Decline, and near fall, of a Salvador town swept up in civil war

The morning rain has cleared Suchitoto's main cobblestone street. Vendors stand under the eves of white and gray stucco buildings with newspapers over their heads and tomatoes, radishes, bananas, and oranges at their feet.

These fruits and vegetables are all that made it through rebel barricades today.

''We are happy that the truck could come today, and we are happy for the oranges. We have been three days without oranges,'' says a vendor who earns about 10 cents a day.

Suchitoto, population 6,000, lies on the edge of Lake Suchitlan. The town is surrounded by rolling fertile hills - and by the rebel army.

Before the civil war, Suchitoto had 15,000 residents. It has suffered a decline common to villages and towns in or near conflictive zones.

There have been three major assaults on Suchitoto by leftist guerrillas. With each attack, the population declines as frightened residents flee.

The latest battle occurred March 16. The rebels pinned the beleaguered government forces - made up of 150 National Guardsmen and National Police - in their fortified compounds at the edge until Army helicopters ferried in reinforcements.

The pockmarked walls of the town's two military headquarters attest to a precarious future here.

''We now have, about 10 percent of the native population left,'' says Mayor Miguel Antonio Melgar, interviewed in his shoe store. ''The rest are gone and their abandoned houses have been taken over by displaced people from the countryside.''

The rural area around Suchitoto was once dominated by a few large sugar-cane estates and mills. These farms have been closed or destroyed.

Peasants earned wages during the four-month harvest season and farmed subsistence plots, or were migrants the rest of the year.

Migrants and farm workers formed a union in 1964 to push for better wages, land redistribution, and lower prices for seeds and fertilizer.

By the late 1970s there were repeated clashes between this Christian Federation of Salvadorean Peasants and government troops, who sided with the large estate owners. Union leaders were regularly imprisoned, tortured. Sometimes they were killed.

When the government completed work on a giant hydroelectric dam at Cerron Grande in 1976, lower farmlands were flooded, displacing some 15,000 peasants. Some of the peasants were meagerly compensated and others were not compensated at all.

Protests by union members in Aguilares, Chalatenango, and Suchitoto ended in violence. Union leaders were forced underground.

''There was nothing else for a poor peasant to do but join the guerrillas,'' says Francisco Figeroa Pineda, manager of the town's credit union. ''They were horribly exploited by the wealthy landowners and every avenue for peaceful social change was closed to them.''

Life in Suchitoto became a nightmare as the rebel forces began to attack isolated Army outposts and to ambush troops. The military authorities, under siege, began to strike back with venom.

''It was the death squads that drove the people out of Suchitoto,'' says a lifelong resident who relays the information in a hoarse whisper. ''Everyone became a suspect. Mutilated bodies were appearing every morning on the roadside. Suddenly our town was enveloped by a horror we could never have imagined.''

Between 1979 and 1981 the demographics of the town changed rapidly. Stores and the two local schools closed, houses were boarded up and hundreds of displaced people streamed in to escape battles.

''There were 29 small villages in the region around Suchitoto,'' says Mayor Melgar, ''now there are none.''

Death squad murders ended two years ago when guerrillas assassinated reputed members of the terrorist groups. ''They even killed the relatives of those who participated in the death squads,'' one resident says.

By 1983 the area around Suchitoto had become a free fire zone. The army mined all roads into town, except one. Electricity was terminated by rebel sabotage.

The only road leading into Suchitoto is rarely traveled. It is littered with stone barricades that are often manned by guerrillas who ask for financial contributions or give talks on rebel ideology to travelers.

The townspeople feel isolated. Guerrillas forced 14 of the town's youth into the rebel forces.

National Guardsmen and National Police who attempt to leave or enter Suchitoto do so in civilian clothes. Many will only leave or enter the town by helicopter. Those in the civil defense rarely leave at all.

''The guerrillas know who we are,'' says Antonio Guardara, his wooden stock rifle across his legs, ''and if they see us traveling down the road, they will shoot.''

The main employer in the town is the United States. The US Agency for International Development funds a road construction project, paying 300 people $ 1.50 a day.

''If it were not for this project we would not eat,'' one worker says, ''although now we often find that even with the little money we have there is nothing to buy.''

Remembering how calm life used to be, one woman says, ''On summer nights everyone sat in their chairs on the street corners, talking under the light of the moon.Now my father and I, when the bombs fall and the soldiers fire into the night, sit together in the darkness and remember the town we love, to fight the sadness.''

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