El Salvador: A former guerrilla becomes a tour guide

By , Staff writer

LA MORA, EL SALVADOR – Dormant volcanoes and desolate Pacific beaches are the standard choices for tourists to El Salvador. But now, former Marxist guerrillas are trying to carve their own niche in the industry – offering tours that retrace their steps in the brutal 12-year civil war that took 75,000 lives.

Candelario Landaverde, who runs tours along the Guazapa volcano, where he fought for nearly a decade, says the idea is to preserve the national memory. “It is not because we cannot forgive,” he says, “but so that we never forget.”

This part of the country, an hour’s drive from the capital, San Salvador, is better known as a day-trip destination for fresh air in the countryside. But these hills, particularly this volcano, were a stronghold for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), former rebels fighting a US-funded military who transformed into a political party after they put down their arms. So Mr. Landaverde, with a group of other families in their tiny town of La Mora, offers tours on horseback or foot that pass trenches, a destroyed church, and a school that was once a rebel encampment.

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Peace accords were signed here in 1992, but this tiny Central American nation remains highly polarized. Landaverde, like most in this part of the country, clearly supports the FMLN, which just won presidential elections for the first time. The FMLN flag hangs across his simple brick home. He lost two sisters in the war. He says they were killed simply because they were related to him.

Throughout the area, hundreds of others also lost their lives. He calls the FMLN victory a new era. But the tourism project, he says, is driven by a need to conserve memories, not promote politics.

“We want people to know what happened on this mountain, especially the children,” he says. He has 11 of them. On a recent day he sends his second eldest, Milton, who was born in 1986, exactly in the middle of the war, to show visitors the old sites.

Tourists, who pay $14 for a three-hour tour on horseback, are shown dugouts where families hid for days at a time, and a bomb crater that is about 50 feet in diameter: It was formed in 1983 with 750 pounds of explosive.

The tours started four years ago but are just beginning to take off. Last year, 525 tourists signed up, largely from North America. The proceeds help the families, who mostly work in agriculture, and a portion goes to community projects, such as improvements for the local school. Other former fighters in the region are also setting up museums and “living history tours.”

“Across the country, we are all working to keep memories alive,” Landaverde says.

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