Salvador war: why one young man joins the guerrillas

The night air was cool. The stillness was broken only by an occasional song of a bird. Overhead a few stars blinked.

We entered a makeshift compound of several ramshackle buildings - a guerrilla lair.

Its exact location is hard to pinpoint. But it's somewhere near the small town of Apopa, a scant 30-minutes drive north of San Salvador, the Salvadoran capital.

There was virtually no noise as shadowy figures darted quickly from one hut to another. One of the huts served as a command post. Its walls were partially eroded away by time and its roof covered only part of the one room inside.

''We don't have much time to talk,'' a voice from the corner said. ''We have word the Army is headed this way and we need to move on to a better location.''

But we had 20 minutes to talk before the guerrillas moved on.

''The Army is changing its tactics,'' the voice stated. ''But we know where they are.

And when they come here we won't be here.''

The voice was that of Fabio. That was the only name he would use. He admitted it was not his real name.

Fabio said he grew up in San Salvador ''in a middle-class family.'' He went to university at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador, majoring in economics. ''But the more I thought of Salvador's backwardness, the more I questioned whether I could go on studying while the majority of Salvadorans were eking out so poor a living. Poverty is everywhere in this country.''

Asked if he is a Marxist, Fabio replied: ''No, I guess not, but Marxism is not the bogey man that it is made out to be. It is just another way of solving our dilemmas.''

He then said: ''We are not all Marxists fighting against the brutal tyranny of the Duarte government. We are Salvadorans wanting a better life for other Salvadorans.''

It is hard to gauge in a brief encounter how sincere Fabio and the others are in their disclaimers of the Marxist influence on the guerrillas. ''Sure, some of our leaders are Marxist. Some of my teachers were also,'' he said.

But Fabio's parents, still living in San Salvador, support the government -- that of Christian Democratic leader Jose Napoleon Duarte. ''I hear of them from time to time. They have their beliefs and I have mine.''

There's deep estrangement between them, he admitted. ''They think they have lost a son. I think I may have lost my parents,'' he adds.

Fabio says that there are many guerrillas like him - with parents who totally reject the guerrilla cause. ''Look at Morales Erhlich,'' he says, referring to Jose Antonio Morales Erhlich, a member of the governing junta, who has two sons who are guerrillas, one of whom languishes in a government prison following his capture a year ago.

''We've lost some men recently,'' Fabio says in answer to a question about guerrilla casualties. ''Two were captured last week. We'll probably never see them again.''

Having come from a middle-class, somewhat comfortable background, do the rigors of guerrilla combat and rugged living conditions get to him?

''Not really,'' he says. ''After all, I have been here for three years. This is my way of life now. Oh, at first, they did. But that was a long time ago.''

Fabio did not want to talk about guerrilla strategy or about the sort of El Salvador that would be set up if the guerrillas -- perhaps 5,000 strong today -- gain control.

''That is for others. I take orders and do the fighting,'' he comments self-effacingly.

Nor would Fabio indicate to which of the five major guerrilla groups he belonged. ''That is a state secret,'' he said, laughing.

It is known, however, that the Fuerzas Populares de Liberacion, headed by Salvador Cayetano Carpio, are active in the region north of San Salvador.

Yet Fabio and his men could belong to another grouping -- or could even be freelancers associated, but not directly under the control of one of the groups. Given Fabio's three years as a guerrilla, this latter is unlikely.

It was difficult in the dark to make out faces, to see the weapons carried by the guerrillas, or much of any of their equipment. But there could be no doubt they possessed tremendous fire power.

Fabio complained that the people of El Salvador ''are frightened. They do not help us as much as before because they live in fear of the Army and its retribution to anyone friendly or suspected of being friendly to us.''

Asked, if maybe the people were saying, in effect, that they have had enough violence and that they want peace, as many observers read the message of recent balloting for the constituent assembly, Fabio answered:

''Sure everyone wants peace, but there will be no peace until the butchers of the people in San Salvador are removed and a new order is established.''

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