guerrillas are not converted to the cause by ideas. They are converted by the murder of their families and friends, by the gross injustice that exists in El Salvador.
The guerrillas operate out of two large base camps in the north. The camps are heavily protected by mined roads, guerrilla patrols, and a communications system that includes the use of heavy field radios.
A patrol of 10 guerrillas, several of whom have walked all night from La Union, escort two other journalists and me up into the hills. Three captured soldiers, who are treated with courtesy by the guerrillas, walk with us.
After a three-hour climb we arrive at a field. Laid out on the field is a crude obstacle course that includes simulated barbed-wire barricades. Here recruits, many of them as young as 12 or 13 years of age, train for combat.
In a meadow outside the rebel camp, captured Army soldiers, who have been assured they will not be harmed, are placed in the middle of the guerrilla ranks and marched into camp. It is standard for guerrillas to hold captured soldiers for several days and then release them.
El Salvador's Army generally refuses to reinduct troops who have been captured. Exposure to rebels, military leaders think, is reason enough to suspect soldiers may have become sympathetic to the guerrillas.
On a recent visit to Ernesto's guerrilla camp, the first structure encountered by several journalists was a thatched hut with three open sides. In the hut are stockpiles of a variety of weapons, including 50-mm machine guns and mortars. Approximately 20 men and three women lounge in the hut. Most wear green fatigues.
Here the prisoners are separated from us for questioning. We are escorted up a small rise to two bamboo houses that make up the propaganda center.
The entire camp, which is home for scores of guerrillas, is decentralized to minimize the damage and losses caused by aerial bombing. The camp consists of a series of small clusters of houses. These clusters include a field hospital, a central command post, and at least one large kitchen that prepares food en masse for the troops.
Several people, including a Belgian woman who has been with the guerrillas for a year, are silk-screening T-shirts with a portrait of a guerrilla crouched in a palm grove. Several dozen shirts are hanging on lines to dry.
In one hut are a mimeograph machine and stacks of paper. Here communiques and regulations for occupied towns are drawn up.
We are brought plates of beans, tortillas, and cheese. The cook speaks to us shyly about imperialism and the dictatorship. Her phrases are rhetorical and stiff.
The man we have been brought to visit is Rogelio Poncel, a Roman Catholic priest froM Belgium. Fr. Poncel has been with the guerrillas for three years. He runs the propaganda arm for the ERP. Poncel does not carry arms. He is soft spoken and his blond hair is combed straight back.
''I have been in El Salvador since 1970,'' he says. ''It got to the point where I had buried too many of my friends . . . to continue nonviolent resistance. When you look at the number of political and labor leaders who were murdered in the late 1970s, it is not hard to understand why the people decided it was time to fight back.''
The return to Chirilagua is at night. Two armed guides give us flashlights and lead us up over razorback peaks. At the top of a ridge we look out over the milky glow of the Pacific Ocean. One guerrilla looks down at a flower folded up in the chilly evening air. ''At night the flowers sleep,'' he says, ''something we cannot do.''