The young private riding shotgun in the front seat clenched his rifle and his face glistened suddenly with sweat as we passed the crude wooden crosses on the dirt road. Two here. Three there.
"This is where you were ambushed in January," Lt. Col. Sigifredo Ochoa half asked, half told him. "You were the only one in the patrol who wasn't wounded."
The private nodded stiffly, shaken.
"This road is clear now," said the colonel as he told a visitor about how tough it was to take this stretch from Villa Victoria north to the Honduran border. It had been mined. It had been in the middle of territory where, eight months ago, only guerrillas traveled freely. "All these crosses," said the colonel, "are where soldiers died."
Ochoa was conducting an impromptu tour of a zone taken from the Farabundo Marti Forces of National Liberation in the province of Cabanas in a campaign that exemplifies the "new" kind of war that Washington and some Salvadoran officers want to see fought here.
It is a kind of fighting that is costly in casualties, at least in its initial stages, but relatively cheap in dollars at a time when Congress seems intent on cutting back massive aid to the government here.
There is not much high-tech about it, no Exocet missiles or F16 fighters. Ochoa says he needs mules more than jeeps, portable radios rather than radar.
It is a concept of war that turns the guerrillas' tactics against them. It pits small squads of soldiers against the small squads of rebels, tracking them, hunting them, ambushing and killing them; following up with political and civic action; swimming in the same sea of peasants that guerrilla theorists from Mao Tse-tung to Che Guevara have tried to make their own. In short, it uses whatever it takes to steal the initiative from the insurgents.
But it also seems a never-ending kind of war that requires not just battles but, at least in the short run, virtual occupation of the territory that is retaken.
"Where there had been guerrillas, now there are troops of ours," Ochoa said proudly.
And while the narrow, tortuous road to San Antonio is "secure," the nervous private in the front seat of the jeep and even Ochoa cocking his Israeli Galil automatic rifle indicate the road is not that secure.
How clear it remains depends on the patrols we see on its edges and those we don't, who stay hidden on mountain trails now half-lost amid the thick new rainy-season undergrowth.
An intense 40-year-old professional soldier with sharp mestizo features and yellow-brown eyes, Ochoa is pointed to by U.S. advisers as their kind of commander.
In an Army characterized by what one Western military observer calls "warlords" who have tremendous autonomy in the way they take on the guerrillas in their 14 departments, or provinces, Ochoa is one of the few who wholeheartedly has adopted and adapted the classic counterinsurgency tactics on which Washington is pinning its hopes for affordable military victories in El Salvador.
Some of the warlords continue trying to fight the guerrillas the way they fought the regular Army of Honduras in 1969. Some have favored the use of thinly veiled official terror that has made this country notorious for human rights abuses. Some have seen their role principally, and in some cases it is said profitably, as protecting large landowners in the richer provinces to the south. None of those made much progress against the guerrillas.
Thus, even though U.S. military aid increased from nothing in 1979 to at least $80 million this year, in most of the country the guerrillas continue to dictate the pace of the war. At the moment they have drawn new U.S.-trained battalions intended to operate as hunt-and-kill squads into a large-unit battle for the rugged hills of northern Morazan province that has raged unabated for two weeks. Ochoa, meanwhile, methodically cleaned out Cabanas' similar mountainous terrain within six months after he took it over Aug. 17.
Ochoa and his troops, while admired by the Americans, are not the product of the U.S. advisers or the massive training programs in the United States that turned out three new battalions in the past 18 months.
Ochoa studied political warfare in Taiwan and took courses in counterinsurgency from Israeli trainers here in 1978, during the time when U.S. aid was cut off because of human rights problems.
He likes to give chalk talks on his techniques in a special map room at his headquarters in the departmental capital of Sesuntepeque. Vast topographic charts, an aerial photo and a kaleidoscopic array of arrows and diagrams lay out operations and occupations in his corner of the war.
A major element in his formula for success, one generally not mentioned by American advocates of the new tactics, is the most notorious adjunct of the Army, the collection of local paramilitary informers and militias called the Civil Defense.
These untrained but armed peasant groups date back to the days when a 1932 uprising was crushed at a cost of 30,000 lives. As cantonal patrols, as "military escorts," as the now-disbanded group called ORDEN and currently as Civil Defense units they keep an eye on potential or imagined troublemakers and in many areas they simply eliminate them.
Gesturing to a map polka-dotted with scores of green circles showing "armed paramilitary groups," Ochoa says, "sometimes they commit abuses, but they are punished." He said he has jailed at least 25 for crimes ranging from rustling to robbery to murder. Then he went on to his main point.
"All these send us information," he said, such as where the guerrillas camp, where they move, how, what is their modus operandi, do they have foreign advisers and other intelligence necessary to exterminate insurgents.
As a result of the information he received from the Civil Defense, Ochoa staged three major operations in August and November.
The November operations, especially the one here around San Antonio became the focus of international furor when British-Nicaraguan celebrity Bianca Jagger and U.S. congressional aides accused Salvadoran troops of crossing into Honduras and trying to drag refugees from a camp at La Virtud.
Ochoa dismissed this as propaganda, and he said that certainly none of his troops did such a thing. He was not responsible, he said, for what troops from other commands might have done.
Looking out over the track on the collection of houses in the village, Ochoa points proudly to every newly sown hillside, where the corn already is sprouting beneath the heavy, hot rains that come in the afternoons.
Refugees returning to their homes mingle comfortably with soldiers living much the way the guerrillas live in other strongholds or, in the days before Ochoa, in these.