The Line To Santa Marta

In El Salvador, a US rural electrification crew hooks up a village after country's civil war

THE government soldiers behind the sandbags at the checkpoint in Villa Victoria had never met a gringo like Bob Dalton before. He was not a journalist or a human-rights worker, the North Americans who frequently made their way to the battle front during El Salvador's 12-year civil war.

Mr. Dalton was an electric lineman, and he first barreled into the village last October in his white Chevy pickup with the Idaho plates and a hard hat on the seat beside him.

His appearance foreshadowed a major change in El Salvador. He and a crew of local men were building an electric line to serve the guerrilla village of Santa Marta, about four miles beyond Villa Victoria.

The electrification project started as a peace negotiation gambit, but it's become a serious effort to even out the social and economic inequities that fueled El Salvador's civil war.

Santa Marta is a cluster of adobe-walled, tin-roofed buildings lying in a bowl between dry hills. It looks like just another poor village, but during the war it was a major supply base for soldiers of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The idea for the electric line began when then-US ambassador William G. Walker spent a night in Santa Marta last September, petitioning the leaders of one of the five FMLN factions to speed the peace process.

"They admired Walker for having the guts to walk into the boca del tigre, the mouth of the tiger," says George Biddle, president of the Washington-based Institute for Central American Studies, a non-partisan research center.

Walker asked the rebels what the United States could do to show good faith. The FMLN asked for electricity for Santa Marta.

To the FMLN, "the electric line was the first sign that the US was serious about a peaceful El Salvador, evidence that the US wanted to help all of El Salvador, not just one side," says Mr. Biddle. A peace agreement was reached on Jan. 16.

When Dalton and his crew started work on the line, the only signs of guerrilla soldiers were a few shadowy figures watching impassively from a screen of trees.

Then one day they were surprised while eating lunch in the middle of Santa Marta. "There were 150 to 200 guerrillas marching toward us in full combat dress," Dalton says. "The crew all jumped into the back of my pickup. My first instinct was to run, but there was nowhere to go."

When a man at the front of the column carrying a briefcase and a .45-caliber pistol in one pocket asked who was in charge, all fingers pointed to Dalton.

Dalton explained the project as the man studied his business card.

"Then he said it was true that they wanted electricity, and that it was OK for a gringo to be in his town," says Dalton. The man was Raul Hercules, a high-ranking FMLN commandante who had just been flown back to Santa Marta in a United Nations helicopter from the peace talks in Mexico City.

From that point on, the guerrilla soldiers were friendly. One day a passing platoon suggested that the crew pack up for the day because a fight with the army was brewing. On the way back to Villa Victoria, Dalton recalls, mortar rounds began to fall in the hills behind them.

There was some irony in the FMLN request for electricity. During the war, one of the FMLN's favorite tactics was blowing up the power lines of the national utility, the Lempa River Hydroelectric Commission (known as CEL). A power line to Santa Marta will be connected to one of those same CEL lines.

It also is a sign of how highly valued electricity is in a country like El Salvador, where, in the most optimistic estimate, only 35 percent of the rural people have access to electricity. More than half the country's population of more than 5 million lives in rural areas.

The parts of the country controlled by the FMLN, a ribbon along the northern border with Honduras and parts of the central and eastern provinces, are historically among El Salvador's poorest.

The war left large stretches of these areas entirely empty, marked by an occasional roofless ruin of a home, former farm fields covered in scrub-tree growth, and roads that disappear into the tropical vegetation.

Soon after the fighting broke out in 1980, CEL abandoned what little electric service existed in these rural areas. Pockets of people on the edges of the war zones kept unmonitored (and unbilled) power flowing to their homes by attaching hot lines to trees where poles had been cut and by hiding transformers in their houses, running lines up through holes in their roofs.

To build the Santa Marta line, the US Agency for International Development contacted Dalton's company, the US-based National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which was at work on rural electrification in the secure areas of El Salvador.

A week after the peace agreement was signed, Dalton drove through Villa Victoria early in the morning on his way to set the first pole in Santa Marta. In the sun-filled central plaza, bordered by bullet-scarred buildings with red tile roofs and the whitewashed Roman Catholic church, off-duty soldiers played basketball with village kids. The checkpoint was deserted.

In Santa Marta, a company of FMLN soldiers were playing soccer, their weapons stacked under a tree. The soldiers drifted over to watch Dalton's crew digging holes, and several stayed to help hoist and wrestle the first poles into place.

"We need rural electrification to develop the country," Col. Sigifredo Ochoa, the president of CEL, had said earlier in the week. "We must help the veterans, of both the army and the FMLN, start new lives."

But the transition to peace will be hard for the soldiers, with or without electricity. Fredi, one of the FMLN soldiers who helped with the power poles, said, "It's good to have electricity in Santa Marta." But the 19-year-old didn't see himself settling down as a farmer or a businessman now that the war had ended.

He stepped back and watched Dalton and the others heave another pole into position. He had been in the FMLN army since he was 12. "Being a soldier is what I know," he said, before shifting his AK-47 automatic rifle over his shoulder and disappearing into the bush.

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