It is early afternoon and the last squad of a 120-man National Guard and artillery company is just pulling out of this little village they have occupied for the last 12 days. As a sergeant climbs into a flatbed truck filled with troops, he is asked if the guerrillas will be back in town at nightfall.
"Yes," he says flatly. "It's a little game we play."
The roughest games of the Salvadoran war are being played out right now in this and other villages surrounding the small city of Suchitoto about 25 miles north of the capital.
Guerrillas of the Armed Forces of National Resistance and other smaller factions have riddled the hills with their strongholds and constantly threatened the city that is a crucial crossroads in this section of El Salvador.
The government is determined to push back the insurgents and is constantly sending patrols out to hunt them down. More often the patrols become the hunted as soon as they leave the towns.
"It's ugly out there," said one 27-year-old member of the guard about to go on patrol this morning. "One goes out and can't come back. They are hidden in the bushes."
Yesterday afternoon a patrol was ambushed only 500 yards outside of Aguacayo. The guerrillas opened up from their hiding places with Israeli-made Galil assault rifles and kept the squad of about a dozen soldiers pinned down for more than an hour. One government soldier was killed, two seriously wounded before the guerrillas finally fell back.
There are no official casualty figures here, but one private getting ready to go out this morning said that in the 12 days he has spent in Agucayo five of his buddies have died and 10 have been wounded. He has yet to see a dead guerrilla. A dozen soliers, asked if they had seen dead guerrillas, said they never had. "They take the bodies with them," said one.
Last week the Army commanders in San Salvador said 149 soldiers had died in the entire country since the guerrillas launched an offensive on Jan. 10. According to the government more than 2,000 guerrillas have died.
The soldiers' morale is good here. Many are members of the elite National Guard and are determined, one said, "to save our homeland from communism." They have good rifles, American grenade launchers and, here in Aguacayo, two 81mm mortars.
Yesterday evening old Israeli-modified French Ouragan jets were called in to bomb guerrilla positions. No one knows how effective this is. No one sees the dead guerrillas.
The troops say they are winning. They have moved two miles out of Suchitoto to here. They have stationed an outpost a half mile farther out. Gradually, they feel, they are pushing back what they call "subversion." o
Yet their commander, Lt. Ariel Gomez, seems frustrated.
"One of the guerrillas can hold up 10 of us for an hour," said Gomez. "He just sits there and shoots at us and we can't even see him. We have to find him, and by the time we do, he's gone."
The mountainous terrain here is made for insurgents. "The subversives keep bouncing back and forth between our patrols," said Gomez. Every patrol he has sent out in the last 10 days has seen action.
Gomez said the insurgents appear to operate in groups of 10 or 15. When a patrol is attacked and fights back the guerrillas take off in different directions and only later regroup.
So the game goes on, leaving in its wake this little bullet-riddled town and others like it across the countryside. Aguacayo was once famous for its homemade candies, a thriving cottage industry. Now there is nothing.