Officials of President Jose Napoleon Duarte's government have begun surveying this war-torn northern corner of Morazan province for potential sites for the next round of peace talks with rebel representatives later this month.
While the government has refrained from any official announcements about the place and time of the next round, which is to be held by the end of this month, preliminary work to allow the meeting to be held here is already under way.
A new Bailey bridge over the Torola River that would permit access by road into northern Morazan for the first time in two years is rapidly nearing completion just south of here. Work crews have been laboring along the road with machetes, cutting down weeds that have become overgrown after years of neglect. Public Works Ministry teams have been visiting towns such as war-ravaged Meanguera to see if services such as electricity and telephones can be restored in time for peace talks to be held in the village church.
The Duarte government has kept its plans for the next meeting under tight security. But sources close to the government have indicated that the meeting probably will be held somewhere in Morazan province as requested by Joaquin Villalobos, the commander of the People's Revolutionary Army, which is the dominant rebel group in this northeastern area.
When Duarte held his historic first meeting with the rebels Oct. 15 in the town of La Palma, in northern Chalatenango province, Villalobos did not attend. Rebel sources said later that he could not reach La Palma from Morazan in time for the talks.
In a signed communique read over the rebels' clandestine radio station, Radio Venceremos, Villalobos vowed that he would attend the next meeting.
The likelihood that the meeting will be held near here is reinforced by the near completion of the Torola River bridge. Reconstruction of the bridge is the one concrete result to have come out of the La Palma talks.
When Duarte met with rebel leaders in La Palma, a delegation of residents from the seven towns north of the Torola presented a petition to both the government and the rebels requesting the building of a new bridge to replace the temporary one that was last blown up by the rebels in l982.
Both sides agreed to allow the new bridge to be built, members of the people's delegation said here. The key condition agreed to by both sides was the rebels' promise not to blow up the bridge again so long as the government honored its own pledge that Army troops would not be stationed on it.
That agreement represented one of the first tacit accords reached between the government and the rebels in accordance with their expressed goal of "humanizing the war."
"The condition that there be no Army presence here," said an engineer on the bridge project," was the condition that allowed us to round up the men to come here to build the bridge."
The bridge, which lacks only earthen access ramps, also allowed a Ministry of Public Works team to walk the two miles up the north bank to the small town of Meanguera to consider its feasibility as a site for the next round of talks.
At first glance, the scene that greeted the survey team was hardly encouraging. After more than four years of war, the town, like most north of the Torola, is a shambles.
Electric wires hang limply from teetering poles. The telephone exchange is a gutted shell. The post office on the central square is roofless. Just four adobe walls, with headless pillars that once supported a porch roof, stand alone in the baking sun. In the main street, an empty Army ammunition box lies open, untouched on the cobblestones from which grass grows. Used Army ration cans, broken furniture and other assorted trash litter the square in front of the still-standing Catholic church, whose doors have been swung open to air the building.
So bad has the fighting been around Meanguera that until La Palma, only four families had remained there. During the past few weeks, 14 other families that had been living in squalid refugee camps south of the Torola returned, expressing hopes that after La Palma, peace may now be at hand.
"Things have changed after La Palma," said one mother of nine who had returned 10 days earlier to reinhabit her house. "Things are better. We are back because we think things will be different."
As she spoke to three visiting reporters, the sounds of exploding bombs could be heard rumbling through the steamy noonday air from the north.
Radio Venceremos later claimed that rebel forces had attacked and mauled government positions around the town of Perquin.
Security, more than lack of electricity, telephones and running water, might yet force the government to hold the talks elsewhere.
As reporters walked back down the lonely road toward the bridge, a fire fight broke out over the heads of the bridge construction workers, who had been promised that no armed forces would be in the area.
For about half an hour, heavy machine-gun fire, rocket-propelled grenades, automatic-rifle fire and crashing mortars were exchanged between rebels north of the bridge and a squad of soldiers who, with no explanation, suddenly had driven up to the bridge and deployed.
When the shooting stopped, one construction worker had been slightly injured.