VIDEO GUERRILLAS. Salvadorean rebels videotape their cause, then smuggle cassettes to US

What is on the gift list for any modern guerrilla? Rifles, bombs, planes, medical supplies, ... a portable video camera, and a videocassette recorder. Recent reports indicate that agents of the Salvadorean government are using death squad-type tactics - threats and torture - to propagate their message in the United States.

But the antigovernment Faribundo Marti para Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) is using a new tactic in guerrilla warfare - circulating videocassettes that tell its side of the story.

Today camera-toting guerrillas record their struggle in vibrant color on cassettes that are sent by courier to Mexico and thence to US border towns to be translated for American audiences.

The enterprising video guerrillas, who buy many of their VCRs and video cameras along the US border, have taped a wide variety of cassettes since 1980.

Their videos include outright propaganda vehicles complete with stirring Hispanic folk music and soulful-eyed ``commandantes'' wearing bandanas over their faces. The 40-minute ``Time for Courage,'' for example, portrays a poverty-striken El Salvador with a wealthy elite, brutal government Army, and widespread support for an FMLN that is shown winning against government forces. Other videos include, ``Sowing Hope,'' the story of the struggle of the Roman Catholic Church against the Salvadorean government, and for women, ``Clelia,'' about a beautiful commandante who organized Salvador's political prisoners in the early 1980s and died shortly afterward in battle.

The FMLN also uses its video cameras to film guerrilla warfare lessons for use in El Salvador, says an FMLN supporter who asked to remain anonymous. Topics include building bombs and making a bullet out of an empty shell. Also filmed are videos for political and health education.

The cassettes - produced, according to the credits, by Radio Venceremos, the FMLN news network - are targeted at Spanish-speaking audiences throughout Latin America, says the FMLN supporter. But more and more they are being carefully distributed to groups in the United States and Europe, particularly groups associated with the sanctuary movement and religious, human rights, and Central American organizations.

``They are used to stimulate solidarity groups,'' says the supporter who helps to distribute the videos in the US. ``If they have a commandante from the FMLN talk to them directly, they feel more involved. And they are more knowledgeable.''

The idea is that the way to get the average man's attention is through his VCR. ``The video is for people who don't go in for militancy, are not in academia where all the information is available, or don't read major newspapers or magazines,'' the video distributor says.

Videos could develop into a powerful political tool, says Stan Pinkwas, managing editor of Video Magazine in New York.

``Look what happened when Khomeini used audio tapes,'' he says. ``They were a very potent political weapon'' that gave the Ayatollah widespread access to the Iranian populus while he was still in exile in France.

The FMLN is not alone its adaptation of video culture. Everybody's doing it, says the distributor, adding that there are videos depicting the struggles of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and the Shining Path in Peru.

The phenomenon is also occurring within the US where groups on both sides of the political fence are producing videos. Some peace and antinuclear organizations use videos and, Mr. Pinkwas says, a video prepared and distributed by conservative opponents of former California Supreme Court Judge Rose Bird was instrumental to her electoral loss.

The political video trend has gone mainstream as well, with unions and members of the Democratic and Republican Parties, in particular congressional challengers, taking advantage of reasonably priced home video equipment. Campaign staffs, Pinkwas says, are using video as a media to get around newspapers and television and into people's homes.

``They have video `Tupperware' parties,'' he says. ``Instead of sending a candidate stumping around, they send the video stumping.''

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