Correction to This Article
A Jan. 29 article about the legacy of El Salvador's civil war misidentified Walter Araujo as president of El Salvador's Supreme Court. He is president of the country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal. A photo caption with a Jan. 29 article incorrectly identified José Wilfredo Salgado, the mayor of San Miguel, El Salvador, as José Miguel Salgada. The article also identified him as Salgada in some references.

Former Salvadoran Foes Share Doubts on War

Former guerrilla Benito Chica Argueta, stepping out of a cave that hid the rebels' Radio Venceremos, now says ideology played no role in his decision to take up arms.
Former guerrilla Benito Chica Argueta, stepping out of a cave that hid the rebels' Radio Venceremos, now says ideology played no role in his decision to take up arms. (By Manuel Roig-franzia -- The Washington Post)
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 29, 2007

SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador -- José Wilfredo Salgado says he collected baby skulls as trophies in the 1980s, when he fought as a government soldier in El Salvador's civil war. They worked well as candleholders, he recalls, and better as good-luck charms.

In the most barbaric chapters of a conflict that cost more than 75,000 lives, he enthusiastically embraced the scorched-earth tactics of his army bosses, even massacres of children, the elderly, the sick -- entire villages.

It was all in the name of beating back communism, Salgado, now the mayor of San Miguel, said he remembers being told.

But as El Salvador commemorates the 15th anniversary of the war's end this month, Salgado is haunted by doubts about what he saw, what he did and even why he fought. A 12-year U.S.-backed war that was defined at the time as a battle over communism is now seen by former government soldiers such as Salgado, and by former guerrillas, as less a conflict about ideology and more a battle over poverty and basic human rights.

"We soldiers were tricked -- they told us the threat was communism," Salgado said as bodyguards with pistols tucked into their waistbands hovered nearby at his home, ringed by barbed wire. "But I look back and realize those weren't communists out there that we were fighting -- we were just poor country people killing poor country people."

Salgado said he once thought that the guerrillas dreamed of communism, but now that those same men are his colleagues in business and politics, he is learning that they wanted what he wanted: prosperity, a chance to move up in the world, freedom from repression.

All of which makes what they see around them today even more heartbreaking and frustrating. For all their sacrifices, El Salvador is still among the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere -- more than 40 percent of Salvadorans live on less than $2 a day, according to the United Nations. The country is still racked by violence, still scarred by corruption. For some the question remains: Was it all worth it?

"We gave our blood, we killed our friends and, in the end, things are still bad," said Salgado, who has served three terms as mayor of El Salvador's second-largest city. "Look at all this poverty, and look how the wealth is concentrated in just a few hands."

North of Salgado's home, the guerrillas he once fought live with the same doubts. Speeding along the curvy mountain roads near the onetime rebel stronghold of Perquin one recent afternoon, former guerrilla Benito Chica Argueta lamented that the future didn't turn out as he'd hoped.

Today, he scrapes together a living any way he can: Sometimes he sings at parties, sometimes he sells firewood. Zipping past a few sturdy masonry houses that appeared out of place alongside flimsy shacks, he quietly observed that such luxuries were beyond his reach.

"Those are people who get money sent from their relatives working in the United States," he said. "They're the only people around here who can afford a nice house."

Miles from those nice homes, he parked and hiked through a craggy ravine, grabbing vines to steady himself as he worked higher and higher up the Cacahuatique Mountains. At the end of the ravine, he reached a cave. Inside, bats skittered through the cool darkness that was his refuge as a scared young guerrilla. It still feels like a safe place to him.

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