ON the rare nights that Mayor Victor Manuel Lopez spends in his village, he doesn't stay with his wife and three children. He sleeps in a room heavily guarded by Salvadoran Army troops. ``I'm afraid that [the leftist guerrillas] will kidnap me, take me to the mountains, and treat me badly,'' he says, gesturing toward the surrounding hills that are home to the Marxist-inspired rebels of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN).
Just eight months ago, FMLN guerrillas burned down the municipal building and hauled away the previous mayor to the mountains. They threatened to kill him if he didn't publicly renounce all ties to the government. Four days later, he resigned.
Last year, as the FMLN carried out a brutal campaign to destabilize the government, around 160 of the country's 362 municipal mayors resigned. Ten were assassinated by rebels.
``We're scared for the mayors,'' says one Salvadoran involved in the US-funded Municipalities in Action (MEA) program. ``Their only sin is to be a local authority where the guerrillas don't want any government presence.'' He adds that the MEA program ``gives the mayors even more authority.''
Each murdered mayor was managing MEA projects. But program directors say the murders were not provoked by the projects, pointing out that some 200 other mayors continue with their work.
Like other threatened mayors, Mr. Lopez operates out of the provincial capital rather than his own village. When he visits projects in harder-to-reach hamlets, he carries a machete and wears his sombrero low, ready to tell any inquisitive guerrillas that he is a peasant going to tend his field.
Since February, the FMLN has not disrupted any of the town's MEA-funded public-works projects. Now the rebels only send flyers that demand higher wages for workers on MEA projects - or warn people not to participate in projects that have Army presence. But observers worry that if the projects successfully drain guerrilla support, the FMLN could eventually retaliate.
``It's a great risk for the mayors,'' says an independent Latin development worker. ``Ironically, the more success they have, the more trouble they could have.''