Sometimes Salvador rebels drop their guns - and go to the beach

Julio, a young guerrilla fighter, stands on the beach and watches the waves break on the sand. ''I have not seen the ocean for four months,'' the former fisherman says. ''Now I have seven days to see it and hear it again.''

Julio has been engaged in front-line combat on the Guazapa Volcano since August. His positions have come under almost daily attack from US-built A-37 fighter-bombers and periodic Army sweeps.

Julio said he joined the guerrillas after being picked up by the National Guard in his small coastal village a year ago.

''I had nothing to do with the guerrillas,'' he says. ''I had never ever thought of joining them until the Guard took me away and tortured me for being a sympathizer.''

Julio claims he escaped naked from a clandestine jail. ''I knew I could never go back to my home, so I came here.'' He stops, then adds that he now believes in ''the fight for a new society.''

This long, expansive beach was once the most coveted vacation spot in El Salvador. Its soft, white sand and graceful palm trees harbor the remains of once elegant beach homes.

Guerrillas have held the beach for more than a year. Those fighters who need a respite from combat can get leaves to El Espino for one or two weeks.

Located on a slender peninsula in southeast El Salvador, this balmy spot is reached by traveling for several hours through guerrilla-held territory. It can also be reached by taking a two-hour boat trip through gloomy mangrove swamps.

Often, as many as two dozen guerrillas can be found lounging on the beach, their uniforms and M-16 rifles stacked nearby.

''The Salvadorean Coast Guard,'' says Ralponi, a guerrilla commander, ''has new speedboats that race down along the beach. We all stand and wave.''

Encounters with the Coast Guard, however, are not always so amiable. Several fishermen have been shot, according to local residents and guerrillas, on suspicion they are trafficking in arms from Nicaragua.

Salvadorean and United States officials have long charged that this area is a major smuggling center for weapons and supplies arriving from Nicaragua.

''We buy arms from the international arms market,'' Ralponi said, ''so obviously they come in from outside the country, but I won't say how we receive them.''

''The enemy thinks we receive the arms at Majahue, a coastal town south of here. All I will say is that the arms do not come to El Espino,'' he says.

Coast Guard boats and a military plane that makes nightly reconnaissance missions are the only disruptions to the quiet life at Playa el Espino. Guerrillas regularly dine on what are luxuries to the insurgent fighters: fresh coffee, fish, eggs, and chicken. They sleep with nothing louder than the surf or a dog's bark to disturb them.

''It's a lot nicer than trying to sleep through border barrages,'' Julio says.

Local residents have grown accustomed to these intruders although they don't show any fondness for them.

''The first groups of guerrillas were awful,'' a man says. ''They did not pay for the goods they took and tried to control our lives. Many people here left. In the last few months they have been better, but I wouldn't say they have popular support.''

Many residents worry that the Army may move back into the area and that they could be caught in a cross fire.

''We are cut off from the world,'' says one woman, ''and cannot get supplies from Usulutan. The occupation has hurt us economically and created dismal living conditions.''

The beach houses are now mostly skeletons. Impoverished neighbors stripped their tile roofing, fixtures, and expensive wood. They scavenged the large houses until nothing remained but the walls and great stone patios overlooking the sea.

An elderly man and his daughter have moved into one such house. The man proudly shows off some of its rooms as if they were his own.

''We are just staying until the owner returns,'' he says. He swings open a door, revealing a room of beach furniture. ''When the owner of this house comes back,'' he said,''we will have lawn chairs waiting for him.''

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