Armed police officers, military officials and local government leaders waited in a field of overgrown grass at the naval base here, wiping sweat from their foreheads as the heat grew stronger. Parked around them were a half-dozen SUVs, their drivers ready to whisk Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan and his entourage off as soon as their helicopter arrived from San Salvador.
Delia Vescarra, governor of this eastern state, didn't seem to mind that Duncan already was a half-hour late on this Friday morning. "He is a leader who has done a lot for Hispanics in the United States," Vescarra said.
Soon, a military helicopter appeared, whipping grass and debris into Vescarra's face. She turned around, holding down her prim white hat with its blue ribbon and matching floral dress. Duncan emerged from the helicopter, photographers from the country's two main newspapers snapping photos rapidly as he walked toward Vescarra. He shook her hand and struck a pose.
"Los dos gobernadores," his spokesman David Weaver said jokingly. The two governors.
"He's going to be the governor of Maryland," said Rene Antonio Leon, El Salvador's ambassador in Washington, joining them for a picture.
Duncan (D) might oversee just one Maryland county, and he might be lagging in polls behind his likely Democratic primary opponent and the sitting Republican governor. But during a four-day visit to El Salvador, which ended with a flight back to the United States yesterday, he was greeted enthusiastically as a representative of the United States and a politician who could lead a state that is home to thousands of Salvadorans -- who send back millions in wages to family members.
Duncan said he traveled to El Salvador -- at the invitation of Leon and partly at Montgomery's expense -- to establish business ties and connect with the 65,000 Salvadorans who have immigrated to the county.
"I think anytime you take a trip like this, it helps you to do a better job," he said. "It helps me be a better county executive.
"If I'm to be the next governor of Maryland," he added, "it will help me be a better governor."
He met with the government's top officials, including President Elias Antonio Saca. He sat through presentations about economic development and education reform. He attended a private meeting with the U.S. ambassador and toured a region that could become a tourist destination. He talked about gang violence with the vice minister of public safety.
He returns with some concrete advice on gangs, including keeping gang members separated in jail or rehabilitation programs. But he acknowledged that many of the harshest tactics Salvadoran officials use would not pass muster at home. "The levels of violence here are much greater than we've experienced," he said. "They're dealing with a much bigger problem. We're at the beginning stages."
On the business front, Duncan did not negotiate any concrete trade agreements but made clear to Salvadoran companies that he wants their business in Montgomery. He also plans to continue talking to chamber of commerce leaders he met here. And Duncan said he wants to encourage Salvadorans to start businesses in Montgomery or invest in El Salvador, rather than simply sending back their earnings. He also suggested a partnership between Montgomery College and a Salvadoran university.
"What's amazing to me is the potential that's here," he said. "This is a country that has suffered a civil war. The sense I got is they have turned a corner."
That's the message Salvadoran officials had hoped to convey, that El Salvador is recovering from its bitter 12-year civil war and is ready to become a tourist destination, a business partner.
"They have always said that in El Salvador there aren't opportunities," said Leon during a tour of a tuna packaging plant just opened in eastern El Salvador. "We are trying to show that there are people who are investing in El Salvador."
Salvadorans in Montgomery said Duncan did not get a full picture of their homeland. "It's really important that he goes to see the tourist areas in El Salvador and the few development projects the government has built, but in reality the living conditions of Salvadorans are deteriorating," said Freddy Tejada, an Aspen Hill resident who represents the opposition left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party. "Why are people constantly coming to this country to look for better opportunities?"
Indeed, Duncan had little chance to meet with poor Salvadorans. While touring a La Union construction site, he extended his hand to Jose Angel Ban, who will receive $96 for 14 days of work.
"Good to see you now," he said, as Jose Barahona, a Salvadoran businessman who owns the Washington area franchise for the restaurant chain Pollo Campero, translated.
Ban, wearing dirty jeans and a sweat-drenched shirt, asked Duncan where he was from.
"Maryland," Duncan responded.
"Of the United States?" Ban asked. Yes, Duncan told him.
"He seems like a good guy," Ban said to a reporter after Duncan left. "Is he an ambassador?"
At times, it seemed that way. The county executive had police escorts everywhere he went. Local newspaper reporters and TV stations covered his meetings. He was shuttled from the capital to La Union and Usulutan by military helicopter, bypassing the shanty-covered rural roads that led there.
Friday night, Duncan's helicopter landed on a military school soccer field in the capital, which only the president and vice president are allowed to do ordinarily, Leon said. Saturday night, he attended Mass at the National Cathedral, armed guards stationed at each exit, then saw the tomb of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero past visiting hours.
Earlier that day, Duncan was jetting through the Bay of Jiquilisco's mangrove trees and blue waters on a motorboat as the nation's tourism minister, Ruben Rochi, pointed out undeveloped land.
"Wouldn't it be great to put a Marriott here?" Rochi asked as they cruised the water, with the Salvadoran ambassador riding a jet ski nearby. The boat ride ended on the other side of the bay, where Barahona hosted an elaborate picnic on his beachfront property.
When it was time to go, Duncan walked over to thank the cooks and sharecroppers there, shaking hands and squeezing a baby girl's cheek. Then the helicopter swooped down on Barahona's front lawn and took Duncan back to San Salvador.