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.
Chica Argueta, who maintains the pencil-thin mustache he wore as a young rebel, once trudged through a shallow stream to get there, so that he wouldn't leave footprints that would give away the location of the guerrillas' Radio Venceremos -- Radio We Will Be Victorious. Now he'll take anyone there for a few dollars.
In a honeyed voice that once crooned revolutionary anthems, Chica Argueta, now 46, said his guided visits are part of an effort to build a tourist industry on the relics of El Salvador's civil war -- one of the first such endeavors in Central America. But something else is at work. He is trying to secure his guerrilla movement's place in history.
Even though some factions of the coalition of guerrilla armies that fought in El Salvador's civil war were Marxist, he said, ideology had nothing to do with his decision to take up arms and leave the farm where his father earned only a few colones for backbreaking work. Nor did ideology play a role in motivating his friends in the People's Revolutionary Army -- one of five guerrilla factions during the war -- that he served with in the northern Morazan region, he said. He remembers fighting "for a piece of land, for the chance that my children might someday get to go to the university."
The Reagan administration, fearing a communist uprising, built up El Salvador's military with weapons, training and hundreds of advisers to serve as a surrogate force against what it described as encroaching Soviet and Cuban influence in Central America. To this day, Chica Argueta seethes when he recalls the sight of U.S. planes, knowing that they were there to fight a communist threat that he believes was overblown.
The war's degeneration into senseless malice was seared into Chica Argueta's mind in a tiny mountain town called El Mozote. In December 1981, a U.S.-trained battalion of government troops tortured and executed about 500 villagers there; the names of dozens of victims -- many under the age of 2 -- are now etched on the wall of the rebuilt church.
Chica Argueta and his fellow guerrillas arrived in El Mozote several days after the massacre and, fearing a return of the soldiers, hurriedly buried the dead beneath a thin layer of adobe bricks. Salgada arrived months later, after rains had unearthed the corpses, and piled skulls into sacks as souvenirs. He had "lost his love of humanity," he recalled, but a kernel of doubt was forming. He was conflicted, as he is today.
Salgada kept the skulls for years. They were reminders of how deeply he had sunk into depravity, yet somehow they also represented his awakening, he said. Witnessing the aftermath of what his colleagues did in El Mozote and reflecting on those skulls changed his mind about how the war was being fought. He might still have the skulls, he said, if not for the new family and the new life he has forged.
"Could you imagine the nightmares my children would have if I kept them in the house?" he said.
Salgada's mentor, the vaunted Col. Domingo Monterrosa, ordered the attack in El Mozote, which Salgada said he now considers "a genocide." Yet Salgada displays a huge painting of himself and Monterrosa -- who was killed during the war -- in the foyer of San Miguel City Hall. Perhaps it will make people ask questions about the war, Salgada said, though he's sure "people hate me" for displaying it.
If Monterrosa had lived, Salgada said, he should have been prosecuted for "war crimes like a Hitler." But he tempered his historical indictment, saying that "those were different times."
The scars of what he and his compatriots did, of the horrors of their brand of war, linger. Just two years ago, on a bridge in San Miguel, Salgada encountered a former government soldier who appeared to believe the war was still underway. He saluted Salgada and told him he had secured the bridge so that rebels couldn't cross, even though the war had been over for more than a decade.
"These are old wounds," Salgada said. "These anniversaries just open them wider."
Salgada and Chica Argueta now share a point of view, a common phenomenon in El Salvador today, where former soldiers and guerrillas often work together and intermarry. Chica Argueta said he believes the intermingling of former enemies was made possible by peace accords signed in 1992 without declaring a loser, thus leaving the guerrillas and the government soldiers on an even plane.
While Salgada and Chica Argueta struggle with doubts about the war, El Salvador's ruling party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, presents a less nuanced image. ARENA prides itself as a bulwark against communism. The party's official hymn, sung often at political and government gatherings, boasts that "El Salvador is the tomb of the red ones," a reference to communist sympathizers.
Walter Araujo, an ARENA stalwart who is president of El Salvador's Supreme Court and former head of the party, said in an interview that the civil war "put up a barrier against communist expansion. . . . To say communism wasn't a threat at that time would be to deny history."
Araujo is quick to point out that some rebel factions received support from Fidel Castro in Cuba and Daniel Ortega's Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And those countries might have played an outsize role in shaping El Salvador if the war had ended differently, Araujo said.
"We would have suffered the same fate as Nicaragua if there had been a victory by the left," Araujo said.
Today, Araujo and others describe what they portray as a similar threat -- the rise of populist socialist movements in Latin America -- and worry that El Salvador once again will be swept up in a bitter ideological fight.
"The risk has resurged," Araujo said.
A group of former guerrillas watched Araujo speak on television a few days before the Jan. 16 anniversary of the peace accords and scoffed at his comparisons between the present and the civil war era. On the patio of a small hotel in Perquin, where a civil war museum promotes the guerrilla version of history, they fretted that their struggle is still misunderstood.
The conversation drifted toward their disappointments about postwar El Salvador: the continued mass migration to the United States by Salvadorans who cannot find work at home, their fears about violence in a country with one of the highest murder rates in the world, their worries that the government isn't doing enough to address either problem.
"We have no historical memory here in El Salvador -- has everyone forgotten what we fought for?" said Adolfo Sanchez, a 47-year-old former guerrilla whose left arm is several inches shorter than his right because a bullet obliterated his elbow.
Then Sanchez paused. A smile grew on his face.
"You know," he said, "before the war we never could have sat here, right out in the open, and said such things."
Maybe, they all agreed, it had been worth it after all.